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A Simple Queens Caterer, or 'Big Joey' the Mob Killer?

Joseph Massino, the reputed head of the Bonanno family, faces a murder trial this month.

May 03, 2004|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — As crime bosses go, Joseph Massino has been strictly old school, a wiseguy more wary than wild in a city that turns reputed mob leaders into celebrities.

Unlike John Gotti, who loved fancy clothes, flashy cars and media attention, the alleged head of the Bonanno crime family has long shunned the spotlight. But as Massino prepares to stand trial this month on seven murder charges -- a case that is being billed as one of New York's great mob trials -- notoriety is about to engulf him.

Big Joey, as he is known, has been called the Last Don, the only leader of one of New York's five crime families not to have been sent away to prison. Prosecutors are eager to bring him down, hoping to strike a major blow against organized crime.

"The Bonanno family is reeling," said Pasquale J. D'Amuro, who spent four years directing an FBI probe of Massino and others, resulting in the indictment of 27 members. "Today, to say it has an organized structure is to give it too much credit."

To many observers, a conviction in this trial -- as well as in a separate murder case that might lead to a death sentence for Massino -- could end a notorious chapter in Mafia history. His rise and fall is a classic tale of old-style mob values colliding with modern realities, according to federal court records, FBI reports and knowledgeable observers.

"He's the last of the old-time gangsters, and he's had a 10-year run at the top of a legendary crime organization," said Jerry Capeci, an expert on the mob and author of "Gang Land," a weekly column in the New York Sun. "But now the end is in sight, because prosecutors are more powerful than ever and the Mafia itself has changed greatly."

Once a dominant force in the criminal underworld, members of the Bonanno, Gambino, Luchese, Colombo and Genovese crime organizations have seen their power slipping over the last 40 years. They no longer have the control over labor unions and politicians that they once enjoyed, and criminal organizations run by other ethnic groups -- from Russia, China, Colombia, Jamaica and elsewhere -- have gained more influence over a range of illegal activities, said Ronald Goldstock, former head of the New York State Task Force on Organized Crime.

Despite this decline, he said, America's cultural fascination with the New York families continues to echo in movies, novels and TV. And Massino's saga, filled with murder, mayhem and manicotti, has no shortage of Hollywood angles.

In 1976, for example, FBI agent Donnie Brasco -- whose real name is Joseph Pistone -- infiltrated the Bonanno crime family. He spent six years gathering crucial information from unsuspecting mobsters, and when he finally revealed himself, the federal agent helped put more than 120 members of the Mafia in jail.

The movie based on his exploits was a hit, yet Pistone's testimony failed to get Massino and other family members convicted on murder charges. Some observers call the coming trial "Donnie Brasco II" -- an effort to complete unfinished business.

Others say the prosecution is a mean-spirited vendetta that is bound to fail.

"Massino is an innocent man being hounded by liars," says his attorney, David Breitbart. "This whole case is built on phony evidence, and it adds up to nothing."

Like many of his peers, Massino, 61, respected the importance of omerta, or silence, when he became a family member. This meant refusing to cooperate with prosecutors and giving information in exchange for a lesser sentence. To do so was unthinkable to members of his generation, an act of dishonor that could result in death.

But younger family members today feel no such ties of loyalty. And six of them -- including Massino's brother-in-law -- are expected to offer damning testimony against him on seven mob-related killings and other crimes.

"Look at the number of people who have turned against him [Massino] from his own family," said Pistone. "He's been betrayed by a new, younger generation of Mafia guys who could care less about the traditions of refusing to cooperate with law-enforcement officials. They'll cut a deal for themselves the first chance they get."

Many feel they have no choice, given the powerful tools federal prosecutors have used to weaken the five families in the last 20 years. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act -- known as RICO -- has enabled the government to put the leaders of an entire crime organization on trial instead of a handful of individuals.

As a result, prosecutors have become more aggressive in attempting to seize mob assets, impose tougher federal sentences and conduct more far-reaching electronic surveillance of crime activities. Before the RICO laws took effect in the mid-1980s, many mob criminals typically got two- to five-year sentences for a variety of offenses and served their time quietly, without offering any information to prosecutors, said Robert Castelli, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

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