Since the great mafia trials of the 1990s federal domestic security agencies in the United States have been espousing the completeness of their victory over traditional organized crime – the formal jargon used to describe the criminal and cultural phenomenon known as the Italian-American mafia or Cosa Nostra. In certain respects, these claims have originated from several notable triumphs and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has every right to trumpet its campaign against the Cosa Nostra as a model for dismantling organized criminal networks. However, despite these very real successes, the job remains far from complete.
In this edition of PanAmerican Crime we will take a look at the evolving policy of the FBI in the greater New York City region, an area which remains the traditional and economic heartland of the Cosa Nostra in North America; and, we will compare its claims against the current state of the five Cosa Nostra families in New York City, which by all accounts are growing and once again expanding after years of retraction and internal strife. For the first time in over a decade the Lucchese, Bonanno, and Gambino families have named official bosses for the first time in nearly a decade, while the Genovese crime family continues to operate in the shadows as the “Ivy League of organized crime.” The tattered Colombos, while still reeling from convictions and turncoats produced from the latest Colombo family war, which took place between 1991 – 1993, are finally watching the FBI campaign against them diminish, with the latest indictments focussing on the traditional mob rackets of loan sharking, extortion and gambling, with no further murder investigations on the horizon at this time. Clearly the pattern of behaviour for both hunter and hunted has changed on the streets of New York City, the ramifications of which should not be underemphasized.
The historic crackdown against the Cosa Nostra
With the passing of the Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) in 1970 the pressure on organized crime began to mount across the United States. Designed as a legal tool for prosecuting multiple members of the same criminal organization for the same crime, RICO soon became the FBI’s greatest weapon against the five mafia families of New York City, arguably the nation’s five largest mafia borgatas. The campaign against the Cosa Nostra began with the prosecution of Frank “Funzi” Tieri, the underboss of the Genovese crime family, who was convicted in 1980. Following this triumph the law remained largely unused for several years, due to the ignorance of investigators about its myriad uses, until the mid-1980s, when three of the five of the bosses in NYC were brought up on charges of murder and racketeering under the RICO statute, (the Bonanno hegemon, Philip “Rusty“ Rastelli, was already behind bars and not included with the other families, while Paul “Big Paul“ Castellano only avoided prosecution due to his own murer at the hands of John Gotti‘s underlings). The case was historic for several reasons. Firstly, while the claims that the mafia didn’t exist no longer held any real resonance, the trial revealed the complexity of the organizations and the longstanding links between the various groups. Secondly, it also demonstrated that the mafia boss, the governing administration, and the membership’s entire upper echelon were no longer shielded from the actions of their underlings. And finally, it revealed that the considerable resources and manpower of the FBI were now being firmly brought to bare on the Cosa Nostra organizations across the country.
At the time of the mega trial in 1985-1986 – described as the “Commission Case” because it revealed the existence of the long dismissed notion of a mafia commission, which was used to set mafia policy and resolve conflict across the entire United States – the FBI had finally begun to get its head around the monumental task set before them. The mafia is different than other organized criminal groups because of the implications of the culture it produces. Prospective members must live a life of crime that is dedicated to the rules and traditions of the Cosa Nostra, while respecting and supporting the will of their captains and the ruling administration within their family. Only upon taking part for many years in a lucrative criminal enterprise and usually in conjunction with killing someone who is considered an enemy of the family can a prospect or wannabe be initiated into a crime family. This process of gaining membership, known as “being made,” creates several problems for law enforcement. Firstly, the people who they are investigating and who often become targets to become government informants or witnesses are career criminals themselves. For those who gain membership, it is usually the culmination of years of work and represents all they have ever wanted to be since they were young. This means, significantly, that even those who are arrested, tried and imprisoned, even for long periods of time, never relinquish their membership status. They are in for life. They will not be allowed, except in extreme circumstances, to retire; nor will they want to. In short, unlike gang membership, it is not possible to simply outgrow the gang and move on to the legitimate world. (Although it should be noted that Latin street gangs are increasingly enforcing a lifetime membership rule that has simultaneously increased the loyalty and durability of their membership and organizations).
