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They don't make them like mobster turned government informant George Barone anymore. And despite his valiant service to his country, past and present, we probably don't want them to.
A tough kid from New York's West Side, Barone fought bravely in the Second World War. At age 83, he's still helping his Uncle Sam, providing crucial testimony about corruption on the nation's waterfront.
It's what he did in between that's the problem. You could start with his decidedly homicidal tendencies.
In his gangland prime, Barone has confessed, he murdered without remorse and for no better reason than that his Mafia bosses ordered him to do so. There were victims enough that he lost count; somewhere between 12 and 20 is the best he can figure. "I didn't keep a scorecard," he growls when pressed.
There was Ninny Cribbens, killed back in the '50s for his share of the loot from a bank job; Tommy the Greek, who had crossed a powerful Mafioso; and Johnny Futto, a dance hall owner down in Miami. Then there was a black guy, a gambler out in KentuckyBarone never did learn his namewho had interfered with mob profits. Barone lured the gambler into taking a drive to talk about fixing horse races. Then he had him pull over to the side of the road, where he shot him: first in the chest to "stun him," as Barone later told it, then "a couple of times in the head" to finish him off.
Proficient as he was at such tasks, murder was only a sideline. Barone found his true calling in the field of labor racketeering, and he grew so adept at the trade that the rulers of the Genovese crime family tapped him to serve as a kind of Mafia secretary of labor, with his chief responsibility overseeing the gangster-ridden International Longshoremen's Association, which controlled the docks up and down the East Coast. Barone rose to the rank of vice president of the international union while running locals in New York and Miamiposts that gave him an intimate familiarity with the schemes and the schemers who have long run roughshod over the powerful labor organization.
But that was then.
Today, stone-deaf and in poor health, stone-cold killer George Barone is providing a road map of criminal activity and mob influence among his former waterfront colleagues for the U.S. Department of Justice. His sudden conversion came after his own indictment on extortion charges and, more significantly, when he learned of murderous treachery being plotted against him by his own mob crew. In exchange for a promise of government leniency, Barone agreed in 2001 to spill all the dark secrets he had picked up over five decades in the crime business. He has testified at two criminal trials of his former confederates, with mixed results. There were unanimous convictions in his first outing; everyone was acquitted the second time around. But there was no denying his expertise, and in 2005, when federal prosecutors in Brooklyn filed a civil racketeering case that seeks to finally exorcise all the remaining Mafia demons from the ILA, they named George Barone as their star witness.
He has taken to his task with enthusiasm. He is, as he said repeatedly under oath, a man on a mission.
"My mission is to tell the corrupt story of all those years I did their bidding, all those years I was a very faithful Mafia soldier," he said when questioned last year as part of the RICO lawsuit. The union insists Barone is old news and that new reforms have purged any lingering mob taint. But the lawsuit continues and Barone is its troubadour. "I want everyone to know what went on in the ILA," thundered Barone, whose deafness, he says, often causes him to shout. "I'm here to tell the story of the ungratefulness of all the bums that I put in jobs that turned against me."
illlustration: Joseph Salina
He delivered those remarks during an epic 15-day-long deposition last June held at a downtown Brooklyn office. Such sessions are usually methodical and plodding: Lawyers sit in a conference room with a stenographer and a witness, probing for weaknesses in the accounts of their adversaries that can later be used at trial. Federal prosecutors had pushed hard to get Barone's deposition under way quickly, arguing that the witness's condition was so perilous that they needed to capture his testimony before he died. For three weeks, Barone was questioned by a panel of 10 defense lawyers representing the ILA, its individual officers, and its benefit funds. He read their lips when he could make out what they were saying. Otherwise he read off a monitor that transcribed their questions. One by one, the lawyers hammered away at the witness, questioning him about his crimes, his memory, his family, and his finances.
But Barone gave as good as he got. Sick as he may be, he proved that he's still a tough old coot, armed with a fierce bark and a menacing stare that he levels at his targets from beneath a pair of enormous, shaggy eyebrows. "You don't look too rough," he told Howard Goldstein, the ILA's veteran lead attorney, adding: "You got to have a laugh under these conditions."