July 21, 2007
By EDMUND H. MAHONY, Courant Staff Writer
Daniel Tedesco, a big-hearted bookie and the last stand-up guy in Hartford, died this week of old age and its myriad afflictions. He was 84.
Tedesco was a big figure in the city's North End for half a century, even if he now seems to have been a figure from another era and a city that no longer exists. Known in certain circles as "The Fatman," he ran a penny-ante numbers racket from his office, a candy store called Tunnel Variety on Main Street.
The Fatman's book was the lottery for the down-and-outers who used to stumble blindly around the neighborhood, almost always winding up on his doorstep. If you couldn't afford a buck to play the state's lottery, you could cash in a couple of cans and risk a dime on Tedesco's.
Tedesco knew lotteries. He is the only person believed to have rigged the state lottery, a feat that occurred decades ago, shortly after the legislature approved legalized gambling.
But whatever Tedesco earned, legally or otherwise, could seem irrelevant. He could give it away as fast as he made it. People who claim to have studied the question argue that he was the city's softest touch.
Although few knew it, the Fatman's generosity helped keep North End soup kitchens afloat. Upon hearing that the House of Bread needed socks for the homeless, Tedesco once dispatched a man to Bradlees and bought its entire inventory of white socks - 50-dozen pair. The socks appeared mysteriously at the shelter, but the nuns said they knew where they came from.
The state of Connecticut used to mail Tedesco relief checks for several of the disabled people who lived near his store. These were people too addled by booze to manage their money. So Tedesco cashed their checks and made entries in a ledger, doling out money a bit at a time. His friends called him crazy; they said he disbursed more than the state delivered.
He subsidized inner-city boxing programs. He handed out sodas and candy to school kids. He ran an informal rescue operation for abandoned puppies. Of course, he distributed free turkeys on Thanksgiving.
Some of the vice detectives and organized crime investigators who chased Tedesco believe, on balance, that his good works outweighed the bad. But others still become infuriated when accounts of the big-hearted bookie's Runyonesque good works make it into the paper.
He was a criminal, they say, a respected figure among associates in the Patriarca organized crime family. Everything he did, the investigators said, made money for the mob, even if Tedesco was a cut above his peers in the generosity department. Vice detectives made careers of investigating him. Tedesco outlived many of them.
He was reputed to have been part of a mob that used the hollow, prosthetic limb of a one-legged factory worker to smuggle guns out of the long-closed Colt armory.
When a once-promising, young Hartford boxer learned mobsters were planning to gun him down, the fighter's friends implored Tedesco to use his influence to call off the hit. If Tedesco did anything, it didn't work. The fighter was found with a bullet in his brain in the South End.
And the Tunnel, as his Tunnel Variety was called, was a magnet for junkies looking to unload stolen property, investigators said.
During a long, jailhouse conversation a decade ago, Tedesco, who wore longish white hair and a neatly trimmed white beard, winced at such criticism. He didn't know nothing from the mafia and called the gun allegations "a complete frame-up."
Tedesco maintained that his "business," whatever that was, never hurt a soul. He dated his difficulties with the law to his participation in an Italian-American Anti-Defamation League rally some years ago in New Haven. He did not mention that there are some who believe the league was the creation of New York mobsters who were complaining of persecution by the FBI.
Shortly after the rally, Tedesco was arrested on the gun charges, which he pointed out, he beat.
"Next thing you know, I got 11 FBI agents came crashing through my door," he said. "I said, `You're doing all this to pinch a two-bit number bookie?' I couldn't believe it."
The suggestion that he was in the business of buying stolen goods was just so much law enforcement drivel, Tedesco claimed. His line, he said, was retrievals.
He said he bought a hot organ for $75 after learning thieves had boosted it from a city church. Then, he said, he paid five men to return it. By examining the name tag on a bowling bag, he said, he was able to return two balls and a pair of shoes to the owner, who wasn't even aware they had been stolen from his car. Once he negotiated the return of a television camera to Channel 30. It was stolen from a news crew covering a Hartford Board of Education meeting.
But the crowning moment of the Tedesco legend has to be the rigging of as many as 30 state lottery drawings in the late 1970s. Years later, investigators conceded that they believed Tedesco was among a handful of wiseguys who figured out a way to have their losing lottery tickets picked out of a drum in what the lottery was promoting as second chance drawings. The prizes were automobiles and the scam unraveled when a lottery agent noticed a close friend of the Fatman was receiving a brand new lottery car.
Tedesco was never charged, and years later, he was dismissive of the fixing claim, if not adamantly so.
"Don't believe any of that," he said, smiling. "In fact, I've called those lottery people a couple of times myself. I don't trust it."
Tedesco became the city's last stand-up guy in the mid-1990s, during one of his periodic financial setbacks. The FBI heard he had borrowed money from the mob. They wanted to know from whom and showed up at Tunnel Variety with a grand jury subpoena.
As was his habit, Tedesco was sitting in the back of the store behind an old-fashioned bank teller's cage. Sometimes in the summer, if it was oppressively hot, he would remove his trousers and hang them on a hook nearby. He told the FBI, the U.S. attorney's office and the grand jury to get lost. Federal prosecutors locked him up on a contempt charge.
Johnny Duke, the late, great, self-proclaimed protector of boxing in Hartford, a Tedesco contemporary and no stranger to jail himself, sniffed at the time: "Naturally, a guy in his position, you can't turn around and give names out and things like that. You don't turn around and, as we say, snitch."
It was the beginning of the end for the Fatman. Life in an overcrowded city jail was not kind to an old, overweight man with a heart condition. Months later, when he got out, Tedesco ran a card game over at a South End nightclub. But by then, all the money was heading to the Indian casinos. Tedesco's game became the sporting equivalent of a senior citizen coffee klatch.
More recently, Tedesco had been the reluctant resident of a Newington nursing home. A relative said his big heart quit Thursday afternoon.
Calling hours will be Monday, from 3 to 7 p.m., at D'Esopo Funeral Chapel, 277 Folly Brook Blvd., Wethersfield. Funeral services will be Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the chapel. Burial will follow in Cedar Hill Cemetery.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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