They don’t make them like mobster turned government informant George Barone anymore. And despite his valiant service to his country, past and present, we probably don’t want them to.
A tough kid from New York’s West Side, Barone fought bravely in the Second World War. At age 83, he’s still helping his Uncle Sam, providing crucial testimony about corruption on the nation’s waterfront.
It’s what he did in between that’s the problem. You could start with his decidedly homicidal tendencies.
In his gangland prime, Barone has confessed, he murdered without remorse and for no better reason than that his Mafia bosses ordered him to do so. There were victims enough that he lost count; somewhere between 12 and 20 is the best he can figure. “I didn’t keep a scorecard,” he growls when pressed.
There was Ninny Cribbens, killed back in the ’50s for his share of the loot from a bank job; Tommy the Greek, who had crossed a powerful Mafioso; and Johnny Futto, a dance hall owner down in Miami. Then there was a black guy, a gambler out in Kentucky—Barone never did learn his name—who had interfered with mob profits. Barone lured the gambler into taking a drive to talk about fixing horse races. Then he had him pull over to the side of the road, where he shot him: first in the chest to “stun him,” as Barone later told it, then “a couple of times in the head” to finish him off.
Proficient as he was at such tasks, murder was only a sideline. Barone found his true calling in the field of labor racketeering, and he grew so adept at the trade that the rulers of the Genovese crime family tapped him to serve as a kind of Mafia secretary of labor, with his chief responsibility overseeing the gangster-ridden International Longshoremen’s Association, which controlled the docks up and down the East Coast. Barone rose to the rank of vice president of the international union while running locals in New York and Miami—posts that gave him an intimate familiarity with the schemes and the schemers who have long run roughshod over the powerful labor organization.
But that was then.
Today, stone-deaf and in poor health, stone-cold killer George Barone is providing a road map of criminal activity and mob influence among his former waterfront colleagues for the U.S. Department of Justice. His sudden conversion came after his own indictment on extortion charges and, more significantly, when he learned of murderous treachery being plotted against him by his own mob crew. In exchange for a promise of government leniency, Barone agreed in 2001 to spill all the dark secrets he had picked up over five decades in the crime business. He has testified at two criminal trials of his former confederates, with mixed results. There were unanimous convictions in his first outing; everyone was acquitted the second time around. But there was no denying his expertise, and in 2005, when federal prosecutors in Brooklyn filed a civil racketeering case that seeks to finally exorcise all the remaining Mafia demons from the ILA, they named George Barone as their star witness.
He has taken to his task with enthusiasm. He is, as he said repeatedly under oath, a man on a mission.
“My mission is to tell the corrupt story of all those years I did their bidding, all those years I was a very faithful Mafia soldier,” he said when questioned last year as part of the RICO lawsuit. The union insists Barone is old news and that new reforms have purged any lingering mob taint. But the lawsuit continues and Barone is its troubadour. “I want everyone to know what went on in the ILA,” thundered Barone, whose deafness, he says, often causes him to shout. “I’m here to tell the story of the ungratefulness of all the bums that I put in jobs that turned against me.”
illlustration: Joseph Salina
He delivered those remarks during an epic 15-day-long deposition last June held at a downtown Brooklyn office. Such sessions are usually methodical and plodding: Lawyers sit in a conference room with a stenographer and a witness, probing for weaknesses in the accounts of their adversaries that can later be used at trial. Federal prosecutors had pushed hard to get Barone’s deposition under way quickly, arguing that the witness’s condition was so perilous that they needed to capture his testimony before he died. For three weeks, Barone was questioned by a panel of 10 defense lawyers representing the ILA, its individual officers, and its benefit funds. He read their lips when he could make out what they were saying. Otherwise he read off a monitor that transcribed their questions. One by one, the lawyers hammered away at the witness, questioning him about his crimes, his memory, his family, and his finances.
But Barone gave as good as he got. Sick as he may be, he proved that he’s still a tough old coot, armed with a fierce bark and a menacing stare that he levels at his targets from beneath a pair of enormous, shaggy eyebrows. “You don’t look too rough,” he told Howard Goldstein, the ILA’s veteran lead attorney, adding: “You got to have a laugh under these conditions.”
