The Blue Gardenia

How Mad Dog Sullivan whacked Johnny Flowers at the Blue Gardenia
Josh Flanigan
Illustration of the Blue Gardenia and Mad Dog Sullivan

Soldiers of fortune will tell you—you’ve got to go where the war is. The same is true for pro killers. That’s why on December 17, 1981, Joseph “Mad Dog” Sullivan found himself on the Thruway in his peach-colored Caddy, heading toward Rochester. Here was where the war was.

Sullivan was already a legend, deadly and slippery, the only man ever to escape from Attica, the guy who once escaped a jail on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor by swimming to Brooklyn. As a killer he was the best: thirty notches on his gun, including Westies boss Mickey Spillane.

In New York City and elsewhere, the Mob was divvied up into “families,” named after the boss—or sometimes a still-respected past boss. In Rochester the warring factions were …

—the A team, led by charismatic Salvatore “Sammy G” Gingello and Samuel “Red” Russotti, and …

—the B team, ruled by Tom Didio.

Their war was called the Alphabet War. Ground zero was an Italian restaurant on Empire Boulevard in Irondequoit called the Blue Gardenia, named after the 1953 film noir. The joint was part of the Empire Plaza strip mall, a well-known Mob hangout where the clam sauce was squisito, as long as there wasn’t a body in your linguine. No shock—it became Ground Zero for the Alphabet War.

At 11:30 a.m. on March 2, 1978, a ten-inch galvanized steel pipe bomb was placed in a snow bank in the Gardenia’s parking lot and detonated as Gingello got out of his car. He was tossed into the air by the blast but was unharmed.

Six weeks later, Gingello wasn’t as lucky. He was returning to his parked car across the street from Ben’s Café Society downtown when a second bomb detonated, and this time he had both legs blown off. He flipped off the cops before expiring on a gurney. Crime scene investigators later found his shoe, with his foot still in it. 

Gingello was off the board. Russotti knew he was next on the list. He could’ve stepped down and retired to Florida but instead fought back. In July 1978, Tom Didio was tommy gunned to death at the Exit 45 Motel in Victor.

The B team had a prolific bomb maker and there were explosions all over the east side: Yahambas Social Club on Franklin Street, the Club of Monroe, the 1445 Club on University Avenue, the Discount Furniture Store in the Goodman Plaza. Using guns, there were unsuccessful hit attempts on B team members Rosario Chirico and Rodney Starkweather, both in Greece.

As the decade came to an end the biggest damage to the B team came not from A-team assassins but from the law. Seven members of the gang were indicted on racketeering charges. Starkweather rolled over like a languid courtesan and agreed to testify against his B teammates.

The A team had won. B team was in jail and for a time all was quiet on the streets. Then Team C raised its bulbous head, led by an ambitious pair named Thomas Taylor and Thomas Torpey. Taylor had played football with Mad Dog Sullivan in Attica, and when he needed a job done, he bypassed local talent and called Sullivan, who said goodbye to his wife and called his girlfriend, Theresa.

“We’re going to Rochester. You’re driving,” he said.

Hours later they were on the road. Between Utica and Syracuse it began to snow. By the time they got to the West Henrietta Road exit, the roads were treacherous. Sullivan stashed the moll in a motel and split.

“I got to meet a guy,” he said.

The target was John “Johnny Flowers” Fiorino, a good fellow with big-time union power. The motive was complicated: 1) Fiorino was a snitch; 2) Fiorino was sponsoring a merger that would have left Taylor and Torpey on the outside; and 3) Fiorino’s demanded excessive tribute—referred to by the wiseguys as “juice.”

The guy Sullivan had to meet was twenty-five-year-old Louis A. “Hulk” DiGiulio. He was an idiot but knew Rochester streets and could ID Fiorino. Sullivan gave DiGiulio the car keys. DiGiulio drove Sullivan to a Marriott hotel in Greece for a meeting with Torpey and Taylor, where the men deep nostrilled two grams of coke and made the contract.

Taylor said, “Could you do me another favor?”

“Depends,” Sullivan said.

“I got a place called Show World Peep Show on State Street, own it under another name. I can’t be seen there. Could you drop off some quarters for me?”

