Mafia Inc.: The Long, Bloody Reign of Canada's Sicilian Clan - André Cédilot, André Noël (2011)
Chapter 1. CORPSES
VACANT LOTS HAVE ALWAYS attracted kids and always will. Those of Ozone Park are no exception. The children of this neighbourhood in Queens, one of New York’s five storied boroughs, are no different from those anywhere else in the world: they love to explore these plots of land abandoned by grown-ups, where wild grasses grow freely in disorderly thatches that stir the imagination. Where heaps of rubble may hide treasures. Or dead bodies.
Until the nineteenth century, vegetable farmers still grew crops on this part of Long Island. One entrepreneur raised goats—not so much for their milk or meat but for their hides, which he fashioned into gloves. New York City’s tentacular sprawl had yet to extend much beyond Manhattan; but once the Long Island Rail Road pushed through the fields that lay between Brooklyn and Howard Beach, real estate developers did what they do best: they built. They put up cottages on the farmland and gave the new subdivision a name with a suitably bucolic ring to it: “Ozone Park” evoked the pleasant maritime aromas brought by cool Atlantic breezes. Manhattan urbanites had to be quick to sign their purchase offers if they hoped to move in and have their families enjoy the healthy sea air—which they did, en masse. The area eventually attracted its share of well-known figures, including folk-music legend Woody Guthrie. Franco-American author Jack Kerouac penned his famed beat opus On the Road here. Thousands of Italian Americans would also settle in Ozone Park, among them the infamous Mafioso John Gotti.
But on this particular afternoon of May 24, 1981, a bracing salty breeze wasn’t the only thing that greeted some neighbourhood kids as they scoped out a vacant lot on Ruby Street, part of a warren of arteries in the centre of Ozone Park. They were intrigued by the sight—and smell—of “something strange” coming out of the ground. So they started digging. Accounts of what the boys discovered next diverge. One journalist wrote that they initially spotted the heel of a cowboy boot protruding from the dirt. Another version claims they stumbled upon a hand covered in fabric. As a rule, young boys are a gutsy lot—especially in a gang. Such youthful intestinal fortitude has its limits, though, and these boys turned tail and fled the scene. One ran straight home to his parents, who called the police.
Officer Andrew Cilienti oversaw the exhumation. The corpse had been wrapped in a blood-soaked drop cloth. Around the left wrist was a Cartier watch, worth at least $1,500; its hands were frozen at 5:58 A.M. and the day/date indicator read May 7. A tattoo adorned the forearm: two hearts and a dagger, symbolizing a failed romance. Elsewhere, the body bore obvious gunshot wounds: the man’s life had been ended by three .38 calibre slugs. Just as obvious was the fact that the remains could not have been lying there more than a few days. Forensics technicians had no difficulty taking the victim’s fingerprints, and a match soon came back: the dead man was Alphonse “Sonny Red” Indelicato. Four days later, his son-in-law, Salvatore Valenti, formally identified the body.
Sonny Red’s family hailed from a town called Siculiana, in the province of Agrigento, Sicily. One of his murderers, Vito Rizzuto, was born in Cattolica Eraclea, a mere twenty kilometres away. In May 1981, Vito was thirty-five years old. Soon after the killing, he quietly made his way home to his wife and three children in Saint-Léonard, in east-end Montreal. There, he continued attending to his business at the heart of a formidable and flourishing criminal empire—an underworld network based in Montreal, with sturdy branches spread throughout Canada and ramifying into Italy, the United States, Venezuela and Colombia. By the time of Sonny Red’s death, money had begun flowing in huge amounts into the coffers of that empire: the fruits of loansharking, illegal gambling, fraud, corruption and public works contracts, protection money from shopkeepers and entrepreneurs—and, especially, the proceeds from the importing and distribution of tonne after tonne of heroin, cocaine and hashish.
The name Rizzuto was known to police—but at this juncture, that was mostly thanks to Vito’s father. In 1975 in Montreal, a police witness had testified before Quebec’s public commission on organized crime (Commission d’enquête sur le crime organisé, or CECO) that Nicolò (Nick) Rizzuto intended to take control of the Italian Mafia in Quebec. It would be a decade before the name of his son, Vito, first appeared in the files of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP’S) drug squad.
In 1981, the police knew nothing about Vito’s involvement in the slaying of Sonny Red and two other mob captains in a building in Brooklyn, not far from Ozone Park. The order for the triple hit had come from high up in the Bonanno clan, one of the Five Families of the New York Mafia (and the massacre would later be depicted in the film Donnie Brasco, starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp). A year later, Vito left Saint-Léonard and moved to the northwest part of the Island of Montreal, into a sprawling mansion on Antoine-Berthelet Avenue, which backs onto a narrow strip of woodland, part of the Bois-de-Saraguay nature park, not far from the Rivière des Prairies, Montreal’s “back river.”
