New Yorks Genovese crime family, the largest and most influential crime family in the United States, may have been born with the swipe of a knife over a clean-shaven cheek that left a lasting scar and an incentive for the man who received it, Charles, Lucky Luciano.
Over the years Luciano told several stories about how he got his nickname and the cut on his right cheek that caused his eye to droop. According to one such tale, kidnappers had tied him up and held him hostage, demanding inside information about a large drug shipment that was coming into New York City. In another version the scar was a present from a policeman who believed Lucky had acted inappropriately with one of his daughters. Either of these might be true, but the story that makes the most sense given Lucianos career in crime claims that in 1929 a gang of thugs sent by Mafia boss Salvatore Maranzano captured Luciano, tied him up, hung him by his arms from the rafters, and tortured him. Maranzano certainly had motive. From Maranzanos point of view, Luciano didnt know his place. He was smart and ambitious, and unlike the small-minded Moustache Petes who ran the Mafia in America in the early part of the 20th century, Luciano had vision. Maranzano felt threatened.
Petty rackets were for suckers, Luciano believed, and the Sicilian immigrants suspicion and distrust of all non-Sicilians was counterproductive to the real goal of organized crime: making money. Maranzano and his chief moustache Pete rival, Giuseppe Joe the Boss Masseria wanted to keep their organizations exclusively for Sicilians. Luciano by contrast saw a role for all the ethnic crime groups in America, particularly the Jewish gangs. Why have dozens of squabbling local gangs when a nationwide syndicate with central authority could pool resources and turn criminal enterprise into big business? Putting together a national syndicate was Lucianos dream.
Lucianos positive feelings about the worth of non-Sicilians stemmed from his childhood. Born Salvatore Lucania outside of Palermo, Sicily, Luciano came to New York City as a boy. He started his first racket when he was still in elementary school. For a penny or two a day, Carl Sifakis writes in The Mafia Encyclopedia, Luciano offered younger and smaller Jewish kids his personal protection against beatings on the way to school; if they didnt pay, he beat them up. But one scrawny, little Jewish boy from Poland defied him, and when Luciano tried to carry out his threat of violence, the kid put up a fight and showed that he was a lot tougher than he looked. Luciano was impressed. He asked the boy what his name was. Maier Suchowljansky, the boy said. Years later he would shorten his name to Meyer Lansky, and he and Luciano would form a partnership that would revolutionize crime in America.
Building the Syndicate
To realize his dream for a national crime syndicate, Luciano first had to gain control of New York. The old bosses, who cared less for their mens well-being than their own personal enrichment, had to go. Luciano orchestrated a plot to kill Joe the Boss Masseria, luring him to a Coney Island restaurant and engaging him in a game of cards after a big meal. When Luciano excused himself to go to the mens room, four gunmenincluding the notoriously violent Bugsy Siegelwalked into the restaurant and shot Masseria to death.
Masserias passing gave rival boss Salvatore Maranzano unchallenged authority over the New York rackets. Luciano made peace with Maranzano and was made his second-in-command, put in charge of Masserias men. Maranzano was a bit more forward-thinking than Joe the Boss in that he sought to organize the Sicilian gangsters in America into five borghati or family villages. This was a step in the direction Luciano favored, but it wasnt enough to satisfy the ambitious young gangster. Sensing that Luciano would be trouble, Maranzano paid the notorious Irish hitman Vince Mad Dog Coll a down payment of $25,000 with a promise of $25,000 more for the rubout of Luciano and his top associate Vito Genovese. But Luciano had a spy within Maranzanos organization, Tommy Lucchese, and when Luciano learned of the contract on his life, he decided to strike first.
On September 10, 1931, Maranzano ordered Luciano and Genovese to come to his office. Fearing that they were being set up for the kill, Luciano dispatched his own team of hand-picked killers: four Jewish gangsters whose faces were unknown to Maranzanos people. The hit team went to Maranzanos office before Lucianos scheduled arrival and told the secretary that they were government agents sent to do a spot-check of the books. Tommy Lucchese made sure he was there to point out Maranzano to the hit men. After disarming Maranzanos bodyguards, two of the hitmen held the guards at bay in the outer office while the other two went into Maranzanos inner office where they shot and stabbed him. Their mission accomplished, the four assassins and Lucchese fled down the staircase. On their way down, they ran into Mad Dog Coll who was just arriving to get set up for the murders of Luciano and Genovese. Informed of Maranzanos bloody demise, Coll turned around and left a happy man, $25,000 richer with no work to be performed.
