By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
After Joseph "Joe Campy" Campanella spent 20 years as a loyal mobster for the Colombos, the family bumped off his mentor. Then they shot Joe Campy and left him for dead. Then they stole his crew and left his real family destitute.
Given this series of betrayals, it wasn't unexpected when Joe Campy turned rat. What is surprising is that after he helped put his bosses behind bars, Joe Campy spurned the witness-protection program and stuck around.
For the past three years, Campanella has been living within 25 miles of his crew's old Brooklyn social club. Forget about disguises or the plastic surgery that Sammy "the Bull" Gravano underwent when he moved to Arizona—Joseph Campanella hasn't even changed his name: "I feel my mother and father gave me this name, and I'm keeping it," he says. No one has fitted him for cement shoes, sent him swimming with the fishes, or tried to give him two to the back of the head.
One former federal prosecutor connected to various Colombo crime family cases tells the Voice that Joe Campy may be the only made man turned snitch to turn down witness protection and still live in the area.
"He's not just a made guy—he was a captain," says the ex-prosecutor, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The fact that he's still living in the area after testifying at three trials, including against his boss and underboss, is outrageous. Just don't get him killed with your article."
Does the fact that Joe Campy is living more or less openly mean that the Italian-American gangster era that inspired Goodfellas and The Sopranos has expired? There's no question that the steady flow of criminal cases brought against the city's five crime families over the past 20 years has decimated the once-ferocious mafia. But mob experts aren't willing to pronounce last rites just yet.
George Stamboulidis, who successfully prosecuted several Colombo cases with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn in the '90s, concedes that with so many of the mobsters jailed or facing charges, "they're probably not in an immediate rush to go and settle scores at this point."
"But, let's put it this way," Stamboulidis says of Campanella, "it wouldn't be a good bet to sell him life insurance."
If his ex-pals aren't actively settling scores, Joe Campy still is: He's trying to set up a website Outofthelife.com to help other jammed-up gangsters find the best way to betray their pals.
As to his living openly, yes, he does that—but he tries not to live stupidly. He generally steers clear of his old Brooklyn neighborhoods. "It's not right that I do show my face and think I'm better than anyone else, you know," he says. "There's no way I'm thinking like that whatsoever."
On the other hand, Joe Campy may be 49 years old and on the short side, but he still has a bodybuilder's physique and vast experience as a skull-cracker.
"Of course I think about it—definitely," he says about the possibility of getting whacked. "There's not a day goes by that I don't think about it. But then again, you know, I'm a street guy, too. It's not like I'm an office worker, you know. I was a wise guy, too." He laughs. "But I guess I can't think like that no more, because I'm supposed to be changed."
Joe Campy may be the only wise-guy winner from the city's last mob war. Less than two years after becoming a "made man" in the Colombo crime organization in 1989, he dutifully took his spot on the front lines of one of the most brutal, treacherous, and self-defeating civil wars in gangland history. At least 11 mafiosi and one innocent teenager were fatally gunned down, and at least that many wounded, in the battle waged between June 1991 and October 1993. The war brought the Colombos to the brink of extinction, and the fallout continues: Just last month, the entire current Colombo hierarchy was indicted for racketeering related to two murders during that war.
Unlike most of those who took part in the Colombo war, Joe Campy is not just another number in some federal prison. He's living just about wherever he chooses. The trade-off was that he had to become a "cooperating witness"—what his ex-pals call a "c.w.," and what mob lore has deemed a snitch, a stool pigeon, a canary, or, the ultimate putdown, a rat.
Testifying for the government, Campanella helped put away Vincent "Chickie" DeMartino ("that fuck") and Giovanni "John the Barber" Floridia (Chickie's "fuckin' dope" of a friend) for trying to assassinate him. Joe Campy then testified against the big boys: underboss Jackie DeRoss and acting Colombo boss Alphonse "Allie Boy" Persico. Both were convicted and face life terms for conspiring to murder William "Wild Bill" Cutolo, the man who taught Joe Campy everything he knew about "the life."
Joe Campy's reward: He had to serve three years in an extortion case and three more years on parole. Just last month, on August 11, he became an absolutely free man.
For the first time since his days making concrete fountains and garden ornaments for his father's statuary business as a kid in Dyker Heights, Campanella is living the life of what he and his former pals referred to as a "regular guy" or "civilian."