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.