WHERE WERE YOU when the Mafia died?
It has been more than a year since that historic Thursday when a Brooklyn jury adjourned for lunch and found John Gotti guilty before the soup arrived. “The mob as we have known it in New York City is on its way out,” eulogized James Fox, head of the FBI’s New York office. “This could be the death knell for organized crime … in the United States.”
Gotti’s conviction, the experts crowed, was the culmination of the government’s most recent war against organized crime, a crusade begun in the mid ’80s by racketbuster Rudolph Giuliani, our erstwhile Tom Dewey with a combover. The swift verdict confirmed what The New York Times had been tirelessly reporting for years: the mob was on life support, finally reduced to the street gang J. Edgar Hoover always knew it was. We were witnessing the “twilight of the dons,” one TV special informed us.
In fact, the Mafia’s prospects appeared so bleak, it seemed inevitable that the Italians would be usurped by other ethnics: the Ghost Shadows would seize control of Teamsters Local 282; the price of concrete would now be fixed by the Jamaican posses; and the Albanians would become the secret force at Kennedy Airport.
It seemed like just yesterday that the Mafia was perceived as the enemy within. With Gotti doing life, was it really possible that the next capo di tutti capi might be a Russian from Brighton Beach? How did things disintegrate so quickly?
John Gotti was the guiltiest of pleasures for investigators and journalists alike. The underworld has long been dominated by bland men in zipper jackets and polyester blends, which made Gotti’s cheesy suits and 40 mph haircut seem all the more refreshing.
And just as Nicky Barnes once played and dressed up to his reputation as Harlem’s reigning pusherman, Gotti introduced the Method to the Mafia, becoming the Dapper Don. What’s not to like about an Italian guy in a silk raincoat leaving a Mulberry Street social club, entering a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz, and heading to Regine’s for some Cristal? Such “style” hadn’t been seen since the heyday of Frank Costello.
Television was especially guilty of inflating the Gotti myth. But who could blame them? Those Brioni suits and garish handpainted ties were so much more visual than the standard Adidas warm-up. When Gotti waved an index finger at WNBC’s John Miller and warned the reporter to “behave yourself,” well, that was great television. The telegenic Gotti is a convicted mass murderer, but his Q rating probably approaches those of Barney and Roseanne.
Even his homicide style got high marks: the brazen rush-hour murder of Paul Castellano had such panache, it seemed almost an homage to the classic New York rubouts: Albert Anastasia in the Park-Sheraton barber shop, Kid Twist out a window in the Half Moon Hotel, Carmine Galante’s last supper.
So it is not surprising that many reporters — like Daily News gossip Linda Stasi — appear to be suffering from separation anxiety, judging by the regular accounts of the exiled Gambino boss’s prison reading habits and exercise regimen. Tabloid readers have also been provided with detailed accounts of a Jon Peters-produced Gotti movie (screenplay by Joe Eszterhas!) and a lame rap tribute (lyrics by Big Lou!), which deserves a spot under Calvin Butts’s next steamroller.
Banished to a cell in southern Illinois, Gotti has been forced to live on in absentia as the Boss of Bosses, the Godfather — titles bestowed on him by the FBI in the wake of the Castellano rubout. The titles had been previously tossed about, but nobody had grown into the role — or captured the public’s attention — like Gotti. Does anyone really remember Godfather Frank Tieri?
But in the media’s rush to coronate Gotti, nobody bothered to ask just what the Godfather did, what great powers the Boss of Bosses exercised. Gotti surely didn’t control the city’s four other crime families, and there wasn’t even a consensus in law enforcement circles that the Gambino gang was New York’s premier crime syndicate; the Genovese family was just as large, probably earned more money, and exerted influence over crime groups in other cities, like Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Cleveland.
In the midst of the media frenzy following the Castellano murder, the FBI virtually signed on as Gotti’s press agent, puffing him up in anticipation of the day it would bring him down.
Of course, the notion that Gotti — or any single mob figure — was some sort of omnipotent New York mafioso is ludicrous. The word “Godfather” had a nice, Brando-esque ring, but the title itself is a fraud. It was far simpler for law enforcement officials — usually the FBI — to try to encapsulate the entire Mafia into a single Boss of Bosses than it was to explain the complicated relationships among New York’s five mob families.
More importantly, when Gotti was convicted — and he would be convicted — it would be easier to claim victory over the entire Mafia with the Godfather wearing prison blues.
