By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
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By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
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It's not that Joe Campy was a mob star, but at the height of his game, this workaday soldier was pulling in about $5,000 a week through extortion, shylocking, and a variety of scams. Last year, delivering freight in his own truck, he took home only about $26,000—what he used to make on one sweet score. With the economy plummeting and gas prices soaring, he doesn't expect to make much more this year. The Mercedes he once drove has been replaced by an old, reliable Chevy pick-up. His tailored suits have given way to work clothes. Where he was once, in Mafia tradition, able to support two families—a wife and their older son, and a girlfriend and his other son—he now lives alone in an $875-a-month one-bedroom apartment. But after nearly six years out of organized crime, Campanella claims: "I love being a regular guy. You enjoy life completely differently. You see life as it's supposed to be. The best part is your phone don't ring, and you get told 'You got to come and meet me,' and you got to go answer right away or else."
However, when he talks about this new life during a meal of chicken pasta at Boulder Creek, his eyes don't twinkle and his hands don't start waving around the way they do when he talks about the bad old days.
"I loved 'the life.' I really did," he says, his eyes instinctively scanning the restaurant.
Campanella says with only a hint of regret that he wouldn't have become a mobster if his father, a "regular working guy," hadn't died of a heart attack when Campy was only 17. But even before his dad died, Campy seemed to be naturally gravitating toward a life of organized crime.
Never much of a student, Campy has only one distinct memory of his alma mater, New Utrecht High: that it was the setting for Welcome Back, Kotter. His school was the streets of Brooklyn. At 16, he was arrested for stabbing a black guy who was supposedly harassing some neighborhood girls. The three stab wounds Campanella received in the battle himself were an easy trade-off for the boost his reputation received that day: "That's where I grew an ego right there—being a tough guy on the street."
He and his pals hung out first at a schoolyard on 64th Street, and then at Red's candy store at 62nd and Eleventh Avenue. They stole cars for joyrides and sold dime bags of pot for spending money.
One day, after Campy and the boys had made trouble with local merchants—"just acting stupid"—they received a visit from "Wild Bill" Cutolo.
A "dress-neat guy" with his "half-duckass" hair pushed back, as Campy recalls him, Cutolo looked like a '50s mobster. Wild Bill was a Colombo comer back then, with his hooks into a big warehouse union and a growing loan-shark business. He let the boys know that the stores on that block were his, paying him protection money. "Set us straight," Campanella recalls: The boys were in awe.
"With us, he had an instant army," Campanella says. "Whenever he needed something done—we had such a big crew—he used to just send 10 guys, say, 'Here, just crack this guy's head open' or whatever. There was always something that he had to send guys out to do."
And, sometimes, Campy did his job too well. Early on, he recalls, Wild Bill sent him to scare a neighborhood dentist who was behind on loan payments. Instead of just threatening him, Campy broke the guy's arm.
"Billy was yelling at us, 'What the hell did you hurt the guy for?' But we thought it was funny, you know? We were at that age when you told us, 'Hey, go grab this guy,' we grabbed the guy. Whatever the hell happens after that—we're not responsible."
Wild Bill cut the boys in on his shylocking busines, and Campy was more reliable than the other young guns. He didn't drink or gamble, and he married his high-school sweetheart. Cutolo put him in charge of collecting his vig (Wild Bill's cut from what they collected) from the other boys, and eventually took Campy under his wing.
As Cutolo's protégé, the real money started coming in: a couple of hundred a week at first, then $1,000, and soon double that and more. He fondly recalls those salad days. Everything was exciting and "comical" (his favorite word for things funny or pathetic). Whether Campy and the boys were splitting up $200 or $2,000, everybody got an equal cut. No egos, no jealousies, no problems.
After nine years of breaking heads and chasing down deadbeats, Campanella was officially made a part of a once-secret society of criminals. He had never killed—the supposed requirement for becoming a "made" mobster. But Cutolo, looking to increase his crew size, kept that fact to himself, says Campy, and "proposed" his loyal apprentice for membership in December 1989. The ceremony took place in a house somewhere on Long Island where Campy met acting boss Victor "Little Vic" Orena for the first time.