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Wednesday, Dec 24, 2014
Crime & Courts

Former life of crime reads like movie

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Published:   |   Updated: July 6, 2014 at 07:19 PM

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TAMPA — Take the two movies soon to be made about the history of Tampa's underground, “Live by Night” and “The Infiltrator,” combine their plot lines into one, and you'd have a story similar to the history of Tampa's Bedami family.

Throughout most of the 20th century, the Bedamis pursued two traditions — serving crab enchilado at important gatherings and making a living on the wrong side of the law until their final breaths.

Today, family members say, only the pasta tradition survives — a tradition throughout Tampa's ethnic communities featuring spaghetti smothered in blue crab and lobster sauce.

Angelo Bedami, 63, followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father — two mafia soldiers who instilled fear in Tampa — by smuggling drugs in the 1970s and '80s with associates including Colombia's Medellin Cartel and former Panamanian military dictator and drug trafficker Manuel Noriega.

Then Angelo broke with the family tradition in the late 1980s, walking out of prison after a three-year sentence and away from his life of crime for good.

He doesn't miss the life, he said, or regret his decision. But he does love to reminisce.

The stories come faster now that the movies are about to shine a light on the criminal history of Tampa.

Bedami's own story, told in the 2007 book “Who Are These Guys?” never took off.

So he watches with interest the on-again, off-again progress on “Live By Night and “The Infiltrator.”

“You know they're making two movies about Tampa's underworld,” he tells a visitor to his West Tampa waterfront home.

Friends often stop by for the crab enchilado and to hear of Bedami's adventures.

Among his favorites: He was a partner with a pilot who claimed to have helped former Cuban President Fulgencio Batista flee the island nation when Fidel Castro overthrew him, the wild drug parties with rock 'n' roll legends such as Gregg Allman, and donkey rides on narrow paths ascending Colombian mountains to reach a secret meeting site.

“Live by Night” is a fictional tale about real-life rum-running in Ybor City during Prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s. “The Infiltrator” is the true story of a DEA agent who investigated Tampa businessmen laundering money for the Medellin Cartel in the 1980s.

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Both movies are in limbo, but the production companies have said filming will begin within a year.

“Instead of two, they could make just one about my family,” Bedami said. “And all of my stories are true.”

Tampa mafia historian Scott Deitche said Bedami is spot on in this assessment.

“The Bedami family was not as known as Tampa's Trafficante family, but they were a driving force in the Tampa underworld from its inception up through the 1980s,” Deitche said. “They seemed to have had a hand in everything.”

Bedami's grandfather and namesake, Angelo Bedami Sr., was born in Sicily 1893, and after migrating to Chicago he moved to Tampa to take advantage of illegal gambling opportunities here.

Tampa was like the Wild West then, historians say, with speakeasies, brothels and illegal casinos, shootouts over control, and corrupt cops.

Angelo Sr. rose in the ranks, Deitche said, and was brought in for questioning whenever the competition turned up dead.

Twice he was found guilty of crimes connected to illegal gambling but never of murder.

His son, Joe Bedami, father of Angelo Jr., had a rap sheet, too, including six armed robberies — some of them the most notorious of the era, Deitche said.

And though he was never charged with the crime, Joe was linked to the 1955 murder of Charlie Wall, considered dean of Tampa's underworld. Wall's head was smashed with a baseball bat and his throat cut from ear to ear.

“If my father unexpectedly visited your house, it was not a social call,” Bedami said.

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Gangsters paid social calls to the Bedami home, though.

Santo Trafficante, Jr. regularly dined at his home.

“My grandfather was a like an uncle to Santo Jr.,” Bedami said.

Frankie Carbo, a New York City hit man and boxing promoter, would visit Bedami's father whenever he was in Tampa on business. Sometimes, heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano was in tow.

“Carbo always showed up around two in the morning,” Bedami said. “And my mom would have to get up and cook a big meal.”

In early 1967, Bedami's father was arrested in a Lakeland arson case. A few weeks before trial, he was headed to a friend's barbecue when he disappeared.

“It was heartbreaking,” Bedami said. “Maybe he left town, but chances are he was whacked. I was 16 and on my own.”

Other members of Bedami's family have criminal histories. He has two uncles who were linked to the Tampa mafia and a brother who served time in prison for drug smuggling.

Bedami refuses to talk about those relatives. He even changed their names in the book about his life.

They are all law abiding citizens now, he said.

“But I'll tell you everything about what I did,” he said. “Well, almost.”

After graduating from Hillsborough High, Bedami spent days working at Seaboard Coastline Railroad as a pipe fitter and nights hustling marijuana.

“Then I started ripping off those hippies,” he said with a chuckle.

Bedami and his friends set up fake drug sales to three dealers, he said. As the transaction was being made, Bedami — wearing a ski mask — would jump out of hiding, pretend to steal the drugs from his partners then take the money from their victims and flee.

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With his cut from the robberies, more than $30,000, Bedami bought the old Ponderosa Lounge — a country bar on the corner of Armenia and Waters avenues, he said.

“It did good, but you have to be married to that register in that type of business. That's not me.”

“Angelo is an adventurer,” said his friend Jerry Blair, who trafficked in drugs with him. “He needed excitement.”

Bedami found his excitement in drug smuggling, but separate from the Mafia establishment.

Deitche said it remains unclear how Bedami managed, without even paying a tribute.

Pressed for an answer, he changes the topic.

“He was more interested in unorganized crime,” Deitche said. “He was a real wild man who seems like he figured things out as he went. The story of his first big smuggling operation says it all.”

The cook at Bedami's bar, who was from Colombia, set his boss up with connections there. Bedami's pilot was a regular at the bar. Bedami barely knew either of them.

Nor did he know much about the smuggling business.

He flew to Colombia expecting to pick up 5,000 pounds of marijuana on credit then pay after he sold it. Instead, the suppliers sent his pilot back to Florida — and kept Bedami as collateral.

“I told my guy he better know what he's doing or pieces of me would show up all over the country,” Bedami said.

The pilot was supposed to return in a few weeks. It took three months.

“I kept promising that my guy would show up. I had no idea if he really would or if I would live.”

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His seat-of-the-pants approach was also reflected in the way he set up his operation, Blair said.

Many marijuana smugglers in the 1970s would toss sealed bales from boats or airplanes into Florida's waters, and associates in smaller vessels would fish out the “square grouper.”

Bedami went a different route, tapping “an associate” with friends working on isolated Florida ranches who would look the other way as airplanes landed and trucks hauled off the South American cargo.

Some planes were stolen. Others were bought from traffickers such as Panama's Noriega.

Twice, pilots crashed the planes purposely into the Gulf of Mexico to destroy the evidence.

“We acted like cowboys,” Blair said. “And we lived like kings.”

By the time his smuggling ring was broken up in 1983, Bedami and his crew brought in 37 loads of marijuana — from 1,500 to 15,000 pounds each — plus a few loads of cocaine from the Medellin Cartel, he said.

After his release from prison, Bedami married. He and his wife had a daughter, and Bedami, he said, has stayed on the straight and narrow since.

He said he didn't want his daughter to experience the pain he felt when his father disappeared.

“And I didn't need to go back to that life,” he said. “I did well for myself in things like real estate and sodding.”

“In other words,” Blair quipped, “he actually never stopped selling grass. The family tradition lives on.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7606

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