Bringing Down the Mob: The War Against the American Mafiaby Thomas Reppetto
The riveting, often bloody account of how the fifty-year attack by the federal government virtually extinguished the nation's most powerful crime syndicate
In the critically acclaimed American Mafia, Thomas Reppetto narrated the ferocious ascendancy of organized crime in America. In this fascinating sequel, he follows the mob from its peak into/i>/p>/b>… See more details below
The riveting, often bloody account of how the fifty-year attack by the federal government virtually extinguished the nation's most powerful crime syndicate
In the critically acclaimed American Mafia, Thomas Reppetto narrated the ferocious ascendancy of organized crime in America. In this fascinating sequel, he follows the mob from its peak into a shadowy period of decline as the government, no longer able to deny its existence, made subduing the Mafia a matter of national priority.
Reppetto draws on a lifetime of field experience to tell the stories of the Mafia's twentieth-century leadership, showing how men such as Sam Giancana and John Gotti became household names. Crusaders like Robert Kennedy led concerted--if sometimes sporadic--attacks against organized crime. As the battles between the feds and the Mafia moved from the streets to the courtrooms, Reppetto describes how it came to resemble a conflict between sovereign powers.
In direct, shoot-from-the-hip prose, Reppetto chronicles a turning point in American Mafia history, and offers the provocative theory that, given the right formula of connections and shrewd business, a new generation of multinational criminals may be poised to take up the Mafia's mantle.
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Bringing Down The Mob
The War Against The American Mafia
By Thomas A. Reppetto
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2006 Thomas A. Reppetto
All rights reserved.
THE ROAD TO APALACHIN:
WAR IS DECLARED ON THE AMERICAN MAFIA
It was a typical scene from American middle-class life. More than sixty men were gathered at a large rural estate in the southern tier of New York, near the Pennsylvania border. The weather was warm for November, and after an early morning drizzle the sun began to shine. The only off note was the guests, who wore silk suits, white-on-white shirts, and polished soft leather shoes — hardly standard attire for a country cookout. By 12:40 P.M. the affair was well under way, with one group congregated around a barbecue pit grilling steaks while others conversed over Scotch and wine in the main residence or the nearby summerhouse. The parked Cadillacs, Chryslers, and Lincolns bespoke the guests' affluence. Suddenly, some of them noticed that a car had pulled into the parking lot behind the garage, and that the four men in it were taking down license numbers. Though they were wearing civilian clothes, it was obvious that they were police. The host's wife shouted, "It's the state troopers." Her husband, Joe Barbara, assured the guests there was nothing to worry about. It was just a bit of the occasional hassling that he was subjected to by nosy cops. As if to confirm his statement, the intruders began backing their car down the driveway and soon disappeared from view. The men resumed eating and drinking until 1:15 P.M., when a deliveryman who had just dropped off a load of fish came racing back to the estate, shouting that the cops had set up a roadblock down at the bottom of a hill where the dirt road from the estate intersected with a state highway. This announcement prompted some of the guests to head for their cars.
Watching through binoculars, Detective Sergeant Edgar Croswell of the New York State Police began laughing. Up until then he had no legal grounds to question anyone, since the men were on private property. Once they hit the state road, however, cops could demand licenses, search cars, and ticket or arrest anyone they found in violation. When he set up his roadblock Croswell had radioed for reinforcements, and from barracks across the region, men in gray uniforms and Western-style Stetsons piled into patrol cars and raced toward the intersection of old Route 17 and McFall Road, in the little hamlet of Apalachin (pop. 350). The name of the village (locally pronounced "apple-aykin") and the date — November 14, 1957 — would henceforth be a part of American history.
