Godfather of Night: A Greek Mafia Father, a Drug Runner Son, and an Unexpected Shot at Redemption

Godfather of Night: A Greek Mafia Father, a Drug Runner Son, and an Unexpected Shot at Redemption

by Kevin Pappas

What if you belonged nowhere and to no one? What if you learned as a teenager that the father who had mistreated you for years wasn’t your father at all–and that you were actually born to the mistress of a Greek gangster? And what if the only way to connect with your real father was to become his fiercest rival?

Kevin Cunningham grew up in Tarpon


What if you belonged nowhere and to no one? What if you learned as a teenager that the father who had mistreated you for years wasn’t your father at all–and that you were actually born to the mistress of a Greek gangster? And what if the only way to connect with your real father was to become his fiercest rival?

Kevin Cunningham grew up in Tarpon Springs, Florida, just another kid from the wrong side of the tracks. But from his first days, Kevin gravitated toward power, and in Tarpon Springs that meant local crime boss Lukie Pappas. As a boy, Kevin hung out at the Pappas Restaurant, and he saw how the townspeople approached Lukie. How they respected him. How they came to him for help. How they called him nounos–Greek for “godfather.” From the shadows, Kevin admired it all.

When he turned seventeen, Kevin’s world flipped upside down. His dying father confessed that Kevin was the son of another man–and not just any man. He was the son of Lukie Pappas. Suddenly, Kevin’s destiny was clear. His lineage became his fate. His rightful place was beside the Greek godfather who ruled his hometown.

But Lukie coldly rejected him, as both a son and a colleague. Fueled by rage and pride, Kevin claimed the Pappas name as his own and embarked on his own criminal enterprise. From two-bit swindling he rose quickly to high-stakes drug trafficking. Money laundering, gunrunning, and racketeering polished his underworld résumé, even as they placed him squarely in the crosshairs of every federal agency with three initials and a most-wanted list. And when he got caught, Kevin’s time behind bars only honed his criminal instinct, hardened his resolve, and cemented his reputation as a larger-than-life outlaw who sometimes went down but could never be taken out.

Still in his early twenties but as powerful as any crime boss, Kevin surrounded himself with an elite group, a posse that called itself the Band of Five. Flush with fast cars, boats, planes, and women, they wanted for nothing, but their antics invited violent attempts to bring Kevin to his senses–or at least to his knees.

More than a gripping tale, Godfather of Night unveils the Greek American crime syndicate and its close alignment to power and takes readers to a dark place where family secrets collide with high-level crime and corruption. Kevin Pappas’s story is a true-crime epic for a new generation of wiseguys–full of the harrowing war stories and hard-won wisdom of a man who lived by his own rules, broke everyone else’s, and dared the world to try to stop him.

Editorial Reviews

Like all the other street-tough kids growing up in Tarpon Spring, Florida, the author of this book knew about Lukie Pappas, the local crime boss people called "Godfather." What he didn't know until he was 17 was that Lukie was also his father. That revelation thrust young Kevin Pappas into a personal crisis and then into a dangerous netherworld where international cocaine trafficking, gun running, money laundering, and high-stakes racketeering were everyday enterprises. In Redemption, Pappas describes his descent into criminal madness and explains how he somehow survived to tell the tale.
Publishers Weekly

Reformed gangster Pappas offers a potent, fast-paced memoir: "I didn't become a gangster out of greed, money, or to drive fancy cars. I got into it to make a point: To prove my manhood to a father who denied me." That father was Lukie Pappas, "head of the biggest Greek crime family in the Southeast." At age 17 the author learned he was Lukie's illegitimate son. He changed his name from Kevin Cunningham to Kevin Lucas Pappas, but still received only a cold denial from Lukie. Angered by the rejection, Pappas began his own criminal life of swindles, drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering. As "a kingpin in Atlanta," he found the cocaine competition turning ugly: At age 24, he landed in the violent Atlanta federal prison. While serving two consecutive life sentences, Pappas agreed to an FBI offer: freedom in exchange for infiltrating his father's group as an informant: "I walked out of prison full of anger and animosity toward my so-called father." Pappas is adapting this high-octane book into a documentary, scheduled for 2010 release. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Aug. 11)

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I grew up in Tarpon Springs, Florida, during the 1970s. Twenty miles from Tampa, the town looks like a quaint tourist spot from the outside, but in reality it’s controlled, from the docks to the courthouses, by Greek immigrants and their descendants. My name was Kevin Cunningham—an outsider in the heart of Greektown.

 If you walked out of my house, turned right, and went down two city blocks over the cobblestone streets, you came to the church. Every Sunday morning starting at about seven you heard this chant that started “Na na na na . . .” coming over the loudspeakers, the sound bouncing off the waterways so the whole town heard it. It was the old priest singing the church hymns. It’s like when you go to Egypt or Morocco and they have the Islamic call to prayer. But this was the Greek version. 

