Thu, April 24, 2014

Forgotten Places

In 1963, one of the biggest companies in Birmingham was the site of one of the city's biggest crimes . . . so why hasn't anyone heard about it?

January 08, 2009

The Marvel Bakery Heist

Before all the big national bakery cartels changed everything in the late 1960s, most of the baked goods consumed in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida came out the same oven, so to speak. That oven was the mammoth works of the Marvel Bakery, located on several city blocks absorbed today by the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

Clockwise from top left: Michael Foccacio, Anthony "Bad Tony" Pannetone, James Harvey Nall, Salvatore "Sally" Manarite. These arrest photos, which span a decade, were compiled by the Miami, West Palm Beach, and Ft. Lauderdale Tri-County Intelligence Unit, in April of 1959. (click for larger version)

Anyone who remembers "the bread factory," as it was called, can tell you about driving past rows of five-story, 19th-century brick structures and being transported by the aroma of the loaves coming off the production line. Some of us fondly recall spending as little as 15 cents for "Marvel-icious Snak Cakes" at the convenience stores after school; still others can't recall ever sitting down to Sunday dinner without Mrs. Flowers popover rolls. Because the bakery operated around the clock, most of downtown smelled like one big yeast roll—depending on the breeze. Everybody has a story, but until former Marvel employee Frank Carbone's deathbed confession in 1996, no one really had a full understanding of exactly what transpired during the Marvel Bakery payroll heist in May of 1963.

Marvel Bakery was the third largest employer in the Birmingham area during the late 1950s (if you planned on turning out 14,000 loaves of white bread per hour, you needed some workers). It was a huge assembly-line operation, with its own rail system in place just to handle the sheer volume of sugar and flour needed each week. Then there was the packaging plant, plus the fleet of delivery vehicles, which required a full-time maintenance garage and mechanic staff. Marketing, sales, research—everything was handled in house. Early in 1957 an on-site credit union was added to the burgeoning bread factory, which meant that workers could cash their payday checks without leaving the grounds. By 1960, on a given Friday morning, there was more cash in the Marvel payroll office than at any other financial institution in the state.

In 1959, thanks to a Cuban revolutionary named Fidel Castro, your basic crime bosses, mobsters, syndicate operators, wiseguys, and various other self-respecting capitalists found it necessary to depart the future workers' paradise. The better-connected guys had little trouble resettling in Miami, but Florida law enforcement officials were scarfing up the less-connected, smalltime hoods like so much linguine. The wisest wiseguys scattered to low-profile areas such as Birmingham, which was already a popular outpost for organized crime figures who needed some "cooling" (witness the veritable explosion of Italian grocers and restaurateurs in the city during this period). However, it was inevitable that Birmingham would be infiltrated by at least one gang that couldn't shoot straight. Behold the Foccacio crew.

Freshness Guaranteed: A bright yellow van meant that "Marvel-icious Snak Cakes" had just arrived. The instantly recognizable Marvel Bakery panel trucks, which made four runs each day, were at one time more numerous than taxis in Birmingham. (click for larger version)

Before he accidentally shot his boss in the foot, Michael (Mickey) Foccacio was an enforcer for Paul Carbo, aka Jimmy the Wop, the New York boxing promoter and known associate of Mafia figures Frank Costello, Vincent Alo, Meyer Lansky, and Herman "Hymie the Mink" Wallsman. After losing his enforcer gig with the top echelon, Michael Foccacio (afterward known as Mickey the Fu**-up) was relegated to—as John Gotti used to tell it—driving entertainer Johnny Novelli's car to and from the Tropicana parking lot in Havana. Once everyone had fled Cuba, however, Foccacio's brother, Dominic, opened Dominic's Steak House in downtown Birmingham on Valentine's Day of 1960, and it was there that Mickey began piecing together something resembling a crew.