(For decades, journalists and mob scholars have cited September 10, 1931, as The Night of the Sicilian Vespers when scores of mobstersas many as 90 by some accountswere assassinated allegedly on orders from Luciano and Meyer Lansky in a mass purge to clear the decks for their takeover. Jerry Capeci in The Complete Idiots Guide to the Mafia credibly debunks this myth, proving that at most five gangsters tied to Maranzano died that day.)
With Maranzano out of the way, Luciano was now free to put together the crime syndicate of his dreams with tentacles that reached across the country and covered lucrative rackets in labor manipulation, loan-sharking, gambling, drugs, prostitution, and boot-legging. The new syndicates board of directors included such nefarious non-Sicilians as Frank Costello, Dutch Shultz, Joe Adonis, Louis Lepke, and Meyer Lansky. Luciano even toyed with the idea of dropping the syndicates Mafia affiliation but was dissuaded by Lansky who felt that the specter of the Mafia would help them keep people in line even though at one point the Jewish members outnumbered the Sicilians.
Under Lucianos leadership, the syndicate might have grown to even more treacherous proportions if he hadnt been convicted on prostitution charges in 1936 and sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison. Luciano supporters cried foul, claiming that the case was a frame based on the testimony of lying pimps and whores who were plea-bargaining themselves out of prison time. Ironically, Luciano personally found prostitution an odious pursuit, though he didnt seem to have any trouble sharing in its profits.
The special prosecutor leading the charge against Luciano was Thomas E. Dewey who at the time didnt realize that Luciano had saved his life earlier that year when Dutch Schultz vowed to assassinate the pesky prosecutor. Luciano knew that this would be bad for business, bringing down the wrath of the government, but Schultz was unwilling to listen to reason from fellow syndicate members. To stop the Dutchman from carrying out the hit, Luciano had Schultz killed. He was gunned down as he stood at a urinal in the Palace Chop House and Tavern in Newark, N.J.
Lucianos involvement with Dewey did not end with Luckys conviction. Dewey, who was later elected governor of the state of New York, sought out Lucianos help during World War II to get the underworld to help with security on the New York docks. In exchange for his help, Luciano was released from prison but deported to Italy.
Luciano, who had been running the syndicate from prison, knew that he would have a hard time maintaining control over his rackets from Italy, so he clandestinely moved his base of operations to Cuba. Eventually the U.S. government learned of his presence there and forced him to return to Italy. The man he left in charge of what would later become known as the Genovese family was part of the new breed of gangster, an Italian, but not a Sicilian, who preferred negotiation over conflict, and for that reason became known as the Prime Minister of the mob.
Frank “Prime Minister” Costello
Acting boss Frank Costellos friendship with Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky stretched back to the days of Prohibition in the 1920s. Born in the Italian province of Calabria, Costello understood the value of connections, and unlike his Sicilian counterparts, when he reached into his jacket, he was more likely to come out with bribe money than a gun. Lucky Luciano knew that if his dream for a national crime syndicate was to be realized, he would need a deal maker not a head breaker at the helm while he was in exile.
Costello recognized that the syndicate would never prosper if its rackets were constantly interrupted by arrests and convictions. Growth required stability and continuity, so to protect his criminal enterprises, he ingratiated himself with police officials, politicians, and judges. If a police chief needed a favor, Costello made sure that it was done. If a politician needed votes, Costello delivered. A judge needed money? No problem. Over the years Costello assembled a chessboard full of corrupt officials, working them all to his advantage. Cops would look the other way when Costellos people committed crimes. Judges swayed juries and handed down lighter sentences. Politicians voted down laws that would hinder the syndicate. All thanks to Costello.
Even the nations top crime fighter, J. Edgar Hoover, the first and longest-sitting director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was not immune to Costellos temptations. Hoover loved the racetrack. Though he swore that he never bet more than two dollars on a single horse, he was rumored to send agents to place larger bets for him. Whenever Costello knew that Hoover would be at the track, the Prime Minister would fix races and, using celebrity columnist Walter Winchell as go-between, make sure that the director knew what the sure bets were so that he could place his wagers accordingly. Perhaps this is why Hoover for many years maintained that the Mafia did not exist in America and the FBI had better things to do than chase down what he thought of as mere gamblers. Without serious scrutiny from the federal government, the syndicate flourished.
By the early 1940s, Costello had his hand in many enterprises. He went into partnership with Meyer Lansky to form jukebox and cigarette machine companies. He put together a coalition of gangsters to open a string of gambling parlors in Florida. He and Chicago syndicate underboss Tony Accardo started a bookmaking operation in Miami that raked in $10 million a year in profits. He and Bugsy Siegel explored illegal opportunities on the West Coast. Realizing Lucky Lucianos dream, Costellos reach stretched from sea to shining sea.
