NEW YORK CITY — A federal court jury Wednesday convicted three organized crime chieftains and five other top mobsters of directing a Mafia "commission" that prosecutors said has ruled major crime in the United States since the 1930s.
Law enforcement officials and criminal intelligence experts hailed the verdict as a historic blow to Mafia leadership. The defendants were convicted of all charges after a 10-week trial in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. All but one face possible sentences of more than 300 years in prison.
"These men, at the very pinnacle of organized crime, thought they were all but immune to law enforcement," U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III said in a statement released in Washington. "But they were wrong. They thought of themselves as the lords of crime, but they were convicted."
'Twilight of the Mob'
The eight were convicted of racketeering, extortion, union corruption and other crimes for serving on a Mafia "board of directors" that has arbitrated mob disputes, divided territory, authorized new members and directed major mob murders since the days of Al Capone.
"This is the twilight of the mob," G. Robert Blakey, an organized crime expert at Notre Dame University, said in a telephone interview. "It's just that simple. . . . I don't see how the mob can survive this set of prosecutions."
Among those convicted were Genovese crime family boss Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno, 75, whom authorities consider the nation's most powerful mob leader; Lucchese crime family boss Anthony (Tony Ducks) Corallo, 73; and Colombo crime family boss Carmine (Junior) Persico, 53, who was sentenced Monday to 39 years in prison on related racketeering, extortion and bribery charges in another trial.
Persico won renown in the "commission" trial by conducting his own defense, summing up last week with an emotional plea that jurors not send him back to prison simply because he is a member of the Mafia. It was to no avail.
Judge Richard Owen scheduled sentencing for Jan. 6 and ordered the eight held without bail, citing possible reprisals against witnesses. The jurors, who had deliberated for five days, were driven away from the courthouse in a blue van by police after the foreman read the 24-page verdict. The jurors were not identified for fear of mob reprisals.
Officials called the verdict the high point so far in a broad state and federal attack on organized crime. Dozens of Mafia leaders in Los Angeles, Kansas City, Cleveland, Boston, Atlantic City and other cities have been indicted or convicted in recent months.
In New York, the heads of the two other major mob families are also in jail. The head of the Gambino crime group, John Gotti, 46, is on trial in federal court in Brooklyn on racketeering charges. His predecessor, Paul (Big Paul) Castellano, was originally named in the "commission" indictment, but was shot fatally in front of a Manhattan steak house last December.
The head of the Bonanno crime family, Phillip (Rusty) Rastelli, 68, was convicted along with 11 others on Oct. 15 on federal charges of racketeering, extortion and union corruption. Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 19; Rastelli faces up to 61 years in prison.
'A Power Void'
Law enforcement officials predicted that the jailing of the mob's top leaders will create turmoil as younger, less experienced mob members begin jockeying to move up.
"It creates a power void in the hierarchy of organized crime," said John L. Hogan, head of the FBI office in New York. "Now we have underlings who are not as seasoned, who haven't got the contacts, who don't have the experience to manage as well as their predecessors. They're new to the career path, so to speak. That makes it easier to get at them."
"The 'commission' will continue to exist," agreed Ronald Goldstock, head of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force. "It will be new people, none of whom have worked together. So their ability to negotiate and to oversee will be weakened. They will be less likely to rule effectively."
William Doran, special FBI agent in charge of the New York office's criminal division, said the convictions create "a tremendous opportunity for law enforcement" because of the likely mob "turmoil and disorganization."
Stiff Penalties Provided
Officials said the case marks the most successful use yet of the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, called RICO, which provides stiff penalties for a pattern of criminal activity. Prosecutors have used the law, together with expanded use of wiretaps and undercover surveillance, as the keystone of their assault on the mob.
"This is not the old prosecution that takes out one guy at a time, like a wolf picking off the sick and the lame," said Notre Dame's Blakey, who helped draft the law. "We just took out the heads of the herd. The herd can't hold together without leadership. The herd's very rationale is called into question by these convictions."