In 1978, a gang war erupted in New York City, and the five boroughs ran red with blood. Men with names like “Matty the Horse” and “Tony Ugly” were found dismembered in garbage dumps, dead on the roadside in the far reaches of the Bronx, or suffocated in the trunks of cars parked at LaGuardia Airport. For years, the New York Police Department hadn’t bothered to investigate Mafia murders, preferring to let the mob handle its own bloody affairs—but that was about to change. The NYPD was going to war with the Cosa Nostra, and Det. Joseph Coffey would lead the charge.
A hard-nosed veteran of the force, Detective Coffey took down some of the highest-profile organized-crime associations of the 1970s, from the conspiracy between the Mafia and the Catholic Church known as the Vatican Connection to the homegrown terrorists who called themselves the Black Liberation Army. In 1977, when the city was terrorized by serial killer David Berkowitz, better known as the Son of Sam, Coffey led the NYPD’s nighttime operations as they worked to lure the murderer into a trap. But the war against the mob would be his greatest challenge—one that would take him right into the heart of gritty, dangerous NYC.
Cowritten by New York Daily News veteran Jerry Schmetterer, Coffey’s work is crime reporting at its finest. Fans of the two-fisted journalism of Jimmy Breslin and New York stories like The French Connection will find The Coffey Files has the thunderous intensity of a runaway subway train.
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About the Author
Joseph Coffey (1938–2015) was a legendary NYPD detective whose career involved some of the most spectacular investigations of the 1970s. Best known for taking the confession of the serial killer known as the Son of Sam, Coffey led major campaigns against organized crime and drug smuggling and was one of the detectives who investigated the famous 1978 Lufthansa heist, which inspired the film GoodFellas.
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The Coffey Files
One Cop's War Against the Mob
By Joseph Coffey, Jerry Schmetterer
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1991 Joe Coffey and Jerry Schmetterer
All rights reserved.
THE COFFEY GANG
During the early days of 1978 the streets of New York ran red with Mafia blood. From January through March thirty Mafia hoodlums at all levels in the hierarchy of organized crime were murdered.
They had names like "Patty Mack" and "Sally Balls" and hung around with guys called "Tony Ugly" and "Matty the Horse." Their bodies were found twisted and jammed in the trunks of luxury cars in the parking lots of Kennedy and La Cuardia airports.
Sometimes they were stuffed into plastic bags and discarded along dark roads in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Occasionally, depending on the personal style of the individual hit man, they were dismembered, mutilated, and strewn about local garbage dumps. Once in a while, the victim was gunned down or stabbed to death in public. Those bodies were left where they fell to deliver messages in Mafia code.
The city's tabloid press lovingly described every hit. Each time a body was discovered, headlines screamed of blood feuds and brutal killings as Mafia families turned the sidewalks of New York into their private battlegrounds.
These murders were rarely solved. The New York police did not have the resources or the inclination to chase hit men who disappeared into the night to be protected by the Mafia code of silence. With a conspiratorial wink police officials told reporters the mob was doing the city a favor. "It's nothing but vermin killing vermin," they would say, asking not to have their name appear next to the quote.
Detectives would spend a few hours talking to the usual suspects, and the file would be put on the back burner. Attention could then be paid to crimes committed against honest citizens. Gangland rubouts were part of the folklore of America.
But in those early days of 1978 a shakeup was taking place on the upper floors of One Police Plaza, New York's Police Headquarters. A new police commissioner named Robert McGuire was in place. In his short time in office, he had already made it clear that he would push for changes in attitude and politics within the department.
Though never a cop himself, his father was a police deputy chief. McGuire grew up in a household that held firmly to the tradition of law and order and public service. He had been an assistant U.S. attorney and also served as a counsel for the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, defending cops who got into trouble.
McGuire demanded excellence. Instead of apologizing for flaws in the department, he set about to repair them.
