on May 5, 2014 - 8:38 PM
, updated May 5, 2014 at 9:10 PM
May 4, 1939 – May 2, 2014
Thomas S. Leonhard, whose fight with the federal Witness Protection Program to find his children was the basis for the book and movie “Hide in Plain Sight,” died Friday after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 74.
Mr. Leonhard’s eight-year quest began in 1967 after he went to the home of his ex-wife, Rochelle, for his weekly visit with his children and found they had vanished.
He eventually learned that they had been taken away by federal agents and given new identities to protect them and Rochelle’s new husband, mob informant Pascale “Paddy” Calabrese.
Mr. Leonhard was successful in getting a court ruling giving him custody of his three children in 1971 but did not get to see them until 1975.
Salvatore R. Martoche, his attorney, said he received a call from Rochelle, who said she had just broken up with Calabrese and “told the kids who their real father is, and they want to meet him.”
“A week later,” Martoche said, “he was on a plane to Nevada. He re-established a relationship with them, but it was never quite normal.”
Martoche said that Mr. Leonhard was likable, quiet and unassuming, but “I saw the side of him that was tenacious and resolute about finding his family after he lost them.”
Martoche noted that the case eventually brought changes in the federal Witness Protection Program. Mr. Leonhard, however, was unsuccessful in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the federal government.
Mr. Leonhard’s life changed again, but not for the better, when the film, starring James Caan, was released in 1980.
At the time, he told Buffalo News reporter Lee Coppola that he and his second wife had become edgy because of reaction to the film. He said people thought he had become rich from the movie and took him to task for factual errors.
“Sometimes I wish they had never made the movie,” he said then. “I don’t want to be no star. I just want to be an ordinary guy.”
Born in Buffalo, he was an Army veteran. He worked at Western Electric until it closed in 1975, then had a variety of construction jobs, working as a cement mason.
His second wife, Joanne G. DiVita Leonhard, died.
Survivors include a son, Michael; two daughters, Karen and Gina; a brother, Ray; a sister, Carol Dobler; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
Services will be at 1 p.m. today in Lombardo Funeral Home, 885 Niagara Falls Blvd., Amherst.