Standing over six feet tall, slim and well built, with an easy, flowing gait and dark, almost black hair carefully combed backward, Vito Rizzuto never left his home unless impeccably dressed. He controlled his empire for more than two decades with his father, Nicolò—who, on his return from a Venezuelan prison in 1983, had his own mansion built next door to Vito’s. More than once during those years, the RCMP, the Sûreté du Québec (the provincial police, or SQ) and the Montreal police tried in vain to put both father and son behind bars. The younger Rizzuto kept on playing golf on the best courses, dining in the finest restaurants, hobnobbing with lawyers, businessmen above suspicion, city councillors and members of Parliament. He became a legend in Quebec and a man respected by a sizable proportion of Montreal’s Italian community. Criminal biker gang bosses like Maurice “Mom” Boucher, leader of the Hells Angels in Quebec, and Salvatore Cazzetta, head of the rival Rock Machine, waged ruthless, all-out war against each other but shared a deference toward the all-powerful godfather.
Prosecutors were seemingly powerless in their efforts to thwart him. In 1986, Vito was acquitted of drunk driving charges. In 1989, in Sept-Îles, Quebec, accusations that he had masterminded the importing of thirty-two tonnes of hashish were dropped. In 1990, the Newfoundland Supreme Court failed to find him guilty of importing another sixteen tonnes of hash. In 1994, the RCMP arrested several of his cohorts as part of Operation Compote, set up to investigate drug trafficking and money laundering, but once again the godfather walked. In 1998, the Caruana brothers—Alfonso, Gerlando and Pasquale, all close associates of the Rizzuto clan—were arrested and convicted in Toronto of cocaine trafficking. But no charges were laid against Vito.
As the years went by, Vito Rizzuto doubtless consigned the memory of the triple slaying in Brooklyn to some dark corner of his mind. After all, who could possibly connect a body uncovered in a vacant lot in a dilapidated neighbourhood in Queens to the man who had become the great prince of the Montreal mob? A halo of impunity had grown around him; now it contaminated him to the point that he felt invincible. When he was finally arrested in January 2004, Rizzuto displayed amazing aplomb as he let police officers cuff him at his front door. Twenty-three years after the murder of the three Bonanno captains, a U.S. federal grand jury had indicted him on racketeering conspiracy charges and was demanding his extradition. Vito had always beaten the rap. He was born under a lucky star. Why would it abandon him now?
He was incarcerated at the Rivière-des-Prairies Detention Centre, a facility crowded with accused prisoners awaiting trial. An habitué of upscale restaurants, Rizzuto couldn’t bear the facility’s cafeteria food. He tried sandwiches and soft drinks, but eventually got fed up with them as well and asked his wife, Giovanna, to bring him fruit juice and protein shakes—the kind bodybuilders drink. Before long, his appetite waned. He lost weight and grew morose. His lawyers demanded, and secured, a transfer. They hoped he would be sent to the maximum-security penitentiary at Donnacona, near Quebec City, or a medium-security facility like the Leclerc Institution, in Laval, where he would be in the company of several criminal bikers and Mafiosi with whom he was well acquainted.
For security reasons, Rizzuto was instead transferred to the Regional Reception Centre in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, north of Montreal, which briefly houses inmates serving terms of two years or more while they are assessed for transfer to the correctional facility best suited to their criminal profile. Its name is one that could only have been devised by federal bureaucrats intent on hiding the truth: “Regional Reception Centre” sounds better suited to a fruit and vegetable wholesaler. But it is in fact a maximum security penitentiary, adjacent to another prison for offenders with mental health problems, and to the Special Handling Unit, a super-maximum security facility housing criminals deemed extremely dangerous—who, at the time, included Mom Boucher.
The food there is better than at the Rivière-des-Prairies Detention Centre, but prisoners must eat in their cells—meals are served through a slot in the door—and at specific times. When he arrived, Rizzuto learned he would have to use a communal shower and, because of overcrowding, share a cell with another inmate. Occasionally, he would make himself a coffee in a small common room containing twenty or so chairs, a few tables, a counter and a sink, but he seldom mingled with other prisoners. Donald Matticks, a convicted drug trafficker and former employee of the Port of Montreal who was being held at Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines pending transfer to another facility, was one of the few he saw fit to associate with. The pair would spend hours together talking and playing cards. An ex–dock worker, Donald was the son of Gerald Matticks, an influential member of Montreal’s West End Gang, Irish mobsters whose specialty was importing hashish and cocaine through the city’s port.
Vito’s relations with the prison guards were cordial, nothing more. He spent most of his time reading, which included poring over the U.S. government’s indictment against him. Like other detainees, he was forbidden to have any so-called contact visits. He had to speak to visitors through a mouthpiece in a glass partition. His wife or children came every day, between 4 and 6 P.M. His lawyers weren’t subjected to such precise restrictions and could meet him at other times of day. Vito also spent a lot of time on the phone.