Sullivan was offended at first that Taylor would ask a man of his stature to perform such a menial task but then decided it was funny and agreed. Before getting into Sullivan’s Caddy, Mad Dog opened the trunk and pulled out a license plate with magnets fixed to its back. He put the magnetic plates over his own. “Just in case,” he said.

“Smart,” DiGiulio said, with a nervous smile.

Sullivan was thinking this guy wouldn’t know smart if it bit him on the nose.

After the peep show, where he could feel the clap crawling up his leg, it was off to a series of bars, looking for the target. At one place DiGiulio saw a guy he wanted to beat up, but Sullivan talked him out of it, saying he had to look at the big picture.

Moments later, while driving an open stretch of road, Sullivan stuck the sawed-off Marlin twelve-gauge pump-action shotgun out the window and fired. DiGiulio jumped out of his skin.

“Just making sure it works,” Sullivan said with a laugh.

They pulled over at a phone booth. DiGiulio made a call. “One more stop. I think this is it,” the driver said.

The stop was the Blue Gardenia. Word was Johnny Flowers was expected. Dark, dreamy music drifted out of the joint, a sax and piano wandering from the tonic to the dominant chord in the company of a minor seven.

The parking lot was packed. Torpey and Taylor were inside at a table, close to a window and facing the door.

“Not here yet,” DiGiulio said, scanning the luxury cars in the lot.

“What now?” Sullivan asked.

“We wait.”

They didn’t have to wait long. Sullivan had the shotgun across his lap when Fiorino pulled into the lot in his Lincoln. “That’s the guy,” DiGiulio said.

Sullivan got out of the car and approached his target from behind. He walked quickly at first, shoulders braced against the wind, then broke into a jog. He raised the shotgun, fired, and struck his target high on the shoulder, knocking Fiorino down.

The victim was on the ground clawing clumsily at an ankle holster where he kept a thirty-eight snub. Sullivan approached with soft steps and pointed the barrel down at Johnny Flowers’s contorted face. He leaned over and fired point blank. Blue flame came from the shotgun, and a full load of double-O buck destroyed Fiorino’s head.

Sullivan briskly returned to the Caddy, which was already moving.  As soon as Sullivan got both feet in the car, DiGiulio spun the tires and peeled out.

“Easy. No hurry,” Sullivan said. “Turn your lights on!”

But DiGiulio couldn’t be easy. The car squealed and fishtailed its way onto Empire Boulevard with its lights off—directly in front of the patrol car of Irondequoit cop Michael DiGiovanni, who saw what he believed to be a drunk driver leaving a bar. DiGiovanni hit the “lights’n’ siren.”

Sullivan cursed and reloaded his shotgun.

The road was icy, visibility poor. With a police car now in pursuit, DiGiulio drove erratically. He ran a red light, was clipped by another car in the right rear, skidded, hit a curb, and bounced to a stop on the grassy strip between the street and the sidewalk near Helendale Road. The cop car efficiently sealed off the path to get back on the street, and the men were trapped.

“Here,” Sullivan said, handing DiGiulio his thirty-eight Cobra. “We got to shoot it out.”

DiGiulio popped out of the car and fell hard on a patch of ice. Sullivan could tell the idiot wasn’t going to help him fight. All he saw was DiGiulo’s back as he made a run for it, comically falling several times before he disappeared behind a house. Sullivan emerged more carefully, holding the shotgun with both hands.

Officer DiGiovanni stretched out on his front seat and kicked open his driver-side door. In response, Sullivan emptied both barrels on the cop car, blowing a gaping hole in the door and shattering the windshield. DiGiovanni felt pieces of glass raining down onto his head.

After a moment of quiet, the cop emerged revolver in hand, and returned fire, six shots, emptying his gun. He saw Sullivan lurch and thought he’d hit him. (He had, but Sullivan’s bulletproof vest saved his life.) The cop retreated to reload and call for backup. When he popped back out, Sullivan was gone, disappeared.

Sullivan found DiGiulio behind the house. “You hit?”

“No, just can’t run in the snow.”

“Is this the way?” Sullivan asked.

