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The Battle of Bloomingdale's
Petey Chops wasn't kicking up.
And if he didn't start soon, he was going to get whacked.
In the Mafia, "kicking up" means sharing with those above you in your crime family the money you make in loan sharking, construction scams, gambling, numbers rackets, prostitution, drugs, stolen jewelry, sports memorabilia, Internet pornography, or any other criminal enterprise. Peter "Petey Chops" Vicini ran a highly successful gambling and numbers operation in the Bronx that netted him millions of dollars. As a made member of the Gambino crime family, he was responsible for sharing some of that wealth with his capo, the individual to whom he reported, along with the "administration" of the family -- the boss, the underboss, and the consigliere.
Nobody can touch a Gambino, or a Lucchese, or a member of any of the other families that make up La Cosa Nostra in New York. No one can move into his territory, steal his shakedown victims, or interfere with his moneymaking activities. But operating under the protection of a crime family comes at a price. The Mafia soldier must kick up. He must share what he makes with those above him. A Mafia soldier must also report to his superiors regularly. Some capos insist on meetings every day. And the soldier had better come with money to kick up the line. Failure to do so is a capital crime in the Mafia, and for months now Petey Chops had been avoiding his responsibilities. He wasn't kicking up. He was in hiding from the rest of the Mafia.
The Gambino boss was Arnold "Zeke" Squitieri, an old-style Mafioso who avoided the limelight the way his illustrious predecessor, John Gotti, had sought it. Squitieri was a convicted felon due to his involvement in the narcotics trade; so much for the Mafia's "code" that forbade dealing drugs. Squitieri had assigned Petey Chops to Greg DePalma, another old-school Mafia guy who had been a Gambino capo, or captain, since the 1990s and a made man in the family since 1977. Greg was in his early seventies when he emerged from prison after serving time for shaking down Scores, the Manhattan strip club made famous by radio shock jock Howard Stern.
The Mafia and the FBI both considered Greg a relic, a washed-up has-been or, in the colorful language of the Mafia, a brokester, a broken-down valise. Yet Greg was anything but a broken-down man. Within months of his release, he was riding high once again among the Gambinos. So high that the boss of the family, Squitieri, assigned Greg, among many other tasks, the responsibility of meeting with and collecting from the prize Gambino soldier and cash cow, Petey Chops.
Petey Chops had become a thorn in Greg's side. He simply wouldn't report. Petey Chops always made excuses. He'd say things like "Greg, I can't meet you. I'm being watched. I'm under investigation. I don't want to take a pinch."
Meaning he didn't want to be arrested.
"Hey," Greg would respond, "we're all being watched! Now get over here with the money!"
Still no Petey.
Months went by. DePalma grew tired of Petey's whining. And then he had an idea.
He heard that Petey Chops and his girlfriend went to eat at the restaurant buffet in the Bloomingdale's department store in White Plains every Monday night at six. On February 21, which happened to be the Presidents' Day holiday, the Old Man, as Greg was called, decided that he, his Gambino soldier Robert Vaccaro, and I would find Petey at Bloomingdale's and straighten him out.
Who am I? An FBI undercover agent who had managed to infiltrate Greg DePalma's crew. Greg thought I was Jack Falcone, a big-time jewel thief from South Florida, and he had made me part of his crime crew. He had no idea that I was only the second FBI agent in history to deeply infiltrate the Mafia on a long-term basis. Joe Pistone, playing the role of Donnie Brasco, was the first.
I knew that the matter had been festering with Greg, because money was important to him. It was also the principle of the thing -- to benefit from your privileged position in an organized crime family and not share the wealth...it's a fatal mistake.
That Presidents' Day, Greg, Vaccaro, and I sat in La Villetta restaurant in Larchmont, New York, when Greg turned to me and rasped, "Listen, we're gonna go for a ride."
As usual, Greg didn't tell me our trip agenda. I always became a little anxious at moments like that because I wasn't in control. I could be taken anywhere -- out on a hit, or even to my own demise. I never knew.
"Where are we going?" I asked, trying not to show my concern.
"Don't worry about it," the Old Man told me. "Let's go to White Plains."