He made regular calls to his wife as well as to a very close friend, Vincenzo Spagnolo, to keep tabs on how things were going in his absence. Spagnolo, the owner of Buffet Le Mirage, a banquet hall in Saint-Léonard, would answer with a hearty “Hey, Mr. V., how are you?” During one of these conversations, the restaurateur mentioned how truly honoured he felt to have Rizzuto call him at work. “You know you’ve always been one of my favourites,” Vito replied. “When I get permission to make a phone call, I take fifteen minutes for my wife, and fifteen minutes for you.”
The two men made typical small talk in English and the Sicilian dialect, chatting about their moods, their families and their businesses. “There’s a lot of competition,” Spagnolo griped. “The other halls are starting to cut prices and it’s hurting me.” These were complaints as trivial as any that might be exchanged between ordinary businessmen. Spagnolo blamed the “damn governments” for the pervading economic gloom. He and Vito commented on the ups and downs of the restaurant business: so-and-so had just opened a bar, someone else had closed his restaurant, a particular stretch of Saint-Laurent Boulevard was “dead,” the outlook for hotel-industry development was more attractive in Laval than in Montreal …
Vito had a lot of questions about the construction industry. He asked for news about the latest real estate projects: who the developers were, whether the contractors entrusted with the work were “people we know.” He was especially interested in goings-on in Montreal’s Little Italy, a neighbourhood that straddles Saint-Laurent Boulevard just south of Jean-Talon Street.
Every now and then, the godfather would ask his friends if there were any problems with the picciotti—a term derived from the Sicilian dialect that, in Mafia jargon, refers to street-level soldiers. Sometimes, Spagnolo would hand the telephone to one acquaintance or another who was eager to hear news of Vito. On one occasion, the godfather joked that his fellow inmates were mostly in their late thirties, but none of them referred to him as an “old guy,” which to him meant he still had the bearing of a younger man. He did complain, however, that his waistline had expanded somewhat since he had been incarcerated, and blamed it on the poor prison food.
Though confined to a high-security penitentiary, Rizzuto kept on doing business, like a magician slipping through the bars and walls of the prison. According to Italian police, it was from this correctional complex rising in the middle of a field in Canada, surrounded by towering fences topped with barbed wire, that he issued instructions for the securing of a massive contract worth $7.3 billion Cdn to build a 3,690-metre-long bridge spanning the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily. Police in Rome issued a warrant for his arrest while he was imprisoned at Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines.
Thousands of newspaper and magazine articles have been written about Rizzuto. Few people in Canada, however, have any inkling of the extraordinary power wielded by the Italian Mafia in their own country. It is not simply an association of killers, smugglers and swindlers, but a secret organization that exerts influence in social, economic and political spheres to an unsuspected degree. The late Gilbert Côté, former director of the Montreal police force’s intelligence division, was one of the few analysts who fully grasped the threats to democracy posed by the Mafia. He tried for years to alert public opinion to the danger before his untimely death from cancer in 2006. Canadians, especially in Quebec, he unceasingly warned, “need to wake up and spur their governments to action before the situation gets out of control, the way it is in Italy.” Unfortunately, no one seemed to listen.
Côté saw a direct link between governments’ elevated levels of debt and the corrupting power of the Mafia. The more pervasive the criminal influence, the more money—billions of dollars—is misappropriated via dubious public works contracts, and the less there is to pay for things like schools, hospitals, elder care or environmental protection. In charting the life and deeds of Vito Rizzuto, this book records, as comprehensively as possible, the innumerable marks that his far-reaching criminal enterprise has left on society.
In 2004, a few months after Vito Rizzuto was jailed at the Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines penitentiary complex, FBI agents made another grisly discovery in Ozone Park, right beside the vacant lot where, twenty-three years earlier, the schoolboys had stumbled upon the still-fresh corpse of Sonny Red Indelicato. The neighbourhood hadn’t changed much. The few scattered houses along Ruby Street had continued to deteriorate, surrounded by semi-trailer parking lots, abandoned buses and dumpsters sniffed at by stray dogs.
Wearing knee-high, lime-green rubber boots, the federal agents waded around the bottom of a muddy pit, guided by forensic experts. Three earthmovers dug slowly into the soil, shunting aside cement debris, while the blue-gloved agents picked up clumps of muddy earth and dropped them onto sieves. After a week, the search had turned up a tibia and fibula, a hip bone and another bone from either a hand or foot. Encouraged, the investigators kept digging. Their bounty grew and soon included several skull and jaw fragments.
It would take weeks before DNA from the bones could be matched to specific individuals. But the agents had a fairly good idea who the dead men were. It was no accident that this particular makeshift graveyard had turned up such secrets. And before the results of DNA testing came back, they found two items that were very interesting indeed: an old Citibank credit card bearing the name Dominick Trinchera, and a Piaget wristwatch. When the FBI men described the watch to the wife of one Philip Giaccone, she confirmed that it matched the one he’d been wearing at the time of his disappearance, in 1981.
The murders had been ordered by Joseph Massino, a hulking mobster with a double chin who let himself be called “Big Joey.” The moniker did not merely describe the man’s physical bulk; it also referred to the position of power that he constantly sought to occupy. At the time, Massino was the interim boss of the powerful Bonanno crime family while its nominal head, Philip “Rusty” Rastelli, was behind bars.
