For much of the last century, the American mafia controlled industries, kept police, judges, and politicians on its payroll and literally got away with murder. But somewhere in between Don Corleone’s version of La Cosa Nostra and Tony Soprano’s, the once-powerful organized crime syndicate lost its grip on power. In a three-part investigation, The Daily Wire looks at what the mob once was, how it was brought down, and how it may soon be back on the rise.
In a quiet, affluent Staten Island neighborhood just a mile from Vito Corleone’s home in “The Godfather,” a horrifying scene was unfolding outside a mafia don‘s mansion. Gambino boss Francesco “Franky Boy” Cali had just been lured outside, gunned down, and run over in his own driveway, his wife and young children just feet away inside the house.
On that evening three years ago in March, New York City was suddenly transported back several decades to a time when old-school mobsters settled family business on the streets.
“GAMBINO BOSS WHACKED” blared the New York Post cover the next day. The headline smacked of the tabloid’s cover more than 30 years prior when another Gambino boss, Paul Castellano, was shot dead in midtown Manhattan, the last mob boss to be publicly whacked. Castellano had lived less than a mile away from Cali on Staten Island.
“THE BOSS IS DEAD,” the December, 1985 Post cover had announced.
As it turned out, Cali had not been rubbed out by another family or an ambitious underling. Police would learn that he was killed by a deranged lone wolf not connected with organized crime. Nevertheless, his assassination piqued the imagination of the American public.
Could the mafia rise again? Was a La Cost Nostra renaissance underway?
Many experts are skeptical that the American mafia will ever ascend again to the staggering and often deadly levels of political and social power it wielded during most of the 20th century.
But one former “made man” warns: Don’t count it out.
Michael Franzese was once a powerful caporegime in the Colombo family. He was a pre-med student but joined the mob in 1971, four years after his father was sentenced to 50 years in prison for bank robbery. Franzese knew John Gotti in the 1970s and became fluent in sophisticated fraud schemes, estimating he earned $8 million a week in his prime. In 1986, he went to prison on conspiracy charges. He was released in 1994 and has renounced the mafia.
“I see what’s happening in the FBI. They seem to be more susceptible to corruption now than they were in the past,” Franzese told The Daily Wire. “When you’re partisan in the FBI, that means you’re susceptible to corruption on the street. Because let me tell you this: Guys in that life know how to get around people. I mean, that was one of our biggest assets was that we knew how to maneuver people. We knew how to manipulate. We knew how to get them on our side.”
“Our government is acting very Machiavellian, very mob-like. There are tremendous similarities, and that’s very, very dangerous,” Franzese said, noting that he goes into more detail on this issue in his recent book, “Mafia Democracy.”
“So it seems that there is a breakdown in morality in our government officials, and if that happens, guys on the street will take advantage of that and you’ll see a rise in power again,” he said. “I don’t count that out at all. I really don’t.”
Other ex-mobsters say they don’t see it happening.
Bobby Luisi was a made man, or capo, in the Philadelphia mafia. He grew up in Boston’s Little Italy and was eventually tapped to lead the Boston crew of the City of Brotherly Love’s Bruno-Scarfo family. In 1999, Luisi was arrested and charged with cocaine distribution and served 14 years in federal prison. He has since renounced the mobster life.
“I just don’t see a resurgence of La Cosa Nostra, and I just see it dying,” Luisi told The Daily Wire.
Luisi explained that in the “war time” of the ‘90s, members of some of the New York families, the Patriarca family in Boston, and his own Bruno-Scarfo family in Philadelphia were “fighting for power, jockeying for position” and “a lot of guys got killed.”
Now, he says, the coveted title of mafia don may be more trouble than it’s worth.
“After the 90s we all learned a big lesson,” Luisi said. “Once you kill a guy that brings all the heat. It brings all the heat right back on. So unless someone absolutely has to be clipped, they’re not going to kill anybody. They’d rather put guys on the shelf now.”
The main problem is still informants, Luisi said.
“How do you send a guy to clip somebody now?” Luisi asked. “You don’t know if he’s going to tell on you.”
One of the men who put Franzese in prison is Edward McDonald, who led the Federal Organized Crime Strike Force in Brooklyn in the 1980s. McDonald investigated some of the most high-profile organized crime cases in the country and even played himself in the seminal mob movie “Goodfellas.”