The significance of the lifetime aspect of the organization cannot be over exaggerated. As mentioned in previous PanAmerican Crime articles, the Italian-American Cosa Nostra is an institution at this point, capable of regenerating and growing after major setbacks because it has the manpower and systems in place to achieve this. The current state of the Cleveland Cosa Nostra family is evidence of this very important fact. Following the much-publicized conflict in 1976-1977 between self-described Celtic warrior and racketeer Danny Greene and the Cleveland mafia under boss James “Jack White“ Licavoli, the FBI was able to launch a devastating campaign against the Cleveland mob. The war was largely fought through bombings and one of the Cleveland mafia’s main bombers eventually turned government informant, with devastating results for the organization. The line of defections continued as members feared going to jail for life for murder convictions, and continued until all made members of the family were essentially behind bars, serving various sentences. In this case, the FBI actually dismantled an entire mafia family and could rightly claim to have removed that family from the criminal landscape. It is interesting and important to note how the Cleveland war produced so many turncoats and convictions within that organization. It is a lesson the leadership of the Colombo crime family never learned prior to their 1991-1993 conflict, directly leading to the mass convictions and informants seen in that organization even to this day 20 years later.
In light of their successes in overthrowing the Cleveland mafia family the FBI was not prepared for that particular organization to resurface. However, this is not something that should have been considered inconceivable. Not all of the members who went to jail were old, and not all of these received lengthy or life sentences. Meaning, that these career criminals who are dedicated to the cultural modus operandi of the mafia once again hit the streets, many in the last several years. Made members of the mafia, even after lengthy sentences, are not looking for legitimate jobs or a fresh start. They go back to what they know and their former lifestyle, and this is just what has happened in Cleveland‘s case. While still a shadow of their former might, the Cleveland family now has up to 10 made members, and is operating under the leadership of Joseph J. “Joe Loose” Iacobacci Jr.. Semi-retired, Iacobacci is said to have passed the reigns to Russell J. Papallardo, another member who was released within the last decade. Thus, we have an easy example of how, despite a massive and incredibly successful campaign against the Cleveland Cosa Nostra family, the institutionalized cultural behaviour of the mafia can only be extinguished by the death of all of its members. Its draw is too great and its membership too committed to be overwhelmed by a single crackdown, regardless of its intensity.
FBI policy today
Yet despite this ready example and many more like it, the Federal Bureau of Investigation does not seem to have learned this lesson and has already begun the long process of downgrading the Cosa Nostra as a criminal priority. Beginning in the 1980s, the original FBI strategy for dealing with the various Cosa Nostra families was simply, but effective. In New York City and across the country an FBI squad would be setup to monitor and take down each individual mafia crime family. In NYC this meant five squads, all acting independently from one another but able to share acquired knowledge. Bonanno, Colombo, Lucchese, Gambino and Genovese units were formed, with as many as 50 agents or more at any one time working on cases related to a single particular crime family. Between the mid-1980s and the early 2000s this system produced an amazing number of cases built upon a rash of government informants, witnesses and turncoats. The reason for the system’s success was the incredible amount of manpower and the length of time that was allotted to developing intelligence and working cases. This method meant that agents working in each squad would work there for years, gradually picking up the politics, inner workings and individual culture of each family. Agents would learn the names, monikers and personal families of crime family members, information that could become crucial intelligence when it came time to flip one of the target mobsters. The five-squad system also allowed agents who were not originally from NYC to become acclimatized to the city along with its Italian-American culture as well as distinct jargon and nomenclature. Indeed, the 250-odd agents between the five squads were needed in order to just keep adequate tabs on what the families were actually up to. With as many as 1000 made mafia members in NYC alone in the mid 1990s, as well as thousands of supporting associates and wannabes, this large number of agents was needed to follow the important targets for each family and recognize behavioural patterns that are crucial in terms of understanding the actions and capabilities of the five families.
