Part 2 of Catching the Bounce: The Story of Joseph Valachi - Read part 1 here
By Thom L. Jones
In the Cosa Nostra, it was mandatory that when called upon, a soldier carries out any job handed down from his boss. Killing for the mob was no different in their eyes than collecting a debt or enforcing a family policy on gambling or loan sharking. A soldier killed as part of his job; he was never paid to do it.
Joe Valachi did not know the victim, and even if he had, it would have made no difference. Tony Bender handed down the hit, identifying the victim as Michael Reggione, known as “Little Apples.” He hung out at a coffee shop in Harlem. Some years previously, two of his brothers, had been involved in some dispute with Genovese and Luciano. They had died as a result. The fear was that ten years later at the ripe old age of twenty-two, Michael was now ready to avenge their deaths. The details did not concern Joe. As far as he was concerned it was simply a job.
He recruited two friends whom he had originally brought into Maranzano’s palace guard, Peter “Petey Muggins” Mione and John “Johnny D” De Bellis, to help him arrange the execution. Joe then began to hang out at the coffee shop, and he struck up an acquaintance with “Little Apples.” He also scouted around and found the ideal place for the killing. It was an old, unoccupied tenement building at 340 East 110th Street.
On the evening of November 25th, 1932, he conned his victim into accompanying him on the pretext that they were going to a card game. As they walked into the entrance of the building, Joe turned away. His friends, waiting in the shadowy lobby, shot Reggione three times in the head, leaving him dead in the hallway. After the killing, Valachi said he went straight home to his wife. “After all,” he said, “I was just married a couple of months and I didn't want Mildred to think I was already starting to fool around.”
Following the resignation of Mayor Jimmy Walker on corruption charges, the new reform candidate, Fiorello LaGuardia vowed to rid New York of corruption and the slot machines. Joe’s business soon dried up and in desperation, he and Santucci turned to the numbers racket, starting up a policy game in East Harlem. Things went well and by 1936, Joe was drawing a tax-free income of $1250 a week. Although he had, in common with all policy banks, been paying off the local police precinct as protection, on January 13th, he was arrested. Yet when his case came up for trial, someone had put the fix in and he received only a suspended sentence.
Throughout the rest of the 1930s, Joe operated his numbers business with modest success, also branching out into loansharking, which was a highly lucrative form of money lending that generated enormous profits for the mob. Eventually, through this area of his operations, he became involved in a legitimate business. When one of his debtors could not meet his payment schedule, Joe accepted a half share in his business, an upper Manhattan restaurant called the Paradise. He also found himself a partner in a garment manufacturing company called Prospect Dress. He and Mildred had a child, a boy they called Donald, born in 1936, and like most mobsters, Joe cultivated a mistress, a twenty-two-year-old woman called Laura. He set her up in her own apartment and kept her dressed in the latest fashions, courtesy of his interest in the clothing business.
Towards the end of 1940, Joe bought his first racehorse and began a love affair with horses that would last him the rest of his life. It was perhaps the only interest he ever had that he did for the pure pleasure of it. By this time, things had changed dramatically in the hierarchy of his crime family, and in the underworld in general. There had been major convulsions, especially surrounding a man who one day would try flying and one who would die frying.
Charlie Luciano, boss of the largest crime family in America, was arrested in 1936 and charged with 61 counts of compulsory prostitution. According to Michael Stern, the crime reporter who subsequently interviewed him ten years later, “Lucky,” his mob nickname, who had broken just about every law on the books, was finally brought to a well-merited justice for a crime of which he was least guilty. Sentenced to prison for up to 50 years, he was released in 1946 and deported to Italy, where he eventually died in 1962 of a heart attack. The man who had done more than any other to Americanize the Mafia was out of the mainstream forever, although he would continue to use his influence from off-shore, particularly in connection with narcotic trafficking into America.
In 1937, Vito Genovese left New York. He had been involved in the messy murder of a low-level street hood named Ferdinand Boccia and he feared justice. Although he was running the family as Charlie languished in Dannemora Prison in upstate New York, he decided to visit his hometown of Naples and lay low for a while. That "while" would stretch almost ten years. At this point, the family came under the control of Frank Costello, who would manage its affairs for the next twenty years. Costello was an unknown quantity to Joe, but more importantly, he was not interested in the problems Joe was experiencing with his immediate superior, capo Tony Bender.