The FBI’s rabid promotion of Gotti-as-Godfather reminded one prosecutor of a story about Mafia investigations: “We used to joke that when we started an investigation, the target was considered a mob associate. Then, by the time we reached the grand jury, he had magically turned into a soldier. And when we held the press conference announcing the indictment, we’d promoted him to captain.”
In the end, it wasn’t the bureau’s bugs, Sammy Gravano’s tales from the crypt, or the twin curse of greed and hubris that doomed Gotti. He took the bait and was swallowed whole by the Myth of the Godfather.
The “death of the Mafia” talk, which has grown since Gotti’s conviction, first cropped up following Giuliani’s successful RICO prosecutions of the Commission and the mob’s concrete cartel. The Times has delivered Mafia obituaries since at least 1988 and has regularly chronicled organized crime’s “widespread instability” and “disarray.”
Earlier this year, the paper reported that the FBI was so pleased with its recent efforts against Mafia bosses that the bureau was now lowering its sights to middle managers. The paper even noted that some FBI officials were considering deëmphasizing Mafia investigations in favor of focusing on emerging “nontraditional” crime groups like Jamaican posses or Colombian drug gangs. “I think the FBI is ready to declare victory and move on,” one federal prosecutor told the Voice.
Beginning with Hoover, FBI officials have underestimated the Mafia’s influence and tenacity and, in the process, allowed organized crime to become a part of the fabric of New York City, where it remains as the openly criminal wing of the city’s Permanent Government.
A Voice review of more than 500 pages of confidential FBI memorandums, volumes of court testimony, plus interviews with two dozen investigators and prosecutors indicates that, despite a rash of convictions over the last five years, the New York mob has shown a resilience rarely acknowledged by FBI officials, other law enforcement agencies, or the media.
The latest round of prosecutions will probably result in the convictions of a few dozen high-ranking mob figures, principally from the Gambino, Luchese, and Colombo families. This leaves, by city police department and FBI estimates, a total of more than 1000 initiated members spread among New York’s five families. In addition, thousands of uninitiated “associates” are affiliated with these made members.
Historically, the conviction or death of a boss — whether it be Genovese, Luchese, Corallo, Persico, Salerno, Rastelli, or Gotti — means little to the family’s criminal entrepreneurs, who are well suited to survive the fall of a boss. In fact, a recent FBI affidavit asserted that the Luchese crime family — undeterred by the defection of two former high-level mobsters and intense law-enforcement scrutiny — “continued to conduct business as usual,” receiving payments from a wide range of criminal operations, including shakedowns in the Garment Center, area airports, union locals, and building contractors.
The very grassroots nature of the Mafia, with thousands of mob figures surviving the fall of a boss, means that organized crime still has its hand in the everyday lives of New Yorkers. Mobsters like Angelo Prisco and Liborio “Barney” Bellomo — hardly household names — are the Mafia’s backbone, men content to operate in the shadows while dopes like Gotti pay dearly for their turn in the spotlight.
Build a road, buy a dress, go to dinner, fill up the car, attend the San Gennaro festival, even clean up the debris in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombing. It’s all brought to you by the mob.
Gotti’s imprisonment has been portrayed as the government’s crushing blow to the mob. But while bosses may be at the top of those nifty FBI flowcharts, the Mafia’s real power comes from the ground up. A family’s lowest-ranking members, “soldiers,” and the family’s associates are the true criminal masterminds: they still control industries, infiltrate unions and legitimate businesses, and run gambling and loan-sharking operations.
Since late 1991, the FBI’s pool of intelligence about New York’s crime families has expanded greatly, thanks in large part to the cooperation of a variety of former mob figures. These ex-mobsters have provided an unprecedented look at the Mafia’s mindboggling array of economic crimes and, in the process, debunked the repeated claims that successful prosecutions have left the mob mortally wounded. Industries supposedly cleaned up by previous prosecutions were quickly reinfiltrated by the mob, the informants reported.
Despite the FBI’s public declarations of victory and death knells, informants in fact have provided so much information that the bureau’s organized-crime squads have been unable to investigate most of the extortions and shakedowns they have been told about. Investigators conceded in Voice interviews that these economic crimes — at the Mafia’s very heart — are still rampant.
