Karen Farolino still remembers the disturbing telephone call she got from her husband, Peter A. Piccolo, on the night of April 17, 1979.
Farolino said she knew her husband, a popular Buffalo hairstylist who ran a school for barbers and hairdressers, was having money problems. She knew he was meeting that night with his business partner and an accountant, and Piccolo was running late.
“Then, he called and told me something very weird,” Farolino recalled last week. “He said, ‘My accountant tells me I might as well just stick my head in a toilet and flush it.’”
Those were the last words she ever heard from her husband. Piccolo never did make it home.
The 32-year-old Town of Tonawanda resident was found two days later, in an office at his hair salon at 124 Elmwood Ave. in Buffalo’s Allentown neighborhood. Piccolo had been shot dead.
According to Buffalo Police, the killer fired two shotgun blasts at Piccolo’s chest. Another shot struck him in the knee, and one in the face. Homicide Bureau detectives said all four shots were fired at close range. Someone also started a small fire in the office, and when firefighters responded on the morning of April 19, they found the dead man lying on some pieces of lumber that had been left on the floor.
“One thing’s for sure,” the late Detective Sgt. Edwin A. Gorski, one of the lead investigators, told a young Buffalo News reporter a few days after the slaying. “Whoever shot this man was very angry with him.”
Forty-one years later, Piccolo’s murder remains unsolved.
During a 1989 interview on unsolved gangland murders, FBI agents told The News they believed Piccolo angered organized crime leaders by cheating mobsters in a drug deal. But no one has ever been charged with the crime.
“It haunts me, knowing that someone got away with killing him, and that person is probably still out there somewhere,” Farolino said. “Peter had two sons and a daughter from a previous marriage. These little kids lost their father at a very young age. That haunts me, too.”
The case made major headlines at the time, for several reasons.
In the era of disco music and “Saturday Night Fever,” Piccolo was one of the first hairstylists in Buffalo to popularize the blow-dry look, for both men and women. He styled the hair of so many Buffalo celebrities – including professional athletes, TV personalities and entertainers – that he had become something of a celebrity himself.
He was a flashy and ambitious guy who told The News four months before his death that he hoped to “revolutionize” the beauty industry in Western New York.
Piccolo ran a popular hair salon and, with a partner, also started a school – the Peter Piccolo School of Hair Design – that would educate hundreds of men and women in the beauty business.
The crime also exposed some dark secrets about Piccolo.
Piccolo had serious problems with debt and cocaine, police revealed. They said the hairstylist bought, sold and used cocaine in large quantities. Investigators suspected that a drug deal gone sour may have triggered the slaying.
And because at least five other people involved in Buffalo’s cocaine trade were murdered within weeks of Piccolo’s death, the late Leo J. Donovan, chief of the Homicide Bureau, and other investigators speculated that the slayings were part of a major drug war.
“There was a flurry of murders that all happened around that time, and the victims were people who were involved with cocaine in one way or another,” recalled Roger Masters, a former Buffalo homicide and narcotics detective who retired in 1995.
“It was a very high-profile case because Peter was so well-known,” said retired newsman Tony Farina, who covered the case for the old Courier Express newspaper. “He was a success story. A lot of prominent downtown people knew him and had their hair cut by him.”
Few people knew Piccolo better than his business partner, Louis A. Fumerelle, who still lives in the Buffalo area.
Speaking to a reporter on July 22, Fumerelle said the same thing he told another News reporter 41 years ago – that he was shocked and upset by his friend’s death.
“Peter was a great partner, a great person and a genius in his work,” Fumerelle said. “He and I worked side-by-side for years. After he died, I kept his name on the school, as a tribute to him. We educated hundreds of hairstylists who did great work in Buffalo, Las Vegas, Hollywood, all over the place. For me, losing Peter was like losing a family member.”
What about the reports linking Piccolo’s death to money problems and a bad drug deal?
“I’m not going to comment on any of that stuff,” Fumerelle said.
Based on discussions with police and things she remembers about Piccolo, Farolino said she believes his murder probably was related to a bad drug deal.
“I know he had problems with cocaine, and before we got married, he had a gambling problem. I know he bought and sold cocaine, probably a lot more than I knew,” Farolino said.
She also remembered an ominous remark Piccolo made to her months before someone killed him.
“He told me, ‘The less you know about me, the better,’” she said. “He told me that it’s better that way in case the police come storming into our house someday asking all kinds of questions.”
One man who recalls Piccolo and his celebrity status in Buffalo is Ronald M. Fino, the former labor leader and organized crime associate who left Western New York in 1989 after 17 years as a secret informer for the FBI. Now working as an author and private investigator in Virginia, Fino has assisted federal agents as an expert witness in many mob prosecutions.
“Peter had a bad drug habit and I understand he was into the mob for a lot of money,” Fino said. “No question in my mind, it was a drug hit.”
The Piccolo case has not been on the front burner of law enforcement for decades, but Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn said unsolved murder cases always remain open files.
“It’s a file that never gets closed because there is no statute of limitations on when a homicide can be prosecuted,” Flynn said last week. “Sometimes, a witness who has known something for many years feels guilty about it and decides to come forward with key information. We now have ways of getting evidence through DNA and genealogy that we didn’t have when this happened 41 years ago.”
Buffalo Police declined to discuss the current status of the cold case, but anyone with information about the Piccolo case can call or text the Buffalo Police’s confidential tip line at (716) 847-2255.
The hairstyling school founded by Piccolo in the 1970s closed in the 1990s.
Piccolo had his faults, Karen Farolino said, but she will always appreciate something he did for her many years ago.
“He is the person who taught me to style hair. That’s how I made my living,” she said. “In that way, he was a genius. Nobody could cut and style hair like Peter.”