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."
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.
"They give you this bullshit thing in Italian. I don't know what the fuck they're talking about," he recalls. "It didn't matter. So anyhow, Billy gives me a prick on the finger. He gives me this whole bullshit thing about 'You got to live for the family, and if you're ever called, you've got to come—no matter what you're doing,' and I just do the agreement thing, and then he gets a picture of a saint, puts it in my hand, sets it on fire."
Campanella said he was so nervous that even after the picture started burning his hand, he didn't drop it. "Finally, Billy goes, 'Let it go, that's enough.' Everyone was laughing. It was fuckin' comical. And that was it. You give a bullshit thing, and before you know it, you're a fuckin' wise guy."
The next day, Cutolo picked him up, bought him a whole new wardrobe, and took him around to other mobsters and introduced him as a "friend." Though Campy was not allowed to tell anyone, his wife saw the new threads and the look on his face—"I was just like fuckin' glittering"—and knew right away, he says. As he recalls it, she moaned: "Oh, no." Campy says he expected the mixed feelings: "In a way, she felt good for me. But where she came from, they were hardworking people, and I don't think she wanted that for me."
Besides extortion and shylocking, Campy and his pals started working some other angles. They created a phony produce company and scammed 100 grand, he says, from food wholesalers at Hunts Point. They made and sold up to 4,000 counterfeit subway tokens a week. They extorted medical clinics and bilked insurance companies with false medical claims.
But the good life was short-lived.
On June 20, 1991, "Little Vic" Orena was returning to his Long Island home when he spotted four Colombo men sitting in a car near his McMansion. Realizing it was a hit team, Little Vic drove off and, later that night, ordered Cutolo and the other 11 Colombo captains to an emergency meeting. Six showed. Six didn't. Trouble.
The no-shows were loyal to Carmine "the Snake" Persico, the boss who ruled the Colombos even while serving 139 years for racketeering. Persico thought Orena, installed as temporary boss until Carmine's son "Little Allie Boy" got out of jail, was trying to take over the family—which, with the backing of Gambino don John Gotti, he was.
New York City's other crime families ostensibly made efforts to head off a war. But on November 18, 1991, the bullets started flying. That day, a hit team that included Campanella tried to take out the Persicos' most able and willing killer, Gregory Scarpa Sr.
The hit team "clocked" Scarpa for three days, familiarizing themselves with his routine, before pulling their stolen van onto Scarpa's block that chilly morning and waiting for him to leave his house.
"Once we seen his guys pull up in front of his house, we know he's coming out," Campy recalls. "As soon as we seen their car parked right in front of the house, we started pulling up to the corner nice and easy."
As Scarpa appeared, the doors to the van flew open and out poured the four gunmen. But one of the would-be assassins got the jitters and fired wildly before the others were close enough to shoot with accuracy.
"Greg and his guys caught the move," says Campy. "Greg just jumped in the car, and his guys and him just—pfffffffft—gave it the gas, and we were fucked. We were just standing there with our dicks in our hands, you know. After that, all fuckin' hell broke loose."
The Orenas scored the first fatality, killing "Hank the Bank" Smurra outside a Brooklyn doughnut store five days later. Campy recalls with a laugh: "Hank the Bank wanted a doughnut, and all he got was a hole."
Five days after that, Campanella himself fired shots into a car containing two of Scarpa's guys, whom he stumbled over as they were coming out of Bruno's barber's shop in Bensonhurst. The wounded driver subsequently crashed, injuring four pedestrians on the sidewalk.
Scarpa was already dying of AIDS he had contracted from a blood transfusion during an ulcer operation, and he waged war like a man who knew his time on this earth was near the end. He's credited with at least four of the Persico side's seven kills, including picking off a guy named "Fat Vinny" with rifle shots while Vinny was on a ladder hanging Christmas lights on his house. Scarpa also scored several non-fatal hits. Many Orena loyalists suspect that Scarpa, a longtime secret FBI informant, was aided in his rampage by information fed to him by a rogue FBI agent who tipped him off on the whereabouts of his Orena rivals ("Tall Tales of a Mafia Mistress," Tom Robbins, October 23, 2007).
