“Respect” in the Mafia

“Respect” in the Mafia
“Respect” in the Mafia

There has probably been more nonsense written about rispetto, or "respect," among mafiosi than about any aspect of the organization. For example, important dons are shown "respect" when assassinated; it is required that they be shot from in front, that they have the right to know they are being killed with the proper decorum.

Actually Mafia hits, regardless of the target, are made as quickly and efficiently as possible. Often the rubout occurs while victims are dining. Since they are usually sitting with their back to a wall, a shot in the face is more practical than polite. And a shot from the front also eliminates errors of victim identification and, ultimately, is more likely fatal.

Possibly one of the few truly respectful Mafia killings was that of mobster chieftain Willie Moretti. Very popular with most of the Mafia, he was erased in a "mercy killing" because he was "going off his rocker" and babbling too much. He was shot in front. In 1985 Gambino crime family boss Paul Castellano was shot from in front as he got out of his limousine, but then few people get out of automobiles backwards.

In major Mafia rubouts, such dons as Salvatore Maranzano, Albert Anastasia and Sam Giancana got absolutely no respect in the way they were killed. A longtime boss, Vince Mangano, ended up permanently missing and thus allowed not even a funeral, hardly a sign of respect.

When the would-be assassin of Frank Costello called out to him, "This is for you, Frank," before firing, he probably was not trying to make Costello turn and take the bullet in the face. He was more likely trying to freeze a moving target.

Regardless of assassination modus operandi, Mafia bosses are treated with deference. They demand it and they get it, not out of respect but out of plain fear. In Sicily the gabelloti (loosely, tax-men), mafiosi who kept order on great estates and then came to own them, earned respect for their capacity for violence. A corporation executive earns "respect" from his underlings because he can sever them. A Mafia boss severs his inferiors; only the method varies slightly.

It is hardly surprising that mobsters scrape and bow before their boss, speak in hushed tones, hold doors, offer seats and speak only when spoken to. According to one son of a New York family boss: "My father would light a cigarette and five people would jump to push the ashtray close to him. At dinner, people would wait to speak until he spoke to them. If he put down his fork, you stopped eating, even if you weren't finished. My father was god to everybody."

Respect has come to have an entirely different meaning in the modern American Mafia. It is a quality dominated by the dollar sign. Top mafiosi demand their underlings show respect by turning over a portion of their illegal earnings. A mobster who bows and scrapes but gives no money is a candidate for a car trunk.

Similarly, when members of a crime family move on to the turf of another don, he takes offense because this is not showing respect—and appropriate revenues that should be his. As informer Vinnie Teresa has pointed out, New England Mafia boss Raymond Patriarca demanded respect by getting a piece of the action on everything that went on in his domain.

He always took a piece of the profits but never a piece of any losses. Once Patriarca joined a conspiracy to handle a load of stolen cigarettes. He put up $22,000 but after the loot was obtained, the FBI seized it. Patriarca wanted to know from nothing. He was only a partner in profits, not losses, and the other conspirators had to scrape up $22,000 to pay him back.

Still Patriarca could himself exhibit respect toward older dons, even though they were retired and played no more role in crime and could do no more than sit around on chairs on the sidewalk. Patriarca saw that they got their cut and an envelope out of some kind of mob racket. If there was a serious mob problem, he also called them in for consultation.

He knew they were familiar with the members of organized crime all around the country and their characteristics. Teresa said that Patriarca felt gratitude toward them: "They got the town [Boston] in the bag, and it's been in the bag ever since. They were the ones who made the connections with the police departments. They'd had connections in the district attorney's office for thirty or forty years. They made the mob."

One Mafia boss who always demanded the trappings of respect was Carlo Gambino. In that sense his mob presence was far different than his public image of a mild, turn-the-other-cheek, vulnerable little man. But he was transformed in mob contracts. He followed all the demands of honor his position commanded and exercised the little-known points of honor among mafiosi. If he shook hands with a person he did not accept, he turned his palm under the other's, making it clear he was merely going through the motions. If he accepted the man, he shook hands by putting his own palm on top.

Again, though, Gambino's main interest in honor lay in the requirement of payment as a sign of respect. He granted a subordinate, Joe Paterno, supervisory rights for the crime family's affairs in much of New Jersey. Paterno was expected to hand over a certain percentage of the take.

If the amount stipulated was 25 percent, Paterno turned over that amount religiously. Similarly, criminals operating under Paterno had to do the same. One criminal engaged in long-term looting of a manufacturer's warehouse had to get Paterno's approval to operate. He also had to show respect by paying Paterno 10 percent of what he stole each week.

