Vignettes

‘The Mob’ in Last of the Gladiators

By August 10, 2018 April 17th, 2019 No Comments

Ali v. Frazier

Then there was the fight of January 28, 1974. Dad and I sat ringside at The Garden while Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought the second bout of their legendary trilogy. We were so close that when Ali used an arm to block a glancing blow from Frazier, his sweat popped off his body, with much of it landing on me. I must have looked shocked because I remember Dad reaching over to ruffle my hair to pull me from my trance. As Dad and I shared a small piece of sports history, we were surrounded by the usual glitterati and mob- sters I grew to know and love, yet it seemed as if I had Dad to myself.

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Early Days

Jimmy’s long history with the Gambinos began soon after he left the Justice Department. By 1967, word had reached Carlo Gambino, the boss of bosses himself, that an exceptional young ex-prosecutor was now on the other side. Carlo’s right-hand man, Carmine Lombardozzi (and later, Carlo’s heir apparent, Paul Castellano), needed Jimmy in a big way. Dad was in the process of walking Lombardozzi through a maze of legal trouble, including filing a Writ of Certiorari on his behalf to the Supreme Court of the United States on January 28, 1971. Gambino, Lombardozi, and Jimmy often met at a restaurant on the Upper East Side. By this time, Gambino had developed a grudging respect for Jimmy. The truth is, Carlo and Dad were lukewarm about each other. At one of their first meetings, Gambino had asked the young defense lawyer for a “personal favor.” A young girl, perhaps his niece, had been raped by a man then in jail and was awaiting trial. Carlo wanted Jimmy to orchestrate the man’s release so that the boss could settle the matter “the right way.” Jimmy explained that as an officer of the court, he could not help him.

It was a while before Jimmy again found himself breaking bread with the family boss. In those days, it was common to pay part of your lawyer’s fee in cash, as long as the income was reported.

As Jimmy left the restaurant with a brown bag filled with money, the unluckiest robber in the world put a gun to his head. “Take it easy, buddy,” Dad said. “This bag is full of money and it’s all yours.” Before he could get the whole sentence out, Lombardozzi’s driver, who had been sitting in the restaurant, dispatched the robber with a single shot to the base of his head, rolled him into the gutter, picked Jimmy up, threw him into the back of the car, and sped off. “Mr. La Rossa! Mr. La Rossa! ARE YOU OKAY?” the driver yelled. Jimmy didn’t have a scratch. “Thank God,” the driver declared. “Carmine would kill me if anything happened to you.”

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Meatballs & Sausages

After Gambino boss Paul Castellano was indicted, my father walked out of his Madison Avenue building to face a throng of press. I remember it like it was yesterday. In a theatrical press conference, he spit the words out at the cameras: “There is no LA COSA NOSTRA,” he said with such authority that the press just stood there. “So if the government really believes there is A LAAA COZZAA NOSTRA,” which he pronounced like “cozy nosy,” “THEY ARE GOING TO HAVE TO PROVE IT TO ME,” and that was that—game on.

Years later, I was eating with Dad, Mr. Castellano, Tommy Billoti, Thomas Gambino, and a couple of other gumbas at the famed mob eatery, Rao’s, known for making a very decent meatball, when some mob captain started piping off about how he and only he made the best meatballs. He quoted all this mumbo jumbo “proof,” like how he used a special wine and night shade roots and probably some bald eagle sperm to bind it all together in a freshly slaughtered rhino horn. Then, believe it or not, they all started to argue about who made the best meatballs and sausages, which is something mobsters often do.

Well, that, ladies and gentlemen, was my “La Cosa Nostra” moment. I slammed my hand on the table. They all stopped talking. I was Jimmy’s usually respectful son, James, after all, so they all were surprised by my overt display.

“THERE IS NO,” and I spit the remaining words out like Dad had done, “FUCKING MEATBALLS OTHER THAN MY FUCKING MEATBALLS.”

There was a beat’s pause, and then the whole place exploded in laughter. My father bellowed, “It’s true. My own father taught him, and his meatballs and sausages are tops.”

I thought Mr. Castellano was going to throw up he was laughing 44so hard. I ran to the bar and brought him a glass of water, which only made him laugh harder.

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The Albania Brothers

By and large, members of the Albanian mob were known for their smarts, guile, and toughness. These two guys were the exception. Decades later, I found out what had really happened to the two stupidest Albanian brothers in the history of the world.