“We have to pick and choose what cases we’ll pursue,” one federal prosecutor said. “We have a mountain of raw intelligence, but the majority of the crimes we’ve been told about can’t be pursued because of statute problems, corroboration, or manpower problems.” Another prosecutor noted that “most of the recent RICO cases are based on murders and murder conspiracies. You don’t see us doing shakedown and extortion cases because the so-called victims don’t cooperate. In fact, I don’t even think the agents bother chasing those down.”
Despite the recent wave of Mafia defections, FBI organized-crime squads are still staffed at the same levels as they were a decade ago, according to bureau spokesman Joe Valiquette, who declined to detail how many agents work on each of the groups assigned to the five Mafia families.
While Sammy Gravano’s testimony against Gotti has received the most attention, the government’s most prolific Mafia asset has proved to be former Luchese member Alphonse D’Arco, whose recall of criminal activities fills more than 350 pages of FBI debriefing memos.
D’Arco, along with Gravano, has provided investigators with a new insight into the mob’s continued corruption of the concrete industry, supposedly cleaned up years ago when Giuliani successfully prosecuted the mob’s concrete cartel for rigging $140 million in construction bids.
In August 1991, according to D’Arco, representatives of three mob families met secretly to carve up another piece of New York.
John A. Gotti Jr. was there representing the interests of both the Gambino family and his imprisoned father. The Colombo gang’s acting boss, Victor “Little Vic” Orena, took a break from his own family’s civil war to attend. And D’Arco, then the Luchese family’s acting boss, rounded out the power trio.
The August sit-down was then just the latest in a number of clandestine meetings about the Mafia’s control of the concrete industry. Despite the late-’80s attempt by Giuliani and the FBI to dismantle the city’s bid-rigging “concrete club,” the mob had quietly regrouped and again cornered the market. The August meeting’s agenda carried one item: what to do with the West 57th Street concrete plant.
The Manhattan plant was designed by the Koch administration in 1986 to be a Mafia-free zone, operating on city-owned land that would provide concrete for municipal projects. The city viewed West 57th Street as its best chance to break the mob’s concrete monopoly and considered the plant’s $2 million price tag a wise investment.
But by 1991, the plant’s inexperienced operator, Philip Elghanian, was floundering, and his troubles were becoming of great interest to the Colombo and Luchese crime families, according to FBI reports.
Both the Colombo and Luchese families were secretly connected to major concrete producers eager to get control of the Manhattan plant, with its central location and its built-in municipal work. The Colombo family’s concrete stake, according to Gravano and D’Arco, has been exercised through Ferrara Brothers, a Queens-based supplier (Ferrara Brothers’s distinctive orange-and-white trucks and mixers have provided concrete for jobs at Battery Park City, Kennedy Airport, and the Archer Avenue train station). The Lucheses were associated with businessman John Quadrozzi and his assorted companies.
D’Arco told the FBI that in early 1991 Quadrozzi came to him and complained that he believed Ferrara had secretly gained control of the West 57th Street plant. D’Arco stated that Ferrara “… because of his organized-crime associations, could not purchase the 57th Street yard. Ferrara made arrangements to purchase the company through another individual.” City records indicate that Elghanian relinquished operation of the plant in March 1991; the plant’s new manager denied in a Voice interview D’Arco’s assertion that the Mafia has infiltrated the West 57th concrete operation.
D’Arco said the August 1991 sit-down ended with Orena stating that “the Colombo, Gambino, and Luchese LCN [La Cosa Nostra] families would all have a split in the money from the 57th Street yard.” D’Arco then added that before he began cooperating with the government in September 1991 — one month after the concrete sit-down — the Luchese family had already received two payoffs in connection with the West 57th Street operation.
D’Arco’s account raises serious questions as to whether, despite the best intentions of the Koch and Dinkins administrations, the Mafia has infiltrated the one concrete operation designed to be clean. Besides producing concrete for city construction projects and street repairs, the West 57th Street plant has branched out and supplied both state and federal projects, including the new federal courthouse near Foley Square.
Though the operation was supposed to produce concrete at below-market prices, the West 57th Street plant has been charging the city 12 per cent more than the local average for a cubic yard. Daniel Kryston, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Construction, which monitors plant operations, acknowledged the increased price in a Times interview. “We tried a new technique to bring down costs and we think it’s working,” he said, emphasizing that one of the city’s goals was to reduce mob influence in the concrete industry.