About seven months after the failed hit on Scarpa, a slew of indictments landed most of the key players from both sides behind bars, forcing a ceasefire. One of the few not rounded up, Campy was elevated to acting capo by the jailed Cutolo. "But by then, there was nobody left, and there was no money to be made," Campy says with a laugh. "I was the captain of nothing. Comical."
The family limped along for a couple of years as the criminal cases made their way through the court system. As underworld rumors swirled that the other crime families were considering no longer officially recognizing the Colombos, the Persico and the Orena factions decided to kiss and make up. Eventually, Allie Boy was named the acting boss, and Cutolo, who beat his court case connected to the mob war, became underboss.
By then, however, Campy and Cutolo were barely talking—Cutolo had stolen one of Campy's big earners, a guy making millions in a "pump-and-dump" stock scam. "PS: I got nothing," Campanella says. "Both of 'em screwed me. But, hey, that's the way it is in the life."
Nevertheless, Campy was pulling in upwards of $5,000 a week, had money in the bank to support his families, equity in his house, pumped iron every day, had lots of girlfriends, and wasn't drinking or gambling. Without Wild Bill Cutolo calling all the shots, he says, "for the first time, I felt, you know, like my own man."
Soon, he was without Cutolo permanently. Called one night to a sit-down at a restaurant, Wild Bill's right-hand man Jackie DeRoss took him aside before heading in. "He asks me what do I think about killing Billy," Campanella says. "I was shocked. You know, I was like, 'Where the fuck did this come from?' So I just put my head down and shook my head." DeRoss told him that Allie Boy Persico, who was heading to prison on a gun conviction, was afraid that Cutolo, who was making millions and was well-liked by the other families, would become so powerful in Allie Boy's absence that it would be impossible to get power back. They knew that Campanella and Cutolo had had a falling-out but that Campy nevertheless would be the perfect guy to set Wild Bill up. But seeing Campanella's reaction, DeRoss told him to forget about it. Campanella, being a good soldier, he says, never tipped off Cutolo.
A short time later, on May 26, 1999, Cutolo disappeared—never to be heard from again.
Fast-forward two years to July 16, 2001: Campanella is coming out of the gym when he sees a green minivan following him. After trying to lose it, Campy says, he decided: "The feds are on me—fuck it, I'll go to the beach." He spent a couple of hours sunning himself at Coney Island and headed back to his Benz. Again, he saw the green minivan. When it banged a U-turn and headed toward him, Campanella figured he was going to be pinched: "PS: It turns out it's my friend Chickie and John the Barber who yells out, 'Hey, Joe!' I see [Chickie] come out the passenger side and the tip of the gun I notice with a towel around it, and he just starts blasting me."
A round caught Campanella in the upper arm as he flung it over his face. As he zigzagged across the street, another round ricocheted into the sole of his sneaker and blew off a toe.
In a different time, Chickie was one of the guys who had gone with Campy to try to kill Greg Scarpa. But Chickie had learned that Campy suspected him of offing Cutolo and might have figured: "Kill or be killed." Campy says that Chickie also thought that while he was in prison, Campy had fucked his wife—Campy denies it.
As a wounded Campy was lying in an ambulance, he recalls, he had a vision: "I'm dead, I'm in the coffin, my two sons in suits and ties crying over me. And then that was it." But it was only a vision. "I went to the fuckin' hospital," he says, "and as soon as I got there, there was FBI agents all over the place."
He wouldn't talk then, but he recalls: "I knew there was a door open if I ever needed it."
Realizing that he could no longer trust his mob pals, he was "heartbroken with the life." And then in November 2002, he was arrested on an extortion indictment involving the medical scam. As Thanksgiving passed and with Christmas nearing, he was still locked up when he learned from his wife and girlfriend that his crew hadn't given them money to live on. At that point, Campy figured out that Chickie had stolen his crew.
So when the FBI promised to take care of Campanella's family, he says, he went for it.
"Once I knew that both my families were going to get help and support," he recalls, "I said, 'Fuck it. You know what? I got nothing right now. What could I lose, right?' So that's when I threw the fuckin' towel in."