The bartender at Dominic's carried a driver's license that read "Tony Ricci," but anybody who knew anybody recognized Anthony "Bad Tony" Pannetone, aka Tony Pandoro, aka Tommy Panneta, aka Paul Smith. He was way too old for a holdup job, but you tell Joey Gallo's cousin he's past his prime. Sensing that the ancient mobster might gum up the works, former Havana casino operator and Birmingham realtor Angelo "Frank" Panis (Frankie Angelbread to his pals) helped Foccacio find some non-Italian, local talent and muscle, which may explain the insane inclusion of washed-up safe cracker Clayton Clark and volatile holdup artist/psychopath James Harvey Nall. Making matters worse, wiseguys Joseph Indelicato, Salvatore Manarite, and Vincent Crostino came on board because Foccacio liked them, even if they were known in Miami as the Three Stooges. Finally, big-time hood Frank Dioguardi, aka Frankie Dio, became the brains of the group, if by "brains" we mean that he finished the sixth grade. It was his idea to lay off the small scams for two years and wait for a real score. Frankie Dio figured the Marvel Bakery Credit Union fit the bill, even if it was the most heavily guarded bank in the state.

The entrance and exit to the bread factory were long tunnels cleverly fashioned to resemble brick ovens. Anyone could freely enter the grounds of the facility, but leaving was another matter. After a spy for a competitor waltzed away in 1958 with secret recipes, ingredients, and a petri dish of active sourdough yeast, Marvel tore a page out of the Fort Knox catalog and clamped down with new security measures. Unless you were behind the wheel of a big yellow Marvel delivery van, you didn't exit the factory grounds without a major hassle. Behind the wheel of just such a van was exactly where the Foccacio crew planned to be.

It was a variation on the old "reverse Trojan horse" caper. Foccacio's crew would enter the facility dressed as uniformed Marvel drivers, hit the credit union at 4:05 p.m., then toss bank bags into the first of two delivery vans parked at the rear. Finally, the crew would pile into the rear of the second van and the drivers would then get into line with some 50 other delivery vehicles that would be headed for the exit. The vans and the uniforms required some inside connections, but $500 would get you a lot in 1961.

Except when it didn't. A very young Frank Carbone (from whom we now know the details to this story) was the inside guy, and though it's not saying much, he had more on the ball than all of Foccacio's crew combined. The day of the heist, Carbone made certain that he had the keys to the panel van that would hold the cash, while Bad Tony got the keys to the larger van that would carry the crew after the robbery. In other words, this crew had no problem with a guy they barely knew driving the cash van by himself. Mickey the Fu**-up was earning his name all over again. After the robbery, Carbone pulled his van in line behind the crew's van. When both vans rolled out of the long brick tunnel, Carbone simply turned left after the crew van turned right. He was not heard from for the next 30 years.

Not that it mattered at the time. The van carrying the crew got as far as 19th Street before Bad Tony heard sirens. Lots of them. It turns out that the worries about Tony's age were justified; his big old larcenous heart simply stopped beating when he saw a patrol car speed by. The van eventually coasted onto a sidewalk, at which point the vicious James Harvey Nall clambered through the rear door and inexplicably began shooting out store windows. Manarite and Crostino, as confused and moronic as ever, mistook a Texaco station attendant for a cop and surrendered to him. Indelicato dashed out the side door of the van and received a glancing blow by yet another speeding patrol car, which for some reason continued north toward downtown Birmingham. Poor old Clayton Clark sat on the curb and wept—a Fredo by any other name, as it were.

A 1943 advertisement for one of the Marvel Bakery's mainstays. (click for larger version)

Ultimately an alert officer recognized Frankie Dio, summed up the situation, and arrested the entire pathetic group. It turns out that he was the only cop in the area. Those sirens had nothing to do with the heist. This was May 3, 1963, and Birmingham's finest, at the instruction of Eugene "Bull" Connor, were busy downtown with another matter—something to do with a "Negro demonstration," police dogs, and fire hoses. That's why the robbery of the payroll of city's third largest employer never made the front page, and why the crime never came up in conversations about what was going on in Birmingham that summer.

The subject did come up in 1996 during Frank Carbone's last days of a battle with lung cancer. He had been a silent partner—and the chief investor—in one of the country's largest pizza franchises, the Marvel Bakery's May 3, 1963, payroll being the seed money for that enterprise. According to Carbone, "Frank Panis was always joking around while we were planning that bakery heist, some corny bit about how a lot of dough was involved. He never knew how right he was."

As for the grand, glorious old bread factory, after so many elements of the business were shut down or moved out of state after all the bakery mergers of 1967, the buildings and infrastructure went the way of so many forgotten places in Birmingham's history. File it next to the city's old Terminal Station, in the twilight zone. &

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