Mafia Inc.: The Long, Bloody Reign of Canada's Sicilian Clan - André Cédilot, André Noël (2011)
Chapter 8. FROM VENEZUELA TO ITALY
WHILE THE CUNTRERA-CARUANA-RIZZUTO clan had a destructive influence in Canada, it was nothing compared to what they had wrought in Venezuela. The criminal organization had deeply infiltrated the country’s economic and political structures. Nicolò Rizzuto and his associates’ investment was no ordinary ranch operation. Entire convoys of cocaine were arriving there from Colombia; one analyst believed the drugs crossed the border in trucks carrying livestock, perhaps even hidden in cows’ stomachs. The clan ran a gigantic holding company called Aceros Prensados, which encompassed factories, hotels, real estate agencies, as well as shipping companies, service providers and building contractors. In Venezuela alone, its assets were in the neighbourhood of $500 million. Italy’s anti-Mafia crusader, Judge Giovanni Falcone, was attempting to extradite brothers Pasquale, Gaspare and Paolo Cuntrera, but the Venezuelan government refused to co-operate.
The clan backed one of the country’s two main political parties, which shared power alternately: the Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente (COPEI), which was part of the larger family of Christian Democratic parties. Its leader, Luis Herrera Campíns, who had won the presidential election in 1979, attended the wedding of Paolo Cuntrera’s daughter Maria to Antonino Mongiovì. In 1984, Venezuela’s other dominant party, Acción Democrática (AD), retook power. In the next election campaign, the Cuntrera-Caruana clan actively supported the new COPEI leader, Eduardo Fernández, who styled himself as “El Tigre.” In November 1987, when Fernández’s wife and daughter spent two weeks in Montreal, they stayed at the home of Gennaro Scaletta, an associate of Nicolò Rizzuto and Agostino Cuntrera.
The clan’s patronage of COPEI was public knowledge. Such brazen support for the country’s main opposition party, however, was probably not the wisest of decisions. Three months after Señora Fernández and her daughter’s trip to Montreal, local police arrested Gennaro Scaletta in Venezuela, along with three other men: Antonino Mongiovì, Paolo Cuntrera’s son-in-law; Federico del Peschio (who would be killed in 2009 behind La Cantina, his restaurant on Saint-Laurent Boulevard in Montreal); and Nicolò Rizzuto.
Investigators went over Rizzuto’s residence with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. They found a belt that was unusually heavy. Inside were five packets of cocaine, weighing seven hundred grams in all. The quality of the powder varied from one packet to the other, suggesting that they were samples for prospective customers. Rizzuto was sentenced to eight years in prison—a stiff penalty compared to those handed out for similar offences up to that time in Venezuela. He was sent, along with his co-accused, to a penitentiary near Caracas, where he was housed in a far more comfortable cell than other inmates. But he still wanted out, and fast. Vito would later claim that half a million dollars had been paid to a lawyer who had promised an acquittal for the elder Rizzuto, but whatever he’d paid had been a complete loss.
A month after Nick’s arrest, the Venezuelan justice minister, José Manzo González, was forced to resign. A former police officer had accused him, with evidence to support his charge, of selling confiscated weapons and drugs. The Attorney General, Alfredo Gutierrez Marquez, had to step down the same day: according to the allegations, an airstrip on land owned by his brother was being used by Colombia’s Medellín cartel to transport cocaine. The finance minister, Héctor Hurtado Navarro, admitted that corruption in his country had reached stratospheric heights: “If there is a problem, people tend to pay a bribe,” he told The Wall Street Journal. Montrealer Domenico Tozzi, a laundryman for Rizzuto clan members, knew how things worked. He left for Venezuela with U.S.$800,000. He later boasted that he had delivered the money to the right person, bringing about Nicolò Rizzuto’s release from prison. The family patriarch was sixty-nine years old.
