When the Lawyer Met the Hitman

The Lawyer and the Hitman, Part 1

 “He called me up,” the man with the rich Jersey City accent begins. His deep, clear voice defies decades of cigar smoking and uncountable hours spent breathing through scuba gear. David Friedland, an 83-year old former mob lawyer, has transplanted from New Jersey to the tropics. He has offered to tell me about the time he met Kayo Konigsberg, the Jewish mafia henchman and convicted murderer who, fifty years ago, terrorized my family when my father was a federal prison guard.“He said, ‘Kid, I want you to come on over here. I have somebody I want you to meet.’”

The “he” to whom he references is none other than Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, a feared Caporegime for the infamous Genovese mafia family.

“And this is, by the way, is how I actually got my start as an attorney representing Hoffa and a lot of these people,” he adds nonchalantly.

I knew that David had personally met Konigsberg—that is why I have reached out to him as I write about Dad’s past. I also knew that he had connections to other people who were linked to Jimmy Hoffa, but when he casually mentions that he was a lawyer for Hoffa himself, I am stunned.

“I went over to Tony’s office, and there was this huge guy there, beefy-faced, red-faced. That was Kayo Konigsberg. I knew him by name, but I had never met him before,” he said.   

“Tony’s office looked like an opulent—I don’t know, hotel room. With a huge rug that was so deep, you could dive off of a chair into it and not get injured—it was hard to walk on. And a glass desk—it was a sight.”

David describes the scene. Tony Pro was sitting behind the elaborate glass desk and Kayo was standing beside it, glowering with a feverish disdain at the young lawyer as he walked in. Nunzio, one of Tony Pro’s brothers, appeared to be fast asleep in a chair beside Kayo. Next to Nunzio sat the other Provenzano brother, Sammy. David realized that he had just walked in on four mafia operatives holding court. Tony greeted him with an immediate demand.

“He said, ‘Kid—he called me Kid—this is Mr. Konigsberg. I want you to do him a favor.’ And I asked him what that favor was.”

“Well, you’re suing one of his employees, one of his guys. I want you to drop the suit,” Tony answered, gesturing to the hulking figure beside him.

 Kayo Konigsberg was a loan shark in the Jersey City and Bayonne area of Hudson County, and he had “a little army of enforcers” who made the rounds settling up on high-interest deals. A delayed repayment was met with bone-breaking encouragement to correct the matter. The borrowers who couldn’t come up with the cash sometimes ended up parting with large amounts of blood and consciousness.

 David was caught off-guard and told Tony that he didn’t know what he was talking about, so he left the room and called around to the three separate offices within the law firm that he and his father ran. He learned that one of their attorneys was working for a Teamster who had been badly beaten and was suing his attacker—one of Konigsberg’s goons—for damages.

When he returned to the quartet of mobsters, he said to Tony Pro, “You mean, you want me to double cross one of my clients?”

The plain-speaking captain met his eyes. “No,” he countered. “I want you to do Mr. Konigsberg a favor.”

He returned the stare to the man sitting behind the glass desk, viscerally aware of the power that he and the three other men in the room held through blood and thuggery, and ended the meeting with words that he was certain he would regret for the rest of his life.

He said to the mobster, “Tony, if I ever did what you are asking me to do, would you ever be able to trust me again in your entire life?” Then he turned around and walked out of the office.

David adds, “I’ll never forget this conversation because I was actually scared shitless.”

Anthony Provenzano and Kayo Konigsberg were considered two of the most dangerous mafia operatives on the east coast. Defying either of them would have been unthinkable—a veritable signing of one’s own death warrant.

“I mean, he’s (Konigsberg) a huge guy, dangerous. Tony Pro was a big account for my father and me and we were very, very worried that we’d lose it, which we could hardly afford. But in any case, that’s what I said to him.”

However, that refused order had just the opposite effect for the father-son lawyer duo. About two hours later, a flummoxed —but impressed—Tony Pro called David’s father to discuss the meeting and the impression left by his son. In true mafia form, insolence and audacity had translated into pluck and loyalty.

“Jake,” he said, “Your kid has got some gollumes, man! I want that kid to be my lawyer. I want him to represent me. And I’m gonna send you a $25,000 retainer, just for your kid. I never saw a kid like him. I want him to be my personal attorney!”

“From that point on,” David continues, “That story went through the Teamster union like wildfire. It went all the way up top. That’s how Hoffa put me on as his attorney. It worked very, very well for me over the years, but I never saw Konigsberg again, never heard of him, from him again. And I never had a problem as a result of it—and we never dropped the case! Well, I don’t think we did—I don’t really remember!” he laughed, amused at the memory.

“But that’s all the stories I have about Kayo,” he continued. “And, you know, I wish I knew more about him so I could help you with what you’re writing. I just don’t, but I can tell you lots of stories about the Jersey mafia, that’s for sure!”

I jump at the offer. “Oh, I am fascinated with it all! Researching Konigsberg—well, it brings up a lot of other names. I would love to hear the stories!”

“Are you planning to write a book about it?” he asks. “Is that what you want to do?”

