Mobster on a Mission

A talented mafioso who helped the FBI beat the KKK still haunts his ex-handlers

"I smile because you too have a pleasant smile, senator," answered Scarpa, and papers around the country ran the photo the next day of the happily grinning gangster.

Presumably Scarpa wore a similarly disarming grin when he walked into a Philadelphia appliance shop owned by a Klan-tied merchant whom the FBI believed knew the fate of the missing civil rights workers. Scarpa convinced the man he had just come to town and wanted a new TV set. But when he returned to pick it up that evening, he slugged the merchant, tossed him in the trunk of a car, and drove him to a remote spot where bureau agents were standing guard. Armed by the FBI, Scarpa stuck a pistol in the man's mouth and spoke to him in basic Brooklyn Mafia-ese: "Tell me the fucking truth, or I'll blow your fucking brains out." The merchant then directed him to a clay dam outside of town where the bodies of the missing men were later unearthed.

The official version of how the bureau cracked the case has always been that a Neshoba County resident got a $30,000 reward for the information. But that person has never been identified, and hints about unfriendly persuasion have occasionally cropped up. One of them is contained in the controversial 1988 Alan Parker movie about the killings, Mississippi Burning, in which the FBI imports an unnamed black special agent who terrifies a Klan sympathizer into giving up the bodies' location by threatening to castrate him with a razor blade.

Greg Scarpa in his heyday
Greg Scarpa in his heyday

Scarpa's real-life escapades for the bureau are presumably contained in voluminous bureau memos. But while hundreds of such pages involving the informant have been released in response to freedom of information requests, his chief services for the government have been omitted. But there are tantalizing hints: In a one-page memo, dated January 21, 1966, and directed to an assistant director of the bureau, an agent is seeking permission to use Scarpa "on a special" again in Mississippi. "We should furnish the informant enough money to cover his expenses for hotel room and transportation for the special agent, plus two individuals," the memo states.

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