Nick’s lawyers have steadfastly maintained that his release, four years after his arrest and imprisonment, had nothing to do with a bribe and everything to do with health problems. His parole conditions stipulated that he had to report to the police every two weeks. After four months, he informed them that he had a prostate condition, and that this should persuade the Venezuelan authorities to let him go home to Canada. The authorities relented, and Rizzuto’s wife, Libertina, accompanied by two friends, flew to Venezuela to pick him up. Their return flight stopped first at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, where Rizzuto told Canadian customs officials that he wished to receive medical care at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. Nick, Libertina and the rest of the escorting party landed at Montreal’s Dorval Airport at four in the afternoon on May 23, 1993. Vito was there to welcome them, along with some thirty friends and relatives.
If the elder Rizzuto really did have a prostate problem, it would seem that it wasn’t properly treated, because he was to invoke the same medical condition fifteen years later as an excuse for release from another prison. It is not known whether he saw a urologist at the Royal Victoria Hospital, but he was certainly seen at the Consenza, the social club located at 4891 Jarry Street East in Saint-Léonard that served as the Sicilian clan’s headquarters until 2006. He also went often to the Castel Tina strip club, which belonged to his good friend Paolo Gervasi.
Normand Brisebois, a criminal turned informant, knew both Nick and Vito Rizzuto at the time. Years later, he remembered them as unflappable: “At first glance, they seemed cold, but they were both really okay guys. They were also very calm and completely in control.” Both father and son favoured unpretentious clothes, Vito preferring casual wear, while Nick always wore a custom-tailored suit, with a fedora permanently topping his head—“just like in 1930s gangster movies,” Brisebois recalled. Neither wore any jewellery other than their wedding rings.
The Venezuelan authorities hadn’t needed much coaxing to allow Nicolò Rizzuto to leave the country, even though his parole wasn’t up. One year to the day before his return to Canada, tragic events on the other side of the Atlantic had taken place, and they had international repercussions—including the fact that the Siculiana clan was no longer welcome in Venezuela.
In the spring of 1992, rumours were rampant that Judge Giovanni Falcone, the figurehead of the struggle against Italian organized crime, would soon be named to helm a new judicial body, making him the first anti-Mafia magistrate with the power to prosecute criminals throughout Italy. Since the Mafia organizations worked together, it was only logical that the country’s various police forces should be coordinated under a single command structure. Falcone had now been based in Rome for a year, as the director of the Justice Ministry’s Criminal Affairs Bureau. He was in the habit of travelling back home to Palermo whenever he could. It was a dangerous habit, but he took precautions, flying in unmarked jets with unannounced flight plans. Up to seventy carefully selected men, most of them sharpshooters, were officially tasked with ensuring his safety and that of his family. To curb the risk of any conspiracy within their ranks, each day Falcone designated eight bodyguards at the last minute to escort him. The slightest leak could prove fatal.
On Saturday, May 23, 1992, the judge decided to take the wheel of his armoured Fiat Croma at Palermo’s Punta Raisi Airport for the last leg of the journey home. His wife, Francesca, who was also a magistrate, was beside him, and one of their bodyguards was in the rear seat. Falcone sped toward the city centre at 160 kilometres per hour along Autostrada A29, behind a lead vehicle, a second bulletproof Croma occupied by three other men from his security detail, and followed by yet another armoured Croma carrying the other four bodyguards.
A road crew had been working on the highway that week and had put down a new layer of asphalt near the exit for Capaci, a village between the airport and Palermo. From behind a boulder on a hill overlooking the scene, a Mafia assassin watched the motorcade approach. At the moment Falcone’s white Fiat reached the repaved section of roadway, the assassin pressed a detonator, setting off a 550-kilogram bomb containing TNT and nitroglycerine, hidden in a culvert. Seismographs at Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology recorded the massive shock wave at precisely 17:56:48. The lead car and Falcone’s were catapulted into the air by the force of the blast; television pictures showed the magistrate’s white Fiat half buried in rubble, debris strewn over a radius of several hundred metres. Firefighters had to cut into the wreckage of the lead car to extract the mangled bodies of the three guards. Although the follow car had been somewhat shielded from the explosion by the two others, its four occupants were seriously injured. More than a dozen other people, who were in four other vehicles caught in the blast, were also injured. The roadway was torn up over a distance of five hundred metres.
