The Wiseguy and the Nun

How Salvatore Miciotta got away with murder

Sometime this year, Salvatore Miciotta will walk out of a federal prison somewhere in America. The Mafia turncoat will carry with him a new identity and a clean slate, though given his history, odds are that will eventually be sullied.

Miciotta's cooperation with the government was your standard wiseguy stuff: make some surreptitious recordings, snitch out murders and various racketeering activity, admit your involvement in some of this bloodshed, etc. For his lifetime of crime, Miciotta will end up serving about six years in the can.

And while free rides like his have become standard currency in the world of cooperating witnesses, the Miciotta arrangement remains particularly galling since he— and a variety of other hoodlums— have walked away unscathed from one of the New York underworld's more depraved acts, the accidental January 1982 shotgun murder of a former nun.

While Miciotta, a former Colombo family captain, provided FBI agents with a detailed account of that killing— he was one of the shooters— federal investigators have chosen to prosecute Colombo gangsters for their roles in more recent mayhem, specifically the family's bloody internal war of a few years ago. That battle, between forces loyal to imprisoned family boss Carmine Persico and acting boss Victor Orena, resulted in more than a dozen casualties, many on the streets of Brooklyn.

In FBI debriefings, Miciotta provided a behind-the-scenes account of a Mafia hit that went wrong, resulting in the death of Veronica Zuraw, a 53-year-old Brooklyn woman who was struck down in her Gravesend home one night as she stored the laundry. At the time of her death, Zuraw served as a social worker with the Italian Board of Guardians. Before marrying her husband, Louis, in 1974, Zuraw, then known as Sr. Mary Adelaide, worked for the Brooklyn Catholic Diocese, for which she ran a Bensonhurst storefront that provided assistance to recent Italian immigrants.

According to newspaper accounts, Zuraw was hit in the head by stray buckshot intended for a pair of Colombo crime family figures, Joseph Peraino Sr. and his son, Joseph Jr. The Perainos were running from at least two gunmen when they ran up the stairs to the modest two-family home at 431 Lake Street. The Perainos did not know the home's inhabitants, police said, they were just desperately seeking shelter from the pursuing hit team. The father and son were heading for the home's concrete patio when they were both cut down by a series of shotgun blasts. The younger Peraino was killed, while his father was slightly injured.

But one wayward blast found an unintended victim.

Veronica and Louis Zuraw had purchased the Lake Street property only 10 weeks before the shooting and had recently moved into the second-floor space. They had previously lived in a Bensonhurst apartment, and this was their first house.

On the night of the shooting, Louis Zuraw was watching TV. He would later recall hearing what sounded like fireworks exploding in the street. Veronica was nearby folding laundry and placing it in a closet when, at about 8 p.m., she was struck in the head by a fusillade of shotgun pellets. One of the gunman's shots missed the Perainos and ripped through the front door at 431 Lake Street, eventually striking Veronica Zuraw. She died on the spot.

There was little doubt that the attempt on the Perainos was a mob hit, though police were unsure of the motive. The Timesreported that detectives believed the attack was the result of a war between rival Mafia factions or, perhaps, an attempted "weeding out" of dissidents within the Colombo gang. Actually, the motive was more unseemly.

Miciotta told the FBI that the Perainos were targeted as a result of a Mafia fight over the profits from Deep Throat, the notorious porno movie. The film had been financed and distributed by Peraino family members and, Miciotta recalled, there was a dispute among the Perainos over the movie's proceeds. According to Miciotta, Joseph Peraino Sr.'s brother, Anthony Peraino, complained to the Colombo brass that his own family was robbing him.

According to an FBI debriefing report, Miciotta stated that Carmine Persico approved the hit on the Perainos and that participants in the murder plot included such Colombo stalwarts as Joseph "Jo Jo" Russo, John Minerva, Vincent "Jimmy" Angellino, Frank Sparaco, and Anthony "Chucky" Russo. The murder details were ironed out at Joseph "Joe T" Tomasello's Avenue U social club, where a pair of sawed-off shotguns had been delivered for use by Miciotta and Angellino. The Colombo plan called for the Perainos to be driven to the Gravesend neighborhood, where they would be set upon by Miciotta and Angellino, who had been taken to the spot by wheelman Minerva.

While the Perainos were to be murdered in front of a house on Village Road, which is around the corner from Lake Street, it appears that the father and son may have spotted their assailants and bolted, only to be trapped nearby. Miciotta's shooting synopsis, contained in an FBI report, is brief and to the point: "Miciotta shot and killed Peraino Jr., who was standing to the right of his father, while Angellino shot and wounded Peraino Sr." The report then notes, "An innocent female bystander living in the house was also killed when she was hit with buckshot from Angellino's shotgun."

At the time he provided the FBI with this account of the Peraino shooting, Miciotta knew that fellow shooter Angellino had already been whacked in a prior Colombo dispute. And Minerva, his getaway driver, was murdered in 1992 during the Colombo war. So, while Miciotta did cop to Peraino Jr.'s murder, he made sure not to take credit for Zuraw's killing. It's one thing to clip a greedy pornographer, but it is apparently bad Mafia form to murder an innocent bystander in her home. Even for the crime family that Jimmy Breslin had previously dubbed "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," this was a new low.

In the days after his wife's murder, Louis Zuraw, an accountant, urged the public to call police with any information they had about the Lake Street shooting. But as is custom with mob rubouts, the phone didn't ring off the hook. Though cops quickly located the abandoned getaway car— which contained two shotguns— it wasn't long before the Peraino-Zuraw homicide joined the cold case list.

At this point, it is probably too late to win justice for Veronica Zuraw. Of the participants named by Miciotta, two have subsequently been murdered. Persico is serving a 100-year racketeering sentence. And many of the other coconspirators are already doing serious time for other killings and assorted felonies. Sparaco, for instance, won't leave a federal lockup until 2014. The sad truth is that, with the torrent of mob turncoats, most of the crimes they tell the government about are never prosecuted and, as a result, murders sometimes fall through the cracks.

Even if prosecutors had decided to pursue his wife's killers, Louis Zuraw wouldn't have been around to see that measure of justice. He died in 1986, after a four-month hospitalization at the VA Medical Center in Bay Ridge. He was 65 years old and suffered from alcoholism, according to Surrogate's Court papers. The depth of his grief over his wife's senseless murder was said to be incalculable.

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