Why the Mafia Still Matters

The feds' big new sweep is just one more try

On the same day that federal officials launched their mega-Mafia rollout last week, a handsome silver-haired businessman named Joseph Watts stood before a judge in Manhattan to plead guilty to his own mob crimes.

Despite the "biggest-mob-case-ever" and "Mafia crippled" headlines, there were some not unreasonable gripes about the media carnival staged by Attorney General Eric Holder: Much of the 16 indictments is repackaged crimes, including chump change like construction coffee-wagon shakedowns and electronics-store heists. There's also a high geezer quotient to the biggest names among the 127 defendants: The former boss of New England's mob family is 83; the feds picked him up in the same place everyone else goes to retire—Fort Lauderdale. A top figure in John Gotti's Gambino crime family was charged with what Holder correctly called "senseless murder"—a pair of barroom killings over a spilled drink in 1981. Unmentioned was that Bartolomeo "Bobby Glasses" Vernace, 61, beat that same murder rap in state court back in 2002.

But there's a bigger point to Holder's full-scale federal blast. The intent is to send a message to the mob—a wake-up call as loud as Gotti's old "Put a rocket in his pocket" orders for those who crossed him. The message is that, despite major distractions like terrorism and Mexican drug cartels, the feds aren't forgetting that the American Mafia—no matter how many TV gag lines and blogging giggles about nicknames—remains a real and potent threat. And if you have any doubts about how real it is, you don't have to look any further than Joe Watts.

Morgan Schweitzer

Standing before federal judge Colleen McMahon, Watts admitted to helping plot the 1989 murder of a Staten Island newspaper-editor-turned-mob-real-estate-developer named Freddy Weiss. The confession is expected to cost him 13 years. That's about all Watts, 69, has left.

Watts isn't an official member of Cosa Nostra. He doesn't have enough Italian in him to qualify. In fact, his pals call him "the German." But what he lacks in bloodlines he has more than made up for in mob success. He ran a very profitable construction-materials company in New Jersey. It was considered must-stop shopping for lumber and nails for contractors under the mob's thumb. His loan-shark business—high-priced loans to those in need—brought in some $30,000 a week, according to a roly-poly Gambino defector named Dominic "Fat Dom" Borghese, who for years picked up the cash for him. Fat Dom figured he delivered about $11 million to his boss.

Watts was also a born entrepreneur. In 2007, he launched his own high-energy drink, calling it "American Blast." Pumped full of vitamins and caffeine, it was marketed in red, white, and blue containers. Fat Joe—the rapper, not the gangster—performed at the launch party.

He lived well. In 2001, Ganglandnews.com reported that Watts had a splendid $6 million spread on the west Florida coast. It was guarded by high walls and enough security cameras to make locals whisper. Prosecutors said the cautious man kept the property under the names of front men. One of them was the owner of an exclusive Art Deco antiques gallery on Madison Avenue. Joe Watts traveled in classy circles.

But he wasn't above getting his hands dirty. The Weiss killing is just one of 11 hits Watts allegedly helped handle for his Gambino family superiors. Actually, his own efforts to kill Weiss were a flop. A day before the assassination, he'd waited with a gun in his hand for the ex-newsman to arrive at a pal's garage. He even had a grave dug. But Weiss never showed. A day later, a New Jersey crew—the real Tony Soprano wing, the DeCavalcante family—caught Weiss coming out of an apartment near the Staten Island Mall. Weiss died because Gotti was worried he was turning informer. He was wrong. The feds later said Weiss wasn't cooperating. Not that it mattered. In gangland, it's always better to be safe than sorry.

Here's where it gets a little personal. In February 1989, Freddy Weiss spent a lot of time trying to persuade me and Jack Newfield not to report in the Daily News that vacant land he held near the Staten Island Expressway was being used by mobsters as a dump site for toxic chemicals and medical waste. Weiss was a fast-talking charmer. A former city editor at the Staten Island Advance, he was the type who thought he could walk between the raindrops and not get wet. He was so sure he could head off a bad story that he brought his business partners, a pair of major mob garbage carters named Anthony Vulpis and Angelo Paccione, right into the newsroom to meet with us and our editor, Art Browne. Weiss introduced them as "legitimate businessmen." "Ask them anything you want," he said. "Do you know Jimmy Brown Failla?" we asked, referring to the veteran Gambino captain who handled the mob's garbage empire. The carters glared at Weiss, mumbled about having to be someplace, and walked out. A few months later, Weiss was dead.

That's how real this mob business gets sometimes. And despite the massive legal firepower unleashed last week, it's not likely to close up shop anytime soon. At the press conference, Holder underscored that staying power. He pointed out that the next day—January 21—was the 50th anniversary of the installation as attorney general of Robert F. Kennedy, the first to focus on the mob menace. "They have a framework that lets them survive," says Selwyn Raab, the great former Times reporter whose Five Families is the best recent Mafia book. "There's always someone waiting in the wings, willing to risk long prison sentences, because of the power and riches glittering before them."


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Isn't this the same mobster who, in the mid 1990's, bilked millions of dollars from countless poor immigrants who migrated to the U.S, for a better life by working hard long hours at low paying jobs, immigrants who purchased so-called phone cards from this wiseguy's phony phone card company, only to realize afterward that their hard earned money was stolen from them because the phone cards were worthless and had no minutes on them?

Countless immigrants from Mexico, Equdor, Lima, Spain, Peru, Cuba, Italy, China, Albania, Poland, Ireland, the Netherlands, England, Korea, Vietnam, Scotland, Israel, Yemen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, Canada, Russia, the Dominion Republic, Australia, Japan and Haiti mistakenly thought they were buying phone cards with 30, 60 and 90 minutes worth of phone time on them, only to discover that they bought useless phone cards, not even worth the paper they were printed on. All those immigrants lost the opportunity to call their families they had not seen in many months or years, as a result of this depraved scam. They were left without money to buy real phone cards. What greed, what depravity, what selfish shellfish these mobsters are!!!