Commonly considered an urban entity, the Mafia was also alive and well in rural New York. Barbara was proof of that. In 1921, at the age of sixteen, he had left his home in Sicily with an older brother and eventually ended up working at a shoe factory in Endicott, New York. By the 1930s, "Joe the Barber" was a small-time bootlegger and gambler in nearby northeastern Pennsylvania. He was also the suspected gunman in several murder cases arising out of intramural disputes among gangsters. No charges could be made to stick, but the Pennsylvania cops made things so hot for him that he eventually returned to Endicott. There he became a successful businessman and posed as a respectable citizen, while functioning as head of the Mafia group that flourished along the Pennsylvania–New York border.
The story of the Apalachin raid has often been presented as a case of some hick cops stumbling on a mob conclave. The facts are a bit different. Founded in 1917, the New York State Police was a spit-and-polish outfit with the ethos of a cavalry regiment (hence "troopers"). Forty-four-year-old Detective Sergeant Edgar DeWitt Croswell, a burly man with a lined face, had joined the force in 1941. Like all rookies, he was initially assigned to cleaning out the horse stables. His first encounter with Barbara came in 1944 when, as a plainclothes trooper, he caught one of the employees at Barbara's soft drink bottling plant stealing two cans of gasoline from a company truck. It was wartime and gas was a precious commodity, so Croswell assumed the man's boss would appreciate the collar. Instead, when the short, squat Barbara was called to the police station, he refused to sign a complaint and began berating Croswell for making the arrest. Noting a bulge under Barbara's coat, Croswell asked him if he was carrying a gun — illegal under New York law without authorization. "Sure, gotta permit," he snapped, and produced a license signed by a judge. After that Croswell kept an eye on Mr. Barbara: A federal appeals judge would later observe that for thirteen years, "As a modern Inspector Javert, Trooper Croswell pursued Barbara in all ways possible." He even went so far as to photograph Barbara's estate, and was caught in the act by Mrs. Barbara and several unfriendly boxer dogs (he explained that he was a photographer taking pictures of beautiful homes for possible inclusion in a magazine). On wiretaps of Barbara's phone, Croswell sometimes heard guarded remarks such as "That matter we talked about, we'll fix," but nothing incriminating.
In 1956, a New York state trooper stopped three men in a speeding car. When the driver produced a license that was not his, the trooper took him into custody and ordered the other men to follow him to the station, where the case was turned over to Detective Sergeant Croswell. The driver turned out to be Carmine Galante, who would later rise to the top of New York City's Bonanno family. The false license charge, though minor, carried a jail sentence, so Galante tried to bully his way out of it, hinting that he had powerful political connections. Unimpressed, Croswell ordered him booked. An investigation determined that Galante and the others had been at a meeting in a Binghamton hotel with family heads Joe Bonanno and Joe Barbara. While Galante was out on bail awaiting trial, politicians from New York and New Jersey did indeed begin putting in good words for him. A ranking officer from another law enforcement agency visited Croswell and implied that it would be worth a thousand dollars to him to drop the case. Croswell ordered him out of the station, and Galante ended up serving thirty days in jail. The incident undoubtedly confirmed Croswell's belief that Barbara was an important mob figure.
The usual reason cited for the Apalachin raid was that Croswell's suspicions had been aroused the day before, when he and his partner, Trooper Vincent Vasisko, were investigating a bad check case at a motel. Barbara's son Joe Junior came in, causing the troopers to step quickly out of sight. As they listened, young Barbara engaged three rooms for two nights, explaining that the guests would be attending a business meeting. Asked for their names, he declined to give them and departed with the keys. Their curiosity piqued, the cops drove past Barbara's home, where they noted several parked cars with out-of-state license plates. Later that night the motel owner informed Croswell that the guests had refused to sign the register at check-in. The surly attitudes of the men did not seem consistent with the behavior of soft drink salesmen.