But there were more snarls than smiles. Barone cursed and shook his finger at the lawyers before him during the sessions, even leveling abuse at the assistant U.S. Attorneys on his side of the table. “Jesus Christ, you’re a pain in the neck, counselor,” he snapped at a federal prosecutor. Asked by the government whether a partnership between two waterfront figures was criminal in nature, Barone sneered, “They weren’t selling Bibles, for chrissakes. What’s the matter with you?” It was the kind of conduct you can’t get away with when the judge and jury are in the room.
At one point, Barone jumped up from his chair and made as though he was about to leap across the table at a defense lawyer who had succeeded in getting under his skin. “You’re full of shit,” he bellowed at attorney Gerald McMahon, who was there as the legal representative of one of Barone’s closest former union associates. “You want to come outside and settle this?” Barone shouted.
An FBI agent, one of three in the room, physically restrained the old man with a hand placed firmly on the witness’s chest. But the rage had passed. “Let me go, son—I won’t do anything,” Barone is heard quietly assuring the agent on a videotape of the encounter.
Still, he kept coming back to his mission. “I killed for them,” the elderly mobster sighed. “I produced things for them. And they made millions of dollars, and are still making millions of dollars. And they defrocked me, and they tried to kill me. Why shouldn’t I get even?”
Admittedly, it’s a little hard to sympathize with a confessed Mafia hit man who gets self-righteous about the failure of his cohorts to live up to their criminal code. But such has been the story line of a score of mob turncoats in recent years, who have insisted that they were squealing only because their pals had betrayed both them and their sacred oaths. It’s a rationale that doesn’t score too highly with most people, who generally find mobsters who turn informants more unsavory than those who tough it out.
But even if he’s not about to win anyone’s popularity contest, the story of George Barone represents a true slice of Americana, one that’s fast disappearing in this city’s rearview mirror.
He was a child of immigrants, born in 1923 in Bensonhurst. His father was Italian; his mother was Irish and Hungarian. His family moved to Chelsea when Barone was still in grade school after his father got a job as a watchman on the piers. Raised on the brawling West Side streets, the young George Barone could have stepped out of a frame of Angels With Dirty Faces, the 1938 Warner Bros. classic about tough New York street kids. He dropped out of high school to go to work, and then—in his first round of patriotic duty—signed up with the Navy after World War II broke out. Old photos show Barone as a good-looking guy in those days, with dark hair and a sharp hawk of a nose. It’s easy to imagine him as a young wiseacre on shipboard, a tough-talking Dead End Kid aching to give the Nips more than they bargained for. If so, he got his wish: Navy records show that he participated in five invasions, including Guam, Saipan, the Leyte Gulf, and Iwo Jima. He came home with a chestful of ribbons and a Good Conduct Medal.
For a while, he lived up to those decorations. He tried his hand at school for a couple of years, attending what was then Pace Institute. He even worked for a time in an advertising company. But when that didn’t take, he shipped out again, this time in the Merchant Marines. He had been at sea for two years and was docked in Naples when he busted his hand so badly in an accident that he couldn’t work. Back on the West Side, he hooked up with some of his old pals from the neighborhood who were doing well, running the union locals that controlled the then bustling piers. There was Mickey Bowers, a “racket hoodlum” who ran the Upper West Side and whose union was dubbed the “Pistol Local” because guns settled most disputes there; there was Eddie McGrath, another “Irish local racketeer,” as Barone explained it, and Harry Cashin, a union leader and family friend who got Barone his first work on the docks.
Barone’s job was to serve as hiring boss—the guy who chooses the crew for each day’s work—for a company that cleaned staterooms on the steamship lines. When a union dissident named William Torres complained that he wasn’t getting hired, Barone took offense. According to accounts of the February 1954 incident, Barone and a pair of union heavies challenged the dissident when they spotted him at 15th Street and Eleventh Avenue. “What are you doing, looking for trouble?” Barone reportedly yelled, and then took off after Torres, trapping him inside a meat market on West 14th Street, where he proceeded to beat him with an 18-inch-long metal bar.
Ex-mobster George Barone growls and grimaces during 15 days of deposition. Photo: Staci Schwartz
Torres took 10 stitches to close his wound, and Barone took a collar for felonious assault. Two months later, his lawyer worked some magic in Magistrate’s Court and Barone was allowed to plead guilty to disorderly conduct and pay a $50 fine.