Known for his expensive suits and impeccable grooming (he would typically go to the barber shop at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel every morning for a trim), Costello was a man about town in New York City. He lived in a swank apartment building on Central Park West and kept an ex-showgirl mistress across the park on Fifth Avenue. He was so trendy he even saw a psychiatrist, Dr. Richard H. Hoffman, long before television character Tony Soprano skulked off to see his shrink. Costello had been seeing Dr. Hoffman for two years before the newspapers got wind of it. The psychiatrist told reporters that he had advised his patient to associate with a better class of people. Costello abruptly terminated his therapy, countering that it was he who had introduced Hoffman to a better class of people.
In December 1946, Costello attended a mob convention in Havana, Cuba, called by Lucky Luciano, who had set up shop on the island just months after his deportation to Italy. Attendees included Vito Genovese, Joe Bonanno, Tommy Lucchese, Willie Moretti, Tampa boss Santo Trafficante, New Orleans boss Carlos Marcello, Tony Accardo and the three Fischetti brothers (Al Capones cousins) from Chicago as well as Jewish gangsters Meyer Lansky, Moe Dalitz, Longy Zwillman, and Doc Stacher. Singer Frank Sinatra had been invited to perform at the Hotel Nacional where the gangsters were meeting, giving them all a pretense for being there. Theyd all come, they said, to see Frank. At the conference, Luciano, backed up by Costello and Lansky, put forth a motion to ban narcotics trafficking from the syndicates portfolio. Luciano hoped that by getting the syndicate out of the drug trade, he would stand a better chance of convincing American officials to reverse his deportation order. But the bosses from around the country wouldnt agree to it. Drug dealing was just too lucrative to abandon, and one of its most vociferous proponents was Lucianos close associate, Vito Genovese.
At the Havana Conference Genovese revealed his ambitions to take over the syndicate. He lobbied to get Luciano to retire, asking Lucky in private if it might be time to step down while at the same time polling the other conference attendees to see if he could get them to vote Luciano out. Genovese also proposed that Albert Anastasia, the Lord High Executioner, be eliminated because he had become too kill crazy. Anastasia had been dropping hints that he was going to put a contract out on Bureau of Narcotics Director Harry Anslinger. Luciano called off the hit on Anslinger and managed to block Genoveses move to kill Anastasia, knowing that he would need the Lord High Executioners muscle if Genovese ever decided to go to war for supremacy of the New York rackets. The syndicate summit ended, and the mobsters, including Frank Costello, returned home with American officials none the wiser.
Despite his reputation as an able negotiator, Frank Costello was not above using violence when he deemed it necessary, but when he did lash out, he did it his way. As Lucianos acting boss in New York, he sat on the syndicate commission that decided whether certain individuals should be executed. When Abe Kid Twist Reles, one of Murder Inc.s top executioners, started cooperating with authorities, Costello is said to have found out through his police sources where Reles was being kept, the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island. Despite a cadre of detectives guarding Reles, someone managed to get into his room and push him out a window to his death. The details of the murder remain a mystery, but all those involved at the time agree that it was Costello who pulled the strings to make it happen.
For the most part, Costello depended on New Jersey mobster Willie Moretti and his contingent of 60 leg breakers for muscle. It was a good arrangement for both men until syphilis got the better of Morettis mental facilities. As a result of his illness, Moretti blathered, sometimes incomprehensibly, before the U.S. Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, better known as the Kefauver Committee Hearings after the head of the committee, Tennessee Democrat Estes Kefauver. Moretti was clearly a liability, and a group spearheaded by Vito Genovese insisted that Moretti had to go before he started revealing syndicate secrets. But Genovese, who longed to unseat Costello as boss, had his own agenda. Without Morettis troops backing him up, Costello would be vulnerable, and Genovese would be able to make his move. But by the time Moretti was assassinated, Costello had forged another alliance, this time with Albert Anastasia, who agreed to put his considerable manpower behind Costello who in turn advised Anastasia on how to kill his boss Vince Mangano and take over as leader of what would become known as the Gambino crime family.
Costello was also called before the Kefauver Committee, and on March 13, 1951, he reluctantly testified. The ABC television network, which had no daytime programming at this point, broadcast committee sessions to a fascinated public eager to see the faces of the secretive Mafiosi. But Costellos was one face viewers did not see, thanks to the appeals of his attorney. Instead, the camera showed only Costellos hands as he endured a barrage of questioning from the five committee members. Costello, perhaps unwisely, tried to spar with the senators, returning their volleys as hard as they were delivered. In the end he was portrayed as a master manipulator who pulled the strings behind the scenes. His appearance before the committee exposed him for what he was and gradually weakened his effectiveness as a mob leader.
