The Last Don

18 minute read
Richard Corliss and Simon Crittle

The food isn’t the main attraction at the CasaBlanca Italian restaurant in Maspeth, Queens, N.Y. You go for the Sicilian kitsch–the plastic flowers, the bronze-tinted mirrors, the piped-in Godfather theme. The walls bear snapshots of movie stars visiting the place, among them Johnny Depp (Donnie Brasco), Hugh Grant (Mickey Blue Eyes) and James Caan (The Godfather). At a round table sit five men–sturdy, with slick hair and crumpled suits–having a good rude time as two other men in velour sweatsuits, drivers or bodyguards probably, sit at a subsidiary table. They turn quiet and suspicious when a new couple, strangers, is seated across the room, then return to their powwow. On the ceiling above the men are two metal boxes with rubber knobs–devices believed to have been installed to detect electronic bugs. It’s just another night at (as the menu inscription proclaims) “CasaBlanca: Where You’re Treated Like Family!”

Joseph Massino, the restaurant’s operator, is an important part of the family. The Family. The Mafia; the Mob; La Cosa Nostra. The FBI says–and his defense lawyer does not contest–that Massino is head of the Bonanno clan, one of the Five Families of crime incorporated by Lucky Luciano in 1931. It was Massino who revived the Bonannos after the humiliation of the Donnie Brasco caper, in which FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone infiltrated the gang and spent five years posing as a hoodlum named Brasco and, with his court testimony, helped send 200 Mob men to prison. Already reeling from the Pizza Connection prosecutions (after a bust that exposed a giant heroin distribution racket run from pizza parlors), the Bonannos were thrown off the Five Families commission and left for dead. With brains and muscle, Massino restored the clan to its old strength. And “Big Joey” (his weight was once nearly 400 lbs.) did it on the street, not in the stir, where the other four bosses languish. In fact, Massino is the only New York Mafia boss who isn’t doing hard time or awaiting sentencing for a conviction. That makes him the Last Don.

Massino, 61, has other legitimate businesses (Cafe Via Vento, in Maspeth) and properties (in Queens and Palm Coast, Fla.), but his favorite is the CasaBlanca. From that neighborhood ristorante, he has allegedly run an operation that, the feds assert, includes extortion, loan sharking, illegal gambling, narcotics and murder in a vast criminal empire whose tentacles stretch up into Canada and back to the Sicilian motherland. Investigators say he certified his power in 2000, when he convened a meeting of four of the Five Families, at–where else?–the CasaBlanca.

Soon it won’t be just agents who get to peek inside Massino’s world. His life is about to become a media circus. He was even discussed on a recent episode of The Sopranos, when one character compared the legal troubles of the fictional Tony Soprano to the legal woes of the all-too-real Massino. On April 19, Massino will be sweltering in the spotlight in a Brooklyn federal courtroom as a jury is selected for United States of America v. Joseph Massino et al. Defendants. “He’s big-time,” says retired FBI agent Bruce Mouw, who nailed John Gotti and ran the bureau’s Bonanno squad in the 1980s. Says Pat Colgan, a retired FBI supervisor who tailed Massino for more than a decade: “Joey didn’t get the reputation he had on the street because he was Mr. Nice Guy. Everybody knew. We knew, the bad guys knew, Joey’s in charge.” George Hanna Jr., current head of the FBI’s Bonanno squad, describes Big Joey as “extremely smart, very cautious. A treacherous guy.”

And probably someone you’ve never heard of, a big-time mobster with a small p.r. budget.

For the past 20 years, other Big Apple bosses have courted celebrity. Gambino-family boss John (the Dapper Don) Gotti would saunter in his $2,000 suits, bantering with TV reporters; Genovese family boss Vincent (Chin) Gigante, feigning dementia, would wander through Greenwich Village in his bathrobe and slippers. The American public, fed on spicy tales of colorful men who rose from poverty to power and used violence to defend their honor, demanded star quality in its bad guys. Gotti and Gigante provided it. The suspicion is that both men bought dangerously into the Mafia movie myth. They wanted to be the wiseguys with lethal charm, the types who get immortalized onscreen by the “O Team”–Brando, De Niro, Pacino. And maybe become their own O team: Soprano. The FBI loves this, because a mobster’s ego is the most fragile weapon in his arsenal. Set it off in public, and it can explode. Indeed, the mythologizing of the Mob by Hollywood and HBO could almost be a giant sting operation.