In 1939, Louis Buchalter was arrested. One of the most feared Jewish gangster in New York and a close ally and partner of many senior underworld figures, he was subsequently tried for murder. He was electrocuted on March 4th, 1944, the only gang boss in American history to pay the ultimate price for his sins. His execution sent shock waves through the criminal world.
Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, a crony of Buchalter, and one of the more renowned serial killers of the Jewish underworld belonged to a group of psychopaths that became known as Murder Incorporated. Tough Jews that terrorized their neighborhoods. They supposedly handled murder contracts for the entire Italian-American underworld, although Valachi denied this in his testimony. He stated that Cosa Nostra always relied on its own members or associates to carry out their judicial killings. Although his testimony resulted in convictions in at least six previously unsolved gangland killings, Reles' career as an informer came to an abrupt end. On November 12th, 1941, he flew out of a sixth-floor window at a Coney Island hotel while in protective custody, under the guard of a posse of New York policemen.
As all of this was going on, Joe was trying to operate his business interests, keep a low profile and try to avoid problems. It wasn't that easy, especially with Tony Bender hanging around his neck.
Anthony Strollo (right), also known as Tony Bender and Tony Banda, was born in New York, in 1899. He grew up on Monroe Street, in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, which opened up to traffic when he was ten years old. In his early thirties, he worked under Masseria, but was renowned as a man who would switch sides quicker than a frog would blink. According to Luciano, Bender was pretty good at working both sides of the street, and getting away with it and he was always for sale to the highest bidder. He transferred from Masseria to Maranzano, shifted to work under Luciano, and then moved to be with Genovese before relocating to Costello. Then he went back to Genovese, accomplishing all of this in less than seventeen years.
Standing only five feet seven, and weighing about one hundred and fifty pounds, he was a doleful man with sandy brown hair who always looked like he had just come from a funeral. His business front was real estate sales, but he was known as the racket czar of Greenwich Village. In addition, he was a power on the Jersey docks. When the U.S. Army opened the Claremont Terminal on the Jersey City waterfront in 1951, Bender assumed control for the mob and made it a haven for the underworld to bleed as they required.
One day Santucci approached Joe and told him Bender wanted two men disciplined. They had beaten up a member of Bender’s crew, a man called Eddie Capobianco, in a dispute over a girl, and Tony wanted retribution. The trouble was, the two men belonged to another crime family. It was the one that Joe had originally joined, which was controlled by Gagliano and his right-hand man, a tiny, tightly wound hoodlum called Gaetano Luchese.
Although Joe had his doubts, he arranged to have the two men suitably chastised with baseball bats, courtesy of two goons. One of them, Tommy Eboli, would eventually become the leader of the family. Sure enough, Joe was called to the mat for the beatings. Although he had been acting under orders, he felt it better to accept full responsibility, knowing the kind of vindictive nature that Bender could display. Fortunately for him, Luchese (also known as Tommy Brown) had been a close friend of Mildred's late father, Gaetano Reina, and was warm towards Joe. As a consequence, the matter was smoothed over. Yet this wasn't to be the end of Joe’s problems with Tony B.
The loansharking business Joe had created with another gangster called Johnny Robilotto came under the scrutiny of Bender. A compulsive gambler, he let it be known he was losing heavily on the horses and wanted a share of Valachi’s action. Joe refused to give up any and was called to a meeting with his boss at a famous gangster rendezvous, Duke’s Restaurant in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. In the end, Joe had to give in, but rather than split his half he bought out his partner and passed that share over to Bender. Although he took a loss and had to break up a successful business, in his own eyes he had maintained his integrity and stood up for his rights.
In 1941, America entered the war and Joe’s business ventures went off on a different tangent. By now he had sold his restaurant, but his clothing factory was working overtime meeting military orders. His numbers and shylocking business went into decline because there were plenty of jobs and as a consequence, plenty of money to spread around. Like all resourceful members of your everyday crime family, Joe looked around and came up with a way to fill the vacuum created by the diminishing returns of his gambling and lending ventures.
From 1942 until 1945, he made big money in the black market. His source of revenue was gas ration stamps. He formed a partnership with another member of the Cosa Nostra, a man called Frank Luciano (unrelated to Lucky). Together they wholesaled the ration stamps that had been stolen from local offices of the OPA (Office of Price Administration) by independent gangs of thieves, who then sold them to people like Joe and his partner. Although the profit per stamp was only between 3 and 5 cents, the scale of the operation was huge. The OAP estimated that over 2 million stamps were stolen every day for the duration of the war, generating illegal annual revenues of over $20 million dollars.
