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For more than twenty years, Joseph "Big Joey" Massino ran what was called the largest criminal network in the U.S., employing over two hundred and fifty made men and untold numbers of associates. The Bonanno family was responsible for over thirty murders, even killing a dozen of its own members to enforce discipline and settle scores. He would be brought down by Salvatore "Good Looking Sal" Vitale, the underboss who...
For more than twenty years, Joseph "Big Joey" Massino ran what was called the largest criminal network in the U.S., employing over two hundred and fifty made men and untold numbers of associates. The Bonanno family was responsible for over thirty murders, even killing a dozen of its own members to enforce discipline and settle scores. He would be brought down by Salvatore "Good Looking Sal" Vitale, the underboss who was not only Massino's closest and most trusted friend, but also his brother-in-law. In the end, facing the death penalty and the prospect of leaving his family penniless, Massino started talking to the FBI--the first Mafia Godfather to break the sacred code of omerta, and the end of a centuries-old tradition.
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Anthony DeStefano, who interviewed Massino's family and friends as well as law enforcement officials and confidential sources, King of the Godfathers is the story of the brutal mob war that made Massino head of the Bonanno family and the most powerful gangster in America.
"The best and last word on the subject." --Jerry Capeci, Gangland News.com and bestselling co-author of Murder Machine
With 16 Pages of Revealing Photos!
Anthony Destefano was part of the team of New York Newsday reporters who won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the August 1991 subway crash in Manhattan. He covers organized crime for Newsday and was the lead reporter on several major criminal trials, including that of subway gunman Bernhard Goetz. He lives in New Jersey.
"Big Joey" Massino and the Fall of the Bonanno Crime Family
Copyright © 2008 Anthony M. DeStefano
All right reserved.
"No Sleep Till Brooklyn"
He knew they were coming.
As he walked the snow-crusted streets near his home in Howard Beach, Queens, on the night of January 8, 2003, the middle-aged man could sense the many pairs of eyes that followed his every move.
Street smart since leaving school in the eighth grade, he had acquired a finely tuned sense of when trouble was stalking him. Walking around on what was an unseasonably warm night along Cross Bay Boulevard with his youngest daughter, Joanne, the rotund grandfather had noticed cars he knew were those of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The sedans and the vans with tinted windows, the "bad cars" as he would say, had been around a lot recently. This night they shadowed him constantly.
He went to the Target department store and the cars were there. He went to the Cross Bay Diner and the cars were there. His daughter walked into Blockbuster Video and even she saw the cars.
Looking like Jackie Gleason with a big frame that carried 300 pounds and sporting a full head of graying hair, the old man whose grandchildren called him by the pet name Poppy had a habit of returning to his own place every evening. In hisyounger days, he might have spent the nights with his overeating friends. Lately, his high blood pressure and diabetes, as well as the toll of obesity, kept him closer to home. So when the agents parked at the end of the block and watched him enter the dark brick home on Eighty-fourth Street for the final time that day, they were certain he was in pocket for the night.
The agents would stick around until morning. It was standard operational procedure for the FBI just before a big arrest to make sure a target stayed in place no matter how long the surveillance team had to be on the street. Poppy was the kind of man they would take as much time as needed to make sure he was in the bag.
Poppy, the affable grand dad who delighted in belly flopping and swimming with neighborhood kids in his backyard pool on Eighty-fourth Street, was better known to law enforcement as Joseph Massino, born January 10, 1943, and branded with FBI number 883127N9. He was the secretive and elusive boss of the Bonanno crime family, the last American Mafia don of substance to be free on the streets. The Dapper Don was dead. The Chin and the Snake were in prison. But Massino had flourished.
A crafty and perceptive man who could be as gentlemanly as he could be vicious, Massino was a throwback to an era when Mafia leaders acted like patricians rather than ill-bred street thugs that had come to symbolize the public face of organized crime. Yet, Massino was not above having blood on his hands-lots of blood if truth be told-and in a few hours that dark side would change his life forever.
