Mob Rules

••• A Sociologist Unravels the Ties Binding Organized Crime

Last September, when FBI agent John Connolly was sentenced to 10 years for racketeering, the story of how he allied the bureau with Boston's notorious Winter Hill gang was reported as a dark if heartwarming buddy story of two kids from Southie. Connolly stuck by his gangster friend James "Whitey" Bulger through nearly two decades of informing, extortion, and murder. (Not surprisingly, Hollywood has optioned the Winter Hill gang story.)

But for Professor Elin Waring, the saga involves more complex patterns. "Part of the thing of organized crime is, how do the lists of co-offending networks fit into other non-criminal networks—like families, like neighbors?" asks Waring. A sociologist at CUNY's Lehman College in the Bronx, Waring makes a living pondering crime. The term co-offending network (coined by Albert Reiss Jr., Waring's mentor at Yale) refers to any group that gathers to break the law. In her latest book, Crime & Social Organization (Transactions Publishers, 2002), Waring and her co-authors show that such groups—whether Enron executives, Russian outlaws, Mafia dons, or FBI agents—share certain behaviors. Committing a crime with someone requires trust that usually comes from knowing them personally. That seems basic, but the idea of mining these networks for social motives marks a sea change from the concept of organized crime as a corporate hierarchy. And by being stripped down, the social network idea lets you see shared features of different-scaled crimes.

Waring grew up in Ramsey, New Jersey, where her mother was a sociologist. That of course killed Waring's interest in the field. She started her college years at Swarthmore innocently as a history major. Yet she was always curious about why certain configurations of people worked better than others. In her graduate work at Yale, she crossed into criminology, and her fascination with groups grew into a dissertation. "I noticed that the same issues were present in the illicit sphere," she says.

Criminal minded: CUNY prof Waring shakes up corporate model.
photo: Rose Callahan
Criminal minded: CUNY prof Waring shakes up corporate model.

Until recently, criminologists tended to view organized crime using a corporate model with its roots in the 1960s. (Think of the acres of desks in the opening of Billy Wilder's film The Apartment.) FBI documents still refer to the Mafia by the corporate-sounding LCN, for La Cosa Nostra. But as companies modularized and decentralized, even corporations outgrew the corporate model. So did organized crime. In place of a row of boxes under a CEO, Waring outlines a messier and more sophisticated tangle of personal contacts. In the three earlier books that she co-wrote, Waring examined networks in white-collar crooks and Russian organized crime, often challenging accepted wisdom. She debunked the notion of a tight-knit Russian mafia, finding instead a scattering of loosely affiliated individuals.

In her book, Waring makes the case that the network concept can help dissect crimes ranging from a crack deal to WorldCom's financial shenanigans. In a recent phone conversation with the Voice, she analyzed a low-level encounter in the Patriarca family's New England Mafia. One August night in 1986, four men gathered at a garage behind a modest house in Hamden, Connecticut (just minutes from Yale, where Waring was at the time): Richard Beedle, a locksmith, who lived there; William Grasso, a silver-haired businessman from nearby New Haven; Mickey Caruana, a slick salesman from Boston; and Jack Johns, a working-class guy from Hartford. (A fifth man, Salvatore "Butch" D'Aquila, stayed out front as a lookout.)

News reports later would lump them as "Mafia associates," led by Grasso, the Patriarcas' Connecticut underboss. But what united them was less structured than that. Caruana was an independent drug-runner, and Beedle's only connection to the group was that he leased his garage to Grasso for $30 a month. Caruana had called Grasso that day because he trusted him for what was needed: to clean up a murder. Caruana had kidnapped his kids' hockey coach, who was having an affair with his wife. Caruana allegedly tortured the coach for hours, strangled him, wrapped him in plastic, then called Grasso.

Grasso made some calls. In the garage, Beedle had a hole already dug through the concrete floor. Together the four men stripped the body, dropped it in the hole, and poured in sacks of lime. They grabbed shovels and refilled the hole. Beedle commented that every time he did this, there was dirt left over. They laughed. They finished the task at hand. As Caruana drove off, Grasso watched the Cadillac leave and noticed that a taillight was out.

Suddenly, Grasso grew furious. "Look at this fucking guy," he said. "Driving down the street with a body in the trunk with a broken light."

Caruana disappeared soon after that; investigators later believed that his broken taillight got him killed by Grasso. (Some speculated he ended up with the hockey coach, beneath Beedle's garage.) What infuriated Grasso so much? Waring suggests that, more than Caruana's carelessness with the taillight, it might have been the way that Caruana put all of them at risk for a murder that had nothing to do with their shared "business." Grasso felt betrayed.

That small-time episode doesn't get a footnote in books about the Patriarcas and the FBI Boston scandal. But Waring's approach helps you analyze behavior up the line from Grasso's idea of teamwork, to the Patriarcas' downfall, to how Connolly got the FBI tangled up with gangsters.

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