Often the wealthier mob members would purchase stamps in blocks of $250,000 lots and pass them on down the chain to people like Joe. He would then resell to garages and gas stations, which in turn would eventually pass them on back to the OPA. It seemed to be a never-ending circle of opportunity for the underworld.
Joe prospered sufficiently with his gas stamp scam to the tune of $150,000-to buy himself another racehorse and another restaurant, the Aida in Harlem. Things were progressing nicely into the 1940s, and then Vito came back.
In 1945, Vito Genovese returned to America and life would never be the same for the mob...or for Joseph Valachi. Arrested in Italy by the United States Military Police as the ringleader of a massive black market operation, Genovese was repatriated to New York. The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office then held him to face indictment in connection with the Boccia slaying from 1934-the reason he had fled to Italy.
However, the DA could not make a case against Genovese, because their chief witness, Peter La Tempa, had died in prison under mysterious circumstances. On the evening of January 15th, 1945, he had swallowed some painkillers prescribed for a gallstone problem, gone to sleep and died. An autopsy showed he had enough poison in his system to kill eight horses. Rumor had it that Frank Costello had organized the killing.
Peter La Tempa was the same man who'd almost killed Valachi twenty years earlier in Sing Sing.
As Genovese languished in prison in Brooklyn, Joe and his gas stamp partner, Frank Luciano, went partners in a restaurant called the Lido, in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx. It opened in the winter of 1946 and was immediately successful. Valachi had invested $15,000 of his earnings in the place and it was soon grossing $2500 a week.
Then Valachi discovered that his partner had been dipping into the takings to fund his gambling habit. In a fit of rage, Joe beat him nearly to death.
In due course, Joe was called to “the table,” a mob hearing held to determine culpability. The Cosa Nostra had very strict rules regarding personal conduct among its members, as established by Maranzano back in 1931 at the grand meeting in the Bronx.
In the New York area, the rule about members not raising their hands to each other made a lot of sense. There were six crime families (including the one based in New Jersey) all competing for a share of the area’s riches, which often resulted in animosity between soldiers of the different groups. Without a strictly enforced code of conduct, it would have descended into anarchy.
Joe was called to his hearing at Dukes Restaurant, in Cliffside Park, the mob’s favored place in New Jersey. Accompanied by Tony Bender, Joe was grilled by the underboss of the Mangano family, to which Luciano belonged, then headed by Albert Anastasia, a gangster with a ferocious reputation for violence. However, the meeting went in Joe’s favor. In settlement of the dispute, he was awarded the restaurant...upon payment of a token sum to Luciano. Afterwards, Joe went upstairs to a private room and met up with Genovese, whom he had last seen almost ten years before. Their meeting was cordial, and Genovese (left) even offered to help Joe out of his temporary financial predicament. Unknown to Joe, this was all part of a scheme Genovese was putting in place to regain the loyalty of the soldiers of his old Family. He had a long-term plan to regain control from Frank Costello-which he would achieve ten years down the road.
On October 4th, 1951, Willie Moretti was shot dead at 11:00 am in Joe's Restaurant, 793 Palisades Avenue, Cliffside Park, New Jersey. It was a mere two miles from Dukes.
Willie was a close friend and ally of Frank Costello as well as being his cousin, and the killing was viewed as Genovese's opening gambit in his dangerous game of power chess. His aim was to checkmate Costello and depose him.
In 1952, Joe and Mildred decided to forsake apartment living. They bought into suburbia, purchasing a new house at 45 Shawnee Avenue in Yonkers, Westchester County. Their son, Donald, returned home from his final year at a private boarding school, and Joe found him a legitimate job.
Early in September 1952, Joe was issued with another mob contract, this time to hit a man called Eugenio Giannini. He was a soldier in the Gagliano Family, which since death by natural causes of Gagliano in 1951, was now under the control of Tommy Luchese.
Giannini was an informant for the Narcotic Bureau, the one government agency the mob feared and which caused them a lot of heartburn. In 1950, Giannini had traveled to Europe to peddle counterfeit currency in order to finance a heroin shipment back into America. Caught and imprisoned by the Italian police, he divulged information to the Bureau regarding his drug dealings with the exiled Luciano, who was now living in Naples. He was subsequently released and returned to New York, but Genovese found out and decided he should die. Strictly speaking, this was a matter for the Luchese Family, but Genovese was anxious to maintain his pressure on the underworld, so he decided to execute the warrant, using his long friendship with Luciano as the excuse.
