The Mafia. It has been a part of New York for nearly 150 years. On the heels of a mammoth arrest, some consider it to be fading away. Others disagree. The Impact spoke to the FBI to get answers.
By Tom Fehn and Jessi Rucker
In what is considered the greatest Mafia crackdown in history, the FBI has arrested nearly 130 mobsters, the most since the Appalachian meeting bust of 1957.
“I think it sends a message that as long as the Mafia is a threat to New York City, we will continue to keep a watchful eye on them,” said FBI agent Tim Flannelly.
The list of men sounded like a future cast of an upcoming Mafia movie such as “Tony Bagels, Vinny Carwash and Junior Lollipops,” according to the indictments.
The roundup, conducted with the help of former mobsters turned informants, shows the Mafia remains a threat despite decades of crackdowns that have sent its hierarchies to prison, showing that the famed “omerta” code of silence is largely a myth, officials said.
Despite numerous busts in the past, the Mafia typically finds a way to recover. Flannelly explained that they do in fact find ways to put the pieces back together more quickly than expected.
“They do regroup. It is a difficult phenomenon to describe,” said Flannelly. “Any enterprise or organization can be disrupted or dismantled, and then they get back to basics, and new leadership can evolve or arise and develop new significance.”
More than 800 federal and local law enforcement officials detains suspects in at least four states plus one in Italy, targeting New York’s five Mafia “families,” one in New Jersey and one in New England.
“If one family is strong, then we focus on them and keep tripwires, so to speak, out in the field to let us know when others have regrouped,” said Flannelly.
Sixteen grand jury indictments charged 127 suspects with murder, drug trafficking, extortion, gambling, loan-sharking and other crimes going back 30 years, U.S. Attorney General Holder told a news conference in New York.
“Today’s arrests and charges mark an important step forward in disrupting La Cosa Nostra’s illegal activities,” said Holder. Nearly all of the arrested mob captains, soldiers, associates and wannabes were booked and fingerprinted in the U.S. Army’s Fort Hamilton in Bay Ridge. “This largest single-day operation against La Cosa Nostra sends the message that our fight against traditional organized crime is strong and our commitment is unwavering.”
The sweep struck seven families; all five with headquarters in New York – the Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Luchese – as well as the largely New Jersey based DeCavalcante family and the New England branch centered in Providence, Rhode Island and Boston. Among those in custody are top figureheads, including the former boss of the New England branch, Luigi Manocchio, 83.
With the Mafia’s existence dating back to the 1930s throughout thousands of indictments they have suffered it seems impossible for the Mafia’s presence to ever be completely obsolete in New York City.
“Historically, the Mafia has been part of the culture here for quite some time,” said Flannelly. “They are dangerous to the financial infrastructure of the city by their union criminal activity and the use of coordinated violence to reinforce their objectives. “
The Mafia costs NYC a ton of money by scheming money from government-funded projects, which essentially comes from the taxpayers’ pockets. These costs make the months of coordination and alignment of thousands of federal agents and enforcers to make the January bust victorious so much more rewarding.
The scale of the assault on the Mafia is underlined by the fate of the Colombo family, which has had its entire leadership, other than those already in jail, taken down: its street boss, acting underboss and consigliere, as well as four captains and eight of its soldiers.
The Italian-American Mafia, also known as La Cosa Nostra with its roots in Sicily, maintains a hold on American popular culture thanks to decades of movies and television shows including The Godfather and The Sopranos.
“Television and movies portray an unfair and inaccurate depiction of mobsters that makes people identify with them or regard them as cool,” said Flannelly. “The truth is they are very harmful physically, and harmful to our economic infrastructure.”
Such a dramatic move against the mob is not just good publicity for the FBI and the justice department, but it also signals a change of gear within law enforcement with regard to the Mafia. In recent years there has been a perception that the authorities took their eye off the ball, allowing organized crime to regroup.
“After 9/11 the emphasis of law enforcement shifted, with resources going to fight terrorism,” said Jon Shane, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former police captain in Newark. “Investigations died down, allowing the Mafia to make a resurgence.”
The FBI denies these claims stating that while terrorism is the highest priority no attention was diverted from the ongoing investigation of the Mafia presence in New York City.
“We operate threat-based investigations and nothing compares to terrorism, as was seen in the horrific events on 9/11,” said agent Flannelly. “But to say there was diverted attention or minimized concern towards the Mafia would be inaccurate. It stayed the same.”