Asked about the episode at his deposition, Barone had a different version, saying that he’d simply defended himself when Torres came at him with a knife. “He was trying to stab me and I hit him with a stick,” he said.
Barone lost his job over the affair, and was forced to seek new employment. “What did you do after that?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Hayes asked Barone on the first day of his deposition.
“I became a gangster,” answered the witness.
To do so, he hooked up with a new friend, an ex-con named Johnny Earle. The pair formed a gang, calling themselves the Jets—a name later made famous in West Side Story. They recruited a half-dozen other malcontents as members, including the Flynn brothers (Eddie and Terry), Georgie Blue, Mikey Ross, and a pint-sized kid named Little Larry Dentico, who later became a feared mobster. The budding gangsters were so tight with the longshoremen’s union that they held their meetings at the ILA’s old headquarters on West 14th Street, Barone testified.
The Jets rumbled with other Irish and Italian gangs on the West Side, fighting for control of local rackets like numbers-running and loan-sharking. But their biggest haul was the $650,000 that Barone and Johnny Earle took off of a thief named Redmond “Ninny” Cribbens, who had stolen the money from a bank in Nassau County. Barone and Earle snuck into a cottage where Cribbens was hiding out and stole the money while the thief was away.
When Barone first told the story to the FBI in 2001, he said that the duo had waited for Cribbens to return and then killed him after he walked in the door, Barone shoving him down into a recliner and plugging him several times. At his deposition, he gave the murder a softer spin. “Ninny Cribbens had something we wanted. He resisted, and we shot him,” Barone testified.
Whatever the circumstances, today the aging gangster doesn’t deny his murders. “I got a track record of being in a lousy, dirty, rotten environment where killing was part of staying alive,” he explained at his deposition.
As in “dog eat dog”? he was asked.
“Dog kill dog,” Barone replied.
Brute force, he found, was good for business. As the Jets’ reputation grew, they attracted the attention of the Genovese crime family, long considered the savviest of the city’s five Mafia tribes and always on the lookout for potential executive recruits. Barone and Earle dealt initially with Vito Genovese himself, meeting the dapper mob chieftain at his Thompson Street headquarters in Greenwich Village. They arranged a series of favors for him, including a sweetheart contract with an ILA local for a cargo-packing company Genovese owned. Genovese took a special liking to Earle, who had served time in prison with Genovese’s hulking lieutenant, ex-fighter Vincent “Chin” Gigante, famous years later for his loony shuffles through the Village in a tattered bathrobe.
The relationship ended abruptly, however, when a dissenting faction within the Jets— angry over the division of their spoils—decided in 1958 to hire a professional and profligate killer named K.O. Konigsberg to take out Earle. Years later, Konigsberg claimed to a detective that Barone had given him the gun for the hit. But the allegations, raised by lawyers at the deposition, made the witness seethe. “I never met K.O. Konigsberg. Johnny Earle was my best friend. Without him, I was nothing. The guy took me out of the gutter,” he testified.
After Earle’s death, Barone added, Vito Genovese angrily broke off contact. “He just disowned us all—and the Jets, including me. I was left wandering at sea, you might say.”
He soon found safe harbor at the clubhouse of another Genovese leader, the late Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, the cigar-chomping mob prelate who ruled from a chair on an East Harlem sidewalk. Barone found Salerno “very likable, very fair,” and, most importantly, “powerful.”
He had come to understand the elements of power, he said. “I realized the Mafia was there, the most controlling factor on the waterfront in almost every area in the United States, the world, New York,” Barone testified. “I had to get someplace.”
As part of his own self-improvement program, Barone said he undertook an in-depth study of business on the docks. “I became very, very interested and very serious about the ILA and its purpose and reasoning as a way of life,” he said. One of his early and most important lessons was in the looming revolution on the docks, in which the method for moving cargo was shifted from separate labor-intensive loads handled by individual men with broad backs and big hooks to huge metal containers that were loaded and unloaded from ships by enormous cranes.
Containerization was bad news for the thousands of men who depended on the docks for their livelihood. But it was an excellent development for those who controlled the union locals that handled and repaired the giant containers. Barone understood the upside and the down.