Paterno was rather easygoing about it. As the criminal later related, when he gave Paterno $200 at the end of the week it meant he had taken in $2,000 in total. Paterno never questioned the mobster's word. Actually, he was cheating Paterno and Paterno probably knew it. But on the other hand Paterno was getting 10 percent of something for doing zero percent. That was respect.

Restaurants and the Mafia

Restaurants and the Mafia
Restaurants and the Mafia

The day after Paul Castellano was rubbed out along with a top aide outside the Sparks Steak House in December 1985, the crowds were out in force. Some of the people had come to eat at the East 46th Street, Manhattan, restaurant, others merely to gawk, take pictures, and try to find bloodstains amid the drippings of oil and anti-freeze at the spot where Castellano had fallen.

In the crowd was a somber-faced restaurateur. He told reporters he would have "dragged the body around the corner to my place" if he had realized how much publicity the killing would generate. Inside Sparks, regular patrons of the restaurant bewailed the fact that the establishment would now be so popular that they would have a hard time getting a table thereafter. Only in New York, ran the consensus of opinion both inside and outside the steakhouse, would people step over bodies lying in the street to get into a popular eatery.

Mafia watchers over the years have had to become restaurant watchers. One Sparks street groupie suggested that New York restaurant guidebooks add a category of those eating places where Mafia hits occur. A diner inside Sparks observed: "I always eat at these places. Would Mafia dons eat at crummy Italian restaurants?"

The point was well taken. When police raided a Forest Hills, Queens, restaurant named La Stella in 1966 and arrested 13 important mobsters from around the country at what was dubbed a "Little Apalachin" meeting, the New York Times made a notable contribution to investigative reporting by dispatching its food critic, Craig Claiborne, to the restaurant. He gave La Stella an impressive two-star rating.

The fact that so many Mafia hits have occurred in restaurant settings has been cited as a sign of respect to a marked Mafia don—he should be accorded a last meal. More likely, the reason there are so many kills in restaurants is that they are one of the easiest places to catch victims off-guard. When Joey Gallo was assassinated and his bodyguard shot at Umberto's Clam House in New York's Little Italy, they were sitting with their backs to the entrance when gunmen came in and started shooting.

There is a myth that mafiosi sit with their backs to the wall at all times. An old Mafia custom of drilling a hole in a wall, shotgun-size, long ago discouraged such safety tactics. More commonly, mafiosi will make reservations at a restaurant and on entering ask that their table be changed—as a safety precaution to throw off any well-laid assassination plans.

Carmine Galante, the head of the Bonanno family, was making a move to gain dominance over the other crime families in 1979 when he made the mistake of taking lunch on the rear patio of the Joe and Mary Italian-American Restaurant in Brooklyn. Three men in ski masks appeared suddenly, taking Galante and his bodyguard by surprise and cutting them down. The restaurant, it might be noted, did not enjoy a big pickup in business—the owner was also slaughtered in the attack.

Joe the Boss Masseria was shot to death in a Coney Island restaurant where he had gorged on a ton of Italian food with his aide, Lucky Luciano, who had masterminded the plan to knock off Masseria. Luciano stepped into the washroom seconds before four gunmen came in and executed Masseria.

The restaurant, Nuova Villa Tammaro, did a stunning business after the slaying, a situation pleasing for owner Gerard Scarpato, a friend of Luciano. Scarpato's joy did not last long. He was himself murdered a few months later when Luciano's other major rival, Salvatore Maranzano, was hit, completing Luciano's task of wiping out the old-line Mafia leaders in New York and permitting him to take part in building the new national crime syndicate.

There is a theory that Scarpato was eliminated as a gesture by Luciano to remaining Masseria partisans that the past was no more and that everyone should start with a clean slate. On the other hand Luciano could simply have been tidying up. Murder charges enjoyed no statute of limitations, and Scarpato might simply have been viewed as a bit of a threat.

Another mobster to exit in a restaurant was Dutch Schultz, cut down with three aides in a Newark chop house on orders of the new ruling body of the syndicate in 1935.

Little Augie Pisano was set up in a restaurant named Marino's in New York in 1959. His killer or killers apparently hid in the back of his car and forced Pisano to drive to his and a lady friend's place of execution on a dark Queens street.