In Rastelli’s absence, three caporegimes (captains, or capos), Sonny Red Indelicato, Dominick “Big Trin” Trinchera and Philip “Philly Lucky” Giaccone, had been plotting to take control of the Bonanno organization. At least, that was what Big Joey Massino suspected—and his opinion was shared by Salvatore Vitale, another Bonanno family capo, whose comparatively trim physique had earned him the nickname “Good-Looking Sal.”
Massino visited Rastelli in prison, warning his boss that there was every chance he would be assassinated upon his release. Then he went before the Commission, the Mafia “oversight board” comprising representatives of New York’s Five Families, to secure authorization to eliminate the three rebel captains. The Commission members were hesitant at first but relented when Massino informed them that Sonny Red and his two colleagues had recently been stocking up on automatic weapons and were ready to go on the offensive. The three presumed conspirators were summoned to a meeting with other Bonanno capos at a social club on Thirteenth Avenue in the Dyker Heights neighbourhood of Brooklyn. It was a trap. Indelicato, Trinchera and Giaccone were gunned down as soon as they walked into the club. Some of the triggermen had been summoned from Canada to do the job; one of them was Vito Rizzuto.
In the broader scheme of things, the exhumation of Trinchera’s and Giaccone’s remains did little more than stir an old, unpleasant memory for Vito Rizzuto. More worrisome to him was the damning testimony provided by Good-Looking Sal Vitale, who had broken omertà after his arrest in 2003. It was his testimony that gave the U.S. authorities what they needed to demand the Canadian godfather’s extradition. Then, in January 2005, Rizzuto was stunned to learn that Big Joey Massino himself had turned rat as well. Vito hired the best legal experts he could find to fight his extradition. They included six seasoned lawyers from Montreal, as well as John W. Mitchell, a renowned New York City–based criminal defence attorney who had been one of John Gotti’s lawyers before his death in prison in 2002. Rounding out the team was Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor, criminal law specialist, prolific author and “attorney to the stars” whose past clients included Claus von Bülow, O.J. Simpson and Jim Bakker. Rizzuto had assembled a seemingly invincible dream team—which then lost the case.
Had the U.S. authorities brought murder charges against Vito Rizzuto, the Canadian government might never have agreed to his extradition, for the simple reason that he would have faced the death penalty; Canada generally does not hand over its citizens to countries that practise capital punishment. Instead, they indicted him on racketeering conspiracy charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Charges under that legislation carry a five-year statute of limitations. The indictment alleged that the conspiracy Rizzuto was accused of committing on behalf of the Bonanno clan—which included the three murders—extended from February 1981 to December 2003.
Rizzuto’s defence hinged on whether the statute of limitations began in 1981 (the time of the murders) or applied to the five years leading up to 2003, the year charges were laid under the RICO Act, more specifically its “continuing criminal enterprise” statute. His lawyers were on thin ice with this argument, and it failed. They next attempted to convince the courts that in Canada the rules of evidence in matters of extradition have been so whittled down as to be incompatible with Canadian law. This, too, failed to sway the judge. As a last resort, the defence team argued that extraditing a Canadian citizen merely on documentary evidence was a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The U.S. grand jury had, of course, backed its extradition request with evidence on paper, but in the defence lawyers’ opinion, it was just that: a pile of paper. They insisted that the validity of the evidence had to be established by questioning the witnesses who had provided it. The request was clearly unreasonable, but after thirty-one months of legal wrangling, Vito Rizzuto was ready to hang on to any lifeline he could.
The prisoner who awoke in his cell at the Regional Reception Centre in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines on Thursday, August 17, 2006, was still a hopeful man. He knew that the Supreme Court of Canada was due to rule on his appeal request within hours. Would it strike down the rulings of the lower-court judges, all of whom had dismissed his defence team’s arguments? Would his final appeal be granted? He could only hope. Rizzuto put on his prison-issue white T-shirt and jeans, ate breakfast and went to meet his wife, Giovanna, in the visiting room. At age sixty, he still looked good, despite having spent two years in detention.
Meanwhile, four unmarked cars belonging to the City of Montreal Police Force parked discreetly on a shooting range in a field near the penitentiary complex. In one of them sat Detective Nicodemo Milano, a veteran of the force’s organized-crime squad. Fluent in Italian, he had tracked Rizzuto for three weeks before arresting him in January 2004. Beside him was Patrick Franc Guimond, another experienced officer who had amassed a mountain of information on the Mafia since being assigned to the police’s intelligence division. Both were impatiently awaiting the Supreme Court ruling.
At that moment, an FBI jet touched down on a runway at Montréal–Trudeau Airport, some sixty kilometres from the prison, and taxied to a secondary strip. Agent Brian Tupper and his colleagues from the Bureau’s New Jersey office were ready to collect their prisoner.