Then came September 11th, and everything changed. The terrorist attacks on NYC of that year not only resulted in horrendous carnage and loss of life, it also shifted the organizational and investigative priorities of the FBI. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s working in the Bureau’s organized crime division was considered one of the pinnacles of investigative work, and was also seen as an important professional stepping stone to other jobs within the organization. The September 11th attacks scared not only the general public but America’s security agencies as well, including the FBI. All of a sudden terrorism took priority over all other work, including organized crime.
In fact, there was good reason to reallocate resources. NYC has faced at least 15 subsequent attempted terror attacks, the vast majority of them thwarted, since September 11th, a number which does not include other attempted attacks across the country. The FBI, without initially knowing al Qaeda’s operational capabilities, was forced to move agents and resources away from important criminal investigations. As the threat of another massive al Qaeda attack subsided following America’s various international forays over the past decade a new threat emerged: the lone wolf attacker. As mentioned in the previous PanAmerican Crime article, (“The threat of international terrorism in North America…”), this method of attack is much harder to detect as there is often no formal organization associated with it. In response, the FBI and other agencies have setup elaborate sting operations to catch budding local terrorists and extremists before they can launch their attacks. In this effort they have been extremely successful but, again, it has changed the culture of the FBI in the process. In NYC the priority is now terrorism, not monitoring the Cosa Nostra. It is also argued, and not without reason, that the threat posed by the infiltration of Mexican cartels into major American cities poses a much greater challenge to law enforcement than the mafia, which again has shifted resources and investigative priority away from the Cosa Nostra.
The development of these new threats means that the optimal career path of an ambitious and talented FBI agent no longer includes following mobsters in NYC; rather, it involves targeting international terrorists or monitoring drug dealers moving up from Mexico and their related networks. These new pressures also mean that the FBI simply cannot afford to post well over one-hundred of its best agents in NYC for the long periods of time needed for purely Cosa Nostra investigations. The effects of these realities have already been seen since September 11th. Firstly, the Bonanno and Colombo squads were combined into one squad, as those two organizations were deemed to be the weakest and most vulnerable. Later on, the number of agents per squad was cut from around 30-40 agents to approximately 20 agents in each. And, lastly, following the mafia “super takedown” in 2011, the final four squads were reduced to two by 2013. Thus, we have witnessed a regression in the number of mafia-pursuant agents from a high of almost 250 during the mid-1990s, to around 50 agents as of July, 2013. It does not take an incredibly observant investigator to see how 50 agents monitoring the 700-odd made Mafiosi in NYC is simply operational model that is doomed to failure.
What this means – update on the current state of the Five Families
While often trumpeting their successes, law enforcement agencies across North America have always fairly noted the resilience of organized crime and its ability to adapt to new pressures. Certainly, the Cosa Nostra in NYC is no different and the effects of reduced federal law enforcement pressures have already been felt. At the height of the mafia crackdown in NYC in the late 1990s and early 2000s each crime family’s ruling regime had been reduced from a set institutionalized administration to a ruling panel, that was forced to rule by committee. By 2005, the Lucchese, Bonanno and Colombo borgatas were decimated by defections brought on by internal strife, with each likely possessing less than 100 made members on the streets, a low point in the history of each crime family. The Gambinos, while historically larger, were also completely overwhelmed by the FBI campaign that unseated the flashy Teflon Don, John Gotti, while the always resilient Genovese were also forced to rely on a rotating ruling panel to make decisions as their anointed boss-in-waiting languished in federal prison. However, once again, everything has changed, and the five borgatas of NYC have begun a steady climb back to their former positions. Bosses and administrations have replaced ruling councils and the so-called “books” have apparently reopened, allowing for the initiation of new members.