THE MOB IN NYC
The Mafia stems from its roots in Sicily. As feudal Italy was abolished in the 1860s, police forces could not maintain order on the island due to being understaffed and outmanned. Banditry rose, and business owners and peasants demanded “protection” from a police force that could not offer any. Noblemen and elites began hiring small units of men to maintain order and settle disputes. In return, they demanded “tribute” for their protection from the common people.
By the late 1800s, Italians began flocking to the United States and some brought with them the idea of Cosa Nostra (translated to “our thing” or “this thing of ours.”) They began demanding tribute from common immigrants in return for protection from “criminals.” Yet it was the criminals serving as a police force. Many were said to run a “window cleaning business.” Simply put, if a store owner didn’t pay, his windows would be broken daily.
In 1920, Prohibition criminalized alcohol, which gave the Mafia its most successful product. Bootlegging and importing alcohol increased the massive wealth and influence of mobsters such as Al Capone. In 1933, prohibition was rescinded. Stolen property, gambling, loan sharking and prostitution became the Mafia’s top sources of income afterwards, along with labor racketeering, money laundering and contract killing. In recent years, the Mafia added drug dealing, counterfitting, confidence schemes and tax/stock fraud.
In a 2002 interview with the CNBC entitled “Mob Money,” the FBI claimed the Mafia profits were anywhere from $50 to $90 billion a year.
THE FIVE FAMILIES
The Commission is the governing body of the Mafia in the United States. Its core membership consists of the Five Families of New York City: Colombo, Bonanno, Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese, plus the Chicago Outfit.
Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, Genovese mob boss from 1931- 1946, created the governing body. The Commission consists of representatives from each family, modeled after disciplined families in Sicily. Luciano acted as chairmen and adapted a sharing of powers rather than the prior “boss of all bosses” dictatorial regime that Salvatore Maranzano, the previous boss whom Luciano had assassinated, had imposed. Together all five families established a board that would meet every five years or more often to discuss family problems and reduce gang wars.
The Five Families were named by the government after the arrest of Mafia turncoat Joseph Valachi in 1959. In organized crime circles, they were referred to by different names, but were renamed after the heads of the families in 1963 when Joe Valachi, a Mafia turncoat, publicly acknowledted the existence of the Mafia. The heads at the time were Carlo Gambino, Vito Genovese, Joe Colombo, Joseph Bonanno and Tommy Lucchese.
Originally named the Profaci Family, Colombo is the youngest of the Five Families operating in New York City. The Colombo family has gone through three family wars, which consisted of double crossings, power struggles, and secret alliances that resulted in at least 33 murders and three disappearances.
In 1971, Joseph Colombo was famously shot in Colombus Circle during an Italian American Coalition rally. He then lingered in a coma for years. Joey Gallo, a rival from a previous war, had just been released from prison and was suspected of ordering the hit. Gallo was shot and killed at Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy a year later.
Boss: Carmine “Junior” Persico, 76 years old. Persico has survived through all three internal wars and over 20 bullet wounds in his 50-year membership. He was questioned in connection with the murder of both Joseph Colombo and Joey Gallo as active mob boss. While on parole after multiple imprisonments Persico dodged indictments and made the Ten Most Wanted List in 1985. He is currently serving life in prison where he reportedly socializes with Bernard Madoff.
Underboss: John “Sonny” Franzese Sr., 94 years old (oldest member of the Mafia) He was caught on tape by a government informant advising techniques on murdering guys: “I killed a lot of guys- you’re not talking about four, five, six, ten.” He also discussed hacking up a body in a kiddie pool, drying out the body parts in a microwave then running them through a garbage disposal. He has spent a lifetime in prison and most recently sentenced to eight years for extorting Manhattan strip clubs and a pizzeria in Long Island.
The Bonanno family came to New York in the early 1900s and controlled areas of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They suffered two major blows to their organization.
An undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone, who called himself “Donnie Brasco,” infiltrated the family from 1976 to 1981. The evidence he collected led to over 200 indictments and 100 convictions of Bonanno Mafia members and a few Colombo members.
Also, in 2004 boss Joseph Massino began operating as an FBI informant to avoid the death penalty. Massino was involved in the killing of his former friend, Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano, the member who brought Brasco into the family’s midst, and as many as seven other murders.
Boss: Vincent “Vinny” Asaro, 75 years old
Underboss: Nicholas Angelo “Nicky Mouth” Santora, 68 years old. He was put in charge of Napolitano’s crew after he was knocked off, but also convicted of multiple crimes after Brasco’s testimonies. He was able to avoid indictments despite Massino’s testimonies but later indicted on illegal gambling and loan sharking after a capo died in one of the illegal gambling facilities. In the film Donnie Brasco, he is portrayed as “Nicky,” who dies in the movie but in real life is still awaiting trial for racketeering charges this time.
