In the early 1920s, the Mafia in New York and New Jersey was splintered into contending groups, all seeking supremacy. Remnants of the Morello family tried to reassert their authority under Peter Morello, while others followed Valenti, Salvatore Mauro and Joe the Boss Masseria.
Masseria made it plain he intended to take over the entire Italian underworld in New York. Morello, more concerned with Mauro at the time, finally succeeded in knocking him off. Then Morello turned to an alliance of convenience with Valenti. Morello considered himself the boss of this partnership; Valenti thought otherwise.
A seasoned killer, Rocco Valenti was known to have committed 20 murders and was regarded as the most accurate shot in gangland—a claim which proved to be embarrassingly exaggerated on two occasions.
On August 9, 1922, Valenti, unbeknownst to Morello, went after Masseria alone. He caught up with the quarry and his two bodyguards on Second Avenue. Calmly and accurately, Valenti cut down Masseria's protectors. Unarmed, Masseria was totally helpless. Valenti calmly reloaded, while the rotund Masseria charged into a millinery shop at 82 Second Avenue.
The proprietor, Fritz Heiney, later told police what happened: "The man with the revolver came close to the other fellow and aimed. Just as he fired, the little fellow jumped to one side. The bullet smashed the window of my store. Then the man fired the gun again. Again the other man ducked his head forward. The third shot made a second hole in my window."
In all, the windows were broken, several mirrors smashed, some hats destroyed—and Masseria ended up with two bullet holes in the crown of his new straw boater. Frustrated and fearing the arrival of the police, Valenti fled, leaving Masseria unscathed and, until his assassination, known as "the man who can dodge bullets."
Disheartened, both Valenti and Morello agreed to make peace with Masseria, and a sit-down was scheduled at a restaurant on Twelfth Street off Second Avenue. Valenti and three others from the anti-Masseria side showed up; and three Masseria men showed. For a while, the men talked peacefully outside the restaurant when suddenly Valenti realized that neither Morello nor Masseria were there. Valenti must have realized that the two had struck some sort of deal and he was odd man out.
Valenti turned and ran as guns were pulled. A couple of the Valenti men were wounded, and the three Masseria men followed Valenti into the street and fired as he fired back. Two of the assassins shot wildly and wounded a street cleaner and an eightyear-old girl, two of the hundreds of spectators on the street.
The third gunman, the one who had plugged the two Valenti men, was cool. Planting himself in the middle of the street, he fired at Valenti who, still shooting, had hopped on the running board of a passing taxi. The calm assassin brought him down with a well-aimed bullet. Valenti hit the street dead.
He had been outgunned and outaimed by an icynerved foe, a young hoodlum named Salvatore Lucania, later to become better known as Lucky Luciano. It may have been a consolation for Valenti to know that nine years later Luciano saw to it that a trusting Masseria would also exit in a hail of bullets.