Any fears of his becoming a lone mob turncoat were wiped away when after a short stint at a New Jersey jail, Campanella landed at federal prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. "Right off," he says, "I actually met a lot of guys that just flipped. Everybody's there just to help one another."
Former Philadelphia mob boss turned rat Ralph Natale "was very good to me," Campanella said. As was Richie Cantarella, a Bonnano turncoat whose co-operation induced his boss, Joe Massino, to flip. And Campy was a cellmate for almost two years with Michael "Mikey Scars" DiLeonardo, a Gambino captain who subsequently testified against John "Junior" Gotti.
"Me, personally, I found prison, I don't know, fuckin' comfortable, you know?" It was, he says, just another form of hanging out.
Shortly after Campanella arrived at Allenwood, federal marshals offered him witness protection.
"Most of these guys love witness protection mostly for the wrong reasons," says Howard Abadinsky, a St. John's University professor of criminology who wrote the textbook Organized Crime. "They use the new identity to commit more scams. It gives them a blank slate in the criminal sense."
But Campanella had already made up his mind—and for what he says were different reasons: "To me, it was a no-brainer," he says. "What's the sense of going into the program if you can't visit your family, if you can't get a phone call, send a letter—you know what I'm saying? It really came down to: I wasn't ready to go to Utah."
Big mistake, say non-gangster experts. "Quite frankly, what this guy's doing is crazy," says Abadinsky.
Mark Feldman, former chief of the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney's Office's Organized Crime Bureau, warns that "even though the organized-crime landscape has changed considerably, I would urge him to be extremely careful and to avail himself of all protective mechanisms that the government recommends. I think all the factors that could lead to his being hurt are still in place, with probably a lot less control."
Campy's decision has caused his two former FBI handlers nonstop agita because a cooperating witness getting bumped off dissuades future Joe Campys from flipping.
Campanella sees it as a calculated risk: Those who really want him dead and have the balls to do it are all behind bars, and that leaves only a pack of wannabes and weaklings who couldn't make it on the street when he and the other real gangsters were running things.
Nevertheless, three years out of prison, Campanella says he probably should have gone into witness protection—but not for the reasons it was set up. At the time Campanella turned down the program, he was still a part of both his families' lives. "But as I was doing my time, they found their own lives. They found a life without me, and I gotta respect that, you know," he says. "I thought I was gonna come home to somebody and live with somebody, but I wind up living alone, and I don't have anybody."
If he entered the witness-protection program, at least the government would have paid for his college or job training, he says, and "maybe I woulda became something more than just what I am now."
The very thought of Joe Campy living like a regular Joe makes Jeffrey Lichtman, the defense attorney for "John the Barber," laugh. "Joey Campanella is a complete bloodsucker on society," says Lichtman. "He never worked a day in his life. All he did was sit around and try to think up new crimes. Trust me when I tell you he's still taking bets, he's still busting heads, taking protection money—something. He's still breaking the law. After 40 years, you just don't stop."
Campy shrugs off Lichtman's assertions with a laugh and says he has the calluses on his hands, and aches and pain in his joints to prove otherwise. On the other hand, he's looking for a way out of his trucking gig. Knowing nothing about computers (he didn't have an e-mail account until just recently), Campanella dreamed up a website called OutOfTheLife.com aimed at other mob turncoats. He got the idea for the website when inmates who'd heard about his deal kept coming to him, asking how he did it—not just wise guys but gangbangers and drug dealers. It struck him that the site could be a real "earner." He envisioned a pay-per-call number by which he could give live advice on how to flip.
But it wasn't easy finding a computer geek willing to take on a client who is a former Mafia skull-buster and scam artist turned mob snitch. Several Web designers were contacted by Campanella or on his behalf. Four didn't return e-mails and two others declined before he finally found someone.
One reluctant Web designer first cited Campanella's lack of computer knowledge as the reason for rejecting the project. Then the designer, who asked not to be identified, noted that his wife had just had a baby and conceded: "But the real thing was just his past and his being part of the Mafia, not knowing how he solves problems."
PS: That's fuckin' comical.