On May 2, 1957, a black Cadillac quietly pulled up to the curb outside Costellos Manhattan apartment building just as he was walking in. A 300-pound man emerged from the car, rushed into the lobby, and hid behind a pillar, a gun in his hand. This is for you, Frank, the fat man shouted. Costello turned toward the voice just as the gun went off. The fat man ran back to the Cadillac, not realizing that the bullet had only grazed Costellos scalp above his ear. The wound was minor and Costello survived, but the incident convinced him that retirement might be in his best interests. The rotund shooter was alleged to be Vincent Chin Gigante who immediately went into hiding and lost a considerable amount of weight before turning himself in. Gigante stood trial for the shooting, but when the prosecutor asked Costello on the stand to identify the man who wounded him, the boss obeyed the rules of omerta, the Mafia vow of secrecy and claimed that he had never set eyes on Gigante. As a result, Gigante was acquitted on all charges.
The mob commission allowed Costello to retire quietly and keep the income from his rackets. Waiting in the wings to take his place was Vito Genovese who had been angling for years to become boss of the organization Lucky Luciano had put together. Genovese, who demanded that his underlings refer to him as Don Vito, was as vicious as he was clever. His goal was to be anointed Boss of all Bosses.
Vito “Don Vito” Genovese
Joe Valachi, the first Mafia member in America to turn informant, characterized Vito Genovese this way: If you went to him and told him about some guy doing wrong, he would have the guy killed and then he would have you killed for telling on the guy.
Genovese could be as vicious as the Lord High Executioner, Albert Anastasia, but he was far more cunning. Hed long dreamed of taking control of the syndicate and becoming capo di tutti capi, boss of all bosses, constantly jockeying for position, waiting for the moment when he could make his move. The attempt on acting boss Frank Costellos life failed, but it succeeded in forcing him into retirement, leaving the door open for Genovese to assume the mantle. As Carl Sifakis points out in The Mafia Encyclopedia, Genovese had to walk a fine line to achieve his goals, paying lip service to Lucky Luciano who was still a powerful influence in the family while reducing Meyer Lanskys control over syndicate rackets.Genovese had proven that he could thrive in hostile situations when he fled to Italy in 1937 to avoid a murder rap in the United States. Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had mounted a campaign to rid Italy of the Mafia, but Genovese managed to befriend Il Duce and even supply drugs to the dictators brother-in-law. As a token of his friendship with the dictator, Genovese arranged a hit on radical journalist Carlo Tresca who had long been a thorn in Mussolinis side. But when Il Duces regime started falling apart, Genovese simply switched sides, helping the American Army clean up the black-market trade in southern Italy, secretly taking over those operations for himself. Genovese had a knack for landing on his feet.
In 1944 Genovese returned to New York where he chafed under the leadership of Frank Costello while managing to maintain the demeanor of a loyal soldier. Genovese felt that he, not Costello, should have been named boss of the Luciano family, and he intended to right that wrong. He slyly argued for the execution of New Jersey boss Willie Moretti in 1951, reasoning that Moretti, who was suffering from dementia as a result of untreated syphilis, was a liability and had to be eliminated before his loose lips got everyone into trouble. This may have been true, but Morettis Jersey boys also provided the muscle behind Costello, and eliminating Moretti would weaken Costello. But Costello stayed one step ahead of Genovese and made a pact with Albert Anastasia to provide the same services Moretti had.Genovese had been outmaneuvered, but he bided his time until 1957, when he ordered the failed hit on Costello and then a successful hit on Anastasia, ostensibly to help Carlo Gambino take over Anastasias family. With Costellos power severely diminished, the stage was set for Don Vitos ascendancy.
Getting Rid of Genovese
On November 14, 1957, just 20 days after the attempt on Frank Costellos life, 58 mobsters from across the country assembled in the rural upstate New York town of Apalachin. Vito Genovese had pushed for the Apalachin Conference, as it later became known, and its generally believed that this was where he planned to have himself crowned boss of all bosses.
At this time the syndicate still hadnt made up its mind about narcotics. On the one hand, mobsters saw almost limitless profit potential in dealing drugs, but many of the bosses also recognized the risks. Authorities could look the other way when it came to gambling or prostitution, but government officialsat least the ones who hadnt already been corrupted by the mobwere hell-bent on squashing illegal drug use in the United States. Lucky Luciano, among others, felt that the narcotics trade would result in prosecutions and convictions that no amount of bribery could prevent and eventually the syndicates dominance over the underworld would erode.
