When Zack Shelton transferred to the FBI’s Chicago office in 1978, his first case involved the murders of several burglars who had broken into Accardo’s home. It was natural to assume the mob boss had ordered their executions. For a few weeks it appeared the 28-year-old agent and his partner would put Accardo behind bars for the first time in his long criminal career. “During the investigation we pulled the phone records of everyone we could think of,” Shelton remembers. The agents could see a call alerting Accardo to a break-in at his house and then the crime boss’s call to his right-hand man, Joey Aiuppa, down the chain of command to Aiuppa’s driver, Gerry Carusiello, another longtime burglar, who did the dirty work.
The agents learned enough to impanel a grand jury. The first time he saw Accardo, Shelton understood why people underestimated his brutality. At 73, Accardo dressed in conservatively tailored suits and looked more like a retired corporate executive than a crime lord.
Accardo covered his tracks with ruthless efficiency. Carusiello was killed before he could testify. Accardo’s longtime Italian houseman, who testified to a grand jury in broken English, may have said too much, because he soon disappeared. Shelton got a warrant to search Accardo’s home for signs of the witness’s whereabouts but could find nothing other than a pair of prescription glasses at the bottom of an incinerator.
When the agents searched Accardo’s enormous basement—which was as big as the upper floor of the opulent house—they found a hidden walk-in safe. Inside were stacks of new bills that totaled $275,000. Shelton and his partner traced the money to Las Vegas. However, the FBI had just begun to investigate how the Outfit had skimmed cash from casino counting rooms. Rather than blow that operation, they returned the funds to Accardo and never brought charges against him for the deaths.
The investigation could not have had a more unsatisfying outcome for Shelton. “About all we managed to do was keep that money from him for about 18 months,” he says. “But God, it sure was an interesting case.”
If nothing else, this case taught Shelton two important lessons about Accardo: The mob leader knew no mercy when it came to insulating himself from a serious crime, and Shelton had seen for himself the sort of cash that gushed from Las Vegas. Only years later did he realize these lessons could shed light on the assassination of JFK.
Around the time of the burglary investigation, Shelton had a much more run-of-the-mill case against a ring of hijackers. The group’s members would overpower truckers at rest stops and abscond with the entire tractor trailer.
The crew was led by James Files, who was the sort of white man with no overt ethnicity that mobsters called a hillbilly. In fact, Files was born into a broken home in Alabama but raised by a single mother in the tough Italian neighborhood of a Chicago suburb. Shelton had no idea how Files fit into the crazy-quilt pattern of the Outfit. “All I knew was that he had to have the blessings of the mob to be operating on that scale.”
Shelton used another hillbilly to infiltrate Files’s crew. It was only a matter of time before the agent built a case for the interstate transport of stolen goods. Then one day Shelton debriefed his informant about a trip he had taken to Dallas with Files. As usual, they were hauling stolen vehicles, but when they passed through Dealey Plaza, the snitch told Shelton, “Files went weird on me. He said, ‘If the American people really knew what happened there, they wouldn’t know how to handle it.’”
The comment seemed so bizarre that neither the informant nor the FBI agent knew what to make of it. “There was no reason for this guy to make up that story about Files,” Shelton says. “And Files was the last person I’d expect to comment about JFK’s assassination or any topic of that kind, but it sounded as though he really knew what happened. Maybe because it was so unexpected, it stuck with me.”
Over the next decade Shelton and the other agents in the organized crime unit turned the tide against Accardo. With Operation Strawman, Shelton’s team caught the Outfit selling casinos to the Kansas City mob. The investigation won the 1986 conviction of 78-year-old Aiuppa, who spent the next 10 years in prison. During the same period Shelton’s squad also tapped the lines of the Teamsters pension fund offices to bring charges against union leaders. “I loved being in Chicago,” says Shelton. “Every day was different and exciting, and we did a hell of a lot of good.”
Shelton didn’t think about Files again until 1992, after he had been transferred to the FBI office in Beaumont, Texas. He read in a local newspaper about Joe Hugh West, a private investigator and former Baptist preacher from Houston who claimed to have revelations regarding JFK’s murder. As Shelton skimmed the article, two Outfit names jumped off the page: Charles Nicoletti, a notorious hit man, and Johnny Roselli, the Outfit’s first enforcer in Las Vegas. West claimed he had a source who could place both men in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
Although Shelton was vaguely familiar with the conclusions of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, he had yet to hear anyone claim that Outfit heavyweights had been involved—especially Nicoletti or Roselli, who could not have acted without Accardo’s approval.
Shelton gave the private investigator a call. Although West had a reputation as a huckster (he held his press conferences in front of a banner emblazoned with TRUTH, INC.), he seemed sincere about finding the culprits behind JFK’s assassination. He revealed the ex-con who had been his source for the information about Nicoletti and Roselli. “I even went to court and got immunity for the guy so he couldn’t be convicted for any crime he told us about,” Shelton says. “But I pretty quickly caught him in a couple of lies. I told Joe, ‘Don’t take anything this guy says to the bank.’ When Joe heard that, it was as if the life went out of him. I felt sorry for the man, so I said, ‘If you can track down a guy named James Files, he might have some good information.’”
Shelton returned to Beaumont and was warned by his supervisor never again to mention JFK. Shelton expected the matter to be closed in early 1993 when he read that West had died following heart surgery. Soon after, West’s lawyer, Don Irvin, called to announce that “the crusade lives on.” Irvin told Shelton that West had succeeded in tracking Files to a state prison in Illinois, where he was doing the equivalent of a life sentence for the attempted murder of a cop. Files had initially rebuffed West, but the former preacher persevered through phone calls, a visit and extensive correspondence. The prisoner was devastated to learn of West’s sudden death.
As a tribute to West, Files agreed to talk extensively to Irvin, who then relayed what he heard to Shelton. He had much more to say than anyone anticipated. Files told of being remanded for a court-martial from the Army after he was charged with shooting other soldiers in Laos in 1960, but he then claimed to have been plucked out of a veterans’ hospital during a psychiatric evaluation and recruited to train anti-Castro Cubans in Florida. After the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, Files said, he returned home with a chip on his shoulder against his nation and the president. Nicoletti saw him racing stock cars and tapped him to be his driver.