The Montreal police had planned the transfer operation down to the last detail with their FBI counterparts and a project manager with Correctional Service of Canada, Luciano Bentenuto. If Rizzuto’s final appeal bid was denied, he was to be sent to the United States as quickly as possible and under heavy escort—but discreetly, to reduce the risk of an escape attempt or the presence of journalists. The transfer also had to happen without the knowledge of other penitentiary inmates.
The police probably remembered all too well the escape of Richard Vallée, a member of the Hells Angels, in June 1997. Awaiting extradition for the murder of a police witness in the United States, Vallée gave his guards the slip while receiving medical care in Montreal’s Saint-Luc Hospital. He then hid out for six years in Costa Rica. The Canadian police who lost him probably wanted to go into hiding as well.
It was shaping up to be a fine August day. The Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines prison complex was bathed in early-morning sunshine. Clouds had given way to clear skies the day before. The temperature was a pleasant twenty-two degrees Celsius, which meant Milano and Franc Guimond could roll down the car windows and turn off the ignition; there was no need for air conditioning. At 10:45 A.M., word came. The Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. The way was cleared for Vito Rizzuto’s extradition.
The police convoy got underway and headed for the penitentiary. When Milano and Franc Guimond arrived inside the building, Rizzuto appeared surprised. This self-described “jack of all trades”—a da Vinci of organized crime, a Teflon don after the fashion of John Gotti, a gentleman who commanded respect from one and all—was about to be shackled like a common criminal and trundled off to the United States, a country he feared and had always avoided. “In a country which condemns individuals to 125 years of prison, it is easy to find informers which are ready to say anything to save their skin,” he had once said, unaware he was being recorded by police microphones. The godfather had lost his arrogant panache. The swagger was gone. Vito was a beaten man. His lucky star had indeed forsaken him.
As Milano and Franc Guimond prepared to cuff him, he turned to a guard and asked why he hadn’t been told of the impending extradition. His voice had gone from the mellow baritone of a man accustomed to wielding charm to the faint whisper of one who knows he is condemned. Despite it all, he remained a good sport: before leaving the prison, he asked that his TV set and some food he’d bought from the canteen be given to the inmates committee.
Milano and Franc Guimond escorted Rizzuto to a van, where a member of the Montreal police tactical unit was waiting. The driver gunned the engine and they headed for the airport, escorted by the three other unmarked cars, each carrying heavily armed officers. The don normally spoke calmly and coolly, but on this morning railed against the RCMP and the sq, claiming that the way they’d shadowed him for nearly thirty years was tantamount to harassment.
Rizzuto had a long memory. He blasted the police for Project Jaggy, an operation conducted thirteen years earlier that had netted Raynald Desjardins, Vito’s right-hand man and neighbour (he owned a home worth more than $400,000 in the same Saraguay development). Desjardins had been arrested, along with sixteen other individuals linked to the Hells Angels and the Mafia, for plotting to import 740 kilos of cocaine by ship from Venezuela. The Coast Guard had been keeping a discreet eye on the vessel, the Fortune Endeavor, and when she ran into trouble off the coast of Nova Scotia and had to be towed to Halifax, the smugglers had dumped their precious cargo, hidden in sewer pipes, into the waters of the Atlantic. Desjardins had been handed a fifteen-year prison term and fined $150,000.
A seething Rizzuto kept on venting, next about Project Choke. This was another police investigation in the 1990s, which had led to the arrest and conviction of Calabrian Mafiosi, including Frank Cotroni and his son Francesco, also on cocaine smuggling charges. Sitting with Vito in the van, officers Milano and Franc Guimond were all ears. As they listened to the don sounding off, they knew full well that those investigations had also targeted—and almost caught—Rizzuto himself. This sudden interest in other people’s business indicated to them that perhaps it was Vito’s business too.
Switching from Italian to English as if he were speaking one and the same language, Rizzuto insisted to the two investigators that he was the only one who could keep a relative peace among Montreal’s various criminal organizations—as if seeking to persuade them that they were making a serious mistake in shipping him off to the United States. Without him, he said, the delicate underworld balance would be shattered. When he was done spitting venom at the Mounties and the sq, he began dispensing advice. The police, he said, would be better off going after Montreal’s street gangs, who in his opinion were the emergent force in organized crime in the city.
Then, weary of his tirade, he waxed sentimental. He was sure the RCMP was readying a killing blow against his Sicilian clan. He hoped they would spare his father, Nicolò, “an old and sick man” who, he claimed, was involved in no crime and should be left to enjoy one of the few pleasures he had left in life: sipping espressos with other patrons of the Consenza Social Club on Jarry Street in Saint-Léonard. What Vito didn’t know was that the club—the Montreal Mafia’s de facto head office—was crammed with hidden police microphones and cameras. Some customers, of course, didn’t go there just to drink coffee. They came to deliver wads of cash to the elder Rizzuto, who would slip them into his socks.
When he exited the vehicle and saw the FBI plane on the tarmac, Vito blanched, as if the reality of his extradition was just setting in. The doors of the jet were open. Agent Tupper asked the Montreal cops to shackle the prisoner’s feet. His back bent, Vito hobbled up the ladder. The doors slid shut.