What could I do? I drove a Hummer at the time, as befit my role as a successful South Florida jewel thief. FBI agent Bim Liscomb, a member of the FBI surveillance team, was covering me. Like me, he didn't look like an agent. He was African American, heavyset, and he wore a beard, which was anathema in J. Edgar Hoover's time. Actually, in Hoover's day, that entire package would have been three strikes and you're out. I opted to have him cover me because he didn't look anything like an agent, and because he didn't drive one of those brand-new cars with the tinted windows that always gave surveillance teams away. What do I look like? I'm six foot four, 390 pounds. I don't look like an FBI agent either.
We left La Villetta, and the three of us piled into my Hummer. I couldn't get on the phone and say, "Bim, I'm going to White Plains. Follow me." Instead, I hoped that he would notice us heading away in my H2 and discreetly follow us. I drove slowly, as usual, so I wouldn't lose my tail. My torpor behind the wheel always drove Greg crazy.
"You drive like an old lady!" he complained. "Hurry up, Jackie boy! It takes you a fucking hour to drive what it takes me half an hour!"
"I always go slow," I told him. "I get flashbacks from an accident I had when I was a kid."
If Greg had been in a hurry, he would have told me, "We gotta get there fast. You're not fucking driving." I'd follow him and pretend to get lost, just to zing him. But that wasn't happening this time. We were all in one car, my car, and I still had no idea what we were doing.
On the way, Greg finally explained the nature of our mission.
"We're going to Bloomingdale's," he said. "We're going to find that cocksucker Petey Chops."
Okay, so today's not my day to get killed. That's a positive. But why would we look for a recalcitrant Mafia soldier in a department store? Greg volunteered no more information, and as a member of his crew, I was in no position to inquire.
We arrived at Bloomingdale's and didn't know where the hell the restaurant was. There were housewares and rugs all around us. By nature, we weren't the kind of people conversant with the layout of department stores. Mob guys don't buy retail. The three of us definitely didn't look like shoppers. We looked like Mob guys -- dressed to the nines, manicured and barbered to perfection.
It took us a while, but finally we found the restaurant, and we waited for Petey Chops.
At 6:00 P.M. there was no sign of Petey.
Ten after six. Still no sign of him.
That's when one of the waiters recognized Greg. The waiter had the slick look of a guy comfortable leaning on the rail of a racetrack or hanging around a Vegas sports book. If you had any reason to be in contact with organized crime in Westchester County, you knew Greg DePalma, and this guy certainly did.
"You guys want a table?" the waiter asked Greg cautiously. Everybody was cautious around Greg, who, even in his seventies, would reach out and slap someone he considered disrespectful.
"We just ate," Greg explained, disgusted that Petey Chops wasn't there.
At that moment, I felt good because regardless of what was about to happen, I knew it wasn't a hit on me.
Meanwhile, Greg muttered under his breath, "That cocksucker, where is he?" He called the waiter over. Whenever we were in public, he comported himself with stereotypical Mob guy behavior.
"You know my friend Pete that eats here on Mondays?" Greg growled.
The waiter nodded. "He usually comes in with his girl," he replied carefully, not knowing what answer might be the wrong answer.
"When this guy comes here again," Greg told him, "tell him that he is to see me tomorrow at the nursing home in New Rochelle."
The nursing home, the United Hebrew Geriatric Center, was where Greg's son Craig lay in an unconscious state. Craig had been comatose for several years, after a prison suicide attempt. Craig, a made member of the Gambino crime family, had been convicted along with Greg in the Scores case, but he had cooperated with law enforcement in exchange for a reduced sentence. To an old-school Mob guy like Greg, his son's actions were reprehensible. He passed a note to Craig to that effect, and Craig, full of shame, had tried to take his own life. Instead, he had put himself into an irreversible coma. Greg regularly did Mafia business in front of his son's body, on the correct assumption that the FBI would not have the bad manners to bug his comatose son's room.
The waiter nodded.
Greg glared at him. "Tell me what I just said!" he said menacingly.
"Meet you at the nursing home in New Rochelle," the wide-eyed waiter repeated.
Greg nodded, and we figured that was that. Petey wasn't showing, so we left the restaurant and began to make our way out of the store.