In Queens was a glitzy nightclub that catered to the showy foreign crowd who liked to throw money around. These pricks often hung out there. While Dad and I were at the fights, Dumb and Dumber are greeted like royalty by the club doormen and are whisked inside, only to be grabbed and thrown down a long stairway into the basement, where they are beaten unconscious. When they awake, they find themselves tied to ceiling pipes, gagged, bloodied, and bruised. Four or five big men stand and sit around the basement, smiling at the brothers when they open their eyes.

One very ominous-looking man sits closer to the captives, a large steel pipe in his lap. Two of the men have pistols strapped to their bodies.

A man in the basement clears his throat and everyone stops talking. All anyone can see is the back of a very large guy wearing a thick leather apron and leather gloves, working at a large tank, hidden underneath a welding helmet.

When the man turns around, he has a lit blowtorch in his hand. The ominous-looking figure slowly approaches the wide-eyed brothers as he adjusts the torch, until it is a yellow and violet inferno.

He methodically brings the torch a few feet under the first brother’s neck. As the heat under his neck builds, the man begins to panic and screams into the gag. The killer takes a step back and looks at the other brother. One of the men can be heard saying, “Yeah, do him first.” Though the Torch Man’s eyes are hidden beneath the steel helmet, it’s as if the two Albanian brothers can feel his lifeless blue eyes boring into them.

In the blink of an eye, the torch just stops. The killer drops it to the floor. He removes his helmet with a gloved hand. The brother’s eyes bug out.

Standing before them is one of the “Family’s” legendary assassins and captains, Dom Coffini, known by insiders as Dead on Arrival (D.O.A). His jet-black hair and his muscled build accentuate his lifeless blue eyes.

Coffini removes the Albanians’ gags.

“Do you know who I am?”

“Yes, yes, Mr. Coffini,” Dumbass #1 says.

He looks at the other brother.

“YOU?”

“D.O.A. Mr. Tony Coffini,” stutters # 2.

“Do you know why you’re here hanging from the ceiling?”

“I think so,” says #1.

“Good. If you so much look sideways at our mutual friend or his family, we’ll get you. You’ll die hard-very hard. Do you fucking understand everything I just said, because your lives and the lives of everyone you know within a hundred miles are hanging by a fucking string?!”

The brothers nod vigorously.

“I hope so for your sake. Because if you ever see me again, know that it will be your last moment on earth.”

D.O.A throws his gloves and apron over a sawhorse and disappears up the stairs.

Back at the greasy spoon, I was in disbelief.

“Is that it, Dad? Really? ‘While we were at the fight, Mr. Castellano spoke with them and set them straight.’ You’re going with that?”

Dad just gives me the look.

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Rao’s

When it came to mobsters, though, the two scariest men I had ever met, bar none, were Joe “The German” Watts from the Gambino Family and William “Wild Bill” Cutolo, who was a major player in the Columbo Family.

The last time I ever saw Joe Watts could not have been more inopportune. In the winter of 2001, I had run (in the truest sense of the word) into Rao’s, a restaurant known for its “connected” clientele on a protected block of East Harlem, thinking I was to dine with Dad and some family friends.

I had the wrong week and Dad was having a Wednesday dinner meeting with Watts and a colleague. Only the top echelon of made men had regular tables at Rao’s. Before Watts’ last trial, Jimmy made him swear that if he were acquitted, Dad could have Watts’ Wednesday night table as part of his fee.

Watts was a gangster’s gangster whose resumé went all the way back to the reign of Carlo Gambino, for whom he had served as hit man. Watts could never be made, or officially indoctrinated into a Mafia family, because he wasn’t Italian, but was nonetheless afforded the status of not only a “made man,” but a capo. Watts was highly respected by Gambino higher-ups. Because of his ability to “earn” and do “work” as a true strong-arm enforcer, Watts, it was widely believed, was capable of doing virtually anything to get the job done.

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Joe Watts

Mr. Watts

I have never addressed a senior mobster by his first name, so it was “Mr. Watts this” and “Mr. Watts that.” A giant mistake that many citizens make in the company of these men is to talk tough, so when his lieutenant baited me with a question I could have answered flippantly, I said, “You know, Mr. Watts, the same thing happened to me at prep school in Greenwich, Connecticut.”

Joe laughed hard. “I like this kid,” he said. “Always have.”

By then, Frankie Pellegrino had one of his guys pulling the spare and changing the tire. I kissed my father, whispered apologies, and then went around the table kissing the killers. “Sorry to drop in like this, fellas,” I said on the way out. I threw Frankie a bill and bolted west on foot for the closest avenue. The car would be safe in front of Rao’s. I jumped in the first cab. “Please, just drive,” I begged the cabbie.