“I dunno,” DiGiulio said with a shrug.

Sullivan cursed and hopped a fence. DiGiulio followed, but when he got on the other side, Sullivan was nowhere to be seen.

On Empire Boulevard, backup arrived. Officer Theresa Young guarded the cars while DiGiovanni and Officer Mark Bonsignore chased the assailants, following the two sets of footprints in the snow through the backyard of a house on Queensboro Road.

The policemen could see the fence had been hopped. There was still snow on the fence and wood was broken in one spot. A hat, which turned out to be Sullivan’s, was found at that spot.

They quickly found DiGiulio hiding in the bushes in a gully behind the nearby Pardee School, only feet from Interstate 590. He was arraigned in a locked and secured courtroom.

Sullivan, on the other hand, had vanished. He later claimed he buried himself in a snowdrift and stayed there for up to two hours, listening as searching police and K-9 teams came within feet of him.

When he was certain they were gone, he dug himself out, brushed himself off, and went into a nearby bar full of Mob wannabes watching news of the hit on TV. Sullivan called a friend, who came and got him and drove him fifty miles to the Buffalo airport.

Police staked out mobby locations, including Torpey’s Young Men’s Social Club, a gambling parlor on Lyell Avenue. They hauled in a half dozen known gangsters and grilled them. The Rochester and Irondequoit police worked the case in conjunction with the U.S. Organized Crime Strike Force.

In the trunk of Sullivan’s Caddy, police found more than $6,000 in cash, a thirty-two caliber automatic with a silencer, bullets, a navy pinstripe suit with scarlet handkerchief in the breast pocket, and a Valentine’s Day card.

In the back seat was a leather traveling case with brass fittings and targets for pistol practice. Opening up the travel case, police expected to find a comb, razor, and maybe nail clippers. Instead it held live shotgun shells, prescription painkillers, and an ID with Sullivan’s photo under a fake name. 

Two months passed. The break came on February 23, 1982: Sullivan was back in Rochester, looking to be paid for the Fiorino hit, staying at the Denonville Inn, room three, in Webster. He was with his girlfriend, Theresa. They had again driven to Rochester together, this time in her car. He’d quit shaving and was wearing a full beard.

Someone in the Denonville bar had a good memory for faces and dropped a dime.

While it was still dark, cops staked out the place, a cozy strip of motel rooms attached at one end to an A-frame house. The sun came up, although it didn’t get very bright. The snow worsened, now blowing across the motel parking lot in squalls.

Sullivan left his room to go to Theresa’s car at about 10:20 a.m. carrying two green suitcases. He put them in the trunk of the blue Ford and went back into the room. He stepped out a second time, this time empty handed, returned to the car, and ten armed FBI agents surrounded him.

The G-Men worked the motel room for a few hours and split. Housekeeping put it back together to ready it for the next guest, a bit of a chore as the mattresses were turned over and the toilet dismantled.

News of the capture spread quickly, and by the time Sullivan got to the federal building on State Street, there was a pack of press boys waiting. He was offered an opportunity to hide his face but replied he had nothing to be ashamed of—and so he made the perp walk from the car to the Public Safety Building with head high. He coursed a gauntlet of flashing strobes, whirring cameras, and shouting reporters.

“Why did you kill Fiorino? Was it a Mob hit?”

“I didn’t kill nobody,” Mad Dog said.

Sullivan was booked and placed in the Monroe County jail. They caged him as far as they could from DiGiulio, who had resided there since the night at the Blue Gardenia.

Sullivan pleaded not guilty to murder and attempted murder in Monroe County Court. But his days of freedom were done. He died in prison in 2017.

On March 2, Theresa’s sister Marie posted $2,500 cash to bail her out, and the pair returned to Brooklyn. With Sullivan in jail, the Alphabet War went on without him. On April 6, a Torpey confederate named Howard Ferren was found slumped in his car with bullets in his arm and his wooden leg, causing disagreement over whether he’d been shot once or twice.


Michael Benson of Chili is co-author, with Frank DiMatteo, of Carmine the Snake, a biography of Mob boss Carmine Persico, and the upcoming Lord High Executioner, about Murder Inc. boss Albert Anastasia.

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