An hour later, the plane touched down in New Jersey. Vito Rizzuto stood on U.S. soil for the first time in twenty-five years. He was briefly interrogated by agents, who then transported him to the United States District Court in Brooklyn, just a few blocks from Thirteenth Avenue, where he and his accomplices had gunned down Sonny Red Indelicato, Dominick “Big Trin” Trinchera and Philip “Philly Lucky” Giaccone.
At 4:30 P.M., he went before Nicholas G. Garaufis, a judge with piercing eyes and the thin-framed glasses of an intellectual. Garaufis was known among other things for handing down an eight-year prison sentence to Joseph Caridi, a Mafioso nicknamed the “Tony Soprano of Long Island,” who had extorted the owners of a seafood restaurant for between seven and ten thousand dollars a night.
At the time, the district court in Brooklyn was one of the battlefields on which an epic war between the U.S. government and the New York Mafia was unfolding. Judge Garaufis was a key player. He was presiding over the trials of several members of New York’s Five Families, notably the Bonanno family, the one most inclined to internecine settlings of accounts. One of its captains, Louis “Louie HaHa” Attanasio, had just appeared before Garaufis when Rizzuto was escorted into the courtroom. The crimes of which each was accused had taken place around the same time and were not dissimilar.
Louie HaHa, a well-known Bonanno capo, was accused of conspiracy in the 1984 murder of Cesare Bonventre. Considered a big wheel in the Bonanno family, Bonventre had fallen out of favour with the boss, Joe Massino, who had ordered his execution. Louie HaHa and Good-Looking Sal Vitale had lured an unsuspecting Bonventre into a car. As Vitale pulled into a warehouse garage, Louie HaHa put two bullets into Bonventre’s head. Still very much alive, Bonventre fought on, forcing Vitale to stop the car. As Bonventre tried to crawl away on the concrete floor, Louie HaHa fired two more shots through his skull, finishing the job.
They sliced Bonventre’s corpse in two and dumped the halves into a pair of two-hundred-litre glue barrels, which they hid in a warehouse in Garfield, New Jersey. Forensic experts toiled for three months before identifying the remains. Twenty-two years later, Louie HaHa was standing before Judge Garaufis. Aware that the evidence was overwhelming, he pleaded guilty.
Vito Rizzuto, who had taken part in the triple slaying of the Bonanno men with Salvatore Vitale at the behest of Joe Massino, knew that the evidence against him was just as damning as the evidence against Attanasio. But, true to form, combative and resolved to test his luck as long as possible, Rizzuto pleaded not guilty.
He was led away to the Metropolitan Detention Center, where Massino had previously been held before turning informant. The place had a sordid reputation. Human rights activists called it “Brooklyn’s Abu Ghraib,” a reference to the infamous prison in suburban Baghdad where U.S. soldiers had tortured and humiliated Iraqi insurgents. The comparison was doubtless exaggerated, but several Middle Eastern immigrants arrested after 9/11 had been transferred to the Brooklyn jail, and many later claimed to have suffered sleep deprivation, humiliating acts, violence and sexual abuse.
The facility had also housed many Mafia turncoats. “The same methods that were being used in Iraq are being used at the Metropolitan Detention Center,” Massino’s lawyer David Breitbart said in May 2004 before Judge Garaufis. Breitbart was denouncing police officers, prosecutors and prison guards who, he pleaded, were guilty of putting undue pressure on mobsters and coercing them into testifying against his client. “They seduce men. They bribe them. They torture them into becoming a witness,” he added when Massino himself turned informer to avoid facing the death penalty for one of the murders he had ordered.
The heads of New York’s five infamous crime families were all dead or jailed for life, or had decided to “sing.” But Vito Rizzuto swore to remain very much alive, to tough it out a few years in prison and never to betray any member of Cosa Nostra. Sicilian to the core, he was and would remain a “man of honour.”
In the eight long months he spent in the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York, Vito kept his word. He did eventually decide, however, to plead guilty. In the end, he got what he wanted: a shorter prison term. His lawyers had little choice but to negotiate a plea deal with the U.S. prosecutors. Joe Massino’s and Salvatore Vitale’s testimonies were irrefutable. All of the information they had provided to the prosecution had proved accurate, including the resting places of Trinchera, Giaccone and Indelicato in Ozone Park. Not only that, but Vitale had described in painstaking detail for Judge Garaufis the execution of the three renegade Bonanno captains. Worst of all, he had repeatedly told the court that the lead triggerman that night had been Vito Rizzuto.
Sal Vitale testified that Massino had called a meeting of all the Bonanno family capos for Tuesday, May 5, 1981, at a social club on Thirteenth Avenue in Dyker Heights, a mostly Italian neighbourhood in Brooklyn. The two-storey brick building served as a mob headquarters. Ugly and windowless, it was fronted by a wrought-iron fence that kept undesirable visitors out—not that any would dare go near the place; it was the sort of establishment where Mafiosi felt at ease, but which passersby gave a wide berth. The club belonged to a member of the Gambino crime family, of which John Gotti was a part.