Just as we passed the housewares section, there he was! Petey Chops in the flesh...with not just one girl but two at his side. He saw us and got nervous. As well he should have.
"There's that jerk-off!" Greg exclaimed, heading toward him.
Robert and I fell back. Greg walked up to Petey, who kissed him on the cheek, and then turned to Petey's two companions.
"Ladies, do you mind?" Greg asked, to the point as always. "I gotta talk to him."
"Girls, get a table at the restaurant," Petey told them nervously. "I gotta talk to these guys and I'll be right there."
The ladies obviously realized that they did not need to be a part of whatever was going to happen next, so they took off.
Greg and Petey leaned against the wall and started to talk. Their conversation was quiet at first. Meanwhile, Robert and I were looking over the items for sale.
"Look at this!" Robert said, astonished, picking up a vase. "They want $400 for this piece of shit!"
So I teased him. "Hey, you drop it, you bought it!"
I was trying to keep in a jocular mood, because I didn't know what was going to happen, but I sensed that it would be something bad. By now DePalma was raising his voice.
"What's the matter with you?" he demanded in a voice loud enough for Robert and me to hear. Shit, half of Bloomingdale's could have heard him, he was so loud.
Petey said nothing.
"You ain't showing up!" Greg exclaimed, his anger rising. "I'm asking you over and over to come in, and you ain't reporting to see me!"
"I can't show up, I'm telling you!" Petey said, looking uncomfortably at Greg, Robert, and me.
"I want the money that's owed me!" Greg insisted.
I later learned that Petey had invested his gambling and numbers income in a marble mine in Guatemala, of all places, and the mine had gone belly up. Maybe in Petey's mind it was okay to offset his Guatemalan mining losses against his Mob-related income.
"I'm being watched," Petey replied belligerently, his voice rising, "and I don't want to be seen meeting anyone!"
He was loud and he was animated. In my twenty-four years as an undercover agent, I had never seen a subordinate speak so inappropriately and disrespectfully to a boss. At that moment, had I been a real wiseguy or Mafioso and not a member of law enforcement, I would have given him a crack! I was thinking, What a fucking asshole Petey Chops is! Listen, if you wanna be in the Mob, you gotta pay your dues! You're getting protection, you gotta pay up!
I was into the moment. I know I was an FBI agent, but this guy wasn't playing by the rules. It was a confrontation, and I was siding with my capo, with Greg. The guy was acting like a jerk-off. I couldn't believe he was loud, rude, and disrespectful to a capo of the family he's sworn to uphold.
"Keep it down," Greg ordered him. He must have been equally surprised by Petey's belligerence. After all, Greg was the capo, and Petey was a soldier, and people were around. We were in a very public place.
"This is bullshit," Greg snarled. "You gotta start coming in. You gotta start reporting."
"I don't want to be seen!" Petey said, increasingly nervous. "What do you want?"
"What do I want!" the Old Man exclaimed, as if he had just been asked the stupidest question in history. "I want you to start reporting like you're supposed to!"
Now the discussion became even more animated. This wasn't going down in some back alley somewhere. We stood in the housewares section of Bloomingdale's in White Plains at 6:15 P.M. on Presidents' Day. People were everywhere, shopping, milling around, whatever. I was clueless -- I knew this guy was acting disrespectfully, but I still had no idea where all this was headed.
"I want you to meet someone," DePalma said, motioning toward Vaccaro, the new acting capo in our crew. An "acting" or "street" capo represents the interests of the boss in public places, sparing the boss the risk of detection by law enforcement. Many crime family leaders are on parole for one violation or another and could be returned to prison if seen in the company of other known criminals.
"I don't want to meet anyone," Petey protested, but the Old Man didn't care. I watched warily, knowing that the situation could turn violent at any moment.
"No, you gotta meet him," DePalma insisted. "This is Robert. He's a friend of ours." That expression -- "a friend of ours" -- is the special way of introducing one made man in the Mafia to another.
"He's good friends with the boss," Greg added, to emphasize Robert's importance in the Gambino family.
"I don't give a fuck who he is or what he does or who he knows," Petey responded. "I'm not reporting. This is bullshit."
I watched warily, positioning myself to hear everything they said.
"Hey, tough guy!" an annoyed Robert said, entering the fray. "Keep it down!"
