Early morning Thursday, Christmas Eve, 1992.
A maroon, four door, Mercury Topaz slows to a halt at traffic lights in Ozone Park, a suburb in Queens, New York.
The driver is a slim, dark-haired, dark skinned Italian-American. The passenger, his wife, is a diminutive, chubby, doe-eyed woman. She is thirty-one, three years older than her husband. They sit listening to the car radio, waiting for the lights to change. Maybe the woman is bobbing with excitement, looking forward to their day of last-minute Christmas shopping. She is carrying a wallet with $1000 cash. In their apartment a few blocks away, is another wallet with a slip of paper that will open a whole can of worms in due course.
Just before the traffic signals change, two men approach the car and raising handguns, begin shooting into the vehicle through the windows. Each of the passengers is hit in the head, three times, dying instantly. The driver slumps forward over the steering wheel, pressing down on the accelerator and the Mercury moves forward, wheeling at an angle across the intersection, colliding with another vehicle before it stops against the curb outside a house.
(Just where these lights are located is difficult to pin down. Media reports give different sites. Even the government is uncertain. In a Department of Justice, Eastern District media release on the arrest of the man accused of the killings, September 23rd, 2005, it states the car was waiting at the corner of Woodhaven Boulevard and 103rd Avenue. Yet, in another Eastern District document, The United States versus Salvatore Vitale, dated September 23, 2010, page 38, it states the location was at the intersection of 103rd Avenue and 91st Street, four blocks to the west.)
Wherever they are, Tommy and Rosemarie Uva (right) who have been waiting for a visit, long overdue, from death, have finally caught up with their destiny, flaring in these moments of sublime violence like a lightbulb that incandesces the second before it blows.
Victim precipitated homicide or as it became known “suicide by cop,” (SbC) has been around as an expression since June 1981 when 38-year-old William Griffin murdered his parents. He left the house where he had killed them, walked into a neighborhood bank in Rochester, New York, thus beginning a three plus hour stand-off ending when he deliberately murdered a young, female bank teller, and then stood openly in front of a bank window, knowing police snipers were zeroing in on him. They were, and they shot him dead.
In documents he left behind, he confirmed that he wanted the police to take his life “for not allowing him to the position of liberty here, in the dominion of earth.”
The term first came into public usage via an article in The St Louis-Post Dispatch in September 1988.
Four years later, a young, married couple in New York, wrote their own page into criminal lore by imprinting a special stamp on the phenomenon and became the first people to commit suicide by mob.
The Mafia in New York has used social clubs as gathering points probably since their inception, around the turn of the 20th century. Across the five boroughs they could and can be found on street corners or wedged into shopping strips, sometimes in commercial or industrial areas, inconspicuous, nondescript buildings fronted either with no identity or perhaps just a small plate indicating the name of the premises:
Triangle, Ravenite, 19th Hole, Wimpy Boys, The Panel, Palma Boys, Bergin Hunt and Fishing, The Parnell, Banner Civic Association, Knotty Pine, Shoreview, Veterans and Friends, Café Liberty, One Over Golf Club, Hawaiian Moonlighters.
Criminal nests where gangsters would gather, like a murder of crows, day and night, Monday through Sunday to meet and scheme in the safety of their own little havens, comforted in the knowledge that they were secure in these places.
Hundreds of places dotted across the metropolitan area of the biggest city in America, like waiting stations on a railway line to crime, where mobsters could stop off and refresh themselves before continuing their journeys.
Whilst these clubs have been raided from time to time by police and federal law authorities over the years, and occasionally have seen acts of violence committed within their walls, nothing had prepared the Mafia for the events that began shaping up at some time after May 1992.
A couple started to rob the men who were using them, while they were in them, sipping coffee, playing cards and scheming in their normally inviolate establishments.
A regular Bonnie and Clyde, as the media came to call them, hitting the streets of New York, picking as their targets, groups of men who no one in their right mind would even contemplate as potential victims. Because of the nature of the events that followed over the next six months, it has never been established just how many of these social clubs the duo hit in their short and presumably rewarding, although predictably hazardous exercise in armed robbery.
City criminal prosecution lawyers believed at least four clubs were targeted, although the number may have been much higher. Law enforcement believed as low as six and as high as ten.
Criminals in the league of the Mafia rarely, if ever, seek police assistance to sort out their problems, so official records are more likely to err on the conservative side. The gangsters in these clubs were also at their most vulnerable as Jerry Capeci the host of the famous Gangland web site points out:
“After all, the patrons usually have thousands of dollars in their pockets and never carry hardware when they conduct their business in the intimacy of their clubs.” More importantly, he went on: “These men, for the most part, are criminals who would never call the cops.”
