When Joe Valachi started singing, the mob price on his head was set at $100,000. On Vincent Teresa it was a half-million.
In the public mind Joe Valachi was the most important criminal informer in recent decades, a tribute more to the draw of television than to the gravity of his revelations. But many crime experts find Valachi's testimony limited in scope and not always consistent.
Experts agree that Jimmy "the Weasel" Fratianno and Teresa—who follow Valachi by about a decade—were both far more productive "pigeons" for the law, and a strong case is made that Teresa, or Fat Vinnie, ranks as the number one informer.
Teresa had been the number three man in the mafioso crime family in New England—by his own count, which may have been somewhat inflated— when he started to talk, not out of any great moral reformation but because his own mob stole his money, failed to aid his wife while he was in prison and menaced one of his children.
While Valachi knew very little of import outside of New York crime circles, Teresa's knowledge ranged from Massachusetts to the Bahamas and Europe. He provided hard information that could stand up in court, testimony about mob infiltration of business, about crooked casinos and gamblers, fixed horse races, gang wars and stock thefts.
He also cleared up several murders that authorities had shunted off to the unsolved file. His evidence led to the indictment or conviction of 50 mob figures and provided valuable leads on hundreds of others. And he did something no other mob informer ever dared do—he testified in open court about the "Little Guy," the much-feared Meyer Lansky.
In a book he wrote with Thomas C. Renner, My Life in the Mafia, Teresa traced the way $150 million poured into underworld coffers through his own efforts. In a 28-year crime career Teresa had himself netted $10 million which went almost as fast as he stole it.
Upon completion of his testimony Fat Vinnie was "buried" under the federal witness protection program with a new identity as Charles Cantino. In 1984, the Cantino address was Maple Valley, Washington.
The federal government itself blew Fat Vinnie's cover in December 1984 when a grand jury indicted him and five members of his family on charges of smuggling hundreds of exotic and expensive birds and reptiles into the country. Most of the animals were listed as endangered species. There was talk in the underworld that Fat Vinnie had himself once more become an endangered species.