"Fuck you guys!" Petey shouted as shoppers and clerks turned to look.
I was surprised. Nobody talked like that to a skipper like Greg.
That set Robert off. He grabbed a solid glass Kosta Boda candleholder, nearly a foot in length, from the nearest display and whacked Petey over the head with it. When it connected, I heard a pop like a broken cantaloupe. Bystanders gasped. Petey Chops dropped to the floor, unconscious, blood gushing from his head.
Suddenly my emotions changed -- I went from "This guy's an asshole and needs a crack" to "Holy shit, I'm an FBI agent and I just saw a guy get assaulted. I've got to protect him from getting killed."
If Robert had just grabbed him by the lapels and yelled at him, okay, that would be one thing. But this was an assault with apparent intent to kill. He had a yelling coming to him, not a freaking beating. That one blow alone could have killed him.
Robert was about to hit him again while he was down, so I grabbed the candleholder out of his hand and threw it down.
"Get up, you motherfucker!" Robert shouted at Petey. "Get up, tough guy! What's the matter, you're not so tough now, are you? Go ahead! Say something! Say something, you piece of shit!"
"Yeah, you cocksucker!" Greg shouted, getting into it.
This was insane. I had to get these guys away from Petey Chops -- they were going to kill him, right there in the housewares section of Bloomingdale's.
"Come on!" I yelled to Vaccaro and DePalma. "We gotta get out of here! We're gonna take a pinch!"
But they didn't move a muscle. Getting arrested doesn't frighten wiseguys. Instead, Robert turned on a barely conscious Petey Chops.
"You're not so tough now, are you?" he taunted. "Say something, tough guy! Come on already!"
"What did you do that for?" Petey Chops asked, coming to. He was completely dazed and blood continued to gush out of his head.
"You're gonna get shelved!" DePalma snarled at him.
This meant that he would be stripped of all Gambino family protection for his criminal operations. Another Gambino could take over his business. The punishment was not permanent, but its revocation depended on his demonstration of remorse for his actions. Short of getting killed, this is one of the worst things that can happen to a mobster.
Suddenly I realized that Robert and Greg had to be surprised and disappointed that I was not participating in Petey's beating. But DePalma also looked concerned. Petey was a made guy, and no matter how disrespectful he might have been, Robert didn't have the right to crack him. I stood in the middle of all this thinking, If I don't participate, I'll blow my cover, but if I do get involved, Petey could get killed.
Petey sat up, covered in blood. He asked Vaccaro and DePalma again, "Why did you do that for? Come on, I was only kidding!"
"You weren't kidding," DePalma replied, disgusted. "You were being a jerk-off."
Petey wasn't used to being spoken to that way, even by his capo. Incensed, he rose and came toward us, but Vaccaro grabbed a knife from a tabletop display of Ralph Lauren Polo place settings.
"I'm gonna stab you, you motherfucker!" Vaccaro yelled.
By now people had gathered around, witnessing this astonishing public display of brutality. Greg was oblivious to his audience.
"You better show up tomorrow or you're gonna get shelved, do you understand?" Greg told Petey.
My FBI training to save lives kicked in, and I somehow managed to get the knife away from Vaccaro and threw it back on the table. I finally got Robert and Greg on the down escalator, away from Petey; otherwise Vaccaro would have stabbed Petey in the eye or in the heart. But Petey kept coming. He bled all over my fucking coat and yelled as he approached us on the escalator, "What did you do that for! I don't understand what you did that for!"
"Listen, asshole," I told him, "get the fuck outta here, 'cause you're gonna get hurt."
Petey jumped on the escalator behind me, getting more blood all over me. Somehow he spun me around -- and how a little guy like that did that to me, I'll never know. He got close to Vaccaro and DePalma.
"You're gonna get hurt!" I shouted at Petey. "Stay the fuck away!"
First, Robert said, "Jack, keep this motherfucker away from me!"
He then yelled at Petey, "You cocksucker! I oughta kill you!"
He cold-cocked Petey with one punch, just dropped him...and now Petey sat on the down escalator, unconscious, blood still streaming out of his head from the blow with the candleholder. The only thing missing were those little cartoon canaries spinning and chirping around his head. I didn't know what to do. Interfere and risk blowing my cover? Or do nothing and let a man be beaten to death in a public place, before my very eyes?