D’Arco first told the FBI of the mob’s West 57th Street connection in late 1991, but the feds have never bothered to inform city officials about D’Arco’s claim that three Mafia families apparently have honed in on the operation. The FBI has long been criticized for refusing to share its information with local law enforcement agencies, let alone with bureaucrats at City Hall.
Both Gravano and D’Arco have identified Thomas Petrizzo, a Colombo family captain, as Ferrara Brothers’s main mob contact, according to testimony and FBI records. D’Arco recalled one 1990 meeting he attended with Luchese underboss Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso, Petrizzo, Orena, and Joseph Ferrara Sr., president of his family firm. The meeting concerned a joint Quadrozzi-Ferrara Brothers cement importation business and how payoffs would be made to the two families as well as to an associate of the Gambino organization. Gravano has also told of attending a meeting with Petrizzo, Orena, and John Gotti in which the men discussed boosting the price of concrete by $5 a yard.
Ferrara Brothers is the current employer of Anthony Ameruso, the former Koch transportation commissioner who was convicted of perjury in 1987, and Ferrara has also used influential attorney Sid Davidoffs firm as its municipal lobbyist. Joseph Ferrara Jr., the company’s attorney, denied in a Voice interview that the firm had anything to do with the mob. “I don’t know where they get that from,” Ferrara Jr. said of D’Arco and Gravano.
Quadrozzi, too, has denied any involvement with the Luchese crime family. He was indicted last year on contempt and conspiracy charges after D’Arco testified that the businessman paid the Luchese family $20,000 a month for “labor peace.”
The importance of the Luchese-Colombo control of the concrete market was underscored by D’Arco, who provided the FBI with a behind-the-scenes account of plans to kill Lou Valente, a Bronx-based concrete producer who precipitated a price war. Valente decided to drop his prices in a bid to expand his business. Valente’s gambit led both families to consider murdering him because of their concern that Valente would steal business away from the Ferrara/Quadrozzi operations. After D’Arco checked with Gravano to make sure Valente wasn’t associated with the Gambino gang, “serious talks began about killing Valente,” D’Arco reported last year.
Valente was not eventually harmed by the Colombo-Luchese avengers, sources said, because he decided to abandon his price war. Valente did not return Voice calls.
Addressing the Mafia’s attraction to legitimate industries, Robert Mass, former chief of the Manhattan district attorney’s labor-racketeering unit, noted that “unlike narcotics trafficking, law enforcement efforts in the field have tended to be weak and sporadic; and the criminal penalties for the fraud and bribery crimes arising from industrial racketeering are not severe.” Mass added that industrial racketeering gives mob members and associates “the ability to make illegal money for the family, while retaining status and credibility in the legitimate community.”
The mob survives in New York’s very infrastructure, and not only in concrete. Due largely to spotty law enforcement attention, a steel company controlled by Colombo captain Petrizzo has prospered, becoming the textbook example of a firm that has capitalized on its Mafia connections.
Headquartered in Keasbey, New Jersey, Petrizzo’s company, A. J. Ross Logistics, specializes in the production of rebars, steel rods that reinforce concrete used in buildings, bridges, roads, and other structures.
Despite — or possibly because of — the mobster’s upfront role with the company, A. J. Ross has done work on almost every major public and private construction job in New York over the past decade, including the IBM building. Equitable Towers, the North River sewage treatment plant, the Javits Convention Center, the refurbishments of the FDR Drive, and the ongoing West Side Highway project. Petrizzo’s client list contains every major city construction firm: Lehrer/McGovern, H.R.H Construction, Olympia & York, Tishman Construction, Turner Construction, and dozens more.
Petrizzo founded A. J. Ross in December 1975 and took the company public in 1985, according to Securities and Exchange Commission records. Petrizzo is the firm’s largest single stockholder and, until he stepped down as president and Chief Operating Officer last year, his salary was $329,409. SEC records also reveal that Petrizzo, who refused to take Voice calls, has received an unsecured $800,000 loan from the company.
D’Arco, Gravano, and former Luchese captain Peter Chiodo have all told the FBI about Petrizzo’s booming business and how the mob steers business to him in return for kickbacks. D’Arco said that, in connection with A. J. Ross’s work on the West Side Highway, Petrizzo kicked back $800,000 to the Luchese family; the payment was made by the Colombo captain because he was doing the highway project in conjunction with a contractor associated with the Luchese family.