This family began around 1906 in East Harlem and soon extended from the East coast all the way to California. Joseph Bonanno had tried to kill off Carlo Gambino in the late 1960s but failed and watched the family become the most powerful. The Gambinos were responsible for the murder of Joseph Colombo.
In 1985, John Gotti appointed himself boss right after he engineered the murder of Paul Castellano outside of Spark’s Steakhouse. Gotti was flashy and outspoken, sloppily feeding quotes to the media and enraging the other families. After being acquitted on multiple federal charges, his delusions of invincibility finally came to a halt in 1992 when he was sentenced to life in prison where he would die 10 years later.
The Gambino family has been convicted of some more serious felonies than other families like drug and sex trafficking and sex trafficking of a minor.
Boss: Peter “One Eyed Pete” Gotti, 71 years old. He is blind in one eye and the older brother of John Gotti. Peter Gotti’s younger brother John didn’t believe his older brother was capable of being part of the Cosa Nostra. One Eyed Pete was convicted of extortion and money laundering in the New York City waterfront and attempting to extort millions from movie star Steven Segal just days before his younger brother died.
Underboss: Arnold “Squiggy” Squiteri, 74 years old. Imprisoned for murder, narcotics and extortion. One time, while on parole, Squiteri was given a flat screen television from an undercover agent pretending to be a mobster who said that it had been stolen. While watching an episode of “The Sopranos” in which a mobster is visited by a parole officer and arrested for having stolen property, he promptly got rid of the set for fear that it “could be life imitating art.”
This family, also called the “Ivy League” or “Rolls Royce” is one of the most successful crime syndicates in the world. It is similar in size to other families, but completely unmatched in terms of power. It controls smaller families outside of New York City such as Atlantic City and Philadelphia. Their long-standing power could be attributed to the fact that only five members of their family have ever turned any evidence in against them.
Vincent “The Chin” Gigante was a long time mob boss once identified by an FBI informant. This resulted in attracting a lot of attention from law enforcement to Gigante’s daily doings. In efforts to confuse cops and FBI surveillance, he feigned insanity by wandering around New York streets in a bathrobe mumbling incessantly while other members of his gang were out doing his dirty work. He was nicknamed, “The Oddfather,” by the New York media and his family members weren’t allowed to speak his name without being killed. He later died himself in prison.
Boss- vacant since Gigante’s passing or unknown
Underboss- Venero Frank , “Benny Eggs” Mangano, 89 years old. In 1995, while Mangano was imprisoned for a window replacement monopoly scam, he was asked to testify against Gigante and he was quoted saying,
“What do you want to do, shoot me?” and “Shoot me, but I’m not going to answer any questions.”
With only 100 members, the Lucchese family is possibly the smallest but not the weakest. The New York Post believes it is the third most powerful crime family.
In 1986, longtime boss Anthony “Tony Ducks” of the Lucchese family appointed Vittorio “Vic” Amuso and Anthony Casso to be in charge. Amuso was later promoted to underboss in what Mafia expert, Jerry Capeci, describes as “one of the biggest mistakes in the crime family’s history.” The early 1990s were extremely bloody for the Lucchese family because Casso was ordering murders for anyone he suspected of being disloyal. Fearful members began turning into informants to save their own lives, in turn leading to the arrest of the entire Lucchese family.
Boss- Vittorio “Little Vic” Amuso- 76 years old. Amuso is currently serving life in prison after Alphonse “Little Al” D’Arco, Amuso’s acting boss, decided to turn state’s evidence after fearing that Amuso had sanctioned his murder. Soon after Anthony Casso, Amuso’s underboss also turned on him fearing that D’Arco was an informant. While on trial, Amuso and Casso allegedly ordered more than 10-12 slayings by using two Mafia NYPD cops who were later imprisoned.
Underboss- Steven “Wonder Boy” Crea- 63 years old. In 2000, Crea was charged with labor reacketeering, extortion, and bid rigging charges that accounted for millions of dollars from public and private construction projects. He is currently off parole and rumored to be considered for the role of acting boss with Amuso’s approval.
Last known Chairman of the Commission was Vincent Gigante, who died in 2005. Current Chairman: Unknown
Other Big Mafia Arrests (Appalachia, Gotti, National Crackdowns)
The Apalachin Meeting was a historic summit of the American Mafia held on Nov. 14, 1957, at the home of mobster Joseph “Joe the Barber” Barbara in Apalachin, New York. The meeting was attended by over 100 mafia members from the United States, Canada, and Italy.
