• U.S.

The Double Life of a Don

3 minute read

His name was Aniello Dellacroce, which in Italian means “little lamb of the cross,” and he took pleasure in killing people. “He likes to peer into a victim’s face, like some kind of dark angel, at the moment of death,” a federal agent once said of the Mafia chieftain. As underboss of the Gambino clan, the most powerful of New York’s five families, he was a member and chief enforcer of “the Commission,” the 11-member council that reputedly oversees organized crime around the U.S. Occasionally disguised as a priest under the alias of Father O’Neill, a play on his first name, he traveled about the nation to impose edicts and settle disputes between rival Mafia clans. Few mobsters dared to argue with him. Dellacroce, who died in his sleep in a New York City hospital last week at the age of 71, played another role as well: for almost two decades he was an informant for the FBI.

Though Dellacroce was not very forthcoming about his own crimes, he offered the feds a wealth of information about those committed by his enemies and the Commission. After Carlo Gambino, the capo di tutti capi (boss of bosses), died in 1976, Dellacroce told the FBI that another would-be godfather, Carmine Galante, had been marked for death. Dellacroce had reason to know: plans for the Galante hit were hatched in his own headquarters, the Ravenite Social Club in Manhattan’s Little Italy. The feds were able to isolate and protect Galante as long as he was in prison for parole violations, but after he was released in 1979 Galante was mowed down during an alfresco lunch in the backyard of a Brooklyn restaurant. Other information provided by Dellacroce gave the FBI leads on the still unsolved murder of Teamster Boss Jimmy Hoffa and helped break major narcotics cases, including the so-called Pizza Connection case against 22 U.S. and Sicilian mobsters for heroin trafficking.

Dellacroce’s double life began one afternoon in the mid-1960s when a limousine swung up to the Ravenite Social Club. Out stepped a tall man in a somber suit carrying a Wall Street banker’s briefcase. “Who’s in charge here?” he demanded. Awed hoodlums ushered the uninvited guest to Dellacroce’s table.

The bold stranger was an FBI agent named Pat Collins. Sitting down with Dellacroce, he began a slow courtship, gradually winning him over by convincing the wary Mafia leader that a private relationship with the federal authorities would not be a bad insurance policy in a high-risk career.

Unlike Teamster Union Boss Jackie Presser, who escaped prosecution on charges of padding union payrolls this year because he was an FBI informant, Dellacroce’s cooperation did not keep him out of jail. In 1972 he was sentenced to five years in prison for income tax evasion. Collins had expected that one day Dellacroce would demand payment for his information, but that never happened. The veteran FBI agent died of a heart attack in 1980 at the age of 51. This year Dellacroce was ordered to stand trial on racketeering and conspiracy charges, along with ten other accused members of the Commission. Whether he hoped the payment would come in the form of exoneration from those charges will probably never be known. Before the trial could begin, the bloodthirsty Little Lamb slipped from the grasp of federal prosecutors.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com