Chiodo recalled his dealings with one businessman who not only tried to avoid paying off the Luchese family, but who also refused to use Petrizzo’s steel company on his construction jobs. The Luchese hierarchy was so annoyed by the contractor’s behavior, Chiodo was ordered to kill the recalcitrant businessman. The attempt was foiled when Chiodo’s gun jammed.
As with most of its municipal construction work, Petrizzo’s firm was a subcontractor on the West Side Highway project, which allowed it to avoid the screening and background checks that are standard for a project’s general contractor. Loopholes like this — which are commonplace on government construction projects — allow Mafia figures to continue hiding in plain sight. The one exception to this rule is the School Construction Authority, which has established an aggressive screening process to weed out undesirable contractors. SCA officials, some of whom have worked with the state Organized Crime Task Force, gather information on firms from a variety of sources — court cases, press accounts, investigators — in an effort to keep public dollars out of tainted hands.
Clearly, the Mafia’s infiltration of the construction industry has never waned; hundreds of businessmen owe their success to an affiliation with organized crime. When a major general contractor like Herbert Construction hires Gambino member Anthony Scotto as an executive, it sends a clear message about the mob’s influence. Scotto, a former crime captain, was demoted to soldier following his conviction on labor-racketeering charges.
Two other prominent businessmen are indicative of both the mob’s entrenched role in the construction industry and the government’s inability to combat this alliance.
Thomas Nastasi has been implicated — but never charged — in bid-rigging and bribery schemes dating back a decade, but this has not prevented him from becoming the drywall industry’s most prominent figure. Nastasi’s Queens-based firms, Circle Industries and Nastasi-White, have done work on everything from the American Embassy in Moscow to the platform at last year’s Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden. Nastasi, who has long been associated with Genovese crime family figures, is also a friend of U.S. senator Al D’Amato and has helped organize fundraisers for the politician.
Like Nastasi, Bronx-based contractor Sidney Silverstein has also been tied to a Mafia bid-rigging conspiracy, but he continues to do significant business with public housing agencies. Silverstein’s firm, Sparrow Construction, has built hundreds of units of low-cost housing in the Bronx and Brooklyn under contracts with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the city’s department of Housing Preservation and Development.
Silverstein once admitted to the Voice that he employed Luchese captain Steve Crea as a “labor consultant” and paid him more than $100,000 a year. When a reporter mentioned Silverstein’s mob ties to HPD’s inspector general — the city agency’s in-house cop — he did little more than shrug his shoulders.
Along with direct links to construction firms themselves, the mob’s control of various labor unions continues to be a source for tens of millions in payoffs. Though federal prosecutors and union trustees have targeted some locals over the past few years, D’Arco has said that these efforts have been minimally successful in breaking the mob’s union stranglehold.
The government’s filing of civil RICO lawsuits against mob-tainted unions has proved successful, but such litigation is expensive, time consuming, and demands a governmental commitment that has sometimes lagged. For example, after almost three years of arduous pretrial maneuverings, the government’s civil racketeering lawsuit against the corrupt, Mafia-riddled District Council of Carpenters is finally scheduled to open later this month in Foley Square.
Like many construction unions, various carpenters locals have been transformed into Mafia outposts, where businessmen are forced to pay as they go. The FBI debriefings of Chiodo and D’Arco contain more than a dozen instances in which representatives of the Luchese family shook down construction contractors and developers for labor peace.
Nobody, not even the wealthy or politically connected rides for free. D’Arco cited one instance in which one of the city’s best-known developers allegedly paid Luchese soldier Dominick Truscello “a substantial amount of money” to “settle a labor dispute” that arose during the late 1980s construction of a residential high rise on the Upper East Side. “After making the payment to Truscello,” D’Arco reported, “the labor dispute was settled.”
Every major mob turncoat over the past 25 years — Yalachi, Fratianno, Cafaro, Leonelli, Lonardo, as well as the recent group of inductees into the Witness Security program — has told investigators that the Mafia’s corrupt influence of labor unions and legitimate businesses often falls to crime family associates. These operatives come from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds — many are not ltalian and are therefore ineligible for initiation — and are key cogs in the Mafia’s criminal machines.
“He’s a good Jew,” Anthony Casso once said proudly of Sidney Lieberman. “If he wasn’t a Jew, we’d straighten him out,” the Luchese underboss added, referring to the prospect of inducting Lieberman into the Mafia.