The murder of Giannini illustrates the way the mob hierarchy would isolate itself from the commission of a crime. The chain of command that would eventuate in Giannini's death started with an aggrieved Luciano in Naples. Genovese commissioned the hit but would be nowhere near the victim at the time of the killing. Tony Bender transmitted the orders, but would also isolate himself with a perfect alibi. Even the man responsible for the murder, Valachi, would not be physically present when it went down. He, in turn, subcontracted the job to three East Harlem hoodlums anxious to make their bones and be inducted into Joe's crime family. They were the brothers, Joe and Pat Pagano, and Valachi's nephew, Fiore Siano.
Valachi had been chosen because he and Giannini had known each other for years, and as always in the mob, when killing time came down, the target was often set up by a good friend or a relative. Late in the evening of September 19th, Giannini was shot in the head and left for dead outside a deli on West 234th Street. For twelve years, it was another unsolved gangland killing, until Joe came along and cleared it up.
In June 1953, Joe was again summoned to a meet with Tony Bender. There was another killing to be carried out. This time it was an act of revenge by Genovese, although Bender used the usual excuse that the victim had become an informer and family security was at stake. The target was a man called Steve Franse. When he fled to Italy in 1937, Genovese had left Franse to chaperone his wife, Anna. Franse had been a partner with Vito in some nightclubs in Greenwich Village and had also been in partnership with Mrs. Genovese in interests that lay outside of the mob. In 1952, Anna sued for divorce. In court, she had embarrassed Vito with her disclosures about his business interests, legal and illegal. A furious Genovese laid the blame for his wife's defection with Franse. Bender ordered Joe to set up the killing, and on June 18th, 1953, Franse was lured to Joe's restaurant in the Bronx and brutally murdered. Joe again used Pat Pagano and his nephew Siano to do the job.
Joe's problems originated not just with Tony Bender, but also from the attention he was receiving from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Under their hard-driving boss, Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, the Bureau was feared and despised by the mob. It continually harassed them, often using undercover operatives to infiltrate and gather evidence. Long before Joe Pistone, aka Donny Brasco, the FBN had agents working inside Mafia families. It also established a major network of informants that gave Cosa Nostra a constant case of heartburn.
The FBN was the first government agency to recognize the existence of Italian-American organized crime as more than just a regional problem, and no other law enforcement agency had done more to dislocate it. As early as 1940, they had received a document from the Italian Finance Police which listed a nine-member panel of the Mafia “Commission” which according to Joe Bonanno, had been headed since its formation, by Vincent Mangano. The information had come to the Italian police from Nicolo Gentile.
They busted Mafia drug trafficker, Carl Caramussa in Kansas City and got him to “roll”, years before Joe Valachi. Through aggressive field agents like George White and Benny Pocoroba, the FBN was accurately mapping out the Mafia structure in the mid to late 1930s.
In 1948, Frank Costello ordered his men to stay out of drugs. In the absence of Luciano and Genovese, he was the acting boss, and in his opinion, the risks of drug dealing far outweighed the benefits. Other families chose to either pay lip service to this philosophy or simply ignore it. At this time, the Luchese clan were possibly the most heavily involved in drug trafficking of all the crime families in America.
The Bureau had kept Joe under observation, booking him in November 1944, and again in March 1948. Valachi claimed that at this point in his life he was not dealing in drugs. He said that he had come under the FBN’s scrutiny simply because of his associates. One of these was his old pal and mentor, Dominick Petrelli. “The Gap” had been arrested and sent to prison on drug charges in 1942, and upon his release was deported to Italy. In November 1953, Joe was again on the receiving end of disturbing news emanating from Tony Bender.
It seemed that Petrelli had returned to New York, having made a deal with the junk agents to try and set up members of Joe's Cosa Nostra family. Joe knew what was coming and was adamant he would not get involved in a hit on his old friend. “I don't care what the Gaps doing...don’t mix me up,” he told Bender. “Let his own people handle it.” Petrelli was part of the Luchese group and Joe, quite understandably, thought they should take care of the problem the way it should have been with the Giannini hit.