The next block over from my house was the Smyrlis Bakery, and the smell of bread would come through our open windows and into my room. This scent would always wake me along with the sound of the chimes and the bells and the singing of the hymns. And every afternoon I would head to the main strip, right by the water, on my bike. As you approach the wharf, the street signs start appearing in Greek and English, and you see the old ladies dressed in black dresses even in hundred- degree weather, just like they would be back in Sparta. In front of the coffee shops on Dodecanese Street there are men flipping worry beads, very ripe old rough guys who look like they’ve been in the sun forever. These are lower- echelon gangsters in the mob. Inside, the captains and the soldiers are gambling for high stakes—forty, fifty thousand dollars on one throw of the dice. Women are not allowed in the coffee shops. They don’t even walk down that side of the street. Instead they cross over. 

Really, it was like growing up in a small town in Greece. Everywhere you went, you saw the blue of the Greek flag—on signs, on roofs, on house trim. It was like a painted border that circled the town, and it said everything inside this line belonged to us. 

Pedaling my bike, I would make a right on the harbor street off Dodecanese and see the little wharf, where octopus hung on string lines to dry out and the masts of the shrimp and sponge boats spiked into the air like mini oil derricks. The names on the boats weren’t average American ones—there was sure to be a sponger named the St. 

Michael or the St. Nicholas, very important saints in the old country. And all along the harbor road you heard music playing, you smelled the food from the diners, and you heard the chatter of the people speaking in Greek. 

Today at the end of the harbor road, you come to the Pappas restaurant. Out front, there’s a sculpture of a man in a deep- sea diver suit, with the round metal helmet and the grille, straight out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It’s a statue of Louis Pappas, the man who brought the clan to America, and it honors him and the other divers who made the town the sponging capital of the world, the place where the natural sponges from the bottom of the sea are harvested and sold. Louis died under the water in a mysterious accident years back—some people say it was a hit, but the town likes to think he died doing what he loved. 

Under the statue, there is a plaque that tells how Louis brought “honor and fame” to Tarpon Springs. If he had been another nationality it might have said “riches” or “commerce” or something like that. But the Greeks want above all to be respected by their countrymen, and that is what that plaque is about. The Greeks feel that their nation invented the modern world, that they are unlike any other culture out there, and that they will survive when all others are gone. I would park my bike outside the old restaurant and then walk in and start working. My job was as a delivery boy and busboy or what- ever the owner, Lukie Pappas, Louis’s grandson, wanted me to do that day. Lukie was a big man in Tarpon Springs. He owned racehorses in the Tampa Bay Downs and he had Arabian studs and trainers and a 120- foot yacht. It seemed like he owned half the town. Later, I would learn that wasn’t quite right. In reality, he owned only the most important parts. 

Lukie was a quiet person, but commanding—very Greek, very compassionate. He made me feel accepted and wanted. When he was going out to do something, he would come over and say, “You want to come with me?” That meant a lot to me. I just found him to be a very compelling man, and I spent more time with him than I did at home. And when I had done a good job, worked extra hard busing tables or mopping the floors, he would take me to the bar, lift me up onto a stool, and order me a drink. God, I loved those moments. I felt like I was a big man like him, having a cocktail at the end of a hard day. “Give the kid anything he wants,” he’d tell one of the old Greek bartenders. The guy would think, turn and look at all the bottles of gin and whiskey and rum behind him on the wall, then make me a Shirley Temple. And he’d always make my drink first, then give Lukie his Tanqueray and tonic or his Crown Royal with a splash of ginger. Then Lukie and I would sit at the bar looking out at the tourists and the boats coming in and out of the harbor. I was king for a day, or for an hour. 

By the time I was ten or so, I knew Lukie did more than run the restaurant—he was the head of the biggest Greek crime family in the Southeast, a prince of a great mob syndicate. 

Lukie wasn’t a pushover. I had to work hard, and I did. There’s no quicker way to lose a Greek’s respect than to be a lazy bum. I started working in the kitchen in high school, sweeping floors and making salads. Then Lukie graduated me to short- order cook. I went right after school and stayed there and worked and ate my dinner. I’d drop into bed in my family’s miserable little shack at the end of the day, exhausted but happy. 

Meet the Author

Kevin Pappas grew up in Tarpon Springs, Florida, in a family of Irish Jehovah’s Witnesses. Having served eight months in state prison and fourteen years in a federal penitentiary for racketeering and drug running, Pappas now lives with his family in Atlanta, Georgia. He is no longer involved in the Greek mafia.

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