By David Amoruso
When George Barone died late last year, an adventurous life came to an end. He was a hero of the second world war. A founding member of the Jets street gang made famous in the musical West Side Story. And spent decades as a Genovese mobster who ruled the docks and was a favorite hitter for family boss Tony Salerno. To top it off, Barone became a cooperating witness for the government.
Barone was born in 1923 in Bensonhurst, New York. When asked about his roots, he said: "I am a mongrel. I'm partly Italian, Irish, and Hungarian." As a young kid, the Barone family moved to Chelsea when his father got a job as a pier watchman. Barone dropped out of high school, and when the US entered the second World War, he signed up with the Navy. He participated in five seperate invasions in the Pacific arena of WW2.
After the war, Barone returned to school for a few years, but the classroom still wasn’t for him and he joined the Merchant Marines, spending two years at sea. He probably would have spent his life traveling the world’s seas if he hadn’t injured his hand. The injury made his job impossible and pretty soon he was back in New York.
Back on the mainland again, he did not venture far from his beloved ocean. In the late 1940s, he became a member of the International Longshoremen’s Association and started working as a hiring boss on the Lower West Side Pier 58. Barone got the job thanks to some old friends who had become quite prominent and influential gangsters on the Upper West Side.
But it didn't keep him out of trouble. In February of 1954, longshoreman William Torres complained about Barone’s selection skills, claiming he refused to hire him. Barone and a few strong pals confronted Torres and when they had him cornered, Barone proceeded to beat him senseless with a metal bar. Police charged Barone with felonious assault, but his lawyer managed to get it toned down to disorderly conduct.
When asked what he did next, Barone answered: “I became a gangster.” But he needed some back up if he wanted to become a successful racketeer and so he and a career criminal by the name of Johnny Earle formed a gang they called The Jets. Together with a bunch of other wannabe thugs they started making a name for themselves on the streets of New York.
As The Jets battled other street toughs for control over the local gambling and loansharking rackets, Barone showed he had no problems killing another man. When he was being debriefed by the FBI he explained why: “I got a track record of being in a lousy, dirty, rotten environment where killing was part of staying alive.” Killing was also a big part of making a profit. When Barone and Earle heard of a thief who was sitting on a nice haul, the two gangsters waited till he got home.
When the man stepped through his door, Barone shoved him down and fired several deadly shots into the unlucky thief. The two left with $650,000 in cash. Barone was crystal clear about his motives: “[He] had something we wanted. He resisted, and we shot him.”
The Jets quickly became a success story and La Cosa Nostra took notice. One of the mobsters who was impressed with these young street toughs was Vito Genovese, who used the gang for various chores. But the relationship between Genovese and The Jets soured when the gang’s leader, Johnny Earle, was murdered in 1958, allegedly on orders that originated from within his own gang. Genovese liked Earle and with him gone had no more interest in the young gang.
But Barone was still considered a good footsoldier, his success with The Jets and career with the ILA proved his skills, so it wasn’t long before he found another mobster who would take him under his wing. That wiseguy was Genovese leader Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, who had his headquarters in East Harlem. With Salerno’s backing, Barone was finally on the road to riches. Using the mob’s muscle and his own knowledge of the New York docks, he managed to expand his influence and was able to negotiate extremely favorable union deals for mobbed up companies. He later testified: “I was in La Cosa Nostra and we told the [shipping] companies what to do or else we just didn't cooperate with them. We made millions. Millions!”
As the swinging sixties came to an end, Barone was the Genovese Crime Family’s official representative on the waterfront. He said the docks were divided between the Genoveses and Gambinos. With the Gambino family ‘owning’ Staten Island and Brooklyn, and the Genovese family ruling over New Jersey and Manhattan.
Though Barone was a huge success on the waterfront, Salerno also found him to be an extremely capable hitman and used him frequently. His great handiwork earned Barone membership in the Genovese Family. At a ceremony in Harlem in the early 1970s, he became a made member.
By now, Barone was both a successful mobster as well as a success within the ILA, becoming the president of a local in Miami. But authorities were catching up and paying extra attention to the mobbed up unions. In 1979, Barone and seventeen others were charged with racketeering on the Florida waterfront. Barone was convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but after successfully filing an appeal he got a sentence reduction and was a free man after serving seven years.
As Barone came home to “the life” he noticed a lot had changed. For one, he no longer was the main man on the Florida docks. And second: the Genovese Family was now run by a man newspapers labeled “The Oddfather” for his crazy behavior.
Though Vincent Gigante may have behaved like he belonged in a mental institution, and he actually was in and out of several mental institutions during his lifetime, everyone in the underworld knew the truth. The truth was that Gigante was very smart and the most powerful mob boss in the United States. His crazy-act had saved him from going to prison on several occasions and despite his behavior he still was highly respected by his soldiers. His word was the law for any member of the Genovese family. When he let it be known that he no longer wanted his men to refer to his name aloud, but point to their chin (Gigante was nicknamed “Chin”) instead, they all did as they were told. When mobsters did refer to him by name they were immediately reprimanded by their colleagues, as several recorded conversations proved.
Barone still held sway over the waterfront, but younger wiseguys had moved into positions of more power and wealth and the ‘oldfella’ felt disrespected. It made him hard to deal with and he soon came to blows with Andrew Gigante, the son of the family boss. Andrew needed help with getting a friendly company a lucrative contract and Barone was told to make it happen. But Barone was owed money by the company and insisted that debt be paid first.
The conflict between Barone and father and son Gigante quickly escalated, resulting in Barone (right) being “put on the shelf” as it is called in mob parlance. Which meant he held no more power within the Mafia. He had become a pariah. And he knew that now that the mob no longer had any use for him, probably viewed him as a liability even, his time was surely up. That is when, in 2001, he contacted Team America.
“I went bad,” Barone said about his new role as government witness. “I wanted to get even. I wanted to survive. I didn't want to get killed by them,” he added, referring to Vincent Gigante and his Genovese Family. “I decided that the Mafia is not the paternal, wonderful organization that it proposes to be. The esprit de corps does not exist. Greed, violence, betrayal: that is what exists.”
Despite this epiphany, becoming a turncoat was not easy for him. “I lived all of my life without being an informer. Now I am. That is a difficult decision.” George Barone died on December 28, 2010, at age 86.
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