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Salvatore "Bill" Bonanno, 1932 - 2008

N.Y. Mafia boss' son, No. 2 in crime family

January 03, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Salvatore "Bill" Bonanno, the eldest son of the late Mafia boss Joseph Bonanno who became the No. 2 man in his father's crime family in the mid-1960s and shortly thereafter escaped a gangland hit on a sidewalk in Brooklyn in protest against his promotion, has died. He was 75.

Bonanno, who later served prison time for various crimes and became an author, died Tuesday in a Tucson hospital after suffering a heart attack at his home, his nephew Anthony Tarantola said Wednesday.

Bonanno told The Times in 2005 that he never intended to follow in the footsteps of his Sicilian-born father, the founder of one of New York's five Mafia crime families. Dubbed "Joe Bananas" in the tabloid press, Joseph Bonanno was once described by Time magazine as "one of the bloodiest killers in Cosa Nostra's history."

"Bill was raised to be legit," said Gay Talese, author of "Honor Thy Father," the 1971 bestseller that chronicled the rise and fall of the Bonanno family. The book was turned into a 1973 television movie. "He was a college kid who went to the University of Arizona and was sort of like a kid with a silver spoon in his mouth," Talese told The Times on Wednesday. "His father was an affluent man, and the son grew up in that style."

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Nov. 5, 1932, Bonanno developed a mastoid ear condition as a boy. Advised by a doctor to get his son out of the cold climate of Long Island, where they lived, Joseph Bonanno in 1941 bought a second home in Tucson, where Bill and his sister, Catherine, were enrolled in a Roman Catholic school.

Bonanno remained in Arizona, attending boarding schools and Tucson High School before enrolling at the University of Arizona. He first studied agriculture with the intention of possibly managing his family's ranch, and later studied business before considering a foreign-service career.

But his life changed in the 1950s when his father came under scrutiny by authorities. Prompted by loyalty, Bonanno told The Times in 2005, he returned to New York to act as a conduit between his father and other members of the Bonanno crime family.

In the wake of a 1957 raid on a large meeting of national Mafia leaders in Apalachin, N.Y., and subsequent prosecution by federal and state authorities, Talese said, Bonanno "entered organized crime at a time when it was more perilous than had been the case when his father ran things pretty much his own way from the '30s to the late '50s."

After the raid, Talese said, the U.S. government targeted organized crime in ways it hadn't before.

"Bill was a privileged kid who was not supposed to be a gangster, and then he was caught in the middle," Talese said. "It was like a generational problem. He was sort of influenced by circumstances not necessarily of his own will. It's not unlike that Al Pacino character in 'The Godfather.' " And, Talese said, "little by little, Bill gets in deeper and deeper" -- to the point when, about 1965, his father thought his son ought to become his second in command.

The problem, Talese said, was that not everyone in the 450-man Bonanno organization wanted Bill Bonanno to be the No. 2 man.

"There were the loyalists and the disloyalists, " Talese said. "The old man putting the son higher than a lot of people believed he should be led to rancor within the organization, and a faction took it upon themselves to express their disagreement with bullets."

The tabloid press dubbed it "the Banana War," and Bill Bonanno became one of the targets.

"I heard the bullets going over my head," he said in the 2005 interview with The Times, recalling being ambushed in Brooklyn. "If they knew what they were doing, I wouldn't be here." The 1960s, Bonanno said, "were a very turbulent time."

"I always say I had only one goal in the '60s -- actually two goals. When I got up in the morning, my goal was to live to sunset. And when sunset came, my second goal was to live to sunrise."

With the father and son having lost the war of succession, Talese said, they were forced to give up their criminal underground influence in New York City and move west -- the father to his home in Tucson and his son and his family to San Jose.

Bill Bonanno, according to his website, was first imprisoned in 1968 for contempt and other white-collar charges. Until 1993, he had been imprisoned several times and served a total of 12 years.

That included his conviction in a federal trial in New York on charges of running up bills with a stolen credit card, for which he served a four-year term at Terminal Island near Los Angeles.

At one point, his cellmate was convicted Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy. "They got along great," Talese said. "Bill admired that [Liddy] was the only Nixon guy that kept his mouth shut."

Over the years, Talese continued to stay in touch with Bonanno, whom he considered a friend.

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