He chose as his chief of detectives a cop with a broad range of police experience named James Sullivan. A veteran of the uniformed Tactical Patrol Force, Sullivan had a master's degree in management and had commanded detectives in the Narcotics Division. He had also for a short time served as executive officer, second in command, of the Detective Division. The average cop thought Sullivan, a man with a broad Irish grin when he chose to show it, was as comfortable in the commissioner's boardroom as he was on the front lines of a riot. They believed that he presented a good image for the department.
Both Sullivan and McGuire resented the popular belief that organized crime could get away with murder. While both also knew the realities of the situation, they agreed the department should make some special effort — even a short term effort — to try to stem the organized lawlessness that was the Mafia's way of doing business in the early months of 1978.
Typical of their problem was the murder of Pasquale "Patty Mack" Macchiarole. His body was found stuffed into the trunk of his brand-new Cadillac on a gravel road alongside Rockaway Parkway in Brooklyn. He had been shot three times in the head with a .25 caliber pistol.
The precinct detectives went through their usual drill. They investigated the crime scene and, failing to find any obvious physical evidence that would finger the killer, filled out the proper forms. They told their supervisor it seemed to be a mob hit. The department's Organized Crime Control Bureau (OCCB), which investigated any crime that appeared to be the work of a gang, reported that "Patty Mack" was a capo in the Genovese crime family. The OCCB's records indicated he was in charge of a gambling and loan-sharking crew, and their experts theorized that "Patty Mack" had gotten caught skimming some profits and had to pay the ultimate penalty.
There was no real hope of solving the case through investigative procedure. Maybe someday an informant looking to save his own skin would squeal on the killer and explain why the hit was necessary. The case would be considered solved, even if no arrest was ever made.
Sullivan and McGuire were both very aware that unsolved Mafia homicides lowered the department's ratio of "cleared" cases. This made it appear that their detectives were not as good at solving homicides as they really were.
Sullivan told McGuire he had a plan. He thought it would improve the homicide clearance rate while at the same time working toward changing the attitude of the police toward Mafia hits. He wanted to set up a special unit, working from his office on the thirteenth floor of police headquarters and reporting directly to him.
The unit would be called the Chief of Detectives' Organized Crime Homicide Task Force, specializing in solving murders attributed to organized crime. At the least, such a unit would give the impression that the department was trying to do something to destroy the myth of Mafia impunity. McGuire, thinking along similar lines, agreed with the concept. He would give the unit thirty days to see what it could do. He also agreed with Sullivan's idea of who should command such a unit.
On April 3, 1978, the chief of detectives placed a call to Detective Sergeant Joseph J. Coffey, executive officer of the Robbery Unit in the borough of Queens.
Sullivan had known Coffey since he was a captain on the elite Tactical Patrol Force and Coffey was a rookie under his command. Over the years, the two had maintained a friendly relationship, although not often working directly together. Other cops remarked on the physical similarities between the two men, although Coffey at six-foot-four was about six inches taller.
Commissioner McGuire also knew Coffey. They first met when McGuire was an assistant U.S. attorney and they developed a social relationship, sharing a drink or two after work.
They met officially one night when McGuire was working for the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. Both had responded to an incident in which a police officer shot and killed a New York City housing patrolman after the housing officer shot and killed the city cop's partner in a wild shoot-out on Lexington Avenue. Coffey was the highest-ranking detective on duty that night and was sent to the horrifying scene.
While technically on different sides of the investigation, Coffey trying to decide if the cop had acted without justification, McGuire on the scene to protect the rights of the cop, their mutual respect helped bring some order to the chaos surrounding the incident. It was eventually ruled that the cop fired with due cause. The housing police were in civilian clothes and had started a drunken brawl with the cab driver, and the dead housing cop had shot the city patrolman when he responded to the brawl.
McGuire remembered the incident when he okayed Coffey for the new position.
"Joe, I have an interesting proposition for you," Sullivan said on the phone, "something I think you can sink your teeth into. Could you stop by my office on your way home?"