On top of that, I was afraid Petey was going to get trampled to death at the bottom of the escalator. We weren't alone there -- Bloomingdale's probably had some big sale going on, and the store was busy!
So I picked up Petey Chops with one hand, woke him up, and yelled, "What are you, a stupid jerk-off?"
At the bottom of the escalator, security people scrambled toward us. DePalma, thinking quickly, didn't miss a beat. He pointed to Petey and yelled at the guards, "Hey, this poor guy just fell down the steps! He's gonna sue you!"
I've got to give Greg credit. That was a good line.
The security guards were looking around like, What the heck is going on around here?
I was still busy yelling at Petey.
"Listen," I told him, "you fucking jerk-off, get the hell out of here now."
With that, Vaccaro, DePalma, and I took off from the store, but not before DePalma looked back at Petey and yelled, "That's it, you're shelved!"
How none of us got arrested as we left Bloomingdale's, I don't know.
Back at the car, I saw Bim, my loyal guy, waiting for me in the shadows. I gave him a look like, You're not gonna believe what just happened.
I'd been running with the Gambinos for almost two and a half years at that point, and even I didn't believe it.
As I drove us back to the restaurant, I was deeply worried. Maybe Robert and Greg didn't like the fact that I hadn't participated in Petey's beating. It wasn't just I didn't give Petey a lick or two myself. I even tried to break up the fight, and I'd expressed my concern that we might have gotten arrested. What real wiseguy would do things like that? Were they on to me? Had I just unwittingly given away my true role -- as an undercover agent?
On top of that, I had witnessed one made man hit another. From Greg's and Robert's perspective, I could go around telling other guys in the crew what I saw, and that would cause endless trouble. Knowing the Mob as well as I did, one natural resolution of this situation would be for them to whack me, in order to silence me. Or if the matter were taken to the boss of the family, they could blame me instead of Robert for hitting Petey Chops. I'd be the sacrificial lamb, and I'd get whacked at that point.
Either way, I would be killed.
What if they made a move on me right now? Robert sat in the backseat and Greg sat beside me in the passenger seat. I'm driving the car. If Robert makes a move, I decided, I'll give him a football elbow and knock him out and then punch Greg in the throat. I'd been in enough street fights growing up in the Bronx and working in my youth as a bouncer to know that if you punch a guy in the throat, he's going down.
Or if they pulled a gun on me, I would smash my truck into the first building I saw.
Or crash it into Bim's car.
That way I'd be in control -- because I knew a crash was coming and they didn't. I could escape.
Or I could drive them to a police station.
Or right to the White Plains office of the FBI, which was just two hundred yards from Bloomingdale's.
Greg finally broke the deeply uncomfortable silence.
"Now listen here," he rasped, "if we get stopped by the cops, this jerk-off fell down the steps. And Robert, you gotta go see the boss tomorrow. You've got to go on record with this."
"Going on record" in this context means documenting the incident -- telling the boss what happened. He's got to know. He can't be blindsided by the news. He must be kept abreast.
"Yeah, I know," Robert said sullenly.
The twenty-five minutes back to the restaurant were agonizing. I drove slowly, bracing myself for an assault. I knew that I had royally fucked up, but I had no other choice. Had I blown the whole case? Would I be whacked as a result of my actions? And when would I find out? And even if I survived, would Greg still continue with his attempts to have me inducted into La Cosa Nostra?
How exactly does a Cuban-born FBI agent end up pretending to be Italian and part of a Gambino family crime crew? How was I able to protect my identity for almost two and a half years while working undercover in four other major cases, involving terrorism in New York, corrupt cops in Florida, corrupt public officials in Atlantic City, and an international smuggling ring that brought in counterfeit cigarettes, weapons, and "Supernotes" -- fake hundred-dollar bills we were told were printed in North Korea? And why would the FBI terminate the Gambino case just two weeks before the ceremony that would have transformed me into a made member of the Mafia in my own right, with the ability to vouch for undercover agents infiltrating every Mob family in the nation?
I'm still wondering about the answer to that last question myself.
Copyright © 2008 by Jack Garcia