It is possible, though, that the motel incident was not what first aroused Croswell's suspicions: A federal appeals court judge later wrote that Croswell likely "got wind of the meeting, if not its purpose, via wiretapping." Barbara had previously been suspected of violating federal liquor laws, so Croswell notified some friends at the local office of the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax unit. The next day he and Trooper Vasisko, accompanied by Treasury agents Art Ruston and Ken Brown, headed out to the Barbara estate to check out the doings. He wisely alerted his supervisors that he might be needing reinforcements. This did not present a problem for the troopers, since there were always reserves on duty in the barracks.
A virtual congress of the leading elements of American organized crime was about to convene, and the only police agency on the case was a rural patrol force assisted by a couple of federal revenue agents. Where was the FBI? In fact, like most Americans of that time, it knew very little about organized crime. Since then, the Mafia has been extensively probed by the government and become a staple of the entertainment world, though it is still not fully understood. Anyone who claims to have knowledge of the Mafia is usually asked whether the characters and events portrayed in The Godfather or The Sopranos or any of their screen counterparts reflect the reality of mob life. The answer is no — and yes. Cinematic depictions of cops stress the dramatic aspects of their occupation, making unusual events such as murders and gun battles seem like a typical day's work, whereas in real life, few police officers work homicide or ever fire their guns. Yet the higher quality shows do tend to capture the ethos of the cop world. It is the same with portrayals of gangsters.
Life in the mobs tends to follow a standard pattern. Over the years, most mafiosi have come from neighborhoods where organized crime was strong: Manhattan's East Harlem or Lower East Side, Brooklyn's Bensonhurst, Chicago's Taylor Street district, Boston's North End, South Philadelphia. As boys, they were in street gangs where they developed criminal skills as burglars, robbers, and hijackers and honed their reputations as tough guys. Early on they were marked as potential members of the local mob. A New York police official described the attraction of mob life for young men in Bath Beach, a Bensonhurst neighborhood:
They meet the young toughs, the mob enforcers. They hear the tales of glory recounted — who robbed what, who worked over whom, which showgirl shared which gangster's bed, who got hit by whom, the techniques of the rackets and how easy it all is, how the money rolls in. ... With a little luck and guts, they feel even they may someday belong to that splendid high-living band, the mob.
Social scientists have sought to explain such choices. One common view is that they are a rational means of achieving success in communities where more legitimate avenues to advancement are not available. The problem with various theories is that they can never explain why one boy becomes a gangster and his buddy (or even his brother) does not. Hollywood has portrayed this dilemma many times. In the final scene of some gangster movies, three childhood friends — a murderer, a cop, and a priest — are reunited while walking the last mile to the electric chair. The condemned man jokes, the cop weeps, and the priest prays. The audience is left to wonder why one of them ended up as he did.
In some places becoming a made man was akin to enrolling in a fraternal organization. An aspirant required a sponsor and often had to go through some type of ritual such as swearing an oath on a holy picture, with a gun and knife alongside, and the ceremonial drawing of his blood. In southern cities and in Chicago, initiation into the mob might require nothing more than answering a few questions and receiving a pat on the back or a handshake. Sometimes membership rules required that the candidate commit a murder, or at least serve as an accomplice, but the notion that one could become a made man only through homicide was not universally correct.
A made man introducing another one to a third would say, "He is a friend of ours." If a man was not in the fraternity, he would be introduced as "a friend of mine." It would then be understood that mob affairs could not be discussed in his presence. Sometimes a mob member would be identified by a local slang term such as "goodfella" or "wiseguy."
The requirement for entry that both parents be of Italian descent (generally southern Italian, and in later years amended in some places to one parent) was meant to ensure that recruits possessed the right values. The Mafia believed that young men from Italian immigrant families, bred to place blood ties above all other considerations, would show equal loyalty to the mob. To be accepted into a Mafia family, as into any other kin group, meant that one could count on the support of the other members. The reverse was that you were expected to help the family even if it meant possible death or imprisonment. Like many other enterprises, getting in was easier if one had a relation in the top ranks of the organization — though many mob bosses preferred that their children pursue careers outside the world of organized crime.