In this carnival atmosphere, Massino is an anomaly, an anachronism–the Masto-Don. He does not frequent posh nightclubs, Vegas high-roller rooms, designer-clothing stores or the front page of the New York Post. He does not care to give interviews (though he seemed amused when asked for one, and told a TIME reporter, “Have a nice day”). His couture is less dapper than schlepper: jeans and T shirts (he doesn’t like wearing a tie), without the usual mobster adornments of a siliconed blond on each arm. He has never been accused of swagger. About as close as he got to being a public figure was in ’87, when he was tried and acquitted for the slaying of three rival captains. (The charge was only conspiracy, so he can now be tried for the actual murders.) One day in the courtroom he joked with Pistone, who was about to publish a best seller about his exploits. As Pistone recalls it, “So he asks me, ‘Hey, Donnie, who’s gonna play me in the movie?’ I say, ‘Joey, we’re having a problem. We can’t find an actor as fat as you.’ He just started laughing.”

Massino is a tough, successful businessman of the old school. “Joey is the last of the old-time gangsters,” Pistone says with grudging respect. “He’s got the old mind-set, the old traditions and values, if you want to say values.” Massino has made a good living on the down low, running his crews on the cell system, each group independent and largely ignorant of the others–so if an underling decides to sing to the law, he’ll know only one song, not the whole score. Like all the other bosses, he hews to the law of omerta (silence) established by the original Mafia in Italy and honored by the Bonanno clan, which has roots in the Castellammare del Golfo, a town in western Sicily. The Bonannos are one of only two U.S. Mob families (the other is New Jersey’s DeCavalcantes) that still import highly disciplined, Mediterranean-grown recruits.

Mob lore has it that to foil concealed recording devices, Massino went so far as to order his men never to utter his name during a conversation and instead to touch one of their ears to indicate Big Joey. It was a bit of theater he borrowed from Gigante, whose cronies used to tap their chin to signify their boss. The Bonannos’ Old-World code of discipline was such that until recently not a single “made guy” (ranking gang member) had ever cooperated with law enforcers. As the other bosses bunked down in prison, that helped the Bonannos become, in the words of one of the FBI’s organized-crime agents, “the most powerful family” in New York–and ensured that Massino was as unknown to the public as his rival bosses were notorious. By the late ’90s the Bonannos’ street cred had quietly overtaken the Genoveses’ and the Gambinos’. If caution is a prerequisite to wisdom, then Massino is the wisest guy. His power resides in the fact that you don’t know who he is.

The feds do, though. They know Massino’s influence is as big as his girth. For five years, they have painstakingly constructed a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) case against Massino. A windowless room in the FBI’s lower-Manhattan office block is filled to the ceiling with dusty files. Here, agents from the Bonanno squad (known in the gumshoe world as C-10) pore over surveillance photos, audio recordings and bank records detailing Massino’s alleged three-decade career in crime.

So how do you peel a Bonanno? Offer one a deal. That’s how the government lured its top snitch: none other than Salvatore (Good-Looking Sal) Vitale, Massino’s alleged underboss, closest friend–and brother-in-law. They grew up together. They worked together. J&S Cake, the social club that was headquarters for their rackets in the ’70s and ’80s, was named for them. What must Big Joey think of this fraternal betrayal? Perhaps his emotions echo those famous words from The Godfather: Part II: “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!”

At trial, the prosecution will detail the alleged adventures of men with names like “Nicky Glasses,” “Louie HaHa,” “Boobie” Cerasani, “Dirty Danny,” “Shellackhead” Cantarella and “Big Willie.” Vitale is expected to reveal or invent toxic secrets of the Bonanno brotherhood. And for some old-time drama, the prosecution might call on Pistone. It would be his first appearance on the witness stand in almost a decade. During the trial, prosecutor Greg Andres, 37, will try to nail the Don on a slew of racketeering charges, including complicity in the murders of seven mafiosi (and an eighth in a separate trial) over an 18-year span. Among his alleged victims:

The Three Captains. Alphonse (Sonny Red) Indelicato, Philip (Philly Lucky) Giaccone and Dominick (Big Trin) Trinchera–supporters of the losing side in one of the Bonannos’ fatal family spats–were murdered in May ’81. Massino was on the winning side, which supported the boss, Philip Rastelli, who later anointed Massino his successor. The feds say it was Massino’s assignment to dispose of Indelicato’s body, but he apparently did a lousy job. The corpse was found three weeks later by kids playing in a lot in Ozone Park, Queens.

Dominick (Sonny Black) Napolitano. Disappeared in August ’81. The government says he was whacked as payback for unwittingly letting Pistone infiltrate the family. A year later, a decomposed corpse was found in a Staten Island swamp with a bullet wound to the head. Investigators say Massino approved the hit. David Breitbart, Massino’s lawyer, says it’s not Napolitano and will demand, “Habeas corpus?”

