In 20th century America, almost no entity has commanded more attention from filmmakers, writers, and lawmakers than the Italian Mafia. They were (and are), after all, very colorful characters. But times have changed. Their racketeering, extortion and hit men have vanished from the headlines only to be replaced by dark web hackers and data fraudsters. Still, some wise guys stuck around.
But then, suddenly, in March of 2019, the death of Francesco “Franky Boy” Cali made the headlines. It was the first killing of a “Five Families” boss since 1985. So what does this mean? It begs the question: Is the Mafia back? And that question leads to another question: What have the Mafia been doing all these years? Well, they’ve been living in the shadows, but by no means are they any less powerful.
This is the story of the Five Families and how one particular man was recruited in…
At the beginning of the 1930s, after decades of turf warfare, a Brooklyn bootlegger by the name of Salvatore Maranzano established the leaders of New York City’s five largest Italian-American criminal organizations. He also took the liberty of declaring himself Capo di Tutti Capi, which means the “boss of all bosses.”
It didn’t take long for Maranzano to be “offed.” The other bosses didn’t like having just one leader – they preferred sharing leadership. So, they established what became known as the Commission — something that carried on and turned the Five Families of New York into central players in the saga of the American Mafia. Now, before we get into what these families have been up to since the mid-‘80s, it would help to first give a brief look into each of the families.
The Gambino family has been a longtime rival to the Genovese family (one of the five) as the dominant entity of the Commission. The Gambinos boast some of the more colorful figures in the history of the mob. One of them was a bloodthirsty man named Albert Anastasia, who supposedly engineered the 1951 disappearance of the family’s original leader, Vincent Mangano.
That is, before he met his own brutal end in a barber’s chair in 1957. With these men gone, there was room for the extremely powerful Carlo Gambino, and later the notorious John Gotti. Gotti was the one who orchestrated the 1985 hit on Gambino’s successor, Paul Castellano. The Gambinos reappeared over two decades later, in 2008, when at least five dozen members were arrested on federal racketeering charges. And again, in 2019, with Cali’s assassination.
For years, the Lucchese family operated as a model organization under Tommy Gagliano before Tommy Lucchese took over. The two were longtime colleagues who earned their stripes during the Prohibition era, having learned how to avoid the media. But once boss Carmine Tramunti came along, all that changed. Tramunti was convicted in 1973 for participating in the French Connection drug smuggling ring. His successor, Anthony “Tony Ducks” Corallo, brought things back to secrecy because he conducted business from a car.
It was his crew that became famous for the 1978 Lufthansa Heist at JFK Airport – the story that inspired a scene in the 1990 film Goodfellas. But Corallo was soon convicted in the Mafia Commission Trial of the mid-‘80s. That’s when Vic Amuso and Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso took over. Amuso was ratted out by wise guy Alphonse D’Arco, who turned into an informant in the early ‘90s. Still, Amuso is said to have kept his power behind bars.
The family, which was originally overseen by the infamous Lucky Luciano, has been dubbed the “Ivy League” of organized crime. Why? Because of the sheer size and strength of its operations, from gambling to loan-sharking to keeping members in line via the “omertà” — the code of silence. After Luciano was convicted in 1936 on prostitution charges, his leadership was passed on to Frank Costello.
Costello expanded the organization’s grasp into Las Vegas, before letting Vito Genovese plant his name on the family title before he was convicted on narcotics charges in 1959. The second half of the century saw the Genovese unit being run by the powerful, as well as paranoid, Vincent “The Chin” Gigante. He tightened control and allegedly forbade his men to say his name under penalty of death. He also reportedly wandered the streets in his bathrobe in an effort to convince the FBI that he was legally insane.
The Bonannos are one of the oldest families in the American Mafia and endured some of its most notorious scandals. The Luciano-ordered assassination of Maranzano put 26-year-old Joe Bonanno in charge. He managed to strengthen his authority by teaming up with the Profaci family, but Bonanno’s plan to murder Tommy Lucchese and Carlo Gambino was uncovered in 1964.