On the other end of the phone Joe Coffey was secretly pleased. He had been in the Queens Robbery Unit for a little more than eight months. He was sent there after heading up one of the units that captured the serial killer known as Son of Sam. While he enjoyed the duty — which often included leading shotgun-toting cops through barricaded doorways — it was not ideal for him. And he was a little bitter and disappointed that his work on the Son of Sam case had not resulted in a better reward. Homicide was his first love and the Mafia his favorite target. He did not run into either very often on the robbery beat. He had become constantly grumpy and was giving other cops a hard time.
"Chief, I'll be there forthwith," Coffey responded, using the police jargon for "immediately."
Within an hour he was in Sullivan's office listening to the plan for the establishment of the Homicide Task Force. "At first, while the chief was telling me about the idea, I was expecting him to offer me a spot as a detective assigned to the new unit. I was thrilled and I certainly would have agreed," Coffey remembers.
"Then the chief got very serious. 'Joe,' he said, 'the commissioner and I agree that with your background in District Attorney Hogan's racket squad and your organized crime and homicide experience, you should be the man to command this unit. You'll have my total support and the backing of the PC. We're going to give you thirty days and eight detectives to see what you can do.'"
April 3 was Coffey's fortieth birthday, and Chief Sullivan had handed him the best present he could imagine. But while he was intrigued by the offer, he managed to measure his response carefully.
"Chief," he responded, "I've been beaten down by department politics too many times to jump into something without first making sure my back is covered. I want this assignment, there's no way I could fool you about that, but I have to pick my own team. I want to select the eight detectives."
Sullivan was a little surprised by the request but understood Coffey had not built a record of success by being careless. "On what basis would you pick your men?" he asked.
"Loyalty," Coffey said bluntly. "We'll be stepping on a lot of toes in this assignment; a lot of noses are going to be out of joint. There will be enough pissed-off detectives and bosses around the city trying to sabotage me. I want to make sure I can trust my own men. If some jealous desk jockey or even some desperate hood is going to go after me, accuse me of corruption or dereliction of duty, I want to be sure he won't get any help from my own squad."
Sullivan too was a careful man and understood as well as Coffey the pitfalls of department politics. But he was also a skilled manager, so he asked why competence on the team wasn't the most important issue.
"I can teach competence. Loyalty is earned over years of sharing risks and rewards. I know the men I can trust. If I'm not working with them, this thing won't hold together even for thirty days," Coffey replied, hoping he wasn't letting the opportunity slip from his hands.
Sullivan considered the sergeant's words for a few moments, then nodded in agreement. "Okay, we'll give it a shot your way." He understood where Coffey had been and where he would have to go to make the assignment anything more than window dressing. You've got a week to get your team together. Pick anyone you want. If any squad commander gives you a hard time tell him to call me."
Joe Coffey was the kid who had just been handed the keys to the candy store. He had been waiting for this assignment for more than thirty years.
During the fall of 1946, when Joe Coffey was eight years old, his family and many of their neighbors in the tenements that lined Third Avenue in the gritty shadow of the elevated subway were caught up in a dangerous struggle for control of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 804. The local represented drivers of United Parcel Service, a company that delivered packages for most of the city's department stores, including the giant Macy's, Gimble's, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Joe's father and a few of the other drivers had founded the local.
Joseph Coffey, Sr., had grown up on the Lower East Side in the years around World War I. He lived in an area known as the Gashouse District and personified the Dead End Kids. In fact, a close friend in the those days was Huntz Hall, who achieved fame as one of the Bowery Boys, a group that could have very well been Joe's father's crowd.
Another of his group, Eddie McGrath, left the Lower East Side to become the boss of the city's Irish gangs.
In the 1920s, Joseph Coffey, Sr., supplemented his income by occasionally driving truckloads of Prohibition booze for the gangsters Dutch Schultz and Owney Madden.
But the Local 804 leadership group was as honest as it was tough. In the early forties their success in organizing UPS's employees made the local a lucrative target for New York's organized crime groups. The Mafia saw the local as an area of easy pickings with dues money and other funds set aside for workers' benefits waiting to be siphoned off. It was also seen as a mechanism for getting their hooks into the legitimate dealings of the department stores.