In terms of FBI tradecraft, putting someone to bed in the way the agents monitored Massino that night was an example of a crucial surveillance ritual that preceded an arrest. Seeing the subject enter a home and not leave allowed the next day's arrest team to know with certainty that the person who was to be apprehended was at a particular place when the warrant was to be served. By midnight, Massino was at his faux Georgian-style home. The agents outside the house sat in their car at the location, fortifying themselves with cups of coffee and donuts from the Dunkin' Donuts a few blocks away.
Surveillance duty is usually given to newly minted agents fresh out of the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. It is a way for the new agents to learn the geography of a place like New York City while at the same time making observations of people and places that might prove crucial in some investigation months or even years down the road. Any observation, even those made at a distance so great that nothing could be overheard, might prove important if it later corroborated something a witness might say in court or to a grand jury.
Special Agents Kimberly McCaffrey and Jeffrey Sallet had done their share of surveillance drudgery when they joined the FBI some years earlier. But early on January 9, 2003, the two agents had a different task. Dressed in dark blue raid jackets that were embossed with the large yellow letters that spelled out "FBI," McCaffrey and Sallet exited an official government sedan and walked up the front walk of 163-37 Eighty-fourth Street. Accompanying them were three other law enforcement officials-an Internal Revenue Service agent a state police officer, and another FBI agent.
The IRS agent made his way stealthily around the back of the house, taking care to avoid the covered swimming pool. McCaffrey and Sallet led the others up the walkway. The morning was chilly and at 6:00 A.M. the neighborhood was quiet.
McCaffrey rang the door bell. It might have been early but it was Massino, his hair neatly combed and fully dressed in a black pullover and large-sized sweat pants, who opened the front door. It was at that very instant that the two FBI agents, who had been studying and watching Massino from a distance for over four years, finally came face to face with their quarry. Though his pasta belly and mirthful grin gave him a genial appearance, Massino had a gaze that could be penetrating, steely, and cold. It was a look that could pull you in and captivate with its strength. It could also scare you. Slightly arched eyebrows made him always look as though he were expressing surprise. Yet, on this particular morning, Joseph Massino was not surprised.
"How are ya," he said.
He surveyed the agents and police arrayed on his doorstep and looked out at the black government sedan in front of his house. Since he had seen the other government vans in the neighborhood over previous days and had been arrested before, Massino knew that something was coming down. The numerous cars that had shadowed him the night before also added to his feeling of apprehension. After McCaffrey flashed her FBI credentials, Massino replied quickly, almost glibly.
"I was expecting you yesterday."
McCaffrey, a diminutive woman whose dark hair, black eyes, and fair skin bespoke her Irish roots, had to chuckle at his bravado. Here was a man who was hijacking trucks in the 1970s, before she was even born, a killer who is said to have boasted about being a one-man killing machine. But she also knew he could be a gentleman, a charmer, and certainly there was no hint of him causing any trouble. He will go peacefully, McCaffrey thought.
So began the day that Joseph Massino, the boss of one of New York City's five legendary Mafia families and "The Last Don," left his home in Howard Beach to live courtesy of the U.S. government in jail for the rest of his foreseeable life. Massino's wife of forty-two years, Josephine, a petite and stylish, titian-haired Sicilian, dressed in her pajamas and housecoat, could do little but watch stoically and tight-lipped as her spouse walked down the front way toward the government car.
Josephine Massino had witnessed this trip into incarceration before when Massino had been arrested in the 1980s. It led to a wearying routine of jailhouse visits and uncertainty. In recent days, as her husband's sense of apprehension grew, she felt her own anxiety mount. The timing couldn't have been worse. She was expecting an important call that very day from her oncologist. She would have to face that without him.