In actual restaurant killings it is remarkable how few innocent bystanders get hurt. Perhaps this reflects a Mafia tradition to reduce public anger. Occasionally, however, there are slipups. In August 1972 four businessmen were dining in the Neapolitan Noodle Restaurant on New York's East 79th Street when they were all summarily executed by a hit man said to have been imported from Las Vegas. His target had been four members of the Colombo family. He simply shot the wrong diners.

Paul “the Waiter” Ricca

Paul “the Waiter” Ricca
Paul “the Waiter” Ricca

Known for his elegant manners and dress, Paul Ricca was probably as traditional—and stereotypical—a mafioso as the Chicago Outfit ever sported. Paul "the Waiter" Ricca, both soft-spoken and mean, issued his fearsome murder instructions with a simple phrase, "Make'a him go away." The object of such orders was of course as good as dead.

Ever since Al Capone's departure from the scene in the early 1930s, controversy has raged among journalists as to who has been the boss of the Chicago Outfit. Among those held to be in command were Greasy Thumb Guzik, Frank "the Enforcer" Nitti, Tony Accardo, Sam "Momo" Giancana, Joey Aiuppa and Paul Ricca. In fact, for 40 years Ricca was the top man. He frequently delegated duties to others but no important move was made without his permission. He was always consulted. Ricca's death in 1972 was regarded by the mob as the passing of the Patriarch.

Ricca came to America in 1920 from Sicily. When he was 17 he had killed one Emilio Parrillo for which he eventually served two years in an Italian prison. He was also questioned about scores of other murders, including 14 in a family feud, but nothing came of that. Upon release from prison for the Parillo killing, Ricca went right out and slaughtered Vincenzo Capasso who had been the chief witness against him in the Parrillo trial.

Ricca then fled Italy and ended up in Chicago, where he worked first as a theater usher and later as a waiter, a job which not only earned him his nickname, but also provided him with an answer when asked by police about his occupation. Ricca wrangled an introduction to Al Capone and since they had mutual friends among certain gangsters who had returned to the old country, he was quickly accepted into the Torrio-Capone mob.

Ricca became a power in the Capone days, known to Big Al as a man who could figure the angles in any sort of racket. It was a mark of Ricca's prestige when Capone stood up as best man for him at his wedding in 1927. Through the 1930s Ricca continued to grow in stature, and by 1939 he was well in command of the organization. Within the Chicago syndicate power gravitated to the man strong enough and cunning enough to seize it, and the only ones regarded as even close to him in cunning and strength were Guzik and Accardo, but in each trait respectively.

Ricca understood that real power in the mob was determined by the street mobsters, and he knew how to rally force to his side. He had a long string of syndicate killers allied with him, many of them psychotics who would do anything to curry his favor. Ricca gave them plenty of orders.

However, as much as Ricca was dedicated to the bullet, he had great admiration for the bribe as well. A firm devotee of the fix, he paid off politicians at almost every level of government. Although he was arrested often and went to prison several times, he always seemed to get off with surprisingly short sentences.

Together with much of the mob leadership, Ricca was caught in the enormous shakedown of the motion picture industry in the early 1940s. Along with most of the others he was sentenced to 10 years in 1943 but was released in August 1947 supposedly due to the intercession of Attorney General Tom Clark.

The early paroles in the case enraged the Chicago press, which published Ricca's claims that his influence extended into the White House. Printed accounts had Ricca instructing his lawyers to find out who had the final say in granting him a speedy release, saying: "That man must want something: money, favors, a seat in the Supreme Court. Find out what he wants and get it for him."

While it must be noted that several of the Chicago newspapers were bitter enemies of President Harry Truman, the facts were that Attorney General Clark did allow the early parole of Ricca and the others to go through, and Clark was appointed to the next opening on the Supreme Court.

In 1952 the conservative Chicago Tribune called for Clark's impeachment because of his "utter unfitness for any position of public responsibility and especially for a position on the Supreme Court bench." Its vitriolic editorial raged: "We have been sure of [his] unfitness ever since he played his considerable role in releasing the four Capone gangsters after they had served the bare minimum of their terms."

From the mob's viewpoint, the important thing was having the masterful Ricca back in circulation and once more the real power in the Chicago underworld. Tough Tony Accardo, who had visited Ricca in his cell by masquerading as his attorney, had kept Ricca informed of syndicate activities. Within a few years, Ricca, when he was so inclined, permitted Sam Giancana to give syndicate orders.

