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Why the Mafia Still Matters

Morgan Schweitzer

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.

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."

trobbins@villagevoice.com


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