However, Joe did meet up with his old pal, who called into the Lido one night for a drink and to reminisce. After he left, Joe called Bender and told him he had made contact. A few days later, in the early hours of the morning of December 9th, three men walked into a bar on East 183rd Street in the Bronx, found Petrelli, backed him into the men's room, and blew his brains out.
Joe was sad but resigned when he heard the news. "I wouldn't have done nothing to him...how could I forget he took me to Brooklyn and kept me out of the way when Maranzano got his?... Gee, I felt bad, it wasn't much of a Christmas."
There was a lot worse to come.
In 1955, Joe was arrested and convicted on a narcotics conspiracy charge and sentenced to five years in prison. The appeals court then reversed the indictment, but Joe was arrested again in 1956 in a drug case involving his brother-in-law, Giacomo Reina. It was the first time Valachi had seen the inside of a prison cell in over thirty years. However, he was soon released on bail, pending an appeal. He won.
It was not Joe's first venture into drugs. This had been in 1952 and illustrates the perfidy of the top men in Cosa Nostra. As Joe said, "It was a mess...I want the boys who are in it (Cosa Nostra) today to know how the greed of the bosses is ruining this thing of ours.”
Valachi set up a deal with Pat Pagano to import fifteen kilos of heroin via a Corsican source in Marseilles. Cognizant of the family’s edict regarding the no-go rule on drugs, Joe went to Tony Bender and got him involved. He knew that, with Bender’s backing, he was in the clear. Bender put up the initial $8000 for the down payment. He agreed to this if he was included with Joe and his partner on a fifty-fifty basis of the $165,000 that would be realized after they wholesaled the dope. But when the drugs arrived, Joe suddenly found that, in addition to Bender, he had to include Genovese and four other members of Bender's inner circle. At the end of the day, Joe and his partner, Pat Pagano, ended up with 2 kilos each of heroin. To rub salt into the wound, Joe later discovered that the profits he thought he was sharing among six people were in fact split only between Bender and Genovese.
1957 was a bad year for Cosa Nostra and it wasn't the brightest in Valachi's almanack, for sure.
On May 2nd, Frank Costello was shot as he returned to his apartment on Central Park West in Manhattan. Although he was only slightly wounded, he knew that Vito Genovese had set up the assassination attempt and that the next one might not fail. He bowed down and retired gracefully from the family leadership.
Two months later, on June 17th, Frank Scalice, underboss of the family run by Albert Anastasia, was shot dead as he picked some peaches in his favorite fruit store on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Then on October 25th, Anastasia sat down for what was to be his last haircut in chair number four at the barber shop in the Park-Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan. He'd wrested control of the family by killing the Mangano brothers in 1951, and now it was his turn. Two masked gunmen walked in and blasted Albert out of the green leather seat.
Then three weeks went by and on November 14th, New York State police officers arrested dozens of men who had congregated at an estate in upper New York at a place called Apalachin. It turned out that these men-some from Italy and some from other parts of the country-all had police records. Surprise, surprise, all seemed to belong to some kind of secret criminal organization.
In the seamy, convoluted, Byzantine world of the Cosa Nostra, the Apalachin debacle set a new level for duplicitous standards.
“I’ll tell you the reaction of all of us soldiers when we heard about the raid,” said Valachi. “If it had been us, you can imagine what the bosses would have done...there they were, running through the woods like scared rabbits, throwing away money and guns...so who are they kidding when they say we got to respect them?”
For Joe during this period, bad would only turn to worse, mirroring the mob’s misfortunes. His liquor license at the Lido restaurant was revoked. He kept it going as a pizza place, and put all his ready cash into the construction of another eating-place in Yonkers. When he was convicted in the 1955 drug bust, he had to cancel the project and sell the Lido. Since it had no liquor license, it was worth little. Then his partner in the dress factory died and Joe discovered he had been withholding taxes, so the business was liquidated to satisfy a government lien.
Joe started dealing in drugs again and developed an interest in a jukebox operation in East Harlem and the Bronx. By 1959, he wanted out of drug dealing completely. His jukebox business was doing nicely, he had developed a linen supply company, and had joined with another Cosa Nostra soldier in forming a numbers business.