Don Vito Genovese, however, could not resist the riches that drugs produced, and he, more than any other mob leader, wanted to expand the syndicates involvement in narcotics. Luciano and Lansky felt that this would destroy all that theyd built, so together with Frank Costello, who was hungry for a taste of that cold delicacy called revenge, they plotted to bring down Genovese. They invited Carlo Gambino, who now headed the family formerly controlled by Albert Anastasia, into their conspiracy. Genovese mistakenly thought of Gambino as a solid ally because he had helped the foxy Gambino eliminate Anastasia.
The gangsters invited to the Apalachin Conference, most of them supporters of Genovese, gathered at a stone mansion owned by a local businessman named Joseph Barbara who had sent his wife out the day before to pick up enough steaks to feed a small army. Shiny luxury cars jammed the driveway and lined the road outside Barbaras 58-acre estate. Inside the house the mobsters were getting comfortable, settling in for their meeting.
Suddenly, a cadre of New York State troopers raided the house. The mobsters fled in panic, some running across the fields that surrounded the house in their fancy suits and shiny wingtips, desperate to get to the woods where they hoped they could escape. Others, like Genovese, jumped into their cars and sped off only to be stopped by police road blocks. Dozens of ex-cons and known criminals were apprehended. Many accounts of the incident credit the diligent efforts of a perceptive state trooper named Edgar Croswell who had noticed suspicious cars coming in and out of the area, but it was more likely that the authorities were tipped off by individuals hired by Luciano, Costello, and Lansky, none of whom appeared at the conference. Luciano was forbidden from entering the country. Costello claimed that he was under constant police surveillance and couldnt slip away undetected. Lansky called in sick and stayed home in Florida. Vito Genovese and Carlo Gambino were among the mobsters arrested.
Genovese had been dealt a blow, but he was by no means out of the picture, and now that his enemies had kicked the hornets nest, they had to eliminate the problem before they got stung. Luciano, Lansky, and Costello knew that Genovese would be gunning for them, so they put together another plot, hoping to eliminate him before he eliminated them, and they used the bait that Genovese just couldnt resist. After setting up a lucrative drug deal that was just too good for Genovese to pass up, they paid a Puerto Rican drug dealer named Nelson Melon Cantellops $100,000 to turn states witness and testify against Genovese. Luciano, Costello, and Lansky fed Cantellops choice insider information to boost his credibility. The Melon told a grand jury in Manhattan that he had attended a meeting at which Genovese conspired to take over the entire drug trade in the Bronx. Prosecutors chose to ignore the fact that in all probability a small-fish drug pusher wouldnt have had access to a big-fish Mafia boss and that whatever testimony he gave would be hearsay at best, but they wanted Genovese so badly, they took the little fishs testimony as gospel truth and won a conviction against Genovese on April 17, 1959. Genovese was given a 15-year sentence.
The imprisoned Don Vito continued to rule the family, which now bore his name (thanks to the testimony of turncoat Joseph Valachi who publicly referred to it as such), using his brother Mike as his messenger. Vito Genovese died of a heart attack on February 14, 1969, at the federal prison medical center in Springfield, Mo.
Temper, temper, temper
Cigar and cigarette smoke drifted over the ring as two sweaty prizefighters traded punches. Sweat sprayed from their soaked heads with each blow. It was the last round, and the crowd was on its feet, yelling and jeering. One of the managers fidgeted in the corner, flexing his fists as he cursed and scowled, trying to keep track of which fighter was scoring more points. Finally the bell rang, and the referee separated the two exhausted pugilists. The brawny manager stared into the refs face, certain that his man had won on points. The ref took both fighters by the wrists. The manager was a spring coil wound tight, poised to jump for joy. But when he saw the referee lifting the other fighters arm to declare him the winner, the manager sprung like a rock from a catapult. He leaped over the ropes and dove into the ring. Balling his fist, he threw a round-house that clocked the ref on the chin, knocking him flat on his back. The men in the ring converged on the furious manager and held him down to keep him from doing any more damage. It was a shameful display of unsportsmanlike behavior, but what made it remarkable was that the out-of-control manager, Thomas Tommy Ryan Eboli, would one day become the boss of the Genovese crime family. Or at least he would seem to be the boss.
After Vito Genovese went to prison in 1959, the Genovese family took omerta, the Mafia vow of secrecy, to new levels. As Jerry Capeci states in The Complete Idiots Guide to the Mafia, the family maintained a series of up front bosses to distract authorities from the real boss. At times the Genovese family seemed to go out of its way to appear to be the gang that couldnt shoot straight when, in fact, it was a well-oiled criminal money machine and arguably the top Mafia family in America.