Like Nastasi and Silverstein, Lieberman is one of thousands of money-making associates dispersed among the five New York families. He is the family’s key contact in the Garment Center, which has been a Luchese family stronghold since the 1950s, when John “Johnny Dio” Dioguardi ruled Seventh Avenue.
FBI records indicate that Lieberman fronts for the Luchese family in a number of trucking companies and that he “shakes down businesses … awards concessions and sweetheart contracts along with conducting extortions in regard to which materials … businesses in the garment center must buy and from which manufacturer they must buy them from.”
Like most successful mob associates, Lieberman has avoided the limelight and has so far dodged criminal prosecution, becoming in the process one of the most powerful figures in the Garment Center, the eminence grise of Seventh Avenue.
During the Manhattan D.A.’s investigation of Thomas and Joseph Gambino’s trucking operations, Lieberman was caught on wiretaps counseling Thomas Gambino about trucking industry matters. He was never charged. Investigators now concede they were unaware of Lieberman’s extensive Mafia contacts.
Lieberman’s role with the Luchese family hasn’t been limited to the Garment Center. He was in the middle of a classic labor scheme at Kennedy Airport, where extortion and payoffs remain an everyday occurrence. The scheme, according to FBI documents, involved Amerford International, a freight-forwarding company with 40 offices nationwide.
Amerford, which is owned by the German multinational Thyssin AG, has an office at JFK that once employed 30 clerical workers, all of whom were members of Teamsters Local 851. Amerford’s employee roster had a decidedly mob flavor: the daughters of both D’Arco and Luchese captain Sal Avellino were once on the payroll and Patty Dellorusso, a suspected hitman and Luchese soldier, until recently served as the company’s $93,600-a-year director of national labor relations.
The freight company employed the unionized office workers until one day in 1990 when Amerford fired all the workers, replacing them with a few formerly union employees. Though such a brazen act would usually lead to pickets and union harassment, the sacking was orchestrated in part by Lieberman and a Local 851 official on behalf of the Luchese family.
In exchange for allowing Amerford to fire all of its clerical employees, the company agreed to pay a $10,700-a-week kickback — disguised as a management fee — to a shell corporation controlled by the Luchese gang. D’Arco told the FBI that Amerford’s management was anxious to make the 1990 kickback deal “because of the savings it would receive by eliminating the union salaries and benefits.”
Whether or not Amerford was an extortion victim, its dealings with the mob were as an effective way to reduce company overhead. In fact, an FBI affidavit contends, a similar deal was discussed in which Amerford — in return for a $150,000 payment — would be allowed to sack its clerical staff in Chicago. The payoff would have been divided between Teamsters officials and the Luchese family, according to the affidavit.
After a handful of fired employees were told by their Teamsters representatives that nothing could be done on their behalf, the employees filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board against Amerford and their former union.
Amazingly, the NLRB rejected the ex-employees’ claim that they were victims of unfair labor practices, finding that there was “insufficient evidence of an abrogation of the contract” by Amerford. Though NLRB officials were unaware of the mob’s connection to the Amerford scam, the board’s finding is still troubling in light of clear indications that the mass firing was highly unusual.
Amerford officials did not return Voice phone calls, though they issued a press release in July announcing that they are cooperating with an ongoing federal investigation into mob activity at New York’s airports. At the same time, the company canned Dellorusso as its chief labor negotiator.
The Amerford labor scheme was just one of many kickbacks and extortions that, according to Chiodo and D’Arco, regularly occur at New York-area airports. The two former mobsters have provided a laundry list of trucking companies based at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark that have paid the mob monthly for labor peace. As with Amerford, the names of the companies aren’t familiar to most — Tangas Air Freight, P. Chimento, Air Express International, Burlington — but they all pay off as a matter of course.
At JFK, Teamsters Local 295, which represents warehouse employees and truck drivers, is in the hands of a trustee appointed last year by federal judge Eugene Nickerson. Though the trustee, former federal prosecutor Thomas Puccio, is charged with dismantling the Luchese family’s hijacking and extortion rings, Puccio has received little support from a host of trucking companies that have worked in concert with — and paid kickbacks to — the Mafia for years.
Like most extortion victims, the trucking companies are surely worried about reprisals if they cooperate with law enforcement. The use or threat of physical violence is a Mafia pillar, the enforcement tool that keeps mouths closed.