In May of 1959, it all started to unravel. He was tipped off by one of his black operators in Harlem, a giant black man from Louisiana called John Freeman, known in the underworld, not surprisingly as “Mr. Big,” that the FBN were closing in and he only just evaded them as they raided his home. On the run, Joe went into hiding, first sharing an apartment with a girlfriend in the Bronx, then traveling up to northern New York State. At Wingdale, sixty-five miles north of New York, he bought a trailer and drove into Connecticut. He eventually found a trailer park in Enfield, in Thompsonville, one of its five neighborhoods and stayed there for five months, forming a relationship with a local girl. He recalled his time here as one of the happy periods in his largely disjointed life.
On November 19th, three federal agents arrested Joe as he waited at a pay phone near the camp. Joe had employed a young street hoodlum called Ralph Wagner, a one-time professional boxer with a bad temper, to help him in his drug ring and this man had been arrested in the swoop that almost caught Joe back in May. Trying for a lighter sentence, Wagner had tipped off the FBN that Joe was waiting for a telephone call that night, at that particular phone box.
Taken back to Brooklyn, Valachi was charged and then released on $25,000 bail. His numbers and loan shark business had gone west during his six-month absence, and he had a hard job raising the money. Because of the pressure, the narcotic agents were exerting, no one was interested in buying out his jukebox business. In February 1960, Joe agreed to plead guilty to his drug charge, providing that the court allowed him a month to settle up his affairs. He had already decided to skip the country and move north to Canada to seek shelter with a man called Alfredo Agueci. Joe had been introduced to Agueci by family member Vincent Mauro while they were at a bar in Manhattan. Agueci and his brother Vito were Sicilian drug dealers working in and around the crime family based in Buffalo, under the leadership of Stefano Magaddino.
Afraid that the bail bondsman would foreclose on his house when he skipped, Joe sold it at a loss in a fire sale. He resettled Mildred and Donald into another, much cheaper home back in the Bronx, making sure the title of the property was in her name only. From this point in time, his real family would no longer be part of his life.
Shortly after arriving in Toronto, Joe received a telephone call from Tony Bender telling him to return. “Get back here,” Bender said. “The fix is in. You're only going to get five years." Although he flew back to New York, Joe got cold feet. For a month, he moved around from place to place in the Bronx and New Jersey but eventually turned himself into the authorities. When he entered the courtroom on June 3rd, he realized that the atmosphere was all wrong. Instead of five, the judge sentenced him to fifteen years and fined him $10,000. Wagner, the man who had turned Joe in, received an eight- to twelve- year term for his part in the drug bust.
Both men were sent to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary to begin serving their sentences. In August 1961, Valachi was returned to New York to stand trial in another narcotics conspiracy trial. This was the case that Joe claims was a setup, the one involving Bender, Mauro and the Agueci brothers, and the one that led up to all of his troubles. Joe was found guilty in February 1962 and sentenced to twenty years, a sentence that was to run concurrently with the term he was already serving.
In the days leading up to the killing of John Saupp, Valachi was under intense strain. Apart from the suspicion that he was an informer, Genovese was also expressing his concern over Joe’s links to Tony Bender. Vito was mad at Bender, who he believed had grabbed some profits by going behind his back on numerous drug deals. It is also possible that Genovese had pieced together the jigsaw that had resulted in his own drug conviction. Apparently, this had been masterminded by Charlie Luciano, from his home in Naples, Frank Costello and a man called Carlo Gambino, the new head of the old Anastasia family, and they had coordinated it through Bender. All had different reasons to see Vito behind bars, and their scheme had succeeded without qualification.
In fact, Genovese had been outed by a low-level drug dealer called Nelson Cantellops. Whatever the rationalization, reaching out from behind prison walls, Genovese finally settled his grudge with Tony Bender.
On the evening of April 8th, 1962, he told his wife he was going out for a few minutes and left his luxurious home in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He never returned. Rumors abound as to his fate, but one thing is certain: He died somewhere, somehow, that night. One day soon afterwards, while in a casual conversation with Joe, Genovese said, “It was the best thing that could have happened to Tony. He wouldn't be able to take it (prison) like you and me."
In September 1963, Joseph Valachi appeared as the star witness before a government inquiry into the mob. Officially known as The Hearings Before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee Operations, United States Senate, 88th Congress, Organized Crime & Illicit Traffic in Narcotics, it was generally referred to as The McClellan Committee because Democratic Senator John L. McClellan chaired it.