But he and Accardo remained in the background, well insulated from official investigations. In the Kefauver Committee hearings on organized crime in the early 1950s, Ricca was dubbed "the national head of the Crime Syndicate." The McClellan Committee in 1958 referred to him as America's "most important" criminal. Ricca's testimony on the witness stand before each committee was punctuated by frequent pleas of the Fifth Amendment.

In 1957 Ricca was stripped of his citizenship and two years later was deported. Ricca resorted to a myriad of appeals and delaying actions, even getting a court stay on deportation to Italy by bringing an action before an Italian court, demanding that his Italian citizenship be dropped. In a remarkable action, the Italian government would not take Ricca back, even to serve out his old murder term, presumably because he might adversely influence Italian prisons and criminals.

Frustrated American immigration officials ordered Ricca to apply to other countries to grant him refuge. Following instructions, Ricca sent letters to some 60 countries, supposedly seeking asylum. But apparently, in an idealistic desire for full disclosure, he also included a packet of news clippings to explain why the United States wanted him to emigrate elsewhere. No nation expressed the slightest interest in accepting him. The government was still trying to deport Ricca when he died in 1972.

By then Ricca might well have accepted deportation to Italy. He spent many hours at the Alitalia terminal at O'Hare Airport listening to Italian tourists speaking the native tongue. The consensus was that Ricca had turned a bit senile, spending so much time at the airport, but federal agents suspected he was arranging meetings with smugglers of contraband or drugs.

Ricca died in bed in October 1972, an event that would cause shockwaves in the outfit. He had been Giancana's staunchest supporter, there being no accurate count on the number of victims Giancana had made "go away" as Ricca wished. Giancana had acted too irrationally for Chicago's liking through the 1960s, and Ricca agreed with Accardo that he had to be trimmed back in power.

However, as long as Ricca lived Sam was safe, as were some of Giancana's more erratic backers like Mad Sam DeStefano. Within months of Ricca's death DeStefano was murdered by the mob. A couple of years later Giancana was assassinated as well. Ricca's hand was all-powerful, but not from the grave.

Harry Riccobene

Harry Riccobene
Harry Riccobene

He looked, a prospective juror in a murder case once said, like "a little Santa Claus." At 74, Harry Riccobene, short and with a flowing white beard, resembled St. Nick only in appearance. One of the leading mafiosi struggling for power in the Philadelphia crime family during the brutal gang war of the early 1980s, Harry Riccobene was better known for hot lead slugs than holiday toys.

The Philadelphia conflict started after the rubout of the longtime don of the Philly Mafia, Angelo Bruno, in 1980. Bruno had been murdered by New York Mafia elements who decided to terminate Philadelphia's traditional right to the rackets in Atlantic City.

The New York mobs, especially the Genoveses and the Gambinos, felt it had been all right for Philadelphia to enjoy such primacy when the seashore city was in a state of decline, but the coming of the lavish and legal casinos altered that view. Atlantic City was now bigtime and the New York mobs moved in quickly and swatted Bruno away. Bruno's successor, Chicken Man Testa, apparently also tried to resist New York; he was assassinated in 1981 by a remote-control bomb placed under his porch.

Leadership now fell to Little Nicky Scarfo who had two worries—New York and the elderly, but murderously spry, Riccobene. As near as could be determined, Little Nicky reached an agreement with the New Yorkers in which rackets in Atlantic City were to be shared, if not on a 50-50 basis at least on one that gave Philadelphia something other than hot lead. Riccobene was another matter. There were going to be no compromises between the two sides. And Riccobene also wanted Atlantic City.

The warfare that followed was byzantine. Riccobene gunners took out Scarfo capo Frank Monte, the number three man in the faction, with six bullets from a telescope-equipped rifle at a range of 100 feet. After several tries they also killed Salvatore Testa, the wild 28-year-old son of the late Chicken Man, snatching him, clad in tennis whites, as he was off for a match. (Young Testa had such a fearsome reputation that when he and two other Scarfo men took up posts outside the Philadelphia jewelry store of Riccobene's nephew, Enrico, the jeweler opted to commit suicide rather than come out to face them.) Riccobene lost his half-brother Robert who was cut down by a Scarfo gunner loping by in a jogging suit.

However, the Monte killing easily constituted the most bizarre incident of all. It started out when Monte declared his faction was taking over Riccobene's lucrative loan-sharking and gambling business, said to be worth more than $550,000 a year. Monte approached Harry's half-brother Mario and demanded he set up his older half-brother for execution.