It was generally believed that Vito Genovese made the hot-headed Tommy Eboli his acting boss when he went away to prison, promoting Jerry Catena, Anthony Tony Bender Strollo, and Mike Miranda to serve as Ebolis top lieutenants. But the only stellar quality Eboli possessed was his subservient loyalty to Genovese who called the shots from the Atlanta prison where he was incarcerated. The soldiers in the family disliked Eboli for the few lunk-headed decisions he was allowed to make on his own but more for his stingy nature. As boss, he was always reluctant to give his men a taste. Eboli refused to front his men funds to buy drugs, even when the profit potential was explained to him at great length. Other crime family bosses found him difficult to work with, particularly Carlo Gambino, who had lost millions on a joint narcotics deal that Eboli had put together. When the deal went sour, instead of making good on Gambinos investment, Eboli just shrugged it off as if to say, Thats life, pal.
Despite Ebolis apparent lack of brain power, he did maintain a few successful rackets in the music and entertainment business. He controlled a vending machine and jukebox enterprise and owned several night clubs and a few clandestine gay bars in New Yorks Greenwich Village. Eboli bought into a New Jersey record company called Promo Records, which, according to Fredaic Dannen in his book Hit Men, specialized in cutouts: old, unsold albums dumped wholesale by record companies into the hands of discount merchandisers. Cutouts were counterfeited easily, according to Dannen, and Promo would legitimately buy a shipment, then press many more and sell them to the discounters.
Eboli had a hard time staying focused on the business of stealing money. He was a thug at heart and felt compelled to get his hands dirty even when his rank demanded that he hand over dirty jobs to underlings. When Vito Genovese had decided that Tony Strollo was a liability and had to be whacked, Eboli did it himself. There was no job to messy for him. Back in 1957 when Vincent Gigante took a shot at Frank Costello and missed, Eboli drove the getaway car. Perhaps Eboli felt a sense of obligation since he had managed Gigantes boxing career.
Three years after Vito Genovese died in prison, Carlo Gambino decided it was time for a regime change in the Genovese family. Gambino, who had significant influence over three of the other New York crime families, wanted to install someone he knew he could work with. In the early morning of July 1, 1972, Eboli was just leaving the apartment of one of his mistresses in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when a red and yellow van pulled up alongside his parked Cadillac. Gunfire from inside the van shattered the quiet street. Eboli took five shots to the face and neck at close range. He died at the scene. The way was now clear for Carlo Gambinos handpicked choice for Genovese boss, Frank Funzi Tieri.
Who’s the Boss?
Frank Funzi Tieri came as a breath of fresh air to the soldiers of the Genovese family. Tieri was considered a class act and, more importantly, an ace moneymaker who believed in spreading the wealth. He lived in a modest home in the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn with his wife and two granddaughters and kept his long-time mistress, a former opera singer from Italy, in a house just five minutes away. With only one conviction for armed robbery dating back when he was 20 years old, he beat nine trials during his lifetime. He ran his crime family the way he ran his lifeorderly, frugal, sensible.
Tieri was less likely to resort to violence than his predecessors, but when it was necessary, he did whatever had to be done. In 1980, he showed some of the guile of his good friend Carlo Gambino in orchestrating the assassination of Angelo Bruno, the mob boss of Philadelphia. When the state of New Jersey announced that it would legalize gambling in Atlantic City, gangsters around the country started to salivate, dreaming of an East-Coast Las Vegas with loads of illegal profit potential. There was just one problem: Atlantic City fell within the province of the Philly mob.
For years no one had paid much attention to the dying seaside resort. It was such a dead end, Bruno, who was known as the Gentle Don, would send the bad boys in his family to Atlantic City as punishment. But with the prospect of legalized gambling looming and all the money that could be made by infiltrating the unions and ancillary services that are the lifeblood of the casinos, the Gentle Don made it clear that he wasnt about to share his good fortune with anyone else. The New York families saw it differently. They stared down the Garden State Parkway and viewed Atlantic City as close enough to their turf to get in on the action.