“There was a decrease in every craft under the ILA’s jurisdiction,” Barone told the lawyers. “Longshoremen, checkers, coopers, cargo repairmen, warehousemen . . . the number of members of the ILA decreased tragically, dramatically, from several hundred thousand down to, somebody said here recently, 50,000 people.”
At the same time, the changeover presented a tremendous moneymaking opportunity for the mob. Barone testified that during the ensuing years, he helped to negotiate favorable and profitable union contracts with all of the big companies that leased and repaired the new containers, arranging the placement of his underworld associates in key positions in both labor and management. There was “millions, millions for the organized-crime people associated with the various vendors,” he said. Those he assisted made fortunes, he said. “Some of these guys have four- to seven-million-dollar homes. That’s what all this murder is about. That’s what all this trouble is about.”
It didn’t hurt that Fat Tony Salerno understood little of the waterfront’s business, other than that a lot of money was made there. “He didn’t know anything. He had no idea what we were even talking about most of the time,” testified Barone. “He used to call a container a ‘box car.’ He doesn’t know from nothing.”
In exchange for Salerno’s support as he rose within the union, Barone said he was obligated to do his boss a few favors. What were they? “I assassinated a few people,” he said.
He didn’t ask why. Johnny Futto, the Miami dance hall owner, died because, as Barone put it, “Tony wanted him killed, and I killed him.” Tommy Devaney, an exhibition worker on the West Side, went because “he was interfering with us.” Barone got only an assist for that slaying, which was carried out by a gunman named Joe “Mad Dog” Sullivan, who shot Devaney as he sipped a cold beer in a midtown bar after attending a wake across the street. The black gambler in Kentucky? “I was sent there to kill him,” Barone testified. Race didn’t figure in the matter, he said. “Black, green, yellow, or whatever.”
Defense attorney McMahon asked him if “one in the chest, two in the head” was his standard operating procedure. “I didn’t take any pictures of him,” Barone replied. “I shot him.”
His killings were also pro bono, Barone testified. “I did it for Tony Salerno, and I didn’t get one cent.”
But there were other rewards. Thanks to his mob benefactors, Barone said, he climbed steadily in the ranks of the ILA, from organizer to assistant general organizer for the international, to international vice president.
He was apparently a smooth operator in those days. An unbylined 1957 story in The New York Times that reads as though someone dropped a $20 bill on the reporter’s desk described Barone as a rising star in the ILA. “Handsome, articulate, and ambitious,” the article called him, adding, despite the old assault case, that he was also “soft-spoken.”
His real attribute, Barone confessed to the lawyers, was his mob links. The ties between the union’s upper echelon and the Mafia were “more than a deal,” he said. “It’s an order. It’s a prerogative. It’s a passage to the occupying of that office.”
He also won promotion within organized crime. It took a few years, but on a morning in the early 1970s, Barone said, he was told to report to an apartment on East 115th Street where, along with a handful of others, he was inducted in a formal ceremony into the Genovese crime family. It was a muted and businesslike affair. The initiation rites were cut short because the elderly Mafioso who officiated was too weak to conduct a full service. They celebrated afterward, Barone testified, by going out to breakfast.
He flaunted his new power. When he heard that a young union official named Harold Daggett whom he had groomed for office had boasted while bending his elbow at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village that he was going to take over one of Barone’s union locals, the gangster decided to teach him a lesson. He had an underling
deliver Daggett to the darkened back room of a fruit-and-vegetable store in East Harlem.
“What happened then was, we scared the shit out of him,” Barone testified. “I threw a shot at him and told him, excuse me, we freaking would kill him if this is not straightened out.” Barone clearly enjoyed telling the tale. “Daggett pissed in his pants and did everything else, and cried like a baby and laid on the floor. It was a very bad day for Mr. Daggett.”
Barone said a mutual friend persuaded him to spare Daggett’s life. It was a decision he had cause to regret years later, when Daggett—who is now a top official of the ILA and a contender to become the union’s next president—turned on him again, by siding with rival gangsters, according to Barone.