* * *
It was more than just the presence of the government surveillance cars, long a common fixture in a neighborhood that was home to other gangsters, that had tipped Massino to impending trouble. Federal investigators had been snooping around Massino and his businesses for years and word had gotten back to him fairly quickly when subpoenas started landing around town.
Then there were the arrests. One by one FBI agents started picking off some of Massino's old cronies. Frank Coppa was in prison on securities fraud charges when he found himself indicted again in October 2002 for extortion. That particular indictment allowed the FBI to cast its net wider and arrest a number of other Bonanno crime family members like Richard Cantarella, one of Massino's captains and trusted aides.
Massino wasn't touched in that roundup. But it was clear that the government investigation was making a concerted push against a crime family that had survived much of the earlier onslaughts of federal prosecutions that began in the mid-1980s. Massino knew from the tally of arrests in recent months that it was only a matter of time before someone from a circle of mobsters he had confided in over a four-decade career in La Cosa Nostra would weaken and deliver him to the government.
Compared to his one-time neighbor John Gotti, the flashy but disastrous boss of the Gambino crime family, and Vincent "the Chin" Gigante, the Genovese crime family boss (who dressed in a bathrobe and mumbled as he walked through Greenwich Village in Manhattan in a crazy act), Massino was a relatively unknown face of the Mafia. True, he had been indicted in big cases in the past-once for plotting some gangland murders in the early 1980s and again in 1985 for labor racketeering. He also had a few mentions in the news media, usually accompanying his arrests or occasionally in speculative newspaper stories about the inner workings of La Cosa Nostra.
But if he was a mystery to the public, Massino, through his skill in mob politics as well as the ability to earn money, made for a steady rise through the ranks of the mob. Unlike Gotti, who taunted law enforcement with illegal fireworks displays in Ozone Park every Fourth of July and liked being a celebrity, Joseph Massino remained low key and avoided the flashy Manhattan night life. He liked to pad around the house in terry cloth shorts and cotton t-shirts. He filed his tax returns on time and declared income as high as $500,000 some years. When the police or FBI talked with him, Massino acted like a gentleman. He seemed almost boring.
But he was crafty. Massino knew that law enforcement surveillance techniques had advanced so much that talking to anyone except in the most circumspect way was suicidal. Gotti, having felt secure in an apartment above his Mulberry Street social club in Little Italy, talked openly about the Gambino family crimes and didn't dream that the FBI would have bugging devices in the room.
Yet hours of Gotti's conversations intercepted on FBI bugs all but wrote the federal indictment that led to his conviction and life sentence for racketeering in 1992. Later investigations of the Genovese, Colombo, and Lucchese crime families also relied on mountains of wiretap evidence that made the job of prosecutors as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. The old Mafia may have become the stuff of legend and hit television shows like The Sopranos, but it had also become easy pickings for law enforcement.
Massino could not completely avoid wiretaps. One of Gotti's close associates, Angelo Ruggiero, an overweight and compulsively talkative mobster, had been so indiscreet that FBI agents not only wiretapped his telephone but also planted a bug in the kitchen of his Cedarhurst, Long Island, home. Massino was caught on some of the tapes though not enough to get him in serious trouble. But it was a wake-up call for him about the pervasiveness of surveillance. After that, Massino kept his mouth shut and decreed that his name should never be used in conversations, particularly in places where there may be wiretaps or listening devices.
There were a few slips in that rule. Cantarella was once overheard speaking to an informant. He said that it was Massino, who he referred to as "Joe," who helped him become a made member of the crime family. The informant was wearing a recording device at the time. But for the most part Massino's name was discreetly kept out of incriminating conversations: a tug on the earlobe was how someone signaled he was talking about Massino without invoking his name. As a result, federal agents like McCaffrey and Sallet had no tapes that captured Massino's voice saying anything incriminating.