The magistrate and his wife were not killed outright. Giovanni Falcone succumbed to his injuries a few minutes after arriving at the hospital in Palermo. He was fifty-three years old. Francesca, aged forty-six, died during the night. The next day, thousands of shirt-sleeved Palermitans clapped rhythmically for ten minutes as the victims’ colleagues bore the caskets into the courthouse for the wake. But when the Italian president and two cabinet ministers arrived, the applause from the crowd turned to shouts of “Shame!” “Out!” and “Justice!”
State dignitaries were again jeered at the funeral for the victims, at the Basilica of San Domenico in Palermo. The crowd gathered on the forecourt shouted, “Assassins!” Inside, the strains of Mozart’s Requiem—he was Falcone’s favourite composer—filled the nave. Partway through the service, the young widow of one of the bodyguards, Rosaria Schifani, interrupted a prayer reading to point an accusing finger at the leaders who had made the trip from Rome. “I appeal to the men of the Mafia … because they are in here … but are certainly not Christian … For you too there is the possibility of forgiveness … I forgive you … but you must get on your knees, if you have the courage to change.” She paused and cried, “But they don’t want to change—they won’t change!” before breaking into tears.
“Who knew? Who notified the authors of this deed and allowed them to act with such precision?” asked an outraged Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo, the archbishop of Palermo, while the Italian interior minister buried his head in his hands. Sicily’s trade unions organized a one-day general strike, which was accompanied by a massive demonstration in the streets of the capital. Unions elsewhere in Italy responded by ordering a one-hour work stoppage throughout the country.
Perhaps the most surprising testimonial was that of the informant Tommaso Buscetta: “I trusted Falcone,” he confessed years later to sociologist and author Pino Arlacchi, recalling his long debriefing sessions with the investigating magistrate. “Not because of any sort of magnetism in his personality; he was a timid man, with a gentle gaze, who did not try to come across as a superior being blessed with extraordinary qualities. And yet, he conveyed to me something indefinable, like a beneficial, restorative impulse.” Buscetta said he was stunned by the news of Falcone’s death: “That day, I saw a great tree fall to the ground. The tallest, strongest tree in the forest. But I had anticipated such a misfortune. On several occasions I had advised Falcone to be very careful of falling into habits.”
Falcone had already been the target of an assassination attempt in June 1989. A booby-trapped sports bag, left among some rocks on the beach below his house outside Palermo, was noticed by his bodyguards before the explosives it contained could be detonated. “One usually dies because one is alone, or because one has got into something over one’s head,” the courageous magistrate once wrote. “In Sicily the Mafia kills the servants of the State that the State has not been able to protect.”
Less than two months after Falcone’s assassination, his friend and fellow anti-Mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino was also killed. He had made the mistake of telling his mother that he was coming over for a visit—unaware his phone line had been tapped by men working for the Corleonesi boss Salvatore “Totò” Riina. As he rang the doorbell at his mother’s home on the Via D’Amelio in Palermo, a bomb in a car parked at the edge of the sidewalk exploded, killing him and five members of his bodyguard detail instantly. At Borsellino’s funeral, Archbishop Pappalardo called the faithful to revolt. “Rise up, Palermo!” he cried. The Italian government no longer had any choice but to act. Seven thousand soldiers were deployed to Sicily.
The man who had detonated the blast that killed Giovanni Falcone was identified: he was Giovanni Brusca, a member of Totò Riina’s hit squad known as U’ Verru (the swine) in the Sicilian dialect. His father, Bernardo Brusca, was a notorious Mafioso who had attended the wedding of Giuseppe Bono, along with Vito Rizzuto, among many others, at the Pierre Hotel in New York. When Giovanni Brusca learned he had been informed upon, he kidnapped the eleven-year-old son of the man who had exposed him. After torturing the boy and sending gruesome photos to his father in an attempt to force him to recant, “the swine” ordered an accomplice to strangle the boy and dissolve his body in a vat of acid. Brusca was eventually arrested in 1996 at a country house near Agrigento. As the prisoner arrived at the Palermo police station, one carabiniere could not keep himself from breaking the rules: he pulled off his ski mask, as if to say he was no longer afraid to show his face to the Mafia. Then he pushed his way through the phalanx of guards escorting Brusca and punched him in the face.