Killing a boss is dicey business, and normally this kind of rubout must be approved by the Mafia Commission. Tieri passed the word to the Philadelphia familys ambitious capo in Newark, N.J., Anthony Tony Bananas Caponigro, that he had the go-ahead to assassinate the Philadelphia boss. On March 21, 1980, Bruno took a shotgun shell to the back of the head while he sat in his car after dinner in Philadelphia. Weeks later, Tony Bananas naked body was found in the trunk of a car. Hed been stabbed, strangled, and brutally beaten. Multiple $20 bills had been stuffed into every orifice of his body, a symbolic gesture, indicating that it was greed that killed him, writes John William Tuohy in his article The Puppet Boss. Caponigro had committed the mortal sin of taking it upon himself to kill a boss without sanction, and so he was punished accordingly. With the Philadelphia family in confusion as it tried to settle on a new leader, the New York families converged on Atlantic City.
Tieri has the odd distinction of being the first man ever convicted under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, better known by its acronym RICO. The RICO laws allowed prosecutors to pursue mob bosses for taking part in a pattern of racketeering activity, according to Tuohy. Mafia chieftains could no longer claim that they had nothing to do with the crimes their underlings had committed. In January 1981, the government sent a chill through the ranks of the mob when Funzi Tieri, after a lifetime of avoiding convictions, was found guilty. When he rolled into court in a wheelchair for his sentencing, he showed the judge a scar from a recent operation and said that he was a sick man, very sick hoping for leniency from the court. He was given a 10-year sentence but died peacefully in the hospital two months later while on bail.
After Tieri’s passing, Anthony Fat Tony Salerno was promoted from consigliere to boss of the family. Author Peter Maas in his book Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravanos Life in the Mafia, describes Salerno as almost a caricature of an old-line hoodlum, with his cap and baggy pants, his teeth invariably clenching the stub of a cigar, his undershirt peeking above his unbuttoned collar But Salerno lived up to his tough-guy image. Before becoming boss, he maintained a vise-grip on rackets in Harlem, exacting a percentage from every hoodblack, white, or Hispanic who operated there. In 1986 Fortune magazine put him at the top of their criminal executive list. He had homes in Manhattan and Miami Beach and a 100-acre estate in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
Salernos criminal career sputtered when he was indicted on RICO charges along with the heads of four of the five New York Mafia families in what became know as the Commission trial. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to 100 years. Five years into his sentence, he died in prison.
Though the government viewed Salerno as one of the mob kingpins in New York, its now believed that he was just a figurehead, an up-front boss, like his predecessors. Tommy Eboli and Funzi Tieri had in fact taken orders from little-known mobster Philip Benny Squint Lombardo who had ruled the family from behind the throne until his death in 1981. Salerno, after suffering a stroke that same year, became yet another up-front boss, taking his orders from the strangest gangster in the history of the American Mafia, a man who wandered the streets in his bathrobe and slippers, constantly seemed lost and confused, and forbid his underlings from uttering his name. The press dubbed him The Oddfather.
Vincent “Chin” Gigante
In the 1980s Vincent Chin Gigante was a familiar sight on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village where he lived with his mother. The large middle-aged man was often seen wandering around in his pajamas, robe, and slippers with a cap pulled down over his head. He would mumble to himself as he shuffled along. Usually he showed a few days growth of beard on his sagging, expressionless face. His downcast eyes were dull and vacant, allegedly the result of his daily medications, which included Valium and Thorazine. His family, particularly his brother Father Louis Gigante, a Catholic priest, adamantly insisted that Vincent was mentally ill and suffered from diminished mental capacity, but the authorities contended that there was nothing wrong with Vincent and that he was in fact the boss of the biggest crime family in the country. In public Father Louis would point to his brother, a pathetic hulking figure who didnt seem to know where he was, and ask how a man in such a state could be the leader of anything. But the police felt that this was just an act and that late at night, when surveillance eyes werent watching, the real Vincent Gigante emerged.
Gigante first used the mental-patient act to beat a conspiracy rap in 1970. He had been inducted for bribing the entire five-man police force of Old Tappan, N.J., in an attempt to obtain information regarding a state investigation into Genovese activities in that state. His attorneys hired psychiatrists who testified that Gigante was a paranoid schizophrenic, suffering from hallucinations. The ruse worked, and Gigante was acquitted. He apparently decided that it was a worthwhile preventative measure because he continued to play the role for years to come, reinforcing it with voluntary visits to St. Vincents Psychiatric Hospital in Harrison, N.Y. Between 1969 and 1990, he checked himself in 22 times. With support from his doctors, he managed to avoid prosecution for nearly three decades.
As a young man, before he allegedly went crazy, Gigante had tried to make it as a prizefighter, starting out as a middle weight, then fighting as a light heavyweight. Under the tutelage of his manager, future Genovese family boss Tommy Eboli, Gigante had a career record of 23 wins and one loss, though its said that he mainly fought palookas until he faced a real fighter, Jimmy Slade, who defeated him in seven rounds. By 1957 he had beefed up to over 300 pounds when he fired the single shot at boss Frank Costello and missed. Gigante was considerably slimmer by the time he was tried for the attempt on Costellos life, but no onenot even Costellowould swear that he was the shooter, and as a result he was found not guilty. In 1959 he became one of the victims of the plot to overthrow Vito Genovese and was sentenced to seven years in prison on drug charges.