The botched plan set off a family power struggle that was called the “Banana War.” The ‘70s saw acting boss Carmine Galante getting into more trouble by killing the rival gangs that interfered with his drug-trafficking operation, which only led to his own assassination in 1979. Meanwhile, an FBI agent named Joe Pistone infiltrated the family under the alias Donnie Brasco. His six years of undercover work led to 100 convictions. The next Bonanno boss was Big Joey Massino, who became the first New York crime boss to turn informant after his 2003 arrest.
And last but not least…
The youngest of the Five Families, the Colombo unit, was founded in 1928 by olive oil importer Joe Profaci. He was a legitimate businessman who dabbled in extortion, prostitution and narcotics. The OG don irritated his minions with his inflexible demands for a cut of the profits. His ways sparked a rebellion from “Crazy Joe” Gallo and his brothers in the early ‘60s.
The torch was later passed on to publicity-hungry Joe Colombo, which caused even more headaches for the family, prompting a 1971 assassination attempt that nearly wiped out the family name. Following a period of relative stability, the family degenerated into civil war during the ‘90s. There was a struggle to take over the daily operations from convicted boss Carmine Persico. Thanks to a 2011 New York Post article, it came to light that there were more blows to the Colombo hierarchy, but that the family was far from finished seeing as they’re in control of the cement and concrete workers union.
The Five Families have been more or less under the radar for the past few decades. But while they may be out of sight and thus out of mind, these mob units have by no means put their past behind them. There is still bad blood, which is evident with the murder of Frank Cali in 2019. Even though their real lives read like scenes from a movie, this is the true story of how one man crossed over to the dark side…
One summer day in August, after Anthony Arillotta swapped his black Ford Expedition for his mom’s Nissan Maxima (it was a lot less striking, after all), he drove two hours to New York City. He was instructed to meet at the Nebraska Steakhouse restaurant in the heart of the Bronx.
Arillotta, a small but good-looking man, stepped out of his inconspicuous car, dressed smartly with his platinum Rolex – one with diamonds around the dial that his boss had given him. He entered the restaurant and immediately recognized the four men at the table.
They were all captains in the club he was about to join. Following a shot of espresso, the men waited for three more to arrive. Then, it was time. He vowed: “I will never break this oath. If I do, it’ll be death on me. I will be destroyed.”
One of the captains instructed Arillotta and the three other recruits to remove their jewelry and phones and place them on the table. They climbed into a black Cadillac Fleetwood to be taken just a few blocks away. After arriving at an old Bronx apartment building, the men –some in suits, others in trousers and shirts – went up to the third floor.
The apartment looked to Arillotta like a ‘20s gambling den (just think Peaky Blinders). A captain told him to get undressed, put on a white bathrobe, and head into the back room where the other captains were waiting.
Arthur “Artie” Nigro (pronounced Ny-row), who knew Arillotta well, stood there. He asked Arillotta, “Do you know why you’re here?” Arillotta knew to follow the age-old script, replying with, “No. I don’t know why I’m here.” Nigro then stated: “We are part of a secret, honored society. It’s exclusive and the reason you’re here today is because we’d like you to be part of this brotherhood of ours. Is that something you would want to be part of?”
Arillotta’s reply: “Yes.” The next question: “If your wife was giving birth to your child and the boss called for you, would you leave her bedside and come?” Arillotta, whose daughter was to be born the next day, paused for a moment before answering, “Yes.”
The questions went on, and the answers were all affirmative. Yes, Arillotta would do what he needed to do in the name of the family. The ceremony ended with Nigro making a small incision on Arillotta’s trigger finger. After wiping the blood away, he gave the cloth to his new recruit, lit the corner of the cloth on fire and Arillotta tossed it from one hand to the other.
After one last pledge, Nigro kissed him on both cheeks, shook his hand, and said, “Hello, friend.” Arillotta had just been “made.” It sounds like a scene from The Godfather – like a snapshot from the past. But this is happening in present-day America. We just don’t hear about it.
Arillotta was inducted into the “Ivy League” Genovese crime family, NYC’s largest and most powerful Italian-American Mafia dynasty. The family is more modern, but it looks a lot like the old one. When asked what soldiers do, “Big Anthony” Russo said, “You know, break legs, stuff like that.” Some things never change.
One thing that still persists today are “hits.” On March 13th, 2019, around 9:20 p.m., 53-year-old Francesco “Franky Boy” Cali was shot dead outside his home in Staten Island. The hitman reportedly first crashed his blue pickup truck into Cali’s car before using his 9mm handgun.