The Mafia’s economic terrorism is not limited to international companies and millionaire developers. In all five boroughs, the mob continues to put the hood in your neighborhood.
The Voice spoke with six individuals identified in the FBI reports as Mafia shakedown victims; all denied having paid off mob figures. In addition, all said that they had never been contacted by FBI agents or questioned about these reported extortions.
D’Arco provided the FBI with a detailed account of the shakedown of a small Italian restaurant in the Bronx, which began when a Luchese member helped the restaurant’s owner secure a lease from a mob-connected realtor. The price tag for the mob’s intervention was a $15,000-a-year tribute. When the Voice reached him, the panicky restaurant owner denied any involvement with the mob.
D’Arco also noted that the owner of a small chain of Queens video stores paid between $200 and $400 a week for protection to Luchese soldier Paul Vario. In an interview, the owner denied everything.
D’Arco said he had personally received protection payments from Dom’s Trucks, a Brooklyn auto dealer. Dominick Vitucci, the firm’s owner, denied handing D’Arco envelopes stuffed with cash. “I once gave him a truck chassis as a favor for a friend,” Vitucci said. “He must be confused.”
Vitucci said that friend was Bruno Facciola, a Luchese soldier murdered in 1990 because he was suspected of informing. After he was shot to death, Facciola’s murderers stuffed a canary in his mouth. Chiodo identified two Gambino family members who, he reported, shook down a small Staten Island jeweler. When the Voice contacted the businessman, he admitted that one of the mobsters was a customer, “but I can’t get into the rest.” He then hung up.
A number of the informants described instances in which a businessman borrowed loan-shark money and fell behind on payments; his business was then infiltrated by the mob.
According to former Colombo associates Joseph Ambrosino and Carmine Imbriale, an owner of a lower Manhattan clothing store started as a loan-shark customer and was eventually enlisted in a credit card fraud and the sale of stolen merchandise.
A partial list of other shakedowns recorded in the FBI memos is incredibly broad: a Brooklyn carting company, a Long Island asbestos-removal firm, an Astoria fuel oil dealer, a Brooklyn motel operator, a chain of parking garages, a Queens sausage producer, a Brooklyn asphalt producer, a Queens vending machine business, a Bronx general contractor, and a Brooklyn supermarket.
Without a victim’s cooperation, extortions usually go unprosecuted. And that makes dismantling the Mafia improbable. “What can you tell someone, that there’s not gonna be a problem if they cooperate?” one agent asked. “People read the papers. People hear about guys like Kubecka and Barstow.”
Robert Kubecka and Donald Barstow were two Long Island businessmen who tried to help law enforcement agencies combat mob influence in the caning industry. In 1989, both were shot to death for their troubles.
FBI reports and court testimony indicate that the Luchese family had them killed in retaliation for their government cooperation. Sal Avellino, a Luchese captain who controls the Island’s carting industry, has been charged with allegedly ordering the hits because, according to D’Arco, he was upset that “these two guys were still walking around.”
Just as there are few ways to combat widespread extortion, law enforcement agencies have also been unable to effectively strike at the heart of the Mafia’s money machine — gambling and loan-sharking operations — which generates hundreds of millions of dollars annually. As long as it can book bets and loan money at usurious rates, it is impossible for any Mafia family to be close to extinction.
In a city beset with homicide and drug epidemics, “victimless” crimes like taking 10 units on the Knicks or handling the Brooklyn number are not priorities. From time to time, state and federal prosecutors will announce the fruits of gambling investigations, but it is rare for bookies or wire room operators to receive prison terms. Gambling cases, which don’t generate headlines for the FBI or the police, are in vogue once a year: the week before the Super Bowl, with the raids usually carrying quaint code names like “King’s Flush” or “Full House.”
For the same reason that extortion victims fall mute, loan-shark debtors — often saddled with 150 to 200 per cent yearly interest rates — rarely cooperate with law enforcement officials.
In a move to supplement their gambling take, the five families have succeeded in introducing their gambling operation into restaurants and bodegas through the placement of video poker machines, the electronic equivalent of slot machines.
The video poker machines have become such a lucrative cash source that mob members have divided up specific “routes” that then become the exclusive property of a family — a system that parallels the mob’s garbage hauling and bread routes.
D’Arco told the FBI that several high-level sit-downs — involving the Gambino, Bonanno, and Luchese families — have occurred to discuss disputes involving video gambling machines placed in locations in the city, Nassau County, and on Fire Island.
