“I had a tough childhood, pretty dysfunctional, a lot of partying,” he begins. When his father first went to prison in 1978, Frank was in ninth grade. As Frank was finishing high school, he went away permanently. “I loved my dad. He was a great dad, but he made some mistakes.”
Thomas Sinito was born in 1938, the son of Sicilian immigrants.
He first attracted the attention of mafia underboss Angelo “Big Ange” Lonardo as a young man, according to local mob historian Rick Porrello’s To Kill the Irishman.
Lonardo ran the Highlander Restaurant and Lounge, where Thomas found work as a bartender. Lonardo presumably saw promise of the criminal sort in him.
By the 1970s, Thomas was a trusted captain in charge of his own crew. He allegedly ran some of the Mafia’s moneymaking washer and dryer rackets, according to Porrello, and operated several fronts, including a gift basket company on Chagrin Boulevard and an appliance store from which he ran a loan sharking ring. He even acquired a nickname: “The Chinaman.”
In 1977, Thomas had ascended through the Mafia ranks and was trusted enough to take part in a plot to eliminate the infamous Irish upstart Danny Greene. The proud Celt, so obsessed with his appearance he reportedly had his underlings slather him with tanning oil, died from a mafia bomb that stripped him naked except for a pair of brown zip-up boots and black socks.
Fifteen men were indicted for the bombing, including Thomas, in 1977. As Frank began high school, the monthslong case was plastered all over the nightly news and the newspapers.
Four of the men became government witnesses. Thomas was not one of them.
It seeded a reputation for silence that he maintained for the rest of his life, even as others turned informer to eventually topple the Cleveland Mafia.
With only a single witness, getaway driver and hitman Ray Ferritto, testifying to his involvement, Thomas walked free.
Later that year, Thomas was reportedly involved in an aborted plan to assassinate Mayor Dennis Kucinich, who had banned Mafia-connected enterprises from city contracts.
Reports of when Thomas became a “made guy,” a full member of the Mafia, differ. Cleveland Magazine, citing records of early confidential FBI conversations with Lonardo, who turned informant, reported that Thomas was initiated in a Little Italy restaurant or club in 1979 or 1980.
Lonardo later told a Senate subcommittee he had obtained permission to make 10 new members, which may have included Thomas, in 1977 during the war with Greene.
Either way, by Frank’s teenage years, his father was attracting federal attention. In 1981, a jury convicted Thomas of racketeering, loan sharking and tax evasion. That same year, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
The father Frank knew was nothing like the Thomas Sinito portrayed in the media, Frank says. As Frank went to work at the River Pub, Thomas called often from prison to offer guidance, fathering as best he could.
But in the mid-1980s, the tone of those conversations changed, Frank noticed. In 1984, Thomas was visited by the feds.
FBI agent Bob Friedrich, the head of the federal organized crime squad in Cleveland, drove to a federal prison near Milan, Michigan, to meet with the veteran gangster.
Friedrich liked to visit and chitchat to start the slow romancing that could lead to turning informer. He had driven to Milan to test the waters with Thomas.
As the two men sat together, getting not quite comfortable, their conversation turned in an unexpected direction.
They stumbled upon the unlikely topic of religion when a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity fell out of Friedrich’s briefcase. A born-again Christian, Friedrich had his faith awakened after witnessing a childhood friend suffer a severe injury in a trampoline accident as a teenager.
“If that were me and I died, where was I going after that?” Friedrich says. “That bothered me for a long time.”
He guessed Thomas might also be contemplating the fate of his soul. Friedrich knew how to dangle the book in front of the tough wise guy so he’d be interested — with a jibe.
“I told him I didn’t think he was smart enough to read it,” remembers Friedrich.
“Just give me the book,” Thomas replied.
A couple weeks later, Friedrich’s phone rang. Thomas was on the line.
He had a question about Chuck Colson, President Richard Nixon’s hatchet man who found a second life after prison as an evangelical prison minister.
Colson had made a stop in Milan and had apparently won a convert. “Was Colson telling the truth?” Thomas asked.
“Yes,” Friedrich said.
“I was hoping you’d say that,” Thomas said.
“Somewhere in there, I think maybe at that time, that Tommy had gotten saved,” recalls Friedrich.
Although Thomas spoke sparingly about religion, Frank noticed his father’s interests changed, he tells me over the table. At first, the calls from prison were to counsel his son about business dealings. But after 1985, he seemed to turn inward toward their family.
“From 1985 until the time he passed in prison,” Frank says, “in a very subtle, fatherly, loving way, he would just …”
Malisse finishes for him, “He guided you.”
“Whether it was telling me to go to church, whether it was telling me to be a really good husband, a good father,” says Frank. “He witnessed me in a subtle way.”
“Do you know what the word witness is?” he asks.
I do, I say.
Until 1997, Frank was not very religious. That December, Thomas suddenly collapsed from a heart attack while jogging in the yard at Belmont Correctional Institution. He was 59 years old.
Shortly afterward, Frank received a box of Thomas’ things. Thomas had been a font of strength for his son. Under adverse circumstances of his own creation, a life of exercise yards and chow lines, Thomas stood steady.
Where had he gotten such strength?
Frank found an answer inside the box, in the dog-eared pages of his father’s Bible. “I had an immediate calling, shortly after his death, to give my life to Christ,” Frank says. “He died Dec. 21, 1997, and I gave my life to Christ in February of 1998. Became saved.”
For the more than 20 years since, Frank has arisen every morning to read from the Bible and pray. He hasn’t missed a day.
“God has shown his hand in all my successes,” says Frank, “I attribute all of my success to my faith in Christ.”
For the first time in the evening, Frank is engaged, leaning in over the table.
“Are you a believer?” he asks.
“Not any more,” I say.
I look down at my plate, unsure of what more to share. But my story stumbles out anyway. My father died when I was young. Afterward, my mother became an evangelical missionary. I was as saved as Frank. But life’s hardships, so carefully juggled, were eventually too much for my mother.
I went to live with grandparents and did not speak to her for years. I rejected God, and any faith at all, I tell him, and haven’t questioned that decision since.
“You have to,” he says, looking at me intensely, placing his hand on my arm, any hint of apprehension gone. “It’s so real. Jesus Christ is our lord and savior. It’s so real. It is so real. There’s nothing in this world, not Key Center, wealth, that could give you peace and contentment [more] than having a personal relationship with Christ. It’s so real. You have to go back.”
I hadn’t expected this.
Thomas never took responsibility for the moral weight of his actions, Friedrich told me later, at least not in their conversations. It would have amounted to confessing to a federal investigator.
But Friedrich believes the mafia captain was seeking forgiveness.
And there I was, dumbfounded at dinner with Tommy Sinito’s son, as he asks me to atone, as he asks me to forgive.
“I’ve been itching about this dinner,” says Frank, after a while. “I told [Malisse], ‘How do I get rid of Sheehan tonight, for dinner?’ I told her that. Now I understand this is God’s plan.”