Doesn't this remind us of Oscar Wilde's The Picture Of Dorian Grey? Handsome mob guy living jet set life, dressed to the nines in two thousand dollar suits, flashy jewelry, driving expensive luxery cars, money coming out of their asses, a new bimbo to screw every week, a wide variety of business interests. both legal and mostly illegal, the best booze, the best nightclubs and restaurants.

And meantime, they're out there murdering people, luring them to a meeting under the guise of a business meeting and then blowing their brains out or torturing them and then blasting them and then dismembering their bodies and buring the various body parts in a dozen hefty bags, to be thrown away like yesterday's garbage in some mobgrave yard. Those seagulls you see flying over landfills are actually vultures who can't wait to pick open those hefty bags so they can divide the body parts from the lime chemicals used to disguised the odor of decaying human flesh.

Yes, it reminds me of The Picture of Dorian Grey. Grey was a handsome man about town with lots of money and a flashy life style. But beneath that shallow exterior was a psychopath, some depraved form of evil who went through life with a split personality, killing and smiling, smiling and killing. And hiding his crimes beneath that polished exterior of a false kind of respectability.

And all the while, down through the years that Dorian Grey led a double life as a secret murderer and destroyer of life, he had in his mansion of a lifesize portrait of himself that had been painted when he was still a young. handsome and charming man. But he was forced to hide that painting of himself in a basement closet under lock and key. He was forced to hide the portrait because it began to show the truth about Dorian Grey's own life, about the reality of what his soul was truly like. The painting not only began to rapidly age and detoriate in appearence but as time went by, the portrait also became the portrait of what an evil soul looks like in Hell. It developed a very cruel and ice cold stare, the eyes looked liked the sharpened edges of razor blades, the mouth turned into a crooked sneer, the entire face looked like a tombstone, like death.

All the while, Dorian Grey did his very best to look young and healthy. He always died his hair jet black, he had his nails filed, his teeth fixed, he went for massages and took lots of vitamins.He'd gone to doctors to see what could be done about the furrows in his forehead, the smile lines creeping across his face, the slowly developing jowls that creeped up on him in latter years, Perhaps a healthier diet and some weight lifting and a bit of jogging or paddle ball might help.

And then one day Dorian Grey went down to his dark, old basement to have another peek of his once dazzling portrait. He hadn't seen it for years as he was afraid of how it might appear. After all, as time went by, Dorian continued to kill people, to murder them, to chop up their bodies the way a butcher would hack a chicken into parts. But that was Dorian Grey's contribution to society, his gift to the world, to bring grief and despair and hopelessness and pain and terror to his neighbors, friends, business associates and whoever else had the unfortunate luck to cross paths with him. Everything he ever did was so self-serving purposes. Everything he ever did was done to put more money in his pocket, to steal other people's business interests, to ruin their families, to take husbands away from wives, sons away from their parents and fathers away from their sons and daughters.

And when Dorian Grey opened the door to his musty, old dark and dank closet in the bowles of his basement, what he discovered shocked him into a heart attack that caused him to rapidly age and decay while he stood on his feet. His face cowered in fear and shock and dismay for the first in his wretched life as he stared at the reflection from the portrait that gaped back at him with menace. For here was the portrait of a devil from the pit of hell whose past finally caught up with him. Here stood Dorian Grey, aghast by his once handsome portrait that had turned into the mirror image of his own evil soul, a decaying paiting of a wicked man whose sins could no longer be hidden, whose sins have eatten away at his face and body like maggots and worms feasting on the corpse of a mob victim who had been lured to his own murder and then viciously killed, hacked up into a dozen repulsive odds and ends, buried in some swamp or garbage dump or thrown into a oil drum and covered with cement and sealed tight with a metal cover.

Yes, there was no escaping it, no denying it. Even in Hell, Dorian Grey would be forced to keep company with his ever present portrait, his evil twin, forced to stare at another as they suffered in hell for all eternity.

Russell Smith
Russell Smith

Years back the "Readers Digest" had a short feature called "The Most Unforgettable Character I've Met". Tom Robbins, carried on the tradition by giving us many more unforgettable character studies. As a fitting coda to his departure, I reach back to his 2006 view of New Jersey longshoreman "Tommy Hanley" who had a bit part in "On The Waterfront", helping Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), care for a roost of rooftop pigeons. By tracing time across decades Robbins looked back and then ahead to show us through Hanley's saga that the mob persists on the docks of our area. Hanley elected an ILA shop Steward survives and so does organized crime as efforts to neutralize a reinvigorated bi-state Waterfront Commission play out. A NJ legislator wants to strip the WC of investigative authority and vest it instead in the Port Authority. This move harkens back to the efforts by carpenter's union officials to get rid of investigator Water Mack, another champion of member's rights who was temporarily mothballed as that campaign to cripple reform efforts stalled. We learned about all of this through Tom Robbins journalistic derring do. How fitting that Tom closes with a story about the mob. Not limited to simply political or economic analysis our journalist nail pathos as few other can. Who can forget "Jack Chartier" as he takes an aging TV star to chemo treatments in a NYS official vehicle. With Hanley, Mack and Chartier, Robbins leaves us a legacy of character portraits worthy of Balzac or Dickens. Politics yes, but never without the tragic flaws and the pathos of the human condition that underpins it all. Young journalists of today and tomorrow, do take take note!

Billy Budd
Billy Budd

I hope the Voice is trying to get Tom Robbins to change his mind about leaving -- it will be a terrible loss.