Mario, in a temporary outburst of fraternal devotion, informed Harry of the plot. It was then that Harry Riccobene ordered Mario, and two dedicated hit men in his outfit, Joseph Pedulla and Victor DeLuca, "to get them before they get us."

The killers waited for several hours in a camping van for Monte to appear and approach his Cadillac on a Philadelphia street. When he did, Pedulla later admitted he "poked the barrel of a gun out the van's back window" and pumped bullet after bullet into Monte.

Unfortunately, Mario Riccobene, DeLuca and Pedulla were all arrested, for a non-fatal shooting of Salvatore Testa; other information linked them to the Monte killing. All three finally turned state's evidence in the Monte case when the prosecution agreed they would have to serve no more time than what they got for the Testa shooting. All three thus served up Harry Riccobene for sure conviction on first-degree murder charges.

Harry took the witness stand to deny he sanctioned any murders. "I'm not a boss of anything," he said innocently. Why, he testified, he had advised restraint by his panicked associates when they expressed concern about death threats from the Scarfo side, which he characterized as nothing more than unfounded rumors. It was not an argument that impressed the jury very much.

Perhaps the most intriguing testimony came from Mario Riccobene, who said he had decided, in part, to testify against his half-brother because that way he could hope to get free some day and be able "to get back at the people who did what they did to my family."

It was evident that fraternal devotion was not dead in the Mafia although it could at times become somewhat murky in its application.

RICO: 1970 Racketeer lnfluenced and Corrupt Organization Act

The RICO Act
The RICO Act

It had been a steady parade over the years: aging Mafia mobsters making court appearances and putting up bail. They were flanked by lawyers and bodyguards and quick stepped their way past a gauntlet of reporters, photographers and television cameramen, snarling and cursing and fending off cameras with coats and umbrellas.

Occasionally a top mafioso or two was forced to do a short prison stretch, terms, as they said, they could "do sitting on their heads." But Mafia prosecutions consistently amounted to little due to lack of evidence.

In the mid-1980s, the federal government tried a new tactic, belatedly utilizing RICO, the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act. RICO allowed for long prison terms if the government could prove Mafioso connection to a criminal "enterprise" or to a criminal "commission" that functioned as a criminal enterprise.

Why did it take 15 years for the U.S. Justice Department to go all out with RICO? In the 1970s juries simply were not convicting RICO cases, and appeals courts differed on the statute's proper use. Finally, in 1981 the Supreme Court resolved the disputes with a generous interpretation of federal power. Suddenly, long prison terms hit mob leaders in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Cleveland.

These efforts were carried out in some cases by FBI forces and prosecutors who weren't at all sure the tactic would really work. In 1985 the biggest case of all was launched against the five New York crime families. The top echelon gangsters of these groups were still astonished and outraged that they could be convicted under RICO by their very membership in the Mafia or the National Commission.

When Frankie "the Beast" Falanga was brought in a federal prosecutor's office and informed he would be indicted on RICO charges, he flew into a rage and bounced out of his chair, screaming, "RICO? I don't even know any fucking RICO!" Some said he took the whole thing so seriously that he dropped dead just before going to trial.

In late 1986 the commission case concluded with the conviction of Fat Tony Salerno, Carmine "Junior" Persico and Tony Ducks Corallo. Even though John Gotti was acquitted in 1987 on 69 counts of federal racketeering and conspiracy charges and six of his aides were also cleared, Gotti would be nailed under RICO five years later. By then RICO had gained the stature of the atomic bomb of criminal law.

But even an activated RICO was not viewed as sufficient to stop organized crime. Sending crime leaders to prison for 30 or 40 years or longer didn't really interrupt the Mafia as long as its machinery remained intact. Some bosses continued running their organizations from prison. Legal experts agreed that the big test for RICO was the fact that it authorized seizure of illicitly obtained wealth and its proceeds.

If RICO could crack that nut—take away their bars, their restaurants, their carting companies, even their casinos—the Mafia would collapse. By the late 1990s that matter was still in dispute by some who found the evidence at best anecdotal on the financial accomplishments of the law.

The catch was that RICO was being used in ways never intended by its framers, but this reflected the difficulty of fashioning a law against one group of people while immunizing most other citizens. Business spokespeople have become highly critical of RICO.

Many critics had noted that in the 1980s the law was used by non-governmental forces, since it allowed for triple damages for extortion. Thus Greyhound bus lines sued the Amalgamated Transit Union for trying "to extort wages and benefits from Greyhound," even though the union was engaged in a lawful strike.