Subsequent investigations disclosed that the robbers were picking social clubs run by the Gambino, Bonanno and possibly the Colombo crime families in Brooklyn, Queens and the Little Italy area of Lower Manhattan. At least two of the social clubs belonged to senior capi or crew bosses in the Gambino crime family and a third Gambino linked spot, Café Liberty, which was robbed by the Uvas twice, was also the scene of a particularly brutal inter-family mob killing. They also robbed The West End Social Club run by the Bonanno family consigliore, or counselor, on Bay 16th Street in Bensonhurst.
According to an underworld source they tried to hit a club run by John Johnny Green Farachi of the Bonannos, located in Bath Beach, but for some reason they failed in their attempt on this one.
Just why Tommy and Rosemarie set off on their one-way journey has never been satisfactorily explained. One journalist referred to it as “The Ballad of the Foolhardy Bandits.”
Some sources claimed that Tommy was a drug addict, and fresh out of prison in mid-1992, working at a low wage job for a collection agency in New York, needed plenty of cash to fuel his habit. Even so, it’s hard to contemplate the rationale behind their thinking.
Maybe deep down, he and his wife were more interested in the present than the future. In one club, as he was brandishing his heist weapon of choice, an Uzi sub-machine gun, one of his victims pointed out the foolhardy nature of his choice of robbery venues. He looked at the man through his balaclava helmet and replied “Everybody dies.”
Maybe Tommy and Rosemarie spent the last months of their lives bursting with a chemical high, poking the rabid bear, bolstered by the philosophy of an old Amish saying:
“Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”
Maybe in some strange, indecipherable way, they felt dirty and wanted to wash themselves clean with excitement, the sweetest soap available.
Maybe to them living well was the best revenge for all the lousy cards life had dealt them and the misery it created in the foul rag and bone shop of their hearts.*
Maybe as Malcom Cowley surmised once about Ernest Hemmingway, the famous author: “They were doing battle against the jackals of the mind.”
Maybe as Gerald Murphy, a close friend of Hemingway once said: “Life itself has stepped in now and blundered, scarred and destroyed.”
John Marzulli of the Daily News thought, “they were just plain stupid.”
One hint came from Michael Schussel, who managed the collection agency where they worked, in Manhattan. On the witness stand at the trial in the Brooklyn District Court, of their alleged killers, he described the pair as Mafia groupies who had at one time asked for days off to attend the trial of the Gambino boss John Gotti in 1992.
“They were obsessed with the mob,” he testified. One day news of one of their hits made the headlines in New York’s tabloids and, apparently after robbing one of their targets, afflicted by the stress, Rosemarie, who also worked for the collection agency, fainted at work. Some weeks later, her husband was fired by the company for fighting with her at work. Perhaps Rosemarie was starting to realize that she was running out of prayers.
Their modus operandi was the same in every robbery they committed. Rosemarie would be at the wheel as they pulled up outside the club. Tommy would rush in with an Uzi in one hand and an empty collection bag in the other. After threatening the patrons, he would demand the bag be filled with wallets, money and jewelry. He would instruct everyone to drop their pants, and then race back to the car. Rosemarie would plant her foot and the Mercury would fish-tail away at high-speed. The club members, hindered by their state of dishabille, would be unable to get to the club door in time to witness the car and plate number.
On one occasion, Uva allegedly Uzi-whipped a slow delivering victim in a Little Italy club, and then really pushing the envelope, in another club, Tommy knocked off the toupee of one of the older gangsters who was slow to react to his demands.
This may well have been the proverbial straw breaking the camel’s back. Robbing a Mafia social club was definitely a no-no. Making guys embarrass themselves by leaving them half-naked was off the wall. But to mess with an old guy’s rug meant all-out war!
As one of the investigators of the double murder remarked:
“Tommy Uva ruffled up the hair of an elder Gambino soldier, humiliating him at some stage during another robbery, in front of his confederates. You don’t mess with a wise guy’s hair. That adds insult to injury.”
The word went around to get details of the Mercury’s number plate and finally, someone did. It did not take long to connect the dots.
And then Christmas Eve came along and Tommy and Rosemarie never got a chance to do that last minute shopping.
If as Shakespeare believed, death is a debt owed to God, they were fully paid up before the holiday celebrations began.
Within two weeks of the double slaying, police from the 106th Precinct investigating the crime, began to receive hints from street informants that the couple had been earmarked for death by the mob in retaliation for robbing their social clubs.
They also found the wallet.