“Well, I’ll tell you why I reached out to you,” and I described how, when Kayo was doing time at the medical center prison in Springfield, he and Dad tangled. “It turned into quite the kerfluffle,” I said, struggling with how to tell the story now that I had the opportunity.

“Konigsberg was getting privileges—unlimited  and unmonitored phone calls, visits with his wife, contact with his attorney, possession of contraband—that caused a lot of trouble and resentment among the other inmates and the staff who had to accommodate him. They kept finding cash in his mail and things that his wife brought to him, and eventually stopped screening his mail at all. It was a lot more than that—there was just something terribly intimidating about him, as you know,” I said.

David stops me. “He was a monster, Daphne. He was a total monster. His MO was to hang people on a meat hook and beat ‘em to death with tire chains. That was known. He was a monster, I mean truly a monster,” he repeated. “God, for your dad to even have to deal with him had to be terrifying. This guy could kill him. Kill anybody by looking at him.”

I feel sick. It is comforting and unsettling at the same time. He validates, through personal experience, the implausible story that I have related to countless friends and caregivers over the last four years. He has breathed life back into the memories that Lora and I spent innumerable hours trying to chase away as they tortured our dad while he struggled to regain cognition and strengths that were ravaged by toxins and neglect.

“Well,” I continue to Mr. Friedland, “for the last four years, I have been embroiled in a court case involving my father. After a very sudden, suspicious illness and the disappearance of his inheritance, I found evidence that he had been poisoned. My sister and I successfully petitioned the court to place him under a legal guardianship to protect him and reports were filed with the state of Missouri and the local police department. According to the police chief, the case is in the prosecuting attorney’s office.”

“Oh, my God,” he says.

I describe to him how Dad’s sense of time and perspective deteriorated and how he would sit on the edge of his bed and relive the terrifying chapter with tears flowing and a wincing flushed face.

I tell him about the threats that Konigsberg tormented Dad with as he escorted him to and from his prison cell and the photos of our house that were found in the mass killer’s possession after he hired a local photographer to take them. My parents heard prowlers around the house in the evenings, which led them to abandon their upstairs room to sleep downstairs where Lora and I had bedrooms. They put a mattress in the middle of the living room floor. Dad slept with a pistol under his pillow.

I relay to him something that Mom recently disclosed to me. One night, after Dad left for the midnight shift, Mom saw a man sitting in a car across the street in front of the car wash. In the shadow cast from the light of the streetlamp, she could see that he was alone. The lit tip of his cigarette glowed as he loafed. It scared her enough to call the police and since everyone knew what was going on—and knew one another—they responded quickly, and the man in the car left.

Another night, Mom had me in the back bedroom changing me—I was just a few weeks old. She heard a noise and saw someone’s shadow outside the window. She thought quickly enough to stifle a scream and scooped me up, running to the living room to alert Dad. By the time he retrieved his shotgun from the closet and went outside to investigate, whoever was there had gone. Mom was terrified and Dad was furious. For months, there were voiceless phone calls and calls that hung up when answered.

Dad was getting no support from the administration at the prison—a judge even denied his petition for access to the surveillance photos the killer possessed. But a brotherhood of fellow guards circled the wagons around him, and one of them had a connection to a credible and powerful media outlet. That fortuitous alliance culminated in a lengthy expose of Konigsberg in a 1971 issue of Life Magazine.

“I grew up hearing bits and pieces of this story,” I tell Mr. Friedman. “I even have a few copies of the magazine with the article and a few years ago, Dad sent me the articles that the Springfield newspaper did as a follow-up to explain to the local area how a Nixa corrections officer ended up in a story in Life. All those years, it was a crazy story that he would talk about and insist that it was taken seriously so that I would learn that there are people like that out in the world—it was also kind of a thrill to hear about. But then as he got sicker and weaker, it took on a new life in his mind and he couldn’t fight a psychological fixation on it. It became extremely relevant despite the years that have passed,” I explained.

“Dad would cry. He would be crying and repeating, ‘You don’t know guilt until you’re afraid you’ve done something that may get your family killed,’ and then he would recite the timeline of events and the players who were involved from a chapter that was written decades ago. It was a trauma that was impossible to extricate from his mind no matter how often we explained to him that fifty years now separated us from it all, and that the bad guys have been dead for some time.”

“He always pushed back with, ‘You don’t know what these people are capable of. They have long memories’, and he’d be weeping, begging me to recognize the danger. He never stopped fearing the possibility that mafia descendants or Kayo’s connections would resurface to exact revenge on his girls,” I said.

David responds, “Yes! I can imagine that experience!”

“So, he passed last October 5th and what happened to him at the end of his life is a big enough story—poisoning, being under protective guardianship, failed small town law enforcement, failure in senior care,” I continue. “But I’m bridging it with what he went through in his career at the prison because that environment had a tremendous impact on the end.”

“Well, what an experience,” David sympathizes. “And especially with a monster like Konigsberg. These people were just…” He trails off as he searches for words. “But, Daphne, that’s really all I know about Kayo. I never ran into him again and thank God I never had to deal with him. But I did represent one of his henchmen, Johnny DiGilio.”

“What a coincidence! I just read about him last night,” I said.

Continued in The Lawyer and the Hitman, Part 2

Copyright © 2020 Daphne Freise. All rights reserved.