Let us start our examination with reputedly the healthiest mob family in NYC: the Genovese crime family. The Genovese are arguably the most storied and powerful mob borgata in the history of NYC. The family began with the ascension of boss Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria after Guiseppe Morello went to jail. Masseria’s organization rose in Little Italy and incorporated Morello’s East Harlem rackets, becoming the most powerful borgata in Manhattan, despite living in the shadow of the Salvatore “Toto” d’Aquila organization. Eventually, Masseria would have d’Aquila assassinated in 1928, and his network’s ongoing expansion would lead to the outbreak of the Castellamarese War (1929-1931) between himself and the Sicilian Brooklyn-based clan of Salvatore Maranzano. The Genovese have historically held territory in the Bronx, which was strengthened after its long-standing East Harlem rackets migrated there under then-captain Liborio “Barney” Bellomo in the 1980s-1990s. It also has significant territory in New Jersey as well as parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island. Its powerbase has traditionally been Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, Little Italy and Lower East Side. The crime family remained effective after the arrest of its extremely powerful godfather Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, and has apparently continued its long-standing practice of altering the traditional mafia hierarchy of boss-underboss-consigliere by adding a “messengario” (or messenger between the boss and captains) and front boss. The Genovese operated clandestinely under this system for decades, using it to allow their actual boss to successfully avoid law enforcement attention and media scrutiny, while placing public pressure on a figurehead who has little actual power. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the Genovese boss, Philip Lombardo ruled behind the scenes while law enforcement believed that Frank “Funzi” Tieri (jailed in 1980) and Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno (jailed in the Commission case in 1986) were the real leaders. This tradition continued under Vincent “The Chin” Gigante until his imprisonment in 1997.
Following Gigante’s imprisonment, the street or acting boss of the family was reputed to be Liborio “Barney” Bellomo, while Gigante ruled from inside prison. Bellomo, who’s father was a made soldier in the East Harlem crew of powerful capo and front boss Anthony Salerno, was considered to be a young and rising star in the family. When Gigante died in prison in 2005 it is believed that Bellomo took over as official boss, a position that Gigante had apparently groomed him for. However, Bellomo’s extensive legal troubles began in 1996-1997 when he faced multiple indictments for murder and racketeering. He pled guilty for a reduced sentence of ten years, but was again hit with indictments in 2001 and 2006, he again pled down to lesser charges and was released in 2008. During the period of Bellomo’s imprisonment the Genovese did not suffer a single major defection, except within their Connecticut faction. Daniel “the Lion” Leo and other Genovese mobsters were touted as possible street bosses, but here at PanAmerican Crime, we believe that Bellomo has always retained the title of full boss once Gigante’s passed away behind bars in 2005, although his release was needed to confirm it. The crime family likely operated under a ruling panel during Bellomo’s imprisonment, with multiple members serving as street boss. At this point, with as many as 250-300 made members, the Genovese remain the strongest, largest and most sophisticated mafia borgata in the United States, with law enforcement still officially unsure of who is actually in charge given the long history of acting bosses serving as fronts for the real power behind the scenes.
The Gambino’s, despite the rash of convictions following John Gotti’s unfortunate reign, remain the second largest and second most powerful borgata in NYC and the United States, with approximately 200 made members. The Gambino crime family can trace its lineage back to Alfred Mineo who was likely a senior a group leader within Salvatore D’Aquila’s Brooklyn-based Borgata, which began sometime in the 1910s or earlier. After D’Aquila’s violent death, the later murder of Al Mineo and the subsequent rearrangement of the families following the Castellamarese War (C. 1929-1931) the Gambino crime family, under the leadership of Vincent Mangano, had crews and rackets in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. After Mangano’s murder, Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia took control, until he was also murdered (1957), this time by the Gambino’s namesake, Carlo Gambino. Gambino ruled until his death in 1976, when he was replaced by his cousin Paul “Big Paulie” Castellano. Big Paul would of course be killed in 1985 and replaced by John Gotti, whose reckless exploits eventually created intense law enforcement scrutiny around him and his immediate associates. As a result, Gotti was imprisoned for life in 1992 and the power within the crime family stayed with his immediate family and the Brooklyn-Queens faction. The FBI and related law enforcement agencies then spent the next decade locking up Gotti’s relatives and friends, several of whom replaced him as boss. These included his son, John Junior, his brother Peter, as well as members of his faction who rotated within a ruling committee, such as John “The Nose” D’Amico.