By late 1989, the Justice Department revised its RICO guidelines so that homes and businesses would not be confiscated in all cases and innocent third parties ruined by zealous enforcement. Critics agreed this helped but there were other concerns, such as the law being applied to political situations.

Not surprisingly, when a federal jury in 1998 in Illinois found that people picketing abortion clinics were guilty of extortion, the anti-abortion forces claimed RICO was being used to deny free speech and equating their protest with racketeering.

Among those upset was G. Robert Blakey of the Notre Dame Law School, considered to be the father of the RICO law. He insisted that in the Illinois case, "The judge and jury are succeeding in morphing coercion into extortion." Others did not necessarily agree.

It all represented the contradictions within RICO. Such conservative voices as Investor's Business Daily denounced the Illinois decision. It did not criticize the jurors but simply called the decision "a defeat for free speech. And RICO is to blame."

It seems clear that more challenges to RICO are in the offing, but whether they ever aid the cause of mobsters remains to be seen.

H. Paul Rico

H. Paul Rico
H. Paul Rico

When in 2003 H. Paul Rico, a 78-year-old former FBI agent, was indicted on a murder charge for aiding mobsters in the killing of a wealthy Oklahoma businessman, it was yet another black eye for the FBI in the Boston office whose members had been convicted of working with a section of the Boston underworld.

Rico was a longtime player in the Boston scandals that ripped the federal agency in that state with charges of aiding and protecting members of the notorious Winter Hill Gang run by James Bulger in his war with Mafia elements.

In 1981 55-year-old Roger Wheeler, president of the Telex Corporation and owner of World Jai Alai, a major player in the gambling business, was murdered in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the time Rico was chief of security of World Jai Alai.

The hit man was John Martorano of the Winter Hillers, who would later testify against the biggest fish of the rogue FBI agents in Boston, John Connolly Jr., in an arrangement in which Connolly became in essence a member of Bulger's gang and helped gang members who were his informants. Connolly was convicted in 2002 and went to prison for 10 years.

A key witness against Connolly was hit man Martorano who also implicated Rico in an alleged homicide, the murder of Roger Wheeler. Martorano admitted the hit and told the court in the Connolly case that Rico approached him about taking out Wheeler because the gang figured the World Jai Alai executive had discovered that the mob was skimming $1 million a year in jai alai profits.

According to the hit man informer, Rico had provided him with a physical description of the intended victim, along with the make and license number of his car and his home address. After that, Martorano testified, he shot Wheeler point blank in the head as he got in his car after a round of golf.

The record seemed to indicate that although the Tulsa police had tried earlier to charge Rico for the murder, no case came to pass until in 2003 when he was indicted by a grand jury. A lawyer for Martorano insisted the FBI had not acted in the Oklahoma charge and that the indictment had been caused by a runaway grand jury.

The office of the Tulsa County district attorney issued a statement that it had "no comment at this time on the ongoing criminal investigation into the murder of Roger Wheeler." Needless to say the news media, the public and law enforcement showed keen, even explosive, interest in the indictment both in Tulsa and Boston.

Rico died on January 17, 2004, at a Tulsa hospital while awaiting trial.

Take for a ride

Take for a ride
Take for a ride

"Take for a ride" has long been a standard in the underworld lexicon, coined in the bootleg wars in Chicago in the early 1920s by Hymie Weiss, one of the leaders of the North Side O'Banion Gang.

When Steve Wisniewski hijacked one of the mob's loaded beer trucks, Weiss was accorded the duty of exacting the proper retribution. He invited the unsuspecting Wisniewski for a drive along Lake Michigan, from which he never returned. As Weiss later explained, "We took Stevie for a ride, a oneway ride."

Weiss set the standard for other mob killers, instigating a technique identifiable to the press as "a professional job." Weiss decreed that from the back seat a hit man put a .45 to the back of the victim's neck as he sat in the front seat of the car. At the proper moment the gun was fired.

As Weiss explained to fledgling hit men, it was important to make sure the bullet did not "take a course"—that is, be deflected by a bone so that in an outlandish quirk the victim might survive. Even more embarrassing would be an instance in which the bullet might be deflected by the skull and slant off into the driver of the car instead.

Victor Reisel

Victor Reisel
Victor Reisel

A nationally acclaimed journalist specializing in labor affairs, Victor Reisel, at the peak of his popularity in 1956, had his syndicated column published in 193 newspapers. In a post-midnight radio broadcast in New York on April 5, 1956, Riesel attacked the abuses of racketeering in Local 138 of the International Union of Operating Engineers on Long Island.