Headlines were calling it a “gangland hit.” Cali, who was the head of the Gambino crime family, was the first mob boss in New York to be taken out since 1985 (when the young John Gotti ordered Gambino head Paul Castellano to be offed outside a Manhattan steak restaurant).
The media speculated that Cali’s was another ordered hit, which only meant one thing: The Italian-American Mafia was still active. But it couldn’t be proven just yet. The New York Post called Cali’s killer a “Staten Island knucklehead with a personal beef over a woman.” The murder in America’s biggest crime family wasn’t looking like a Mafia hit after all.
Whether or not it was, in fact, a direct order from the op, business has been booming for the American Mafia. Just six days before Cali’s murder, another mob-related story made the headlines. The death of Colombo’s don Carmine Persico (from old age), who was serving a 139-year prison sentence, was a newsmaker.
But the media made it seem like Persico was a relic of a bygone era, naively and mistakenly discussing the organization – the commission – in the past tense. As we know, the media doesn’t always see the whole picture.
There have been arrests and trials over the years, some of them recent. But for anyone who doesn’t read The New York Post or The New York Daily News, it could seem as though the Mafia was dead. But oh, how far from the truth that is. So, how is it operating now?
Is the Mafia handling the same businesses as it always had? Have the Russians taken over as the real power brokers of organized crime in NYC? According to Howard Abadinksy, a criminal justice professor at St. John’s University in New York, the Mafia today is having a recruitment problem.
Thanks to the Sopranos, organized crime was romanticized. Tony Soprano was the mob boss we all loved to hate, and hated to love. He got people to do the things he needed. But that’s Hollywood. In reality, convincing someone to sign up for life is something else altogether.
While they may not have the same influence as they once had, it would be naïve for us to think the Mafia isn’t still in business, which is what former FBI agent Lindley DeVecchio articulated. And we can clearly see that with Arillotta, who joined the Genovese family and proved his worth by pumping nine bullets into the boss of a local cement union (an order from the top). Soon enough, Arillotta was promoted to captain.
Aside from Cali, there have been numerous mob hits in recent years. In 2009, the Bonanno family’s Anthony Seccafico was gunned down on Staten Island. In 2013, gang leader Michael Meldish was found dead inside a parked car in the Bronx – a supposed order by the Lucchese family.
In 2016, Brooklyn pizzeria owner Louis Barbati was shot. And, in 2018, an associate of the Bonannos was killed while waiting at a Bronx McDonald’s drive-through. The mob is still a problem for law enforcement in New York. In 2011, close to 130 members of New York and New England mob families were arrested in the largest coordinated arrest in FBI history.
So, how is the Mafia making money in 21st-century America? Recent court filings can give us an idea. The 2016 trial of Carmine Persico’s son, Michael, an “associate” of the Colombo family, saw the government call their star witness. “Big Anthony” Russo was a former soldier turned informant.
He was asked to name the Five Families, and gave the names Genovese, Gambino, Bonanno, Colombo, and Lucchese. When asked if these families “have a common structure,” he said, “Yes. The boss, underboss, consigliere, captains [or capos], soldiers, associates.” It was then that Russo explained what the soldiers do: “You know, break legs and stuff like that.”
By the late ‘80s, the era of machine guns and fedoras was replaced by designer suits, jewelry and John Gotti’s wide-toothed grin. Gotti, known as the “Dapper Don,” became the head of the Gambino family, before he was sent to prison in 1992 and died of throat cancer a decade later.
Since then, the Mafia has quietened down, or at least it seemed to, since the media coverage did. Today, the Mafia operates from coast to coast, but all roads ultimately lead to New York. Two lawyers from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Allon Lifshitz and Kristin Mace, have been tasked with prosecuting the mob.
“It’s a significant presence and no less than in the past,” Mace said. “I don’t think there’s any other organized crime group that has surpassed it in influence in New York City.” So, what’s changed? Lifshitz said their drug operations are likely more formalized nowadays.
“More of our big cases involving the big moneymakers involve drugs, including importing drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, from overseas or selling opioids domestically,” Lifshitz said, adding that “what you think of as their traditional bread and butter – loan-sharking and extortion – are going on every day in New York City.”