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Big Paul

The big criticism of Paul Castellano among the Gambino crew had always been two-fold: He lived in a large, Staten Island house on Todd Hill that resembled the White House. That was considered “showy,” unusual for a mobster, even for the Don of Dons. Secondly, no one knew the ultimate destination of all the money in all the thick envelopes delivered to Paul. Castellano was falsely dubbed a greedy boss. And the fact that he read the Wall Street Journal every day, according to Dad, added to his critics’ list of grievances, which were what Gotti used, ultimately, to galvanize his men against Castellano.

Much of that money, no doubt, went to my father. You didn’t go to Jimmy if you wanted to plea bargain. You went to him when all other options were spent, and it was time to throw down. Sure, some of his clients received favorable deals from the government. But that happened, usually, when the jury was seated and everyone was ready to go and the prosecutor got cold feet. Jimmy was not about to commit to a three-month trial without the equivalent of a million-dollar retainer.

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The Last Supper

The night before we were scheduled to fly back to California, we had a quiet dinner with a lawyer and close friend of ours. Rounding out the foursome was one of the only undisputed crime family bosses, Roberto D’Orca (not his real name), a movie star handsome man, who wanted to say his own goodbye to Jimmy. Dad’s voice was hoarse, so we had to lean in to hear him. Jimmy told our friend, Mr. D’Orca, stories about his “family” he did not know himself. D’Orca was incredulous that Jimmy had his entire family history on the tip of his tongue.

The morning after Dad died, I called our friend to break the bad news. He lives in the same house he has always lived in. As the line was ringing, I pictured an old-fashioned telephone bolted to a kitchen wall. Finally, an answering machine picked up. I told the machine the news and apologized for saying it in a message and hung up. Two and a half months later, he was the first guest to arrive for Dad’s memorial. We hugged warmly, truly joyful to see one another, and that was that.

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US v. Scotto

Almost eighty years later, the Scotto and La Rossa families were well matched to fight side by side. Not even they could have known, however, that as the jury was seated in The United States v. Scotto in September 1979, the future of RICO, and the survival of organized crime at the end of the twentieth century, were on the line.

The law that will be known in infamy as RICO was the most devastating tool to be used against organized crime in the history of US law enforcement. It was the brainchild of a soft-spoken, bearded federal agent with a no-nonsense intellect by the name of G. Robert Blakey. Nightly television crime dramas have acquainted Americans with the fact that “conspirators” in criminal acts can be as culpable as the actual perpetrators of the crime itself. Prior to Blakey’s RICO Act, that wasn’t the case.

The leadership of the Mafia had, historically, been insulated from crimes committed because they did not pull the trigger themselves but ordered others to do so. What RICO did was treat the entire mob family as a top-to-bottom criminal “enterprise.”

Blakey understood that for a jury to convict an entire criminal syndicate, the activities of all involved must be distilled into simple, understandable crimes, in which the entire gang was complicit. “He [Blakey] did it by making it so simple—that the very act of somehow being involved in an enterprise implicated you,” explained New York Times journalist and author Selwyn Raab.

The RICO Act focuses specifically on racketeering, and it allows the leaders of a syndicate to be tried for the crimes that they ordered others to do or assisted them in doing, closing a perceived loophole that allowed a person who instructed someone else to, for example, commit murder, to be exempt from the trial because they did not actually commit the crime personally (18 US Code § 1962(c); see also Criminal RICO Prosecutors Manual).

Blakey’s law proved to be a prosecutor’s dream. Under RICO, a person who committed at least two acts of racketeering activity drawn from a list of twenty-seven federal crimes and eight state crimes within a ten-year period can be charged with racketeering if such acts are related in specified ways to an “enterprise.” Those “acts” could include putting a coin in a pay phone for a call made in furtherance of a crime.

RICO was ramped up after Rudolph Giuliani became US attorney in the Southern District of New York. “The idea of racketeering statutes was to prosecute the organization as an institution and seize as much of their assets as possible so someone else couldn’t just come along and take over,” said Giuliani in the History Channel biography about Jimmy.

Prior to the government’s aggressive use of the RICO Act, according to former government attorney and former Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff, “it was very difficult to get the leadership of an organized crime family. They don’t go out on the street and shake down people, they don’t conduct the actual gambling operations, and they don’t generally commit murders personally.”

It took almost a decade to first test RICO. That fell to the head of the longshoreman’s union. If federal prosecutors succeeded, the racketeering act could someday be readied and aimed at the entire leadership of the major organized crime families. First, the government would have to prevail against Scotto and what many lawyers believe was one of the most ingenious defenses of the day.

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