The organizational rules to which members subscribed were fairly simple. A made man could not threaten another member, or fool around with his wife or girlfriend. The latter rule was intended more to avoid bloodshed than to uphold morality. If a member was in prison, his wife was definitely off limits to other mobsters, or anybody else for that matter: A jealous convict might be tempted to become an informer. When cops found a dead man who had been shot in the genital area, it was generally assumed that he had violated the Mafia's moral code. In some places, being involved with drugs or prostitution was forbidden, though it was a rule that was frequently ignored. Anyone who violated the code of silence, known as omerta, by disclosing organizational secrets was subject to the death penalty. In practice, the most important rule in the Mafia was never to cheat your superiors out of their share of your earnings.
Mob membership conferred status. A soldier could expect a great deal of deference from people in general. A barroom tough guy who was not a made man would always lose if he got into a fight with someone who was. Even if the tough won the first round, he was sure to lose the second, since no gang would ever allow one of its members to be beaten up without retaliating. Even to insult the wife or girlfriend of a made man was a dangerous thing to do. If a mob entrepreneur was competing for a million-dollar contract with a nonmob guy, the latter would be expected to withdraw his bid.
Mob soldiers did not usually receive a salary. Instead, they were permitted to run activities like gambling, loan sharking, and hijacking, and they were expected to pass on a large percentage of the proceeds to the bosses. In return, they were protected by them from the law or other gangsters. Protocol dictated that before a mobster moved in on a territory, he would check to make sure that he was not poaching on some other mobster's operation, which could lead to serious trouble. In New York, where there were five separate families, it was especially difficult to determine whether someone was connected.
Within the families there was a division between the gangsters and the racketeers. Gangsters were the ones who did the shooting and slugging, while racketeers ran the moneymaking operations. In many instances racketeers were men who had started out as gangsters and could still wield a gun, but, as befitted their higher status, they distanced themselves from everyday violence. Some bosses even came to believe that they were just businessmen, or even better, sportsmen. Sitting in his box at the racetrack, New York mob boss Frank Costello fancied himself as much a gentleman as the blue bloods who sat around him.
Many mafiosi had old-fashioned views. Most put their mothers and wives on a pedestal and kept their mistresses out of sight. In some places the rule was you could go out with your mistress on Friday, but Saturday night was for the wife. Many mob guys also respected clergymen (especially priests), the military, and, surprisingly, cops. The Godfather contains a scene set the day after Pearl Harbor, when Michael Corleone stuns his family by announcing he has joined the Marine Corps because, unlike them, he believes it is right to fight for your country. In real life the Chicago mob's overseer in Hollywood, Johnny Roselli, volunteered for the Army though he was in his late thirties and sickly. He even maneuvered to remain with an armored division slated for overseas combat. His desire to be a hero was not fulfilled: After his indictment for attempting to extort Hollywood studios, he was stripped of his uniform. New York mob boss Paul Castellano once startled his soldiers by declaring, "You know who the true tough guys are? The cops. They go on these domestic disputes and things and they never know what they're up against."
Around the time of the Apalachin raid, it was estimated that the Mafia comprised twenty-four families, with approximately four or five thousand members and ten times that number of associates. The Mafia were thickest on the ground in the Northeast. The heaviest concentration was in New York City, with about 40 percent of the membership. There Tommy Lucchese, Joe Bonanno, and Joe Profaci headed families that bore their names. (In the 1960s, as a result of family conflict, the Profacis would become known as the Colombos.) Albert Anastasia ran the family that had been headed by Vince Mangano, while Frank Costello was boss of Lucky Luciano's old family, and until recently held sway as the "Prime Minister" of mobdom. All had seats on the national commission that coordinated the loosely organized national confederation or syndicate of mob families.
Excerpted from Bringing Down The Mob by Thomas A. Reppetto. Copyright © 2006 Thomas A. Reppetto. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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