Something else that’s changed is the way the big bosses conduct themselves in public. Gone are the days of the camera-loving Gotti, whose name appeared in gossip columns as much as in the news sections. He was the stereotypical modern Mafioso with his tailored suits that cost thousands of dollars, his cashmere scarf and pocket-handkerchief.
The number of bold executions in broad daylight have also. These days, the mob is flying under the radar. And thanks to the code of silence (omertà), it’s a lot harder for authorities to investigate and prosecute their activity than other types of gang crime. For instance, less bright street gangs like MS-13 in Los Angeles will go so far as to post evidence of their crimes on Facebook. But that not the American Mafia’s style.
A man named John Alite instinctively knew that Cali wasn’t the subject of a mob hit when he read the news. And he knows what he’s talking about considering he was once an associate in the Gambino family and John Gotti Jr.’s right-hand man. Alite knows that a hit requires at least two cars, preferably three.
And if you’re going to take a hit on a boss, you need two gunmen in case one of the weapons jams. Alite never got “made” because he wasn’t Italian (his parents were Albanian), but he was still known as a tough guy. He confessed to many murders (but who knows what the real number is).
At first, Alite looked up to Gotti Sr; he admired him. But, by 2003, he was on the run after hearing that he was about to be indicted. Eventually, he was caught and arrested in Brazil on murder and racketeering charges and spent two years in a “Brazilian dungeon,” before being extradited to the U.S. in 2006.
It was in Brazil that Alite heard rumors about Gotti Jr. being an informant. “That’s the reason I testified,” Alite admitted. So, he made a deal with the prosecutors: He would plead guilty to various crimes and testify against the Gambino family, including Gotti Jr.
One of the family members was Charles Carneglia, who was sentenced to life; Gotti Jr.’s case resulted in a mistrial, and Alite got a ten-year sentence. According to Alite, who isn’t a fan of the Gottis, it was Gotti Sr.’s shameless self-publicity obsession that damaged the American Mafia’s brand.
But Alite also thinks that ever since Gotti Sr.’s death in prison in 2002, the Mafia has gone back to its roots. “The mob went back to the Sicilian ways. It’s gone back underground,” he explained. The mob is being restructured. They’re implanted in construction, seaports, Wall Street, and the food industry.
With modern changes come less murder, and that achieved two things: one good (for us) and one bad (for them). First, it means less heat from the authorities. Second, it also means less fear of retribution if they’re crossed.
Alite knows a man named Stevie Newell, who was sent to prison for illegally possessing weapons on the thought that someone connected to the Mafia was going to kill him. Like Alite, Newell wasn’t a “made” man because he has Irish blood. But if you ask him, “There are more tough guys that can’t get made than there are made guys. The saying goes: We do the work; they take the credit.”
Newell was charged with the 1991 murder of Bruce Gotterup, and when the feds offered him a deal, he denied the crime and also refused to wear a wire. He spent two years in jail awaiting trial and was ultimately found not guilty. Gotti later wrote a book, in which he accused Newell of being a law enforcement cooperator, “And yet I was the one on the stand trying to help him,” Newell said.
He started getting death threats, so he purchased firearms. But since he’s a felon, he’s forbidden to possess weapons. Then, in March 2018, two detectives showed up on his doorstep. Apparently, someone made a complaint that he had firearms. He was headed for a cell in Rikers Island to serve four months.
In 2003, Arillotta was inducted into the Genovese family after Artie Nigro asked him to shoot someone in New York. That man was Frank Dadabo, a local cement union boss. But Dadabo didn’t die, and he didn’t report the shooting to the police, either.
A well-connected mob source claimed that Arillotta could have been Al Capone, if he hadn’t gotten caught. And that day came in 2010, when he was arrested for arranging the murder of his one-time boss Adolfo “Big Al” Bruno – the one who gave him the diamond-studded Rolex that he wore on the day he was made.
Arillotta pleaded guilty to the organized murder, the attempted murder of Dadabo, and to other offenses, including extortion. Thanks to Arillotta’s testimony, Nigro and two others (the Geas brothers) all got life in prison. Arillotta served only eight years.