In the Old Senate Office building in Washington D.C., as the television cameras turned, Joseph Valachi went before the committee and told his story. The American public had their first view of the real article: a mob stone-killer, testifying about his life in Cosa Nostra
A short, bandy-legged little man, standing only five foot six and weighing 188 pounds, he had a face like a cracked walnut under a military style crew cut. As he gave his evidence in a low, gravelly voice, he chained smoked each day through three packs of Camel cigarettes. Day after day he spoke about his life, tearing away the Mafia’s veil of mystery and exposing its secrets. For the first time, the American public heard about omerta and blood oaths, soldiers and buttons, capi and consiglieri, and all the details of a vast, organized criminal syndicate, told by a man who had admitted to being involved in 33 underworld murders.
He revealed the existence of five crime families in New York and one in New Jersey. He placed other families in Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, Tampa, Boston and Providence, identifying bosses and senior men in each group. He confirmed that there were at least 2000 made men in New York, and personally identified 289 of the 383 hoodlums that had been profiled by investigators. It had been 13 years since America had been exposed to the Kefauver hearings, but at that time the object had been for the interviewees to disclose as little as possible and take the 5th Amendment as often as possible.
There was an interesting exchange between Joe and the committee that illustrated his lack of moral reprehensibility about his life-long career. In his subculture of crime, there was no concern over acts committed over the years. “Well,” he said, “after you get used to burglarizing or committing crimes, you don't think these things are crimes. For instance, I had been in some machines (jukeboxes). I don't think that was a crime; everybody else had them. I don't know how to explain them. I had dress shops. I had horses. Everyone was selling stamps. How am I going to explain it to you, senator?”
Following his appearance in Washington, Joe was transferred to the District of Columbia jail. There, under the urging of the Department of Justice, he started to write his memoirs. When finished, they comprised an astonishing 1200 pages. It was hoped that, when published, they would be used by law enforcement agencies across the country to develop their knowledge of organized crime, an enemy they had been fighting with little success for over 30 years.
However, early in 1966, a massive campaign was instigated by an article in the Italian-American newspaper, Il Progresso, to stop the publication of the manuscript. They claimed that it was perpetrating the kind of image of criminality associated with the many Italian names in Valachi’s testimony. It was a slur on all Italian-Americans. By May 10th, under heavy political pressure and supported by such well-known Italian-Americans as Frank Sinatra, the Attorney General initiated proceedings to ban the book. It was the first time that action of this kind had ever been taken.
Ultimately, a compromise was reached. A third-person book could be produced using Valachi’s writings as source material, along with personal interviews between Valachi and the selected writer, Peter Maas. This resulted in the 1968 publication of The Valachi Papers. It was the definitive account of the life and times of Joseph Valachi.
Following the furor over his writings, Valachi was removed from the relative comfort of the D.C. prison and transferred to a miserable jail in Milan, Michigan, forty miles south of Detroit. There on April 11th, 1966, Valachi attempted suicide by trying to hang himself in a shower. Despondent over the government's action concerning his book and confused by the move to Milan, he finally broke. The last straw appeared to be the removal from his cell of a small, portable hot plate and grill he used to cook himself a few delicacies.
Joe suffered from the cold weather in Michigan, so he was eventually transferred to the federal penitentiary at La Tuna, Texas, twenty-one miles north-west of El Paso. Set on a flat, open landscape of halopena peppers, corn and grass fields, populated by roadrunners and jackrabbits, the adobe prison became Joe's home for the rest of his life. He was housed in a large cell near the prison hospital that had its own bathroom, rug, television set, small stove and several electric heaters. Even in the hot, dry, barren atmosphere of the Texas desert, Joe was forever cold.
Towards the end of his life, his health was getting worse. He suffered from arthritis, high blood pressure, gall bladder problems and prostate cancer.
On Saturday, April 3rd, 1971, Joe suffered a gall bladder attack. The prison doctor sedated him with a shot of morphine and he died late in the afternoon.
According to Vincent Teresa, a mob informant from Boston who served time at La Tuna and became Joe's friend, Valahi had corresponded for years with a woman from Buffalo. She was the one who claimed his body two weeks after his death. She had the authorities ship it north and buried him in the Gate of Heaven cemetery in Niagara Falls after a small service in Our Lady of Carmel Church. Initially, she left the grave unmarked, in case the mob might try to desecrate Joe’s final resting place. She bought two sites, side by side which cost her $245, and paid $115 for her memorial stone and Joe’s.