By default, due to the ongoing arrests and convictions within the Brooklyn-Queens faction, the captains within the family began to look for a new low-key leader to replace the Brooklyn and Queens faction. They found this in the form of a 70-year old mobster named Domenico Cefalu. Cefalu has historic criminal ties to the Gambino family, through Carlo’s son Thomas and cousin John. John Gambino and Cefalu are long time members of the Sicilian faction of the Gambino crime family, known as the Cherry Hill Gambinos. However, Cefalu is believed to be slowing down in his old age and has been replaced as boss by Francesco Cali, a member of the Cherry Hill Gambinos and former official liaison between the Gambino crime family and the Inzerillo crime family and its allies in Palermo, Sicily. In the case of the Gambinos, they have chosen a leader who the public has almost no knowledge of and transitioned the power base of the family away from the faction that had previously held power, although it is interesting to note that the power within the family has remained geographically centred in Brooklyn, the traditional heartland of the Gambino borgata.
In the case of the Lucchese, the recent selection process for boss mirrored the Genovese format, with a chosen successor waiting in the wings; and, like the Gambinos and the Genovese, it required a change in power between various factions. The Lucchese borgata got its start later than either the Gambinos, Genovese or Bonannos, being founded in the Bronx in the 1920s by Gaetano “Tommy” Reina. Reina would be murdered in 1930 (reputedly by Vito Genovese) after apparently switching sides during the chaos of the Castellamarese War (1929-1931) after switching sides from Masseria to Salvatore Maranzano. Reina would be replaced by Gaetano “Tommy” Lucchese. Lucchese would die peacefully and the family’s power base would remain in the Bronx under his successor Carmine Trumunti and later boss Anthony “Tony Ducks” Corallo. When Corallo was indicted in the famous Commission Case in 1985 a minor conflict with major future implication for the crime family would rage to determine who would succeed him. The victors were soon-to-be underboss Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso and boss Victor “Little Vic” Amuso. Amuso and Casso would murder Corallo’s protégé and member of the Bronx faction Anthony “Buddy” Luongo in 1986, leaving Corallo with no apparent option but to pick Brooklyn faction captains Casso and Amuso. The Lucchese have always been a Bronx-based borgata. They have a Brooklyn faction and a powerful New Jersey faction, but their base of power has always been in the Bronx and East Harlem in Manhattan.
The ascension of Casso to underboss and Amuso to boss would eventually shatter much of the family. The two friends would unleash a wave of vindictive violence against imagined and perceived enemies within the Lucchese borgata, leading to a wave of ongoing government informants, particularly within their own Brooklyn faction and the New Jersey crews that eventually declared their independence from “Vic and Gas” – the phrase that described the two gangsters. Their time at the top would eventually come to an end with the arrest of both on murder charges in 1991. Casso turned government informant, despite the fact that it is often thought that he was the driving force behind the majority of violent paranoia that swept the family in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Casso would eventually be dumped as a witness, but not after dozens of Lucchese Mafiosi were arrested and imprisoned, many for life. The imprisoned Amuso would then choose his former handball partner Joseph “Little Joe” Defede as boss, and, significantly, Stevie “Wonder Boy” Crea as captain of the borgata’s labour racketeering, which was mostly centred in their traditional heartland: the Bronx. Defede would eventually be arrested, but, scared into cooperating due to the fact that Amuso – still titular boss – believed that Defede had been skimming profits from the crime family, he quickly rolled over on the next Lucchese acting boss Louis “Lou Bagels” Daidone. Following Daidone’s murder conviction in 2004 a ruling panel of Matthew Madonna, Aniello Migliore, and Joseph di Napoli was setup to rule until the new boss-designate — then rumoured to be Bronx faction leader, Steven “Wonder Boy” Crea — would be released off parole and ready to assume the official roll of boss. It is now rumoured that Crea, who was released from prison in 2006 and parole in 2009, has assumed the title of boss and that power has once again returned to the Bronx from Brooklyn. A sign of this transfer is that Amuso has reportedly been stripped of his title as official boss and that Crea has taken this on instead of his acting boss title. With between 80 and 90 made members on the street, the Lucchese appear poised for a resurgence.