Sometime after his release from prison, Gigante made the leap from reliable soldier to leadership material. By some accounts he served as consigliere under Funzi Tieri, and when Fat Tony Salerno was convicted in 1987, Gigante took over as acting boss. But some believe that Gigante became boss as early as 1981 after Salerno suffered a stroke, keeping Salerno on the throne as an up-front boss to insulate the real seat of power.
Gigantes extraordinary degree of caution gave him one of the longest runs as boss in Mafia history. Genovese members were forbidden from uttering his name for fear of hidden listening devices. According to mob turncoat Sammy Gravano in Peter Maass Underboss, Family members were under strict orders never to breathe his name in passing on his [Gigantes] wishes. They were simply to point to their own chins when referring to him. (The nickname Chin did not refer to his face or taking it on the chin as boxers sometimes do. It was the shortened version of Vincenzo, which is what his mother called him when he was a child.)
Former Lucchese acting boss and mob turncoat Little Al DArco once testified that at Gigantes Sullivan Street headquarters, Chin would sit at a table and receive his men one by one, whispering in their ears so as not to be overheard. A World War II vintage poster hung on the wall over his head: The Enemy is Listening, the poster said. DArco claimed that Gigante was the only boss in America to have a fourth position at the top of his leadership pyramid, the messagrio or messenger. The messenger delivered Gigantes wishes to the membership and provided yet another layer of insulation between Gigante and the crimes his family committed. Gigante took secrecy to a new level, and he managed to rule the largest Mafia family in America for many years before it was generally known that he was the boss.
The Family Today
Vincent Gigante had always despised flashy loudmouths within the ranks of the mob, men who flaunted their gangster status. This was one reason why he hated Gambino boss John Gotti who had seized power by killing the boss of his family without proper Commission approval, which was another strike against him in Gigantes estimation. Gigante was so incensed he put a contract on Gottis head, but the hit was never carried out.
Though Gigante disapproved of ostentatious displays of wealth and power, he did not maintain his disheveled image 24/7. When law-enforcement eyes werent watching, he found ways to enjoy the perks of power. Besides his wife and five children who lived in a large suburban home, Gigante kept a longtime mistress on the Upper East Side whom he would visit late at night.
Under Gigante the Genovese family maintained the usual organized crime rackets with a few new twists. Every September Manhattans Little Italy hosts the grand Feast of San Gennaro with scores of food concessions and arcade games. The highlight of the festival is a parade that features a life-sized statue of the saint festooned with thousands of dollars in donations hoisted on the shoulders of the faithful and walked through the streets. But according to Jan Hoffman writing in the New York Times, hundreds of thousands of dollarsthat had been earmarked for charities were diverted to the crime family including the fluttering dollar bills that the faithful would pin to the saints statue.
While the family continued its longtime control over the Fulton Fish Market, it also sunk its hooks into the construction of New York Citys Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, which broke ground in the late 1980s. John Connolly reported in New York magazine that one Manhattan federal prosecutor called it a hiring hall for mobsters and former convicts and 35 percent of carpenters who worked at the Javits center [were] convicted felons. Through the 1990s, the I.M. Pei-designed convention center was one of the familys biggest cash cows.
In recent years, according to the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation and reported by Jerry Capeci in his online Gangland column, the Genovese family has moved into more sophisticated crimes such as computer fraud, stock/securities fraud, and healthcare fraud, often partnering with Russian and Cuban organized crime groups.
In 1990 Gigante was arrested and charged with 41 racketeering and conspiracy counts. He evaded prosecution for seven years with his insanity act, but finally the court deemed him sane enough to stand trial, and he was convicted in July 1997. Gigante was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $1.25 million. After his conviction, U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter said, The lengths that Vincent Gigante was willing to go to conceal his leadership of the Genovese family speaks volumes about his importance as their leader. His loss will be a devastating blow to the family and to organized crime in general.
Family messagrio Dominic Quiet Dom Cirillo was promoted to acting boss, but Cirillo suffered a massive heart attack in 1998, and for years it was uncertain exactly who was running the family, which given the ways of the Genoveses, was exactly how theyd want it. In May 2004, journalist Jerry Capeci reported that Chin Gigantes 80-year-old older brother Mario was poised to take over the top slot in the family.