Mobster on a Mission

A talented mafioso who helped the FBI beat the KKK still haunts his ex-handlers

If New York had such a thing as a Wiseguys Hall of Fame (by no means the worst idea for a tourist attraction), then a once powerful Bensonhurst gangster named Gregory Scarpa Sr. would rate a prime spot. Mob pedigree and notoriety would dictate that Scarpa's exhibit rank behind a true Murderers' Row of Mafia greats like Gigante, Gotti, Luchese, Luciano, and Lansky. And because Scarpa spent decades secretly spilling mob lore to Uncle Sam, he would probably have to be relegated to a special Stool Pigeon wing. But wherever he was placed in such an underworld pantheon, Greg Scarpa would merit prominence for accomplishments that were far more interesting than such gangland staples as murder, mayhem, and money laundering.

Deceased since 1994, Scarpa has been in the news lately because of an old story that has had new life breathed into it by the Brooklyn district attorney's office. Investigators for D.A. Charles "Joe" Hynes are currently trying to coax witnesses into testifying to a grand jury about Scarpa's unorthodox relationship as an informant for a retired FBI agent named R. Lindley DeVecchio.

The allegations, which were first raised back in the mid 1990s, are that while Scarpa, a top captain in the Colombo crime family, was supposed to be supplying DeVecchio with inside Mafia info, DeVecchio gave as good as he got. The agent is alleged to have tipped Scarpa to pending indictments against fellow gang members, allowing them to scram out of town ahead of arrest warrants.

Greg Scarpa in his heyday
Greg Scarpa in his heyday

More ominously, DeVecchio is also reputed to have pulled off a law enforcement surveillance team so that Scarpa and his crew could blow away a rival gang member. The most disturbing allegation came this week when Kati Cornell Smith of the New York Post reported that DeVecchio also was said to have told Scarpa that an 18-year-old drug-dealing friend of Scarpa's son was talking to police. The young dealer's bullet-riddled body was later found sprawled on a Sheepshead Bay street.

DeVecchio's attorney, former rackets prosecutor Douglas Grover, has dismissed the allegations as "preposterous" and a slur on the reputation of a "respected, talented agent." An inquiry into DeVecchio's dealings with Scarpa was conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, but resulted in no charges. He retired from the bureau in 1996.

But if DeVecchio did cross the line in his handling of his prized Mafia informant, he wouldn't have been the first to do so. Decades earlier, the FBI recruited Scarpa for a mission so strange, so secret, and so sensitive that agency officials have always refused to acknowledge it. It's not hard to see why. After all, it doesn't exactly help the bureau's image to imagine J. Edgar Hoover—desperate to learn the whereabouts of three civil rights workers who had gone missing in a virulently racist Mississippi hamlet early in the bloody summer of 1964—using a Mafioso from Brooklyn to terrorize the alleged Klan killers.

But, according to former law enforcement officials who have told the story to reporters over the years, that's exactly what happened. The account first appeared in the Daily News in June 1994. That story, written by myself and mob expert Jerry Capeci, came out on the 30th anniversary of the civil rights murders. It was also the same week that a grand jury was charging O.J. Simpson with his own killings, and the mob story took a decided backseat. Last September, however, organized-crime expert and former New York Times reporter Selwyn Raab published an authoritative mob history called Five Families, in which he separately corroborated the episode from his own law enforcement sources.

The mission happened this way: Hoover had dozens of agents unsuccessfully combing the woods and swamps of Neshoba County, Mississippi, where James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had disappeared after spending a few hours in the local jailhouse on trumped-up charges. But the bureau came up empty. Meanwhile, Mississippi politicians publicly claimed that the trio were probably sitting somewhere up north laughing their heads off. An angry President Lyndon Johnson demanded that Hoover do whatever was necessary to solve the case. The FBI then turned to Scarpa, who, as far back as 1961—two years before Joe Valachi's shocking public testimony about the Cosa Nostra—had told agents all about how the mob operated.

Using a cover story with his mob pals that he was off to visit relatives of his mistress in Florida, Scarpa flew first to Miami, where he took a room at the Fontainebleau hotel, and then on to New Orleans. Agents then drove him 250 miles to the town of Philadelphia deep in the Mississippi hills.

It helps to have an image of Scarpa in those days. Unlike his mob colleagues who kept to the shadows, Scarpa, then 36, reveled in his role. Six feet tall and 200-plus pounds, he sauntered through his Bensonhurst neighborhood like mob royalty. Most hoods practiced a snarling sneer like the one Richard Widmark, as Tommy Udo, made infamous in Kiss of Death. But Scarpa flashed a broad grin at the world, a friendly, easygoing attitude that gulled even his enemies. In 1971, Scarpa was hauled before the U.S. Senate racketeering investigations committee headed by a crusty southerner, John McClellan of Arkansas. Scarpa took the Fifth, but beamed at the senator as he did so. "Why are you smiling?" McClellan demanded.

"I smile because you too have a pleasant smile, senator," answered Scarpa, and papers around the country ran the photo the next day of the happily grinning gangster.

Presumably Scarpa wore a similarly disarming grin when he walked into a Philadelphia appliance shop owned by a Klan-tied merchant whom the FBI believed knew the fate of the missing civil rights workers. Scarpa convinced the man he had just come to town and wanted a new TV set. But when he returned to pick it up that evening, he slugged the merchant, tossed him in the trunk of a car, and drove him to a remote spot where bureau agents were standing guard. Armed by the FBI, Scarpa stuck a pistol in the man's mouth and spoke to him in basic Brooklyn Mafia-ese: "Tell me the fucking truth, or I'll blow your fucking brains out." The merchant then directed him to a clay dam outside of town where the bodies of the missing men were later unearthed.

The official version of how the bureau cracked the case has always been that a Neshoba County resident got a $30,000 reward for the information. But that person has never been identified, and hints about unfriendly persuasion have occasionally cropped up. One of them is contained in the controversial 1988 Alan Parker movie about the killings, Mississippi Burning, in which the FBI imports an unnamed black special agent who terrifies a Klan sympathizer into giving up the bodies' location by threatening to castrate him with a razor blade.

Scarpa's real-life escapades for the bureau are presumably contained in voluminous bureau memos. But while hundreds of such pages involving the informant have been released in response to freedom of information requests, his chief services for the government have been omitted. But there are tantalizing hints: In a one-page memo, dated January 21, 1966, and directed to an assistant director of the bureau, an agent is seeking permission to use Scarpa "on a special" again in Mississippi. "We should furnish the informant enough money to cover his expenses for hotel room and transportation for the special agent, plus two individuals," the memo states.

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