Gelando (George from Canada) Sciascia. Found dumped in the Bronx in March ’99 with five bullet holes in his head and torso. The coiffed Sicilian ran the Bonannos’ Montreal franchise. According to court documents, he quarreled with another captain, Anthony Grazino, over the latter’s supposed cocaine use. Massino, the government claims, backed Grazino and said Sciascia “had to go.” This is the one murder charge that doesn’t date back to the Reagan years, and Massino could be executed for the crime because it occurred after ’94–when a federal murder-in-aid-of-racketeering law was updated to include the death penalty.

“This is the broadest and deepest prosecution ever of a New York City organized-crime family,” says U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf. “Thirty-five defendants are facing 23 murder or attempted-murder charges.” Rapid-fire indictments have scooped up Bonannos from Staten Island to the Bronx. In addition to squeezing informants and clocking countless hours of surveillance, two C-10 agents used “forensic accounting” techniques to follow a paper trail through Massino’s murky bookkeeping. The knockout blow was delivered in September, when James (Big Lou) Tartaglione recorded acting Bonanno boss Anthony (Tony Green) Urso allegedly conspiring to murder the families of Bonannos who were cooperating with the encroaching G-men. “Why should rats’ kids be happy where my kids or your kids should suffer because I’m away for life?” said Urso, according to court documents. “If you take one kid, I hate to say it, and do what you gotta do, they’ll think f______ twice.”

The Massino trial is the latest–and, the feds hope, final–chapter in a century-old soap opera that began in the early ’30s with Luciano’s anointing of Sicilian-born Joseph Bonanno, then just 26, to rein in one of New York’s warring crime gangs and sit on the newly formed Mafia Commission (Bonanno died in 2002 at 97). Bonanno’s son Bill, 72, admits he ran the family for a brief, chaotic period in the ’60s (true) and claims that he and his father were Mario Puzo’s inspiration for Michael and Vito Corleone (debatable). He subscribes to Puzo’s vision of the Mafia as a grand old society that the New World corrupted. (For full effect as you read this, play some Nino Rota music on your inner iPod.) “They came from a culture and a tradition that taught people what was right and what was wrong,” he says. “When they tried to transfer it to this country, that tradition got diluted by the marketplace mentality of American society. The friendships, the family ties, the trust, loyalty, obedience–the glue that held us together–that’s not there anymore. What’s out there today is nothing but a parody of what it used to be. I don’t even recognize it.”

He might recognize it in Big Joey, who reintroduced the sternest Mafia traditions and insisted that his men honor them. Massino (who often used the alias Messina in his early days) was born in ’43 and raised in Brooklyn, where he befriended Vitale and in his teens married Vitale’s sister Josephine. The couple settled in Howard Beach, Queens, where they still live in a house decorated with white marble and crystal chandeliers.

In the ’60s Massino’s uncle owned a shop in Maspeth, where the young man made sandwiches for catering trucks, frequently driving one himself and selling coffee and cakes to workers in a Long Island City truck yard. The wiseguy soon became a wide guy. “He’d eat half the sweets on his truck,” says ex-FBI agent Colgan. Government witnesses at his ’87 trial said Massino fenced merchandise, from Kodak cameras to electric appliances, that workers stole from the platforms and loaded onto his truck. By the ’70s, he had allegedly expanded his operation into a truck-hijacking racket. With connections at airports and on the waterfront, say feds, he and his crew would flag down trucks, usually prearranged “give-ups” with the O.K. of the drivers. He once scored 2,000 cases of Chicken of the Sea, another time 500 cartons of Mitsubishi sneakers.

During this period Massino forged an alliance with a Howard Beach neighbor and natural rival, John Gotti, then a rising enforcer in the Gambino clan. “They were running in the same area of Queens,” says Colgan, “doing the same things, hijacking trucks, selling stolen goods.” Twenty years later, Gotti’s recommendation helped make Massino the Bonanno boss.

One Colgan story illustrates the symbiotic relationship between mobster and fed. In ’81 Colgan led a team of 40 agents who planted a microphone in the ceiling at J&S. “It lasted maybe 12, 24 hours, then it went quiet,” the ex-agent recalls. “Joey repeatedly swept the place. We knew we were compromised.” Colgan’s boss wanted the pricey piece of equipment back. So when Colgan spotted a wiseguy entering the social club, he coattailed himself inside. The wiseguy took a swing at him, and several other men rushed him. “The next thing, I hear, I don’t see, ‘Relax, everybody. It’s only Pat.’ And it’s Joey. He says, ‘I figured you’d be back.’ He walked into the back and brought out our equipment, throws it on the bar. Then he says to me, ‘I understand you’ve been promoted.’ I’d become a supervisor. I knew that Joey had just been made a captain, so I said, ‘Yeah, Joey. I understand you’ve been promoted too.’ He just chuckled.” If this sounds like the sporadic humane contact between a German soldier and an English soldier on the Somme battlefield, it is. “It was a war,” Colgan says. “And there was a professional respect for your adversary. But if it was his life or my life, hah, goodbye. We’d both be shooting. And only one of us would’ve walked away.”