Since it was ostensibly an “administrative meeting,” no one was supposed to show up armed. This was the directive that the three rebel captains had received. Trinchera, Giaccone and Indelicato may well have suspected that Massino was drawing them into a trap. They would have found it hard to believe that brokering peace within the family was really on the agenda. But they had no choice: a call to a “sit-down” is an order, and to disobey such an order is to sign one’s own death warrant.
Big Joey Massino had summoned his three executioners from Montreal, themselves Bonanno family members: Rizutto, one named Emanuele and another man whom Vitale knew only as “the old-timer.” When, during questioning, the prosecuting attorney asked him “why some of the shooters were from Canada,” Vitale explained it was “because of a security issue. It would never leak out. And after the murders, they [the three Canadians] would go back to Montreal.”
Next, Massino demanded that a fourth man join the shooting party: Vitale. Since he had served in the army, Vitale was given a Tommy gun or “grease gun”—the storied Thompson submachine gun much loved by gangsters during Prohibition and widely used by U.S. troops in the Second World War. In automatic mode, it could fire up to seven- hundred rounds per minute. Vito and Emanuele were handed pistols; “the old-timer” was armed with a sawed-off shotgun. The four men were told to put on ski masks and hide in a closet in the adjoining coatroom. Other capos present were assigned to watch over the premises and guard the door. The operation could have gone awry: as he was preparing his Tommy gun, Vitale accidentally pulled the trigger, spraying five bullets into the wall. Massino chewed him out for it—all the more so since he had warned the ambushers to be careful: “Don’t shoot unless you have to, because I don’t want bullets flying all over the place.”
The four assassins crammed themselves into the closet, with the door slightly ajar, and lay in wait for the three capos to arrive. Rizzuto kept a wary eye on his old friend Gerlando Sciascia, posted at the other end of the room. Sciascia, like Vito, was from Cattolica Eraclea in Sicily. His American acolytes called him “George from Canada,” because he regularly represented the Bonanno family’s Canadian crew on visits to New York. Sciascia had a heavy shock of silver-grey hair, brushed backward to uncover his forehead. It was his job to give the order to shoot: as soon as the trio of rebel captains arrived at the social club, he would signal the gunmen by running his hand through his hair.
When the three capos came down the two steps from the front door into the foyer, Sciascia gave that signal. Rizzuto was the first to burst out of the closet. “Vito led the way,” said Salvatore Vitale at Joe Massino’s trial. “I was last. I heard Vito say, ‘Don’t anybody move. This is a holdup.’ … I seen Vito shoot. I don’t know who he hit. I see Massino punch Philly Lucky [Giaccone]. All hell broke loose.”
Dominick Trinchera rushed the assailants and was immediately felled by gunfire. Vitale knelt near the exit door, Emanuele and the “old-timer” at his sides. “I froze for five seconds on one knee,” he recalled. “The shotgun went off. [Sonny Red] fell between me and the old-timer. He fell to my left, laying in the foyer. I seen [Sciascia] reach in the back, pull out a gun and shoot him on the left side of the head. By that time, it was all over.”
Vitale pulled off his mask, grabbed his walkie-talkie and called Goldie Leisenheimer, who was standing guard outside: “Goldie, where are you?” he asked. Once he knew Leisenheimer had come around the corner, outside, Vitale was supposed to let a few men out of the club. But he noticed to his amazement that almost everybody had already left, out a door that he didn’t know existed. Santo “Tony” Giordano, a captain of the “Zips”—an exclusively Sicilian faction of the Bonanno clan—was lying on the floor, hit in the back by “friendly fire.” A licensed pilot, he had suddenly been rendered a paraplegic and would never fly again, spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair. It was he who had recruited the Canadian gunmen for Massino, and now he was forever crippled because of them.
A cleanup crew, including Benjamin “Lefty Guns” Ruggiero (played by Al Pacino in the film Donnie Brasco) took care of wrapping the bodies in drop cloths and carting them away. According to Vitale, Ruggiero had trouble lifting Trinchera’s three-hundred-pound bulk and was impressed at how his sidekick, a mobster nicknamed “Boobie,” managed to load Trinchera’s and the two other bodies into a van. The corpses were handed over to members of the Gambino family, including John Gotti’s brother Gene, who had agreed to “make them disappear.” John Gotti was doing his old friend Joe Massino a favour.
In the wake of the carnage, the social club on Thirteenth Avenue was “a mess,” Vitale told Judge Garaufis: “There was too much blood. We couldn’t clean it up.” Big Joey Massino decided the only option was to set fire to the building, which they did. As the social club burned, Massino and Gerlando Sciascia went to report to Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, who was the Genovese family boss. The tabloids had nicknamed him the “Odd-father,” noting that he could often be seen wandering, unshaven, muttering to himself near Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village, where he lived with his mother. He sometimes went on these excursions clad in pyjamas, slippers and a moth-eaten bathrobe. Big Joey Massino and everyone who was anyone in mobland knew this crazy-old-man behaviour was nothing but a ruse to fool the police. Vincent “The Chin” was perfectly lucid—and obsessively circumspect, forbidding his captains and soldiers from even uttering his name. If they spoke about him, they were supposed to rub their chins instead, hence the nickname.