Like the Lucchese, the Bonannos suffered terribly in the aftermath of the Commission Case of 1986. The crime family has been one of the hardest hit by government informants, but, like the other families it has begun to emerge from the chaotic morass in which it has found itself mired over the past decade. The Bonannos, like the Colombos, are historically a Sicilian Brooklyn-based borgata. While they do have expanding interests in other NYC boroughs, most notably Queens and the Bronx, the crime family has always remained largely centred in Brooklyn. The family emerged as a Sicilian gateway to America in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, as thousands of Sicilian immigrants fled crackdowns in the home country. The area of Castellamare del Golfo in Sicily has long been a hotbed of mafia activity and the members of these mafia clans who left there for America soon found themselves together in Brooklyn as part of Salvatore Maranzano’s mafia borgata. With the end of the Castellamarese War (c. 1929-1931 – it was named after the region of Castellamare del Golfo) both Masseria and Maranzano were dead and Joseph Bonanno assumed control of one of the nation’s largest mafia families, now called the Bonanno crime family. Joe Bonanno would rule his family for decades until trouble with Carlo Gambino and his allies on the commission led to the Banana Wars of the 1960s. The war would see the Bonannos split apart by infighting, with Joe Bonanno essentially forced into retirement. Factionalism between various interests and crews in the family would rule unchecked until the reign of Philip “Rusty” Rastelli, a powerful capo from the Queens faction who managed to exert a little control over the disparate factions, forming a ruling panel in 1969. Rastelli spent much of his mob career behind bars, but he ruled through his protégé Joseph “Big Joe” Massino and others. Rastelli would become acting boss in 1973 and eventually assume the full title in 1979. Massino would orchestrate several major murders and quell several rebellious factions until Rastelli himself relinquished control to Big Joe. The first of these was the murder of Carmine Galante in 1979, a legendary Bonanno mobster, who wanted the title of boss for himself. The second took place in 1981 and involved the triple murder of three dissenting capos: Alphonse “Sonny Red” Indelicato, Dominick Trinchera, and Philip Giaccone. These high-profile and successful murders moved Big Joe up the ladder and with Rastelli’s death in 1991, he received the title of boss.
Massino would enjoy a very productive reign and move the Bonannos back into the mob limelight, while simultaneously increasing the size, wealth and influence of the borgata. Massino would eventually be convicted in 2004 of murder and he designated Vincent “Vinnie Gorgeous” Basciano as acting boss, while he ruled from behind bars. However, Massino would eventually be brought up on murder charges that fell under the death penalty statute and became a government witness. Massino’s defection nearly destroyed the established members and rackets of the crime family with dozens of made members and important associates being arrested and convicted. Vinnie Gorgeous would be one of Massino’s first victims, and is now serving a life sentence. Following Basciano’s murder conviction, the crime family knew it needed to choose a boss who was not close to Massino or the other Brooklyn Bonannos who had turned into informants. They therefore chose Salvatore “Sal the Ironworker” Montagna as boss in 2006. Montagna would be deported to Canada in 2009, where he would be murdered in 2011. With Montagna’s deportation, the Bonanno ruling captains decided to continue with Basciano’s decision to move power to the Bronx faction of the family. Finally, by 2013, 70-year-old Thomas “Tommy D” Defiore was named acting boss; however, it is rumoured that he is merely holding the seat for the official boss Michael “The Nose” Mancuso (57), who is awaiting his release from prison. This assessment makes sense here at PanAmerican Crime, as Mancuso is a member of the Bronx faction, as was Montagna, and would have little chance of being rounded up by law enforcement due to the testimonies of the many Brooklyn-based Bonanno gangsters who have defected. With between 80-100 made members the Bonannos have, like the Lucchese and Gambino borgatas, shifted their powerbase away from troubled crews, and are even rumoured to have recruited at least 10 new made soldiers.