“Twenty, 25 years ago, I would have said yes, the mafia could have a resurgence,” McDonald told The Daily Wire. “I never would have thought that the tools that the Justice Department had would be used as effectively as they had been.”
Now though, McDonald said that if the grim parade of “significant prosecutions” hadn’t crippled the mafia, changing demographics, like mobsters moving out west, would likely have worked to wipe Cosa Nostra out over several decades. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) of 1970 and the other tools the government used to prosecute mobsters simply expedited everything, he said.
“I don’t think it ever can return to the stature that it had, the power and influence that it had back in the early 90s into the 60s, even before that,” McDonald said.
Today’s mob bosses wake up in the morning hoping to keep their names out of the tabloids. Barney Bellomo, the current reputed boss of the Genovese family, is hardly a household name even though he has been an inducted mafia member since the ‘70s and was indicted in 1996 on charges of extortion, racketeering, and ordering two murders.
“They’ve come to the point where they’re almost like street gangs,” said Nick Christophers, a mafia expert who co-authored “Prison Rules” with ex-mobster John Alite.
“Their memberships have decreased. They’ve got five families now that are still in New York, and I think between all five of them, they’ve got maybe if they’re lucky, maybe 500 members,” Christophers told The Daily Wire.
Every once in a while though, Americans get a whiff of the mob that indicates wiseguys could have more influence than the skeptics assume. In just 2018, New York officials stated in court documents that the country’s second largest port is still in the “ironclad grip” of organized crime.
The Port Authority of New York And New Jersey has had mob ties as early as the ‘40s. In 2018, New Jersey began pushing to get rid of the Waterfront Commission, the bi-state agency founded in 1953 to combat mafia control of the port, arguing the agency has outlived its usefulness. New York fought New Jersey’s move in court, saying the mob’s influence is alive and well.
“You can’t throw a stone at the port without hitting the son, the daughter, the son-in-law, the nephew, the cousin, the godson of a ‘made’ guy,” Walter Arsenault, the commission’s executive director, said in 2018.
Around the same time, the New York chief of detectives at the time, Dermot Shea, said mob violence had been slightly more frequent in the city lately. In 2018, two mobsters were shot in the Bronx in the span of three months. A rumored Bonanno family member was shot and killed in a McDonald’s drive-through shortly after his son survived being shot outside the family home.
As recently as 2016, a former NYPD cop with mafia ties was arrested and charged with running what prosecutors said was a high-end prostitution ring in New York whose clients were some of the wealthiest men in the country. Michael “Bruce” Rizzi was married to a rumored Gambino captain’s niece and charged thousands of dollars for a single escort rendezvous.
Cosa Nostra appears to have continued to puppeteer some of its traditional industries like waste management and construction even within the last decade or so. In 2013, dozens of individuals including members and associates of the Gambino, Genovese, and Luchese families were charged in Manhattan federal court as part of an investigation into the mafia’s alleged control of much of the commercial waste disposal industry in New York and New Jersey. In 2011, Local 6A of the New York Cement and Concrete Workers was reportedly still controlled by jailed Colombo boss Carmine Persico.
The mafia has also found subtler ways of maintaining influence, infiltrating corporate America, said Scott Burnstein, author of several books on the mob including “Motor City Mafia: A Century of Organized Crime in Detroit.”
“They’ve diversified. They’ve gotten into the boardrooms and into white-collar America a thousand times more than they had been in the previous 100 years. Over the last 20 years they have created a veil of legitimacy when in fact, they’re just as illegitimate as ever,” Burnstein told The Daily Wire.
Another evolution is the cubicle-ization of certain mafia roles. Instead of running the hottest blackjack table on the Las Vegas Strip, à la Martin Scorsese’s “Casino,” a mafia member today might sit at a desk managing illegal online gambling.
Meanwhile drugs are “still the only physical, tangible, consumable that will outbeat gambling, prostitution, everything,” when it comes to the mafia, said Christian Cipollini, an organized crime historian and author of several mafia books about legendary Genovese crime boss Lucky Luciano.
“Maybe it outlived itself to be in organized crime,” he said. “But look at the drug trafficking. Apparently not.”