He particularly went after William C. DeKoning Jr., the head of the local, and his father William C. DeKoning Sr., fresh out of prison after doing time for extortion. Riesel had also attacked Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, who was known in a moment of rage to have said that something had to be done about Riesel's probing columns.

After the broadcast the labor columnist dropped into Lindy's, a landmark Broadway restaurant at 51st Street. About 3 A.M. Riesel left the restaurant. As he reached the sidewalk a young man approached him and hurled a liquid into his face and eyes. The liquid was sulfuric acid; Riesel was left permanently blind.

A federal investigation determined that the assailant was 22-year-old Abraham Telvi, who had been hired by two ex-convicts long active in garment industry rackets. Most important, authorities arrested John Dioguardi, better known as Johnny Dio—a leading labor racketeer who traced back to Murder, Inc.—as the mastermind of the blinding plot. A few minor associates of Dio's were convicted. Two others were prepared to testify against Dio, but after receiving death threats, they refused and Dio went free.

Some three and a half months after the acid attack on Riesel, Telvi was shot to death on the Lower East Side. After he had seen how much heat was generated by the crime, he had been demanding more pay for his role in the matter.

Johnny Roberts

Johnny Roberts
Johnny Roberts
Johnny Roberts, one of the murderers of New Jersey mob leader Willie Moretti, became a "made" member of the Mafia the hard way. He was also taken out the hard way.

Roberts, whose real name was Robilotto, was originally sponsored for membership in the Mafia by Tony Bender but was rejected because his brother was a policeman. Albert Anastasia had more muscle than Bender, and he succeeded in getting him admitted to membership. After that Roberts became a trusted Anastasia capo and expert killer.

The police came up with sufficient information, if not legal proof, that Roberts was the gangster who in 1951 brought Willie Moretti into a New Jersey restaurant. When the waitress went into the kitchen, Moretti was shot to death by Roberts and two or three other men who then fled, leaving only a couple of hats behind. One of the hats was traced by a cleaning mark to a place right across from a building where Roberts's brother lived.

Waitresses tentatively—but only tentatively—identified Roberts from a picture as the man who came in with Moretti. However, neither hat fit Roberts. Informer Joe Valachi, a close friend and frequent loan-sharking and rackets partner of Roberts, said when he asked Roberts about the hats, the latter replied, "Don't worry ... it ain't my hat ... it belonged to the other guys."

There seems little doubt that the Moretti murder was carried out on Anastasia's orders. A Mafia consensus had been reached that Moretti was talking too much because of illness, and had to be eliminated in a "mercy killing." Roberts was arrested for the murder, but later the charges were dropped for insufficient evidence.

Roberts stood in good mob graces as long as he served Anastasia, but when Anastasia was murdered in 1957, his situation altered. Carlo Gambino, a partner in the conspiracy to erase Anastasia, moved to take over the crime family but faced strong opposition from others who remained fiercely loyal to the memory of their departed boss.

The clique was headed by Armand "Tommy" Rava, and for a time Roberts agreed to join his group. Joe Valachi went to visit Roberts to advise him not to join in any conspiracy, but Roberts shrugged him off, saying, "Don't worry about it, Tony [Bender] and Vito [Genovese] already spoke to me." He was staying out of it.

Roberts was caught in the shifting currents of mob loyalties. It appears, contrary to what he told Valachi, that he did join the conspiracy for a while. Later, according to Valachi, Roberts told Rava "he wanted to be counted out of it" and "they killed him because he was trying to declare himself out."

The 54-year-old Roberts turned up dead on a Brooklyn street corner with multiple gunshot wounds in the face and head. In an episode not reported in The Valachi Papers but occurring after Roberts's murder, Carlo Gambino's brother, Paul, visited Valachi and, according to Valachi, said, "I have a lot of respect for your opinion regardless of how other people feel. What should we do [about the conspirators]?" Valachi said he told Gambino: "Go right ahead before they pounce on you."

Chances are Valachi was coloring what really happened. Probably the Gambinos had pumped Valachi on who Roberts may have told him were in the conspiracy against them. Chances are Valachi revealed plenty to them. In The Valachi Papers he appears less than sanguine, saying simply, "I heard later it was true [that Roberts had been in the conspiracy], him and some other boys—fifteen or twenty—were going to pounce on Carlo, but he beat them to it.