Upon his release, Arillotta opted out of witness protection and moved to Springfield. The FBI believes he still has a target on his head today. He explained that he was thinking of his kids when he chose to cooperate with the feds. Without a deal, he would never see the light of day again. This is coming from a made man, too.
Sal Romano used to be an associate of the Gambino family, and quite likely made more money than any Mafioso in America. He was the family’s man on Wall Street when Gotti Sr. was the boss. In 2003, after being indicted for a $100 million stock fraud, he turned the state’s evidence in a deal for a reduced prison sentence, as well as entry into the United States Federal Witness Protection Program.
If anybody knows how the Families make their money, it’s Romano. To this day, he’s forced to live and work under a phony name, and all interviews with him must be discreet. Romano, who’s been working on Wall Street since the ‘80s, when he was 18 years old, “learned a million ways to cut corners and how to make an enormous amount of money doing that.”
“Stocks 101 says you buy something that you hope will go higher,” he explained. “We just tried to take the mystery out of knowing it would go higher.” Instead of messing with big companies such as AT&T, IBM, Amazon or Apple, they would find smaller companies that want to become publicly traded.
Romano would bribe brokers to push stocks to their clients and then sell them. He said, “It’s a classic pump and dump scheme.” Beyond that, Romano was pulled into the “street.” After watching The Godfather, he explained, “that’s going to influence you… I’m young and there’s no reason on earth why I don’t want to be like those guys – the cars, the women, the money, the power.”
Romano estimates that he made “north of three million bucks” for the Gambino family. He had a system: He would “kick up” 20 percent of what he earned to his capo, then his captain would kick up 20 percent to his boss, and in turn, he would kick up 20 percent to John Gotti. It was “the standard formula,” Romano recalled.
“But it’s got to be green. You’re not writing cheques to these people.” Romano also stated that this is how the Mafia still operates today. Each soldier has 20 or 30 civilians whom they’re doing business with, and as they earn, they give money to their respective capos, or “skippers.”
As the capos earn, they kick money up to the boss. “It’s a mega, mega million-dollar enterprise and there’s a lot of money in being the boss.” Romano was released in 2009 and started working on a book about his exploits.
According to Romano, the mob may be more powerful than they were back in the ‘90s. And with the markets and economy doing well, it’s good for the mob. After all, the main reason for the Mafia’s existence is to make money. To this day, a big part of their core street business is gambling and loan-sharking.
Phil Scala, a veteran of the FBI, helped put away John Gotti Sr. Today, he runs a private investigation firm. He says that the street has low-level associates who sell counterfeit goods, cigarettes and commit robberies. Then there are the guys who were once connected with the unions and construction and today are involved in anything that makes them money.
“They learn their lessons from prosecutions and they’ll be in areas where they know law enforcement aren’t looking or where they don’t have sources,” Scala explained. “Organized crime in America and Italy continually morphs into new areas.”
According to Scala, today’s mobsters learned lessons from their predecessors. People think the Mafia isn’t around anymore because they’re not killing people on the streets like they used to. “They’re not taking over businesses in the style of Al Capone. So they’ve learned their lessons.”
What they stick to these days is a model of “vertical integration” – through an investment company, construction, or an events company (in which they would own everything involved). If they control everything, they don’t have to pay anything on top. But Scala doesn’t think the mob is controlling the unions in the same way it used to.
The drug trade is a massive income source for the American Mafia, and their code of silence is paramount. “In America, the Sicilians will only tell a few people in the family what they’re doing,” Scala explained.
If the FBI finds a connection between the drug trade and the Family, those involved will stop for six months to a year, or however long it takes, until the coast is clear. The United Nations estimates that of the $1.6 trillion (that’s trillion) laundered through banks around the world in 2009 alone, around $580 billion was from organized crime and drug trafficking.
The Mafia is history, attorney Jennifer Louis-Jeune told a jury at the racketeering trial of her client, Bonanno crime boss Joseph Cammarano Jr. (who was later acquitted of all charges).
However, her assertion that the Mafia is dead is laughable. Just ask law officials in New York today, who are anxious about other Italian organized crime groups that are gaining a foothold in the city.
Let it be known: The Mafia is still here, as they always were. They’re just wiser than before and keep quiet. And it’s usually the quiet ones we should be wary of.