The FBI's Secret Battle with the Mafia Over Pornography

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This PLM audio article recounts the dark history of the adult entertainment industry in the late 20th century and exposes its connections to the criminal underworld.

There were many people who contributed to the explosive emergence of X-rated movies in the ’70s—such as Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, John Holmes, and Linda Lovelace, to name a few—but the most important players were the gangsters lurking behind the scenes out of the public’s eye.

Members of the Mafia had been making a modest income by producing stag films for at least ten years when, in 1971, some associates of the Columbo organization (one of five Mafia families in New York City) hit the jackpot after producing an enormously successful X-rated comedy. Filmed mostly in a motel on Biscayne Blvd. in North Miami, the movie cost less than $25,000 to produce, but within a couple of years the mob had raked in a staggering $50 million in profit.

This windfall attracted other Mafioso, such as Robert DiBernardo (a “capo” in the Gambino organization), who presented himself more like a Wall Street broker than a smut-peddling thug. He began Star Distributors, which became the main supplier of pornography in New York City. He was also responsible for bringing all of the pornographers under the control of the mob. Another key player was Michael Zaffarano, who was the main contact between the mob and the porn industry. He often mediated disputes between various Mafia families over the production of X-rated movies.

By the mid-eighties, most of the porn industry had moved to Southern California. According to testimony before the Meese Commission by Captain James Doherty of the L.A.P.D., almost 90% of adult films were produced in Los Angeles. Chief Daryl Gates went on to say that at least 85% of the porn industry was controlled by organized crime.

As the sales of porno movies continued to skyrocket, the F.B.I. decided to investigate. Early in 1977, they launched the largest undercover operation in their history—known as MiPorn (Miami Pornography). Agents Patrick Livingston and Bruce Ellavsky set up shop in Miami posing as distributors of “adult entertainment.” What was initially targeted as a six-month probe with a modest budget of $25,000, eventually developed into an extremely dangerous, 2 ½-year investigation of the Mafia’s involvement in obscenity, costing taxpayers almost a half million dollars.

Bill Kelly, described by one reporter as having a “tight-lipped, no-nonsense determination to root out pornographers,” was assigned the task of training the two would-be smut peddlers. He spent a couple of weeks teaching the agents the ins and outs of the trade. Years later Kelly recalled the sort of things he warned them to avoid: “When you go to buy videos, don’t offer to pay $60 apiece; you offer $40. And whatever you do, don’t ask for kiddy porn because if you do, right away bells go off, and they’ll make you for a cop.”

With their crash-course on the pornography industry behind them, the two opened Golde Coaste Distributors in a warehouse near the Miami airport. Ostensibly a blue jean outlet, the “real” business operating out of the store was the distribution of adult films and magazines. Unbeknownst to a number of criminals who would visit the location, an electronics expert for the Bureau had wired the building with cameras and microphones. Much valuable and irrefutable evidence was gathered there over the coming months.

Livingston and Ellavsky began making contacts with lower-echelon players, but they were so effective that before long they had done what Kelly had deemed impossible: they were able to infiltrate the close-knit ranks of the country’s pornography leadership.

“These guys were good,” recounted Kelly years later. “Out of all the people they dealt with, only two figured them out, telling them, ‘You guys are either F.B.I. agents or you’re informants working for Bill Kelly and either way, we don’t want to have anything to do with you.’” Ironically, the danger was not in the discovery of their true identities—no criminal in his right mind would knowingly murder a federal agent. It was if the gangsters mistook them for informants. An example of the peril they lived in was manifested in a trip to New York to visit Robert DiBernardo’s operation. They were warned by one of his associates not to cross him: “There are plenty of people who would kill for DiBe.” But whether they were “made” as cops or not, pornography had become a dangerous business. Kelly later stated that he knew of about 80 players in the business who were either doing at least five years in prison or had been murdered.

As time went on, the Batman and Robin of obscenity investigations continued to establish significant contacts with big-time pornographers. During their time on the case they made 25 first-class flights to various cities around the country—even one trip to Hawaii to purchase child pornography.

Many of these trips were to porno conventions. Nowadays, these gatherings have become almost glamorous, but in those days they had to be presented as get-togethers of legitimate magazine publishers. Patrick Livingston and Bruce Ellavsky continued to build their cases against the main pornographers. Their covert operation was so secretive that even other agents didn’t know about the case.

After about a year, prosecutors with the Justice Department opened a Grand Jury investigation and began presenting evidence which the agents continually supplied. Kelly describes the logistical nightmare involved: “We had a room about the size of a big bedroom full of obscene material that we were going to present in trial on 50 defendants. That’s a lot of pornography! On top of that we also had an 8,000 square foot warehouse which was full of extra stuff that we weren’t going to use in the prosecution.”

In his book, Lost Undercover, author Ron LaBrecque describes a dangerous situation that arose toward the end of the MiPorn investigation when Livingston visited Michael Zaffarano in New York:

“As a powerful mob boss, Zaffarano played the game in classic fashion and was typically insulated from the daily work. It was primarily because of his less public stance that the agents had never met him. Pat decided to force an encounter… (flying) to New York (to) confront Zaffarano in his Times Square office, located near his Pussycat Theater on Forty-Second Street. The confrontation, however, was unnerving; Pat unexpectedly encountered the Mafia figure in the hallway outside his sixth-floor office.

Zaffarano was a menacing man whom Pat immediately feared, especially since he was unarmed. He knew he would have to make (his undercover character) totally believable. To this end, he kept the conversation as vague as possible until Zaffarano acknowledged some mutual acquaintances. When they moved from the hallway into Zaffarano’s back office, however, Pat pushed too hard with his questioning, asking whether it was true that one of Zaffarano’s acquaintances had gone to jail for him. The pornographer immediately tensed, as if a revelation had come to him, and a grim look came over his face as he told Pat to ‘get (out) and never come around here again.’ He accused Pat of being a police officer trying to set him up.

Pat left the office quickly, running down the stairs to the street rather than waiting for the elevator. He felt a rush of adrenaline as he took a cab back to the airport and returned to Baltimore. It had been a potentially dangerous situation, but despite the fact that he had been kicked out of the office, Zaffarano’s statements during the meeting were enough to link him to others under investigation, so that he, too, could be named in an indictment.”

This episode marked the end of the undercover phase of the operation. On February14, 1980, 400 F.B.I. agents began making arrests in 16 cities around the country. Fifty-three defendants were arrested in all. By the time the dust had settled, 45 defendants in the MiPorn investigation had been successfully convicted.

One of the targets who didn’t go to prison was Michael Zaffarano. He dropped dead of an apparent heart attack when agents attempted to arrest him during the nation-wide roundup. Robert DiBernardo was convicted, but his conviction was later overturned. No matter, he disappeared in 1986, murdered on orders of a powerful mob boss.

Unfortunately, the biggest culprit in this story, escaped practically unscathed. The pornography industry has tripled in size since those early days and more importantly, has managed to gain a degree of credibility in the mind of the American public.

It seems highly unlikely that there will ever be another MiPorn investigation. The F.B.I. continues to pursue obscenity cases but, for the most part, has confined its attention to child pornography. The lack of concern shown by most Americans over the effects of pornography on our culture has stymied any momentum law enforcement previously had. The sad fact is that the dirty business of hawking obscene material appears to be a welcomed addition to the new global community.

This excerpt is from our podcast episode, “Confronting the Lies People Believe About Porn” Episode #337.

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