Well, no matter what, everyone mourned Johnny Roberts." It may well be that Valachi actually informed on Roberts and almost certainly on Rava and others. A few days after the Paul Gambino visit, Rava and his pals were located in a club in Brooklyn. A large number of shots were fired, and Rava and others were killed. It was said Rava was secretly buried. Although Rava was never found, the New York police presumed he was very much deceased.

Valachi was always considered a small-timer within the Mafia, but he showed a more finely honed instinct for survival than his pal Johnny Roberts.

Luigi Ronsisvalle

Luigi Ronsisvalle
Luigi Ronsisvalle

Before Sammy "the Bull" Gravano turned informer, one of the most important mob turncoats was Luigi Ronsisvalle, a slit-eyes mob hit man who boasted of 13 killings—five in Sicily and eight in the United States. He was characterized as a "diabolically funny mob hit man." In a field where murderers were a dime a dozen, he cut out a unique niche for himself.

Ronsisvalle insisted to investigators that he was a "hit man of honor," one who considered himself as more moral than other killer imported by the Bonanno crime family and certainly more upstanding than his new bosses.

He always claimed to have the finest motives for his killings, such as loyalty to the family and so on. Indeed, he could have been a model for some of the mob killers fashioned by Mario Puzo in The Godfather. Since that book appeared just about the time of Ronsisvalle's arrival in America in 1966, it might well have been that Ronsisvalle copied his persona from the novel.

At first Ronsisvalle never dreamed of violating omerta, the code of silence. When he first came to America at the age of 26, his father gave him some sage advice: "When you see something, shut your mouth. If you see something you don't like, run around. If you hear things that don't belong to you, don't hear them. Mind your business. That's most of the rules."

Ronsisvalle honed the persona of an honorable hit man and considered many of his killings most ethical. Some examples include:
  • A gambler who could not cover his last bet in a poker game and desperately put up his wife. He lost the hand and took the other two card players home to enjoy the sexual favors of his wife. Later she tearfully complained to her brother, who took up a collection to buy a murder contract on the husband for $2,000. Ronsisvalle thought it a most moral endeavor and waited outside the man's house until he emerged early one morning to go fishing. He whacked him out with several shots. Ronsisvalle was annoyed when asked the name of the victim. "I don't know his name," he said simply.
  • In a hit that would have done the fictional Don Corleone proud, a man came to the Mafia to complain that a cook who worked in a Brooklyn restaurant had raped his 14-year-old niece. Ronsisvalle cornered the cook in his kitchen and put him down permanently with five shots.
Ronsisvalle considered himself blameless in any of his killings. "In a sense, the way I believe it," he explained, "you give me thirty thousand dollars, and I am sent to kill a person. You kill him, not me."

It saddened him that the rest of the mob did not match his highmindedness. There was no honor among them, he found. Once Ronsisvalle helped a fence and three associates from the Gambino family rob a diamond dealer on New York's West 47th Street. The associates stiffed Ronsisvalle out of most of his share.

When he complained, the fence tried to set him up with a woman in a hotel room and murder him. Ronsisvalle threatened violence and the loot was divided at a high-level sit-down involving the Bonanno and Gambino families. Ronsisvalle still felt he had not gotten all he was entitled to. Gambino boss Castellano walked away from the meeting with a $10,000 diamond in tribute for himself.

The high-minded hit man was further disillusioned about the honor in the mob. Michele Sindona, a notorious Italian banker with close ties to the Mafia in both Italy and the United States, tried to recruit Ronsisvalle to murder the government attorney in New York who was prosecuting him. Sindona offered $100,000 for the job. The offer frightened the hit man because he knew that unlike the custom in Sicily, the mobs in America never killed law enforcement people.

Sindona's plot fell through. Shortly thereafter Ronsisvalle was arrested for a petty crime and contacted Sindona for bail money. The rogue banker felt Ronsisvalle was seeking to extort blackmail and would simply keep the bond money, so he refused the demand.

Ronsisvalle, however, was not bluffing and was consumed by a feeling that the bail money refusal was an "affront" to old country Mafia rules. Thus the incident became the catalyst for him to flip and admit all to the authorities, including his record of 13 murders. Ronsisvalle was simply done with the Mafia's so-called ethics.

He said he was tired of the rackets, especially of drug dealing. He proved a key government witness, one of the most valued underworld turncoats since Joe Valachi about two decades earlier. Ronsisvalle eventually went into the witness protection program.