When mobsters looked at Vincent “The Chin,” they could see that his gaze was far from empty, and he was nowhere near senile. That day, out of respect for the boss’s position, Massino and Sciascia went to tell Gigante that he was henceforth the most powerful captain in the Bonanno family. In the Mafia underworld, more than in any other milieu, power comes from the mouth of a gun.
The day after the murders, a police surveillance team photographed Vito Rizzuto and Gerlando Sciascia, accompanied by Big Joey Massino, leaving the Capri Motor Lodge in the Bronx and walking to the dark blue Buick sedan that would take the two men back to Montreal. From that moment on, Rizzuto’s standing in the Bonanno family was assured. But his relations with the Cuntrera-Caruana family of Sicilian Mafiosi would remain just as important to him. Years later, Salvatore Vitale would travel to Montreal to meet Rizzuto and ask him to become the official head of the Bonannos in Canada, only to hear Vito politely decline. He refused to be made a captain. Vitale described the encounter to Judge Garaufis: “I meet with Vito. I asked him, ‘Who do the men respect? Who could be a good captain?’ He said: ‘My father,’ and that isn’t the way to go. We wanted him to take the position and he avoided the question and I felt it best to leave it alone.” At any rate, Vito explained, in Montreal there was no boss; there were twenty “men of honour,” and they were all equal.
Another Bonanno family capo, Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano, had tried to convince Joe Massino to let his new recruit, a man named Donnie Brasco, take part in the execution of the three rebel capos in the social club on Thirteenth Avenue. Brasco, who looked the part of a real tough, especially in the way he swaggered like a prizefighter, claimed to be an accomplished burglar, jewel thief and fence. He had been a Bonanno hanger-on for six years. Sonny Black vouched for Brasco and hoped he would be invited to be part of the proceedings on the night of May 5, 1981. “He wanted Donnie to play a significant role in the murders,” Vitale recalled, adding that Sonny Black wanted “to make him an official member in the Bonanno family.” Massino refused; he trusted his Canadian recruits more than this upstart who’d come out of nowhere. His instinct would prove right.
After the massacre, fearing that Sonny Red Indelicato’s son, Anthony “Bruno” Indelicato, would try to avenge his father’s death, Sonny Black Napolitano thought it wise to move first and execute him. He asked Donnie Brasco to go with him. “Asked,” of course, was a euphemism for “ordered.” Brasco was in a bind. He had two options: obey or be forced to disclose his true identity. Option number two was the only possible solution. Brasco could be involved in all manner of plotting—and indeed, it was his job to do just that—but he obviously couldn’t be a party to murder. Just as he was about to take action, Sonny Black was visited by two FBI agents at his own social club, who mockingly informed him that Donnie Brasco was in fact an undercover agent (his real name was Joe Pistone) who had managed to infiltrate the family for years. “Brasco” had had a front-row seat from which to spy on the Bonannos and the other families they dealt with.
Things turned out pretty well for Joe Pistone. Under the protective umbrella of a new identity, he wrote a best-selling book about his experiences, which was made into an equally successful movie. The fallout was less than pleasant for Sonny Black Napolitano. He had messed up in a way that anybody might have, but in his case the error was fatal. In mobland, saying you’re sorry just doesn’t cut it. Sonny Black would have to pay. For Big Joey not to make him pay would show weakness to his troops and to the other families. Testifying before Judge Garaufis, Salvatore Vitale recalled how Sonny Black’s payment was planned in August 1981: “I went on a walk-talk with Joe Massino in Howard Beach, and he said: ‘I have to give him [Sonny Black] a receipt for the Donnie Brasco situation.’ I understood that to mean he wanted him dead.”
Frank “Curly” Lino, a Bonanno capo who had fled the scene of the May 5 slayings, was to pick up Sonny Black at a restaurant in Brooklyn and tell him they were going to a meeting at a house on Staten Island. Sonny Black probably knew what he was in for and resigned himself to his fate. Some claim that he had already bequeathed a number of possessions to family and friends, including a gold watch and other items he was very fond of.
When they arrived at the house, Curly Lino pushed the victim down the basement stairs. At the bottom step, ready to die, Napolitano fell to his knees and didn’t get up. A waiting gunman named Bobby shot Sonny Black once, but as he pulled the trigger again, his weapon jammed, emitting a barely audible click. “Hit me one more time. Make it good,” Sonny Black mumbled painfully—a fitting gangster epitaph. An instant later, the smell of powder filled the air; his last wish had been granted.
Joe Massino sat outside in a van, ready to step out and finish the job in case Sonny Black tried to escape. When Lino emerged, the deed done, he walked straight to the van and handed Massino the keys to Sonny Black’s car, which was still parked in Brooklyn.
“Was everything all right?” Big Joey asked.