In the fall of 1992, the Italian government asked for the co-operation of all the countries known to be harbouring exiled Mafia bosses. Authorities in Caracas received a list of fifty-seven Mafiosi to be extradited from Venezuela at the earliest possible date. Prominent on the list were the names of Pasquale, Paolo and Gaspare Cuntrera. Falcone and Borsellino had long suspected them of having laundered some seventy million dollars via Canada, Venezuela and Italy, and considered Pasquale Cuntrera the capo of the Siculiana mob family. The Venezuelans procrastinated. Washington waded into the fray with typically American strong-arm tactics, sweeping aside the most basic of diplomatic conventions. The DEA threatened to send in a commando team to apprehend the Cuntrera brothers itself. The challenge was taken seriously. In June, U.S. authorities had arrested Brigadier-General Ramon Alexis Sánchez-Paz, the former chief of Venezuelan army intelligence, in Miami, after he bought twenty kilos of cocaine from undercover DEA men. And the spectacular arrest of Panamanian general Manuel Noriega and his subsequent conviction in Miami for drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering was still fresh in people’s memories.
Washington stepped up the pressure, threatening economic sanctions against Venezuela. In September 1992, the Venezuelan government gave in, and the Cuntrera brothers were flown to Italy. Their multi-million-dollar fortune would be of no use to them: authorities seized the family’s assets, which included funds in sixty-five bank accounts as well as hotel and casino investments. Mafia members who had not been arrested and charged moved quickly to sell a sixty-five-hectare ranch on the border with Colombia. The DEA did not celebrate too loudly, however: it suspected the buyers were front men for the Gambino family of New York.
After their plane landed in Rome on September 12, 1992, the Cuntrera brothers were whisked to the prison on Pianosa, a microscopic island in the Tuscan Archipelago. The ten-square-kilometre islet in the Mediterranean had been used to incarcerate prisoners since the time of Emperor Augustus. Two thousand years later, security rules barred any vessel from approaching to within 1.6 kilometres of its coast. The story of the three brothers might have ended there, but it didn’t. Pasquale, the boss of the clan, was sentenced to a twenty-one-year term and transferred to Parma prison, in the north of Italy—whence he managed to escape in 1998 because of a “bureaucratic error” surrounding his sentence appeal procedure. Apparently, he succeeded in convincing the prison authorities that he was entitled to parole pending the court’s ruling on his appeal request. He promised to report to police and offered assurances that he could be easily reached. Suffering from diabetes, he left the prison in a wheelchair. His appeal was rejected, but in the meantime he had vanished into thin air. The minister of justice offered her resignation; Prime Minister Romano Prodi refused to accept it.
Italian police searching for Pasquale Cuntrera got an unexpected lead from the RCMP. By 1996, the Mounties had already been investigating Alfonso Caruana and his brothers, Pasquale’s nephews. Alfonso had left Canada to hide out in Venezuela in 1986 but had returned in 1993, resuming large-scale drug trafficking operations from a new base: Toronto. The RCMP had placed taps on several telephone lines, including pay phones that Alfonso tended to use when conversations were most sensitive. One day in May 1998, he was heard speaking with his uncle Pasquale from one such phone booth. He told Pasquale that arrangements could be made to get him into Canada with a forged passport, and from there … well, those Canadians were so very accommodating!
There was an international warrant out for the arrest of Alfonso Caruana. He had been convicted in absentia by a Palermo court for being the leader of a ring that had imported some eleven tonnes of cocaine to Italy between 1991 and 1994. At the time of his phone conversation with his uncle Pasquale, Alfonso was living in Woodbridge, a neighbourhood in Vaughan, north of Toronto. Officially, he earned five hundred dollars a week as a car jockey and washer for a used-vehicle dealership.
Uncle and nephew were heard consoling each other over a sad event: the death during the previous week of Frank Sinatra. Then the phone call ended. The RCMP’s goal was to accumulate sufficