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Dozens held in mob raids in N.Y., Italy

Culmination of three- year operation hits the Gambino clan hard.

February 08, 2008|Erika Hayasaki and Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — American and Italian authorities Thursday swept up dozens of suspects wanted in connection with a transatlantic drug trafficking operation and a string of U.S. Mafia crimes dating to the 1970s.

The coordinated operation -- which was three years in the making -- targeted at least 30 suspects in Sicily and 62 in New York, law enforcement officials said.

By Thursday night, most of those in New York and New Jersey had been taken into custody. They included members of the Gambino family and other reputed organized-crime figures, as well as union and construction industry officials.

At a news conference in Brooklyn, state Atty. Gen. Andrew M. Cuomo said the arrests served as a message that "organized crime still exits. . . . We like to think it's a vestige of the past. It's not. It is as unrelenting as weeds that continue to sprout in the cracks of society."

Most of the alleged U.S. crimes occurred when the Gambino family was run by Paul Castellano, who was murdered in 1985. Recent crimes outlined in the indictment included embezzlement of union assets, credit fraud, and extortion from cement and truck companies -- as well as mob shakedowns at construction sites at the Staten Island ferry and a NASCAR racetrack.

Federal prosecutors said they built their 80-count indictment using hundreds of hours of conversations taped by an informant.

Those arrested Thursday included the reputed acting boss of the Gambino family, John "Jackie Nose" D'Amico. Also taken into custody were alleged family underboss Domenico "The Greaseball" Cefalu and Gambino consigliere Joseph "Jo Jo" Corozzo.

Each was charged with racketeering conspiracy and multiple crimes of violence and could face up to two decades in prison.

Others charged in the U.S. indictment were three reputed Gambino family captains, three acting captains, 16 soldiers and numerous associates.

Charles Carneglia, said to be a family soldier, was charged with five murders -- including that of Albert Gelb, a state court officer gunned down in 1976, four days before he was set to testify against Carneglia.

"Organized crime in New York is not dead," said Mark J. Mershon, head of the FBI office here. "As a consequence of acts charged in the indictment, however, seven people are dead. It's also a fallacy that mob murder victims are just other mobsters. Three of the murder victims had no affiliation with organized crime."

In the Sicilian capital of Palermo, video footage released Thursday evening showed dozens of police cars and agents descending on homes in several towns and taking away numerous men in handcuffs. One mouthed defiantly at the camera.

Italian investigators said the two clans targeted in the operation -- code-named "Old Bridge" -- appeared to be working to reestablish ties that had bound Mafiosi in the U.S. and Italy for generations but had frayed during bloody internal feuds of the 1980s and early '90s.

The arrests came at a time of unusual public outcry in Sicily over the extortion rackets that Mafiosi have employed against businesses for years.

Many of those picked up by authorities overnight had ties to the Gambino clan or a group loyal to Salvatore Lo Piccolo, a Sicilian boss arrested in November.

According to Italian authorities, Lo Piccolo was attempting to set himself up as the Cosa Nostra's next "boss of bosses" by reaching out to allies in the U.S. who had fled the turf wars in Sicily 20 years ago.

Those who fled had lost a power struggle for control of the Cosa Nostra to the Corleone gang, headed by the especially brutal Salvatore Riina until his arrest in 1993.

Riina was succeeded by Bernardo Provenzano, who used his leadership to move the Cosa Nostra into businesses and away from a head-on battle with the Italian government. He was arrested in 2006 after 40 years on the lam, opening the way for Lo Piccolo to take over.

With Riina gone and the Corleone influence diminished, several Cosa Nostra mobsters living in New York and New Jersey began to return to their ancestral haunts in Sicily, encouraged by Lo Piccolo, who favored "pacification" and saw new business opportunities, Italian authorities said.

Pietro Grasso, Italy's chief anti-Mafia prosecutor, said that the latest raids were a "natural extension" of the arrests of Provenzano and Lo Piccolo, which have enabled authorities to break down sections of the Mafia.

"The evidence gathered in these investigations has shed light on the growing importance of renewed relations between Cosa Nostra families in Sicily and America, especially the Gambino family in New York," Grasso said in a news conference.

"The Cosa Nostra . . . was trying -- but fortunately was stopped in time -- [to establish] a further connection with the American Cosa Nostra, in order to be able to return to drug trafficking with both feet."

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erika.hayasaki@latimes.com

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

Hayasaki reported from New York, and Wilkinson reported from Rome.

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