Under Salerno, the mob was an impressive organization, he said, even if some aspects struck him as silly. Nicknames, for instance. “We all had nicknames except me,” he told the lawyers. “Meatballs and Snotnose and this guy and so on and so forth. You never know who the hell the last name was. The Italians are great for nicknames—Big Feet, Little Feet, Fish, Sardines, so on and so forth. I never knew what a guy’s last name was. Ridiculous, but that’s it.”
It’s also possible that Barone just never heard what others called him. His hearing loss, which stemmed from a hereditary condition that deadened the nerves in his ears, was almost total by his fifties in spite of twin hearing aids. He tried to communicate by writing words down on paper, he said, but complications from dyslexia gave him trouble there as well. His ailment caused Barone to be denied a much prized Mafia moment when he couldn’t join the rest of the boys in watching The Godfather when it came out in 1972. “I didn’t see it for a long time because it wasn’t captioned,” he told the lawyers. “When they captioned it, I seen it a couple of years later.”
The disability didn’t make him any less of a threat as far as law enforcement was concerned. The Waterfront Commission, a bi-state agency created in the early 1950s to smoke out mob influence on the New York and New Jersey docks, tried to force Barone in 1960 to testify about the many convicted felons employed at the local unions he controlled, but Barone stayed mum. In 1967, the commission lifted his license to work on the piers, forcing him to relocate his main base of operations to Florida, where he helped organize an ILA local in the Port of Miami.
But he kept up his ties to his New York friends. A 1973 Waterfront Commission surveillance report lists Barone as a regular visitor to ILA offices on West 14th Street, and agents often spotted him dining at the Old Homestead restaurant around the corner on Ninth Avenue. The commission was still watching in 1977 when its agents followed Barone from the offices of his old local, on downtown Greenwich Street, to Andy’s Colonial Tavern on First Avenue and East 116th Street, a once popular hangout for Salerno’s crew. “Barone then walked through the tavern, exiting a side door, joining a group of eight males, all well-dressed, who were standing in front of a social club at 354 E. 116th Street,” the agents duly reported, noting that among the men was Harlem’s biggest numbers operator. “Barone shook hands with each and engaged in conversation,” they wrote.
All that surveillance paid off a year later when Barone was one of 22 key waterfront figures who were charged with racketeering and extortion in a huge federal operation code-named Unirac. After a nine-month trial, Barone was convicted in 1979 on 18 counts, including shaking down businesses and taking kickbacks. He was sentenced to 15 years and fined $10,000. Through appeals, he got the term knocked down to 12 1/2. With good behavior, he was out in seven.
When he was released in 1990, he was 67 years old. Much had changed, he said. Salerno was in prison for life and soon to die, and so were many of Barone’s old mob allies. “I’m broke, most of my guys are dead, Tony is dead,” he testified. He waited out his three-year probation at a friend’s house in North Miami. “I sat on the porch for three years,” Barone said. “It was a barren situation. It was a different world. Seven years had gone by. It was all different.”
The readjustment was hard, Barone said. “It took me six months to be able to find out how to walk across the street without getting hit by a car, for chrissakes,” he snapped when the lawyers pushed him on his post-release activities.
There was also a summons back to action by the new leaders of the Genovese mob, who sent an emissary to tell Barone that they wanted his help in obtaining jobs and business contracts in the Florida ports. Glad to be of use again, Barone lined up a cozy $160,000-a-year clerk’s job with a major shipping company for the brother of Genovese acting boss Barney Bellomo’s girlfriend, and arranged for Bellomo to open a check-cashing company on the Miami docks.
The New York crew also ordered him to take on a much heavier lift: persuading union president John Bowers—son of Barone’s old hoodlum pal Mickey Bowers—to back their candidate as the next ILA leader. At the time, Bowers was backing a Texas-based official named Benny Holland. The mob, Barone said, wanted Harold Daggett, the unfortunate fellow he’d made squirm years before, and now the leader of a large New Jersey local.
Barone arranged to meet Bowers during an ILA convention in Miami at a Smith & Wollensky steak house. He hadn’t seen him in years, he admitted. “You shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing,” Barone said he told Bowers. “I said, ‘What would your father say if he was alive and you were promoting a guy from Texas? This is a New York job. It always has been. We don’t want him. We want Harold Daggett.’ ”
Bowers, who at 82 is still ILA president, has said he was tricked into attending the meeting and fled as soon as possible. At the deposition, Bowers’s attorney, John Wing, homed in on Barone’s account. “Am I right, Mr. Barone, that you know that John Bowers really hates the Mafia figures?”