Colgan acknowledges Massino’s stolid charisma, his use of power as an instrument of fear. “If Joey said something, people jumped. They wanted to be endeared to Joey,” he says. “If they didn’t do what he said, he’d whack them. And if he even thought you were an informant, he’d have you killed.” Colgan managed to persuade Ray Wean–a Bonanno man so huge that when Colgan once arrested him, he couldn’t get the cuffs around Wean’s thick wrists–to be an undercover informant and later testify for the prosecution at Massino’s ’87 trial. “Wean was a psychopath. He would’ve killed you and not batted an eye. But he was terrified of Joey.”

In ’81, when the Brasco mole surfaced and indictments fluttered like ticker tape around the Bonanno family, Massino lammed it to the Pocono Mountains. He lived out of a suitcase, using the alias Joseph Russo, and spent weekends with a mistress at lakeside resorts, court records say. After several years, he turned himself in and twice stood trial, in ’86 and ’87. At the first one, he was found guilty of labor racketeering, along with then boss Rastelli and Teamsters from Local 814, and spent five years in prison. It was while he was there, when Rastelli died of natural causes in ’91, that he was promoted to boss of the Bonannos.

The convictions of so many family members made the FBI complacent. While the feds snoozed, Massino got out of prison in ’92 and with Gotti’s O.K., quickly rebuilt the family, set up rackets, installed new captains and established his power. And he was careful. According to the government, he closed down the social clubs (they were like flypaper to electronic bugs), stopped going to Mob funerals and weddings (enterprise evidence in a RICO case) and traveled as far as Mexico, France and Italy to meet with family captains and avoid surveillance. But Massino made one mistake. He believed that his men, including his brother-in-law, would honor omerta as scrupulously as he did. Massino was arrested on Jan. 9, 2003, the day before his 60th birthday.

In previous Mob trials, a defendant’s attorney often performed handsprings in denying the Mob’s very existence. “What Mafia?” the lawyer would ask, with the righteous nonchalance of a cigarette manufacturer disclaiming any harm in his product. Breitbart, who has defended Mob suspects for more than 20 years and wore a gun holster during a recent interview, says he will skip the denial: “If they are going to bring in 15 witnesses to say Joe’s a father in organized crime, why beat my head against a wall?” Breitbart’s plan is to beat the feds’ heads instead. “It doesn’t matter if you are the boss or the barber of the Bonanno family,” he insists. “You have to be convicted of two underlying acts in aid of the enterprise that you’re charged with. I’ll concentrate all my efforts on disproving those underlying crimes.”

For Breitbart, there are two villains in the case. One is Vitale. The defense will argue that Vitale is a Judas, ready to fabricate any accusation to save himself and ruin Massino. The other malefactor–and here the attorney joins a chorus that includes civil libertarians, the baseball players union and Martha Stewart fans–is Attorney General John Ashcroft. “He’s been bitching and moaning lately that not enough people are seeking the death penalty,” Breitbart charges. “Ashcroft is dying to stick a needle in some white guy’s arm.” The first Mob lord executed by the state was Murder Inc.’s Louis (Lepke) Buchalter, electrocuted in 1944. Massino could become the first Mob boss executed since the federal death penalty was reinstated in ’88. His lawyer claims that Massino isn’t sweating it: “He understands that he’s accused of a crime that could result in the death penalty. But you wouldn’t know that by talking to him. He is very charming. I go to the jail to be cheered up.”

From the gaudy days of Prohibition to today, the Mafia has misplaced more than its traditions. It has lost a lot of its power. Meanwhile, the Mafia-mauling feds have become stars. Rudy Giuliani, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney whose anti-Mob crusade unmade a lot of made men, went on to two terms as New York City mayor. As for Pistone, his next project has sent old fed-heads shaking. Called The Good Guys, it’s a novel about an FBI agent and a mafioso, both looking for the same man. Pistone’s co-author: Bill Bonanno, onetime boss of the family that Pistone’s testimony nearly shut down.

What must Big Joey think of these singing bosses and their new partners, the celebrity feds? Sitting in his Brooklyn cell, awaiting a trial that could send him to prison for life or put him to death, he may be wondering if he chose the wrong line of work in an America where a man who keeps secrets can be worth less than a man who spills them. His one rueful consolation may be that much of the public thinks the Mafia is less dirty business than show business, and that a few will be rooting for him to be the Last Don standing.

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