Sallet, a red-headed New Englander and diehard Red Sox fan whose crew cut made him look like a high school athletic coach, picked out a favorite CD and put it in the player. He might be an accountant, but Sallet was no nerd. He liked the Beastie Boys, a group of New York white rappers, and in the minutes before he had arrested Massino, he was listening to the last cut on the disc. The title of that song, "No Sleep Till Brooklyn," had been quite appropriate under the circumstances. That was certainly going to be Joe Massino's day.
It was to the sound of Generation X music of three white Jewish boys from upper-middle-class parents that the maroon Buick Regal with tinted windows carrying mafioso Massino headed out from the quiet residential block where he lived and made its way to the Belt Parkway for the trip west toward lower Manhattan and FBI headquarters. Sallet and McCaffrey were relatively new agents with six years and four years respectively on the job, but arresting Massino was clearly a career-defining move. It would be all over the news before lunchtime: Joseph Massino, the last of old mob bosses, had finally been taken down. No one was listening to the radio though as the government car traveled westward. Sallet's music selection droned on instead as he drove.
While sandwiched between McCaffrey and one of the police officers, Massino engaged in some small talk. Conversation about food was what Sallet found best for chitchat with someone being arrested. He asked Massino where he thought the best pizza in town could be found.
"CasaBlanca," Massino answered. It was his restaurant by Fresh Pond Road in Queens and he knew the sauce was the best in town. Massino was a pretty good sauce man himself. Family dinners at his house would find him holding competitions with his wife over who was the better cook. His daughters were the judges. Massino's ravioli was often the winner.
It had been inevitable with all the snooping McCaffrey and Sallet had been doing around town that Massino had heard of them.
"You must be Kimberly and you must be Jeffrey," Massino said to the pair. They politely confirmed this.
Massino also told them he knew they had convinced his wife's business partner, Barry Weinberg, a chain-smoking Queens businessman who held interests in parking lots all over New York, to wear a recording device. Now Massino, chastened by the Ruggiero tapes, knew that there was no chance that he had been picked up on any recording device Weinberg had been wearing. He never really talked with the man, particularly after some in the Bonanno clan had become suspicious of him. But Massino figured that the only reason he found himself sandwiched between two FBI agents and headed to Manhattan to be booked on an indictment was because somebody close to him had squealed.
"Frankie Coppa got to work quick," Massino said to the agents as the sedan made its way through traffic.
To the uninformed that terse remark meant nothing. But by blurting it out, Massino was letting Sallet and McCaffrey know that he knew his old friend, Frank Coppa, a Bonanno captain, had become a cooperating witness. Once Massino's closest of friends, Coppa had been moved from the prison facility at Fort Dix, New Jersey where he had been serving time for securities fraud, to a federal witness protection prison. It was there that Coppa had been telling investigators what he knew of Massino and the crime family.
Massino now had enough information to know that his predicament was serious. McCaffrey told him that among the many racketeering charges being unsealed that morning in the Brooklyn federal district court were those involving the murders of three rival Bonanno captains in 1981.
"That was a long time ago and I had nothing to do with it," Massino said.
In fact, Massino had been acquitted of conspiracy to commit those murders in an earlier racketeering trial. The killing of the three captains-Dominick Trinchera, Alphonse Indelicato, and Philip Giaccone-was part of one of New York's most legendary Mafia power struggles. The remains of the three captains were found in a weedy lot on the Brooklyn-Queens border not far from Massino's home. Some other crime family members were convicted of the murders in 1983. But in the trial of Massino and his brother-in-law, Salvatore Vitale, the government's case was weaker and they beat the rap.
In the mob, all friendships could be dangerous. If Coppa or anyone else had been telling investigators what they knew of the deaths of the three captains, they could come back to haunt Massino. McCaffrey thought it curious that right after being told that he was charged with having actually participated in those killings that Massino asked if his brother-in-law had been arrested as well.
Yes, he had been, Massino was told.
Excerpted from King of the GODFATHERS by Anthony M. DeStefano Copyright © 2008 by Anthony M. DeStefano. Excerpted by permission.
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