Joe, Sr., and his best friend, the union president, Lenny Geiger, began receiving regular visits from tough-talking labor racketeers offering favors. A typical request was for Geiger to okay the turning over of cash set aside for retirement funds to be used by the mob as collateral in a big construction deal. It would be worth big bucks to Geiger and anyone else he had to let in on the scam. Or they would be asked for a percentage of the dues paid by the drivers in exchange for allowing the trucks to go about their business undisturbed.
But Coffey and Geiger and the other officers refused the offers. At strategy meetings around the kitchen table, young Joe would listen in wonder as these honest men talked about the threats against them and described the characters who were attacking their honest way of life. He heard about trucks being set on fire, tires being slashed, and even drivers being beaten. He wondered about the cost of being honest and wondered if he could be as brave as his father and the others if he was ever put to the test.
One night Joe heard his father say he would refuse to even talk to an old friend of his, John "Cockeye" Dunn, a waterfront enforcer who thought because he was more willing to fight than work he deserved a share of the drivers' union dues. Dunn, who would eventually die in Sing Sing's electric chair, was known throughout the neighborhood for his cruelty to victims. Joe's admiration for his father grew as he realized he was not the least bit afraid of a monster like Dunn.
"I was totally fascinated by what was going on and knew instinctively that my father and his friends were fighting some kind of evil. I wanted to help them, but being a little kid I was usually told that if I wanted to be allowed to listen, I would have to keep my mouth shut," Joe remembers.
The kitchen of the Coffeys' third-floor railroad flat became Joe's college of criminal justice. His teachers were the union organizers who jammed into his mother's home planning their strategy to battle the labor racketeers. He was an eager student. He learned while still in grade school how an efficiently run organized crime gang could disrupt legitimate businessmen. The pressure of constant physical threats and the lure of big payoffs in return for a little larceny was sometimes impossible to resist.
He also learned that in those days of the union movement in New York City there was a thin line between being a legitimate union organizer and a labor racketeer. Sometimes the tactics of his father and Geiger were as tough and desperate as those of the out-and-out hoodlums. Their justification, they argued, if they threatened a truck driver in order to get him to sign on with the local, was that they had the good of the driver at heart. They were not organizing a local so that they could rape its pension fund for their own profit.
Then, on a chilly October night in 1946, Joe learned the real meaning of those threats. He was doing homework in the kitchen while his older sister, Pat, was babysitting their four-year-old brother. Suddenly they heard two loud bangs echo through the building's stark hallway.
"Somehow I knew they were shots. I can hear them today with the same clarity," Coffey says. "I also knew instinctively that my father was in trouble."
What he did next was also instinctive and is the single action that sets good cops apart from the rest of society. He ran towards the trouble. He charged out his apartment door and, three steps at a time, barreled towards the lobby of the building. As he bounded down the stairs, he feared most for his mother, pregnant with her fourth child, whose screams for help ricocheted through the tenement's winding stairwells.
The scene at the bottom of the stairs was permanently etched in Joe's memory. He saw his father bending, over his distraught mother, whispering soothing words of comfort. With an eye for detail that would serve him well for the rest of his life, he noticed that the glass in the doorway behind his parents was shattered. The subway was going by on the elevated tracks outside, but Joe thought he heard the door to the roof being slammed.
Frightened, and as near to sobbing as he would allow himself to be, Joe led his terrified mother back to their apartment. They were hardly inside before the senior Coffey, fighting to control his temper and not showing an ounce of fear in front of his children, phoned his friends and the police for help.
Excerpted from The Coffey Files by Joseph Coffey, Jerry Schmetterer. Copyright © 1991 Joe Coffey and Jerry Schmetterer. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
I. THE COFFEY GANG,
II. THE IRISH MAFIA,
III. COFFEY, JOE COFFEY,
IV. THE FIGHT,
VII. THE RAT SQUAD,
VIII. THE RULING COMMISSION,
IX. THE NEW GANG,
X. TEFLON GONE,
About the Author,