Occasional raids have netted a handful of video machines, but there is little chance anytime soon that David Dinkins will mimic Fiorello LaGuardia, who once took a sledgehammer to Frank Costello’s illegal slot machines.
The exploitation of video poker machines shows how the Mafia is able to identify and develop illegal revenue sources. Perhaps the most lucrative example of this criminal ingenuity began when an obese Colombo associate introduced the Mafia to the gasoline tax swindle. Amazingly, more than 10 years later, the money is still pouring in.
At its core, the scheme is simple, with the mob pocketing 14 cents per gallon in taxes that are supposed to be forwarded to the IRS. The scam relies on a long daisy chain of paper companies, in which each one passes the tax responsibility onto the next. At the end of the chain is a paper company — and a massive unpaid tax bill.
After a decade of virtually unchecked plunder — with perhaps almost $1 billion swindled — federal officials have recently begun indicting Russian and Italian mobsters, though there is little chance that any of the pilfered money will ever be located.
The initial federal prosecutions years ago nailed the scam’s corpulent mastermind, Larry Iorizzo. and his mob protector, ex-Colombo captain Michael Franzese, both of whom eventually became government informants.
The gas tax scam initially was the province of Russian gangsters, most of whom were based in Brighton Beach, but eventually the “spaghetti-heads” moved in on the action, according to the wiretapped account of one scam participant. FBI documents reveal that the lure of major paydays brought the Colombo gang and three other families back to the trough.
The local Mafia hub was the Inwood Terminal on Jamaica Bay. Here, the FBI launched an undercover operation with an agent posing as a gasoline dealer. An established wholesaler who had agreed to cooperate in the operation became the agent’s partner, and together, the two precipitated a price war against another Inwood wholesale operation, which was controlled by veteran gas tax swindler Joseph Reisch.
After six months of competition, according to an FBI affidavit, two men arrived at the office of the undercover operation carrying flowers and a telegram. The pair banged on the door and shouted, “If you don’t get out of the fucking gas business, you’re fucking dead.” Two days later, another man showed up at the office with a large funeral wreath. The accompanying card read, “In Loving Memory, Rest in Peace. From all your good friends in N.Y. City.”
Just over two weeks after the wreath arrived, FBI surveillance agents spotted a suspected Colombo hitman in the vicinity of the wholesaler’s home. In a move to broker a peace agreement, the wholesaler contacted the daughter of a Colombo captain who, in turn, reached out to Colombo soldier Joseph “‘Chubby” Audino, bagman for family boss Vic Orena. Audino, according to the FBI affidavit, suggested the wholesaler attend a sit-down with Reisch. If the FBl’s estimates are correct, Orena stood to make as much as $4.5 million from the Reisch operation over the past four years.
When Reisch met with the wholesaler and the FBI undercover, he delivered a simple message: his competitors had to cut back their operations at the Inwood Terminal and turn their company into the final stop on Reisch’s daisy chain. For their efforts, the men were offered $90,000 a month. The pair held out for $120,000 a month and soon were receiving weekly payments from a Reisch courier.
Reisch was indicted recently, but has not been arrested; officials believe he may have fled the country after walking away with $30 million of the IRS’s money.
Where’s the money?
While the FBI claims to have dealt death blows to the New York mob, nobody has been able to follow the money.
John Gotti was the most investigated man in America for five years, and the only assets the government has tried to seize — as evidence of the fruits of racketeering — are run-down Little Italy tenements and other real estate detritus: chump change for an organization grossing hundreds of millions a year. Sure, raided wire rooms may turn up $10,000 and Gotti himself was arrested with $6000 in his pockets, but that’s only walk-around money.
A safe assumption is that some money is invested in legitimate businesses while other monies remain “on the street,” in the form of loan-shark loans. Where the balance goes, that’s anybody’s guess. No informant has ever told of Swiss bank accounts, and it always seems that safe deposit boxes are sans cash, brimming instead with cheap jewelry.
The money riddle may be the best indication that the Mafia isn’t dying. Federal officials mistakenly believe that, with John Gotti in prison, the mob has suddenly been placed on the run. Actually, the Mafia has adopted a defensive posture.
History shows that New York gangsters have a keen sense of when it’s time to hit the mattresses. The spotlight always has a way of fading. That’s when you get back to business. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 27, 2020