Last, and also probably least, are the Colombos. The Colombo borgata, like the Lucchese, was one of the last mafia gangs to be established in NYC. Unlike the Lucchese however, the Colombos began in south Brooklyn, under their don Giuseppe “Joe” Profaci in or around 1920. Like the other Brooklyn borgatas, (Bonannos and Gambinos), the Colombos maintained their powerbase in the massive borough, although, unlike their fellow Brooklyn organizations, the Colombos never really expanded much beyond Brooklyn, although there have historically been Colombo crews in Queens, Staten Island and Little Italy in Manhattan. Profaci would rule the organization until his death in 1962, but not before his apparent greed had led to the rebellion of the Gallo crew in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in 1961. Profaci would be succeeded by Joe Magliocco, his underboss, but Magliocco’s role in an apparent plot by Joe Bonanno to murder Carlo Gambino and Tommy Lucchese resulted in Magliocco’s forced retirement in 1963. Magliocco would be replaced by Joe Colombo, the crime family’s namesake, who had betrayed Magliocco to the Commission. Colombo would be shot and paralyzed by a black gunman (Jerome Johnson) at an Italian-American Civil Rights League ceremony in Columbus Circle in 1971. The hit was rumoured to have been planned by Joe “Crazy Joey” Gallo, and this launched a second internal family war. Several acting bosses came and went until Carmine “The Snake” Persico took control from behind bars and ruled through his acting boss Gennaro “Gerry Lang” Langella. Persico would be convicted in 1986 by as part of the historic Commission Case after defending himself in court and sentenced to life in prison. He continues to rule the crime family to this day from his prison cell in Lompoc, California. Persico then attempted to make his eldest son Alphonse “Little Alley Boy” Persico boss in his stead, but his acting boss Victor “Little Vic” Orena eventually believed he deserved the title and launched a destructive war between 1991-1993. Orena would be convicted on murder charges and the rebellion would fade out; however, Orena’s supporters, such as William “Wild Bill” Cutolo were still considered a threat by the crime family‘s administration. Wild Bill would be murdered on the orders of Little Alley Boy in 1999-2000, who would subsequently be sentenced to life in prison for the murder in 2004, along with his Underboss John “Jackie“ deRoss.
The aftermath of the third Colombo family war is still being felt today. Joel “Joe Waverly” Cacace, Thomas “Tommy Shots” Gioli, and Ralph de Leo (of Massachusetts) were all considered to be acting boss of the crime family sometime between 2004 and now. All would be removed due to testimony provided by government informants, including “Wild Bill” Cutolo’s own son, who sought revenge against his father’s killers. From a family strength of nearly 200 made members at the outbreak of the third Colombo war their fortunes have dwindled to around 60 made members on the street. This pattern is a direct result of members defecting to the government to avoid sentencing for murders that took place during the conflict; yet, it is also the product of not having a wider membership base. The Colombos remain a south Brooklyn family and do not have the multiple, powerful cross-borough factions of the other NYC borgatas. Therefore, most members know most of the other members, which means that the Colombos cannot simply switch factions when it comes time to promote a new governing administration and thereby confuse law enforcement. It is notable that even their attempt at promoting a New England mobster (Ralph de Leo) ended in failure due to the testimony of informants.
But, even the Colombos have something to be positive about. Several murder charges against the surviving major members, including the former consigliere Andrew “Mush” Russo have been either dismissed or reduced. Also, perhaps more importantly, the line up of charges produced by turncoats has also been reduced. It has been twenty years since the end of the third Colombo war and those members who flipped during that time no longer have the inside knowledge about what new members are up to. Indeed, there have been no new murder cases brought against the Colombos since the death of Wild Bill Cutolo in 2004. Two powerful Colombo capos were indicted on murder charges as part of the “major mafia takedown” in 2011, but these charges stem from crimes committed during the 1990s. Of these two cases, Colombo capo Joel “Waverly” Cacace was recently found innocent of ordering the death of former NYC cop Ralph Dols in 1997, and Thomas “Tommy Shot“ Gioeli was also found innocent of that murder and one other, despite being convicted of other lesser crimes. In effect, there have been no major convictions originating from crimes committed within this decade and of those who have been convicted, it is often for less severe offences that will allow them to return to the street; a telling and troubling sign for the FBI.