While searching the Uva’s apartment in Ozone Park, detectives discovered a billfold that belonged to one Joseph Delmonico aka Joe Brewer, who was an associate of the Gambinos. His primary function for the Gambino family was control of Local 23 of The Mason Tenders union which manages the affairs of building laborers.
In the wallet, the police found a folded paper listing the names and telephone numbers of numerous members of his crime family, believed at the time, to be the biggest, numerically, in America. It is considered bad grace for any mob guy to carry around information like this. The Mafia does not commit to paper for obvious reason, although by some strange quirk, this transgression was to be repeated five years later by a much more senior member of the same crime family.
In a 1997 search of the basement of a property owned by John Gotti Junior, son of the family boss, the FBI found a typed list of the names of the "made" members of his organization, as well as $348,700 in cash, a list of the guests who attended his wedding, along with the dollar amount of their wedding gifts (totalling more than $350,000), and two handguns. Also, found was a list of several men who were inducted into other families in 1991 and 1992.
There is a longstanding rule in the New York Mafia that calls for prospective wiseguys to be vetted by the other families before being inducted. The discovery enraged Gotti's father as well as the other bosses since it put dozens of other Mafiosi at risk of government scrutiny. The episode earned Junior the nickname 'dumbfella' in the New York media.
The police wondered about the wallet and how it had come into the possession of the Uvas. The rumours about the social club robberies was making more sense and the police and FBI immediately began an active search on the people whose names appeared on the list, trying to form some kind of connection between them and the multiple killings, looking to pinpoint clubs that might have been raided. Their investigations created a significant amount of confusion and concern in the underworld of the New York Mafia, a swirling of enquiries that disjointed lives and business, but hard as they tried, the investigators were unable to pin down the names of the gunmen.
Much as they dug, the leads dried up and the case dragged on for some months getting nowhere, which is almost par for the course in mob hits, and was then demoted to the cold case vault.
The more the police investigated the Uvas the more they realized they were dealing with a conundrum. This ordinary, working class couple seemed unlikely candidates as the most brazen robbers the city had experienced since the infamous Lufthansa heist at Kennedy Airport in 1978.
They were so plain and nondescript they could have existed as shadings in a sepia photograph of shadows.
Born in 1961, twenty years after the district’s most infamous Mafioso, John Gotti, Rosemarie grew up in the then heavily Italian-American Ozone Park. After the death of her father, a security guard who worked at a federal building in Manhattan, Rosemarie became a wild child, according to her family. Rosemarie was convicted of attempted robbery in 1986 and served 15 months in state prison.
Her mother, Maria DeToma was quoted as saying:
"My son (a New York Police officer) had to arrest his own sister."
Rosemarie married Thomas after she got out of prison in 1987. He was from the Throgs Neck section of Bronx, where his family operated a florist shop. His father, Anthony, accidentally shot himself to death in the shop. Thomas may have had issues over the fact that the business was entrusted to another brother after the death of the elder Uva. Not long after his father's death, Thomas was convicted of attempted burglary and served nearly three years. Rosemarie worked in a Manhattan collection agency and got Thomas a job there after his release from jail. But he wasn't skilled at honest work. Thomas knew a lot of Mafiosi from his neighbourhood and the nearby Country Club section, said another source.
"He was intrigued by that life," the source said.
There were separate funerals and burials for the outlaws -Rosemarie in a Queens plot alongside her father-and Thomas in a Bronx cemetery. "My son didn't want her buried with him (Thomas), what can I tell you?” said Rosemarie’s mother when questioned by a reporter.
The cold-blooded killing of the Uvas remained unsolved for thirteen years, and then on September 22nd 2005, the NYPD and the FBI arrested and indicted a man for criminal conspiracy, and racketeering-related crimes including as a predicate act, the double murder.
One of the prosecution’s key witnesses was Michael DiLeonardo aka Mickey Scars a captain in the Gambino crime family, bookmaker, loan shark and killer of three.
They also used testimony from Salvatore Vitale, the under boss of the Bonanno crime family who switched sides in 2003, becoming part of Team America and one of the most productive informants against the Mafia the government has ever used. Vitale’s testimony was supported by information provided by another Bonanno, capo Frank Lino.
Back-up evidence came from FBI authorities who claimed Gotti Junior had received confirmation from Gotti Senior, incarcerated for life in prison, to go ahead and eliminate the Uvas.
The trial took on an essence of unreality when it was disclosed that both the Bonanno and the Gambino crime families were arguing over who did the killings.
According to testimony from Vitale, Gotti Junior had informed Bonanno leader Joe Massino that the rumors going around indicating Bonanno soldiers Anthony Donato and Vincent Baciano had murdered the Uvas were untrue and that they, the Gambinos, claimed the hit as theirs.