“He hates all Italians,” Barone replied. “They’re all a bunch of guineas as far as he’s concerned.” Barone said he remembered another old ILA leader telling him that Bowers had instructed him “not to bring any guineas to meet him. That’s John—he don’t like Italians. They’re guineas, he calls us.”
For his part, Barone insisted that he was being a team player by promoting his old enemy Daggett for the union’s top job. “It was in the best interest of the Mafia,” he said of his actions.
But he was also a senior citizen of organized crime, increasingly angry that he wasn’t getting the respect he thought he deserved. And he had an old man’s lack of patience for foolishness. Even when the fools were his Mafia bosses.
His first clash with the new regime came after he was asked to use his influence to steer a lucrative union prescription-drug contract to a wiseguy-tied company. He agreed to convey the message. Then word came back that New York wanted a different company. “I said, ‘For chrissakes, we’ll all go to jail. I won’t do it,’ ” he told the emissary. “I mean, this is a bunch of clowns running around, the Lavender Hill Mob, for chrissakes.”
He threw a similar snit when he was told to help Andrew Gigante, the wealthy son of the then imprisoned Genovese boss, win a big container-repair contract for a company that Barone said owed him money from years ago. Barone said he had no use for the mob scion. The younger Gigante was “a drunk, a junkie, ” Barone told the lawyers. “He’d go in the bathroom and come out flying like a kite, for chrissakes. You know, a known addict, between the vodka and the junk—who knows what.”
Barone sent word that he’d help out Gigante if he got the $90,000 he insisted he was owed by the repair company. When the firm’s owner, an old-timer named Umberto Guido, allegedly came down to Florida to offer Barone $3,000 as a peace offering, Barone said he told Guido to tell Andrew Gigante to “stick it up his ass.”
That’s not the way you’re supposed to talk to the boss’s son, even for a veteran geezer who had paid as many mob dues as Barone. He helped himself even less when he had the Miami ILA local pull a slowdown on Gigante’s company. How had he done that? the lawyers asked. Barone’s response deserves a place in a management textbook: “The general manager I put in there, and I told him to get all the guys to use left-handed wrenches instead of right-handed wrenches, and do everything and anything to slow this company down to nothing.” That, added Barone, is “exactly what happened, and eventually they left the port with their tail between their legs, and that’s why I got shelved, and that’s why they were trying to kill me.”
Barone didn’t need much convincing that he was in trouble. First there was a suspiciously gracious offer to come up to New York and get the money he was owed. In classic Mafia style, the offer was relayed through one of his oldest friends, Jimmy Cashin, an ILA official whose father Harry had first put Barone to work on the docks. Cashin, however, loyally added a warning: “He says, ‘George, don’t come. They’re going to kill you. Everybody knows it.’ ”
The same message was relayed by the son of another old friend. Glenn McCarthy, a labor consultant whose father Jack had helped Barone out when he got out of prison, met Barone at the Miami airport. “They are going to kill you or frame you, put some junk in your car,” Barone said McCarthy told him.
Not long after those warnings, Barone was awakened in his apartment on the Venetian Causeway in Miami Beach by someone knocking on his window. It was an FBI agent and a Miami Metro cop, there with a warrant for his arrest for extortion. The charge stemmed from his demands for payment of the old debt from the container-repair company.
He mulled over his options for a few days and then did the unthinkable. “I went bad,” he said.
He signed a cooperation agreement with the government, pledging to tell all. But he declined to be placed in the Witness Protection Program. Wasn’t he scared? he was asked.
Not any more than usual, he said. “I been through all of my worries about being killed between five invasions in the Pacific and running around with Johnny Earle up and down the West Side with the gang wars. You’re going to scare me? I’m already so scared I’m numb, for chrissakes.”
His most likely future residence is “an assisted-living facility,” he told the lawyers. “I still have the mission, and I’m going to hope I live long enough to tell the story, and I’ll be very happy to go after that. Very happy to go. I want to tell the story, and I don’t care what happens to me after that—this lousy story of my life and the corrupt ILA.”