Her name was Marie K. Jackson, nee Murray, and she was 45 when she buried Joe. She lived at 3026 Panama Street in Niagara Falls. After an unhappy marriage, she and her husband divorced. She worked at Amberg’s Men’s Shop as an office manager, then in adult book shops. She claimed she had met Valachi at a party in the 1950s when he had visited Buffalo, and they had started a relationship. She would meet him in New York, and he had paid the rent on her apartment. Valachi's wife claimed Joe had played the field most of his married life and their marriage had been a sham. Marie Jackson died in May 1999, and is buried alongside Joe. Mildred died in 1980, aged 74.
Joe survived Vito Genovese, his old enemy, by two years and two months. The man who was still the titular head of the biggest Cosa Nostra family in America had died in a Springfield, Missouri prison in 1969 from a heart problem.
Joseph Valachi and his revelations did not destroy the Cosa Nostra. In fact, it hardly put a crimp in their style. He was an acute embarrassment to Genovese, who no doubt smarted under the humiliation of it all. He also caused J. Edgar Hoover all kinds of heartburn by forcing him to finally bite the knuckle in admitting that perhaps crime was being committed in a big way by a bunch of gangsters who did not conform to the agencies stereotyping, al la Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson.
It was not long after Valachi’s appearance at the McClellan hearings that Hoover instituted the Top Hoodlum program at the agency. Better late than never, and the FBI have been one of the more effective enforcement weapons over the last thirty years, doing significant damage to the mob nationwide.
There is an apocryphal story that Hoover claimed after Valachi turned up, that the FBI did not know about the Mafia but had been following La Cosa Nostra for years. With the FBI’s obsession with acronyms, LCN makes sense, in a way, except, grammatically, it’s a nightmare. The Our Thing is simply nonsense. What Hoover was after, and either never knew or simply ignored, is the mob expression-La Stessa Cosa-which means “The Same Thing.”
All of this seems reasonable until you realize that in 1958, the FBI created a 280-page monograph examining the Mafia by name, in great detail. And let’s not forget Greg Scarpa Senior’s involvement in the education of the FBI on matters of the mob!
Cosa Nostra in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose have almost completely disappeared. Denver, Kansas City, Dallas, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Rochester are non-existent. New Orleans, Tampa, Buffalo are shadows of their former selves. The mob in Detroit, Philadelphia and New Jersey are on their knees and almost out. The once powerful syndicate of Chicago is greatly reduced in numbers and effectiveness. What is left of organized crime in Boston, Providence and Rhode Island struggles to compete with the rapidly expanding and developing crime groups made up of blacks, Asians, South Americans and biker gangs.
Only in New York does the mob maintain momentum, although they operate under a lot of law enforcement pressure. The faces of the five families have changed dramatically over the years. Relentless pressure from all government agencies makes it a lot harder for organized crime to stay organized. Of them all, the Genovese Family (as they are still referred to in memory of Vito) remains the biggest and the strongest. With their power over labor and the unions almost totally abrogated, they have resorted to their staple business of gambling, money lending and extortion.
In 2016, the FBI estimated that nationwide there could be around 3000 members and associates of the Mafia operating, almost all of them, in the Tri-State area. Jerry Capeci, the well-known mob author and Mafia expert, claims that about 600 “made-men” still ply their trade in the New York area, a decrease of 70% on the numbers Joe Valachi estimated back in 1963.
There are soldiers and captains in the family who will still remember Joe Cago, and they no doubt wince whenever his name is mentioned-not because of the damage he did them but more for the fact that he brought it all out in the open.
“There were no more secrets after Valachi,” said famous mob author Nicholas Pileggi, whose books included Casino and Wiseguy. “He explained what it was all about. He named names. That's the beginning of the end of organized crime as we knew it. Until then, it was a world filled with secrets. After Valachi, the Boy Scouts had more secrets than the mob.”
During the Second World War, British fighter pilots used an expression to denote their tactical superiority when attacking German aircraft. Coming down on the enemy from above, with the sun behind them, they called it: Catching the Bounce.
Cosa Nostra had been Catching the Bounce for over thirty years. Then Joe came along and the ball went out of play.
Valachi's testimony, accepting the awful authority under which it is presented, is further a splendid instance of the particular genius of American merchandising for the wider and wider distribution of goods of worse and worse quality. Never, before Joseph Valachi, has a witness given such a broad circulation to the myth of the American Mafia and never, before him, has a witness left that myth with a smaller show of genuine substance.
- Murray Kempton
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