“It was our Skinny Dom that did the job,” Gotti Junior is alleged to have said in various meetings, according to testimony from the government’s informants. “It was our trophy.”
In May 2007, winding up her case for the prosecution, in the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, Paige M. Petersen, ADA, addressed the jury.
“They (the Uvas) were killed on Christmas Eve,” she said, “and their bodies were left in the street for all to see.”
As Michael Brick in The New York Times reported:
“Standing before a board of photographs depicting the Gambino family by rank, Ms. Petersen created a detailed narrative from contradictory testimony about the distant past. The main prosecution witnesses—wards of prisons and federal protection—testified mostly about the cryptic comments and suspiciously coincidental promotions of sophisticated criminals who had reason to suspect they were under surveillance. Among the conversations were road marks to the killings of Tommy and Rosemarie.”
The prosecution claimed the two hit men as Dominick Pizzonia and Ronald Trucchio (right), both made men in the Gambino Crime Family. Pizzonia had sought and was granted approval by the acting boss of the family, Gotti Junior, to carry out the hit.
According to prosecution witness DiLeonardo, Pizzonia had talked to him and John Gotti Junior outside the Café Liberty Social Club. “He told John he was going after them,“ DiLeonardo said in giving evidence. “He said he was going to kill them.” Pizzonia had a particular investment in the removal of the two raiders. Pizzonia’s own club, Café Liberty, in Ozone Park was raided by the Uvas, not once, but twice!
Skinny Dom, a member for many years, had taken over the running of the club in 1999 on the death of Angelo Fat Andy Ruggiano a Gambino soldier who had formed it sometime in the 1960s with Anthony Tony Lee Guerrieri.
It became a place that attracted acts of terrorism.
Not only was the club attacked twice by Bonnie and Clyde, four years before, in 1988, Pizzonia and an associate Alfred Freddie Hot DiConiglio, had allegedly shot dead a family associate in the back garden and then arranging for the corpse to be taken out on a boat and dumped into the Atlantic Ocean.
In the end, after a five-week trial, the jury found Pizzonia not guilty of murder, but guilty of conspiracy and racketeering and the judge, on September 5th 2007, sentenced him to a maximum of fifteen years in prison.
The defence had painted Pizzonia as a faithful churchgoer; a devoted family man with six grandchildren; a hard-working truck driver helping to support his family. The prosecution used a completely different brush to show a hardened criminal; a member of a vicious gang of loan sharks, bookies, extortionists and murderers.
Maintaining the best tradition of creating unsolvable murders, the Mob hit another home run with the killing of Tommy and Rosemarie Uva. No one ever doubted it was the Mafia that shot the couple, visiting on them the only punishment they would ever consider. Proving it was another matter. Who did the hit? The Gambinos or the Bonannos?
Ironically, Dominick Pizzonia had been inducted into his Mafia crime family on another Christmas Eve, in 1988, as a reward for that killing of Frank Boccia in the back garden of the club.
And so the trial ended and the strange story of Tommy and Rose was laid to rest, just as they had been all those years before.
Socrates the Greek philosopher believed “that every man wishes for his own good and would get it if he knew how.” And yet men (and women) still choose to do things which they know will be bad for them while pursuing this goal.
At times these decisions are symptoms of “aboulia” or impotence of will, when in spite of perfect clearness in a man's practical judgment, he feels it simply impossible to form an effective volition in accordance with his judgment.
Théodule Ribot, the 19th Century founder of French philosophy determined something he called Les Maladies de la Volonté, the diseases of the will.
Sometimes, again to use Ribot's terms, a man can suffer from an excess rather than a defect of impulsion, and appears to himself compelled to commit some awful crime or pointless folly, or to act in some way against his practical judgment, governed by the constraint of a desire or notion which he feels hard to resist.
We all know that putting our hand too close to a flame will hurt it, but how often do we tempt fate?
The whole, strange affair was best summed up by a somewhat incoherent observer at the trial:
“Why would they do that?” one juror asked outside the courthouse when it was all over. “Why would anybody? I mean, you know.”
The enigma of Bonnie and Clod (as one reporter humorously called them) lives on long after their deaths and the collateral damage, as in all these kinds of episodes, was high.
Sixty-three year old Maria DeToma, never recovered from the brutal killing of Rosemarie.
“My daughter used to love Christmas,” she once told a reporter. “For me, it was never Christmas again.”
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
19th Century American Poet
* With acknowledgment to William Butler Yeats
For more of my other articles check out my Mob Corner at Gangsters Inc.
© Thom L. Jones 2012