The major reason for the mass meeting was to discuss the recent operations such as gambling, casinos, and narcotic dealings.
Also the recent murders of Frank Scalice and several members of the Gambino crime family needed immediate attention as well. Many men in the Anastasia Family were still loyal to the Gambino/Scalise regime, such as the powerful caporegimes Aniello “The Lamb” Dellacroce and Armand “Tommy” Rava, who were about to go to war against Genovese and his allies.
Many men in the Anastasia Family were still loyal to the Gambino/Scalise regime, and were concerned about an internal war between a couple of major families.
Seeing many expensive cars with license plates from around the country aroused the curiosity of local and state law enforcement, who ended up raiding the meeting, causing many of the mob to flee into the woods and the area surrounding the Barbara estate. More than 60 underworld bosses were detained and indicted.
The direct and most significant outcome of the Apalachin meeting was that it helped to confirm the existence of the American Mafia, which some, including Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover, had long refused to acknowledge.
John Gotti, was an American mobster who became the boss of the Gambino crime family in New York City. Growing up in poverty, he and his brothers turned to a life of crime at an early age. Operating out of the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens, Gotti quickly rose in prominence, becoming one of the crime family’s biggest earners and a protege of Gambino family underboss Aniello Dellacroce.
When the FBI indicted members of Gotti’s crew for selling narcotics, Gotti took advantage of growing dissent over the leadership of the crime family. Fearing that his men and himself would be killed by Gambino crime family Boss Paul Castellano for selling drugs, Gotti organized the murder of Castellano in December 1985 and took over the family shortly thereafter. This left Gotti as the boss of the most powerful crime family in America, which made hundreds of millions of dollars a year from construction, hijacking, loan sharking, gambling, extortion and other criminal activities.
Gotti was the most powerful crime boss during his era and became widely known for his outspoken personality and flamboyant style, which eventually helped lead to his downfall. While his peers would go out of their way to shun attention, especially from the media, Gotti was known as the “The Dapper Don” for his expensive clothes and personality in front of news cameras. He was later given the nickname “The Teflon Don” because several attempts to convict him of crimes in the late 1980 resulted in either a hung jury or an acquittal.
Once becoming the boss of one of the most powerful families in the entire country, Gotti immediately came on the radar of the FBI.
In three trials against Gotti the New York Police Department, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, and the state’s Organized Crime Task Force had all taken a shot at John Gotti. All failed. The FBI was next. Special Agent Jules J. Bonavolonta, who was in charge of the bureaus organized crime and narcotics division in New York, was quick to point out that the FBI had not been involved in the three cases which led to acquittals and earned Gotti the title of the Teflon Don.
“We have not yet brought a case against John Gotti,” Bonavolonta stated. “When we do, he can take all the bets he wants, but he’s going to prison.”
This bold statement was made the day following Gottis last acquittal. The fact that law enforcement had three separate tries against the popular Mafia godfather was no reason for them to stop trying.
Gotti was under electronic surveillance by the FBI; they caught him on tape in an apartment discussing a number of murders and other criminal activities. The FBI also caught Gotti questioning why his underboss, Sammy Gravano, had so many associates who were close to him winding up dead. On December 11, 1990, FBI agents and New York City detectives raided the Ravenite Social Club and arrested Gotti, Gravano, and Gambino Family consigliere Frank Locascio
Federal prosecutors have credited Gotti himself with assisting them in imprisoning all 23 family capos. Gotti ordered that all family capos had to meet him each Wednesday at the Ravenite Social Club, allowing the feds to establish the existence of a criminal enterprise.
Gotti was charged with 13 counts of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, loansharking, racketeering, obstruction of justice, illegal gambling, and tax evasion.
The federal prosecutor’s evidence was overwhelming. Not only was Gotti on tape, but several witnesses testified against Gotti. Philip Leonetti, a former underboss in the violent Philadelphia crime family, was going to testify that Gotti had bragged about ordering Castellano’s execution.
Sammy Gravano, John Gotti’s underboss, agreed to testify against Gotti and Locascio, with the promise of being entered into the Witness Protection Program. Gravano subsequently pleaded guilty to a single count of racketeering as part of a plea agreement in which he admitted responsibility for 19 murders. Gravano’s testimony against John Gotti was considered to be a large asset to the prosecution’s case against Gotti.
On April 2, 1992, after only 13 hours of deliberation, the jury found Gotti and Locascio guilty on all 13 charges. On June 23, 1992, Judge Glasser sentenced Gotti to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.