For authors Jerry Capeci and Tom Robbins, the long road to their fascinating new book about mafia boss Alfonso D’Arco, who became the federal government’s most successful cooperator, began a decade ago.
In Mob Boss: The Life of Little Al, the Man Who Brought Down the Mafia, which hits bookstores today, Capeci and Robbins detail D’Arco’s rise in the Lucchese crime family and his eventual decision to flip and help the government imprison 50 fellow mafiosi.
D’Arco is an extraordinary figure in city history–perhaps the last old-fashioned mobster, a man who stayed so far under law enforcement radar that when he agreed to cooperate in 1991, the feds didn’t even have a case against him. He was also a killer who ordered hits, conducted at least one himself, and firebombed a Times Square strip club.
But the cloak-and-dagger story behind the story is almost as interesting.
Capeci (and Robbins) had covered some of the trials that D’Arco testified in during his 10 years as a cooperator. Around 2003, when D’Arco was finally sentenced for his own crimes, Capeci initially considered writing a book. At the time, of course, D’Arco was in the witness protection program (where he remains today), so Capeci had to approach D’Arco through back channels.
But the project stalled as D’Arco never responded and the intermediary passed away. And then a few years ago, D’Arco, nearing his late ’70s, reached out to Capeci, again through an intermediary, and indicated he was interested in talking.
“He said he knew I had been interested in doing a book, and at this stage of his life, he was interested,” Capeci tells the Voice.
Capeci, a former Daily News reporter who writes the “Gangland News” internet column, brought in Robbins, a former Daily News reporter and Village Voice staff writer.
The two longtime city journalists had worked together before. When Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes put FBI agent Lindsay Devecchio on trial for his alleged ties to the mob, Capeci and Robbins famously produced a recording of Hynes’s key witness that exposed her as a liar. The charges against Devecchio were dropped.
“We basically went back and forth in circuitous ways to work out an agreement with Al,” Capeci says.
One of the reasons that D’Arco flipped in 1991 was that he was certain his bosses, Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso and Vic Amuso, were going to whack him. As a result, even 18 years later, security was a concern.
Finally, they met, in a “neutral site,” a hotel room somewhere in the country (the location could not be disclosed), and talked over several days. Capeci and Robbins had to keep their project an absolute secret.
“When we went to meet him, we didn’t even tell our families where we were going,” Robbins says.
“He walks in, wearing a baseball cap, and he gave the impression of somebody’s Uncle Al,” Capeci says. “He was an engaging kind of guy.”
Robbins recalls their meeting this way: “So we fly to wherever we had to go, and we get there, and no Al. And we’re thinking this is going to go bust. About an hour later, he comes in and says, ‘How ya doin’ guys, it took you awhile to find the place.’ He could have been any senior citizen. If you saw him in a mall, you wouldn’t think twice.”
After that, there was a second secret meeting some months later that also spanned several days. D’Arco answered every question, as conscientious toward the project as he had been loyal to the mob and loyal to the feds after he flipped.
In many ways, D’Arco was the opposite of John Gotti. Where Gotti was loud and ostentatious, D’Arco was quiet and under the radar. “Al’s watchword was ‘low key, everything low key,'” Robbins says.
He was born in 1932, in Little Italy, in a family which was already in the mafia. Over many years, D’Arco rose though the ranks as a soldier, then a capo, and finally as acting boss of the Luchese crime family.
He was “made” in 1982, and eventually took over Paul Vario’s crew. Vario was the boss of Henry Hill, who Ray Liotta portrayed in the movie Goodfellas.
D’Arco was a workaholic. He rarely drank, had no interest in cheating on his wife, and rarely gambled.
[In the underworld, it comes through in the book, he had a certain kind of unwavering dignity. “The way he saw it was that the mob was a business, and he wanted to be the best mobster he could be,” Robbins says. “He was a disciplined businessman and his business was being a mobster.”
Indeed, as Capeci adds, “It’s hard to understand for people who aren’t a part of it, but one reason he flipped is because he felt the mob became corrupt. Well, you say, wait a minute. He would have killed you if he was told to do it.
“But the way Al saw it, it’s like the Army. And killing someone, if it was part of the business, was just one of the things you did. He began to realize that Vic and Gas were killing people just to steal their money and their rackets. He felt that that was not what he signed up for.”
At one point, after a short stint in prison, D’Arco emerged to find that his son was hooked on heroin. “He goes and reads the riot act to mobsters who were selling it on the street, and draws the line at drug-dealing for his crew,” Robbins says.
D’Arco was probably making tens of thousands of dollars a week. He was a loan shark. He had junior mobsters paying tribute to him. And, incredibly, he was living in government-subsidized housing. He was one of those guys who lived outside the boundaries.
He also owned a restaurant called La Donna Rosa at 19 Cleveland Place, which is now a spot called Mexican Radio. It became a mob hangout, and more people were dining on the arm than paying.
Capeci and Robbins recount the time D’Arco refused to allow then-Mayor Ed Koch into the place because a mob meeting was going on, and they write about the night that boxer Jake LaMotta insisted on reciting Shakespeare to patrons, while actor Robert DeNiro studied the mobsters.
“De Niro comes in and [D’Arco] can tell he’s checking them out to inform his roles in the movies,” Robbins says. “Al tells us, ‘I didn’t care for it.'”
Another of D’Arco’s ventures was an Italian/Chinese restaurant called Pasquale and Wong’s. It didn’t do as well as La Donna Rosa.
D’Arco became acting Luchese boss when Casso and Amuso went on the lam after leaving more than a dozen bodies on the street. Casso and Amuso became increasingly paranoid, and began making increasingly bizarre demands on D’Arco.
Then one day, D’Arco was called to a meeting of fellow mobsters at the Kimberly Hotel, and from the atmosphere in the room, concluded they were plotting to kill him on Casso and Amuso’s orders. He left the meeting. He also knew that the two men weren’t beyond hitting a mobster’s family. And so he called an FBI agent in the Westchester County office and offered to cooperate. He was like the spy who came in from the cold, and the move sent shivers through the FBI.
“Al concluded these guys weren’t following the old rules of the mob,” Robbins says.
For the FBI, it was a stunner. First of all, in a period when the feds were blowing the mob apart, they hardly knew anything about him. Second, they didn’t have any leverage on him. Every other major mobster who has cooperated–Gotti lieutenant Sammy “the Bull” Gravano, for example–was facing a life sentence when they turned.
Not D’Arco. One federal prosecutor told Capeci and Robbins that though they knew D’Arco had some involvement in the control of an illegal landfill, they weren’t even close to having enough to charge him and may never have made a case against him.
”From the FBI agents to their higher ups in the Justice Department, no one thought he was a potential cooperator,” Robbins says.
D’Arco took on his role with gusto. “Everyone wanted to talk with this guy, because he knew so many players and had such a great memory for the details,” Robbins says.
But he never got to testify against Casso, even though he was looking forward to the chance. The feds took on Casso as a cooperator, but then as the book says, they concluded he was too evil to take the stand. Casso also lied repeatedly, broke his cooperation agreement and ended up with a life sentence.
Did D’Arco ever regret a life in the mob? “He told us, how could he ever regret a decision that he made?” Robbins says. “He talked about how he came into it, how it was like he was walking through a forest and all the trees were dons.”
And what’s D’Arco doing now? “He’s retired,” Capeci says. “He’s retired from the life and he’s retired from his role as a cooperator.”