Secrets of the Mob

A geezer gangster sings like a canary

Ex-mobster George Barone growls and grimaces during 15 days of deposition. Photo: Staci Schwartz

Torres took 10 stitches to close his wound, and Barone took a collar for felonious assault. Two months later, his lawyer worked some magic in Magistrate's Court and Barone was allowed to plead guilty to disorderly conduct and pay a $50 fine.

Asked about the episode at his deposition, Barone had a different version, saying that he'd simply defended himself when Torres came at him with a knife. "He was trying to stab me and I hit him with a stick," he said.

George Barone, circa 1954. "I want to tell the story," he says, "and I don't care what happens to me after that."
George Barone, circa 1954. "I want to tell the story," he says, "and I don't care what happens to me after that."


Tune in: Talking with reporter Tom Robbins

Barone lost his job over the affair, and was forced to seek new employment. "What did you do after that?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Hayes asked Barone on the first day of his deposition.

"I became a gangster," answered the witness.

To do so, he hooked up with a new friend, an ex-con named Johnny Earle. The pair formed a gang, calling themselves the Jets—a name later made famous in West Side Story. They recruited a half-dozen other malcontents as members, including the Flynn brothers (Eddie and Terry), Georgie Blue, Mikey Ross, and a pint-sized kid named Little Larry Dentico, who later became a feared mobster. The budding gangsters were so tight with the longshoremen's union that they held their meetings at the ILA's old headquarters on West 14th Street, Barone testified.

The Jets rumbled with other Irish and Italian gangs on the West Side, fighting for control of local rackets like numbers-running and loan-sharking. But their biggest haul was the $650,000 that Barone and Johnny Earle took off of a thief named Redmond "Ninny" Cribbens, who had stolen the money from a bank in Nassau County. Barone and Earle snuck into a cottage where Cribbens was hiding out and stole the money while the thief was away.

When Barone first told the story to the FBI in 2001, he said that the duo had waited for Cribbens to return and then killed him after he walked in the door, Barone shoving him down into a recliner and plugging him several times. At his deposition, he gave the murder a softer spin. "Ninny Cribbens had something we wanted. He resisted, and we shot him," Barone testified.

Whatever the circumstances, today the aging gangster doesn't deny his murders. "I got a track record of being in a lousy, dirty, rotten environment where killing was part of staying alive," he explained at his deposition.

As in "dog eat dog"? he was asked.

"Dog kill dog," Barone replied.

Brute force, he found, was good for business. As the Jets' reputation grew, they attracted the attention of the Genovese crime family, long considered the savviest of the city's five Mafia tribes and always on the lookout for potential executive recruits. Barone and Earle dealt initially with Vito Genovese himself, meeting the dapper mob chieftain at his Thompson Street headquarters in Greenwich Village. They arranged a series of favors for him, including a sweetheart contract with an ILA local for a cargo-packing company Genovese owned. Genovese took a special liking to Earle, who had served time in prison with Genovese's hulking lieutenant, ex-fighter Vincent "Chin" Gigante, famous years later for his loony shuffles through the Village in a tattered bathrobe.

The relationship ended abruptly, however, when a dissenting faction within the Jets— angry over the division of their spoils—decided in 1958 to hire a professional and profligate killer named K.O. Konigsberg to take out Earle. Years later, Konigsberg claimed to a detective that Barone had given him the gun for the hit. But the allegations, raised by lawyers at the deposition, made the witness seethe. "I never met K.O. Konigsberg. Johnny Earle was my best friend. Without him, I was nothing. The guy took me out of the gutter," he testified.

After Earle's death, Barone added, Vito Genovese angrily broke off contact. "He just disowned us all—and the Jets, including me. I was left wandering at sea, you might say."

He soon found safe harbor at the clubhouse of another Genovese leader, the late Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno, the cigar-chomping mob prelate who ruled from a chair on an East Harlem sidewalk. Barone found Salerno "very likable, very fair," and, most importantly, "powerful."

He had come to understand the elements of power, he said. "I realized the Mafia was there, the most controlling factor on the waterfront in almost every area in the United States, the world, New York," Barone testified. "I had to get someplace."

As part of his own self-improvement program, Barone said he undertook an in-depth study of business on the docks. "I became very, very interested and very serious about the ILA and its purpose and reasoning as a way of life," he said. One of his early and most important lessons was in the looming revolution on the docks, in which the method for moving cargo was shifted from separate labor-intensive loads handled by individual men with broad backs and big hooks to huge metal containers that were loaded and unloaded from ships by enormous cranes.

Containerization was bad news for the thousands of men who depended on the docks for their livelihood. But it was an excellent development for those who controlled the union locals that handled and repaired the giant containers. Barone understood the upside and the down.

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