Generally speaking, murder charges are the bread and butter of mob investigations. The prospect of life imprisonment often has the effect of turning Cosa Nostra members or getting them to testify or plead guilty. What has been seen with the Colombos, as well as the other four crime families, is that the murder charges that stemmed from the strife that was present in the Colombo, Lucchese, Gambino and Bonanno borgatas are simply no longer available. Over the past decade the five families have done their best to operate below the radar of the public and there has been no major mafia-related public safety scare since the last Colombo conflict. There has been only a few scattered mafia-related shootings, and in many of these cases victims have disappeared or are unrelated to the major leadership targets the FBI craves. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, of the 127-odd arrests associated with the FBI’s latest major mob takedown in 2011, the only two murder charges were related to the third Colombo family war. And, of these charges, both Joel “Joe Waverly” Cacace and Andrew “Mush” Russo were found innocent, meaning that there will be no further investigations spinning off of this latest attack on the mob in NYC.
Of the charges that currently do face many mafia members in the Five Families, by far the most prevalent relate to extortion, loan sharking, gambling and prostitution. Again, these are charges that do not offer long prison sentences and that will not likely induce important defectors among the Cosa Nostra ranks. Even drug trafficking charges and related convictions of mafia members – also charges that typically can induce cooperation with the government – have sunk to an all time low. To put it bluntly: there are currently no major cases that can produce cooperators, and the FBI is reducing its man power in the area of traditional organized crime in NYC. This behaviour will produce a boom time for the Cosa Nostra families in NYC, and they are well aware of it. For the first time in over twenty years each borgata, other than the Colombo crime family, has a recognized, official boss on the street — and even the Colombos are seeing several of their senior members and captains return after serving prison sentences that began during the initial mafia crackdown throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The borgatas have also relocated their power bases, some to traditional factions or their original boroughs, like the Lucchese and Genovese, while others have moved their ruling regimes to new factions in what have traditionally been less powerful areas, such as the Gambinos and Bonannos (and even the Colombos under Ralph deLeo of Massachusetts). Clearly, the Cosa Nostra families of NYC are doing what they have always been good at doing – adapting to the pressures of law enforcement. They have learned from the strategies enacted against them over the past two and a half decades and appear poised to once again expand, just as the major mob-busting agency, the FBI, continues to lighten its pressure on traditional organized crime in NYC.
The mafia may not ever truly die out, due to the nature of its institutional framework and history, but it can be contained and limited in the damage it can produce throughout the community. To discount these abilities and the effectiveness of the NYC mafia borgatas in terms of reorganizing and expanding will undoubtedly lead to a resurgence in the power, strength and influence of the Five Families. While the pressures the FBI faces throughout the United States are myriad and difficult, taking their foot off of the throat of the Five Families will only mean that the battle will need to be continued at another date against resurgent and resilient foes.
– Scott Paulseth, Contributor and Editor
Sources and further reading:
Rashbaum, William, “FBI will fight Mafia with fewer investigators,” The New York Times, June 28, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/29/nyregion/fbi-will-fight-the-mafia-with-fewer-investigators.html?_r=0.
Margolin, Josh, “FBI mob unit gets unmade,” New York Post, March 7, 2011, http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/fbi_mob_unit_gets_unmade_SBZtxidTagOAd9t8qqo7IK.
Marzulli, John, “FBI’s New York bureau downsizes organized crime squads two months after historic mob takedown,” New York Daily News, March 11, 2011, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/fbi-ny-cuts-mob-fighting-squads-article-1.116543.
For updated information on mafia news in NYC and around the World please take a look at:
Mafia Today: http://mafiatoday.com/
Cosa Nostra News: http://cosa-nostra-news.blogspot.ca/
And, of course, the quintessential guide to the Italian-American Cosa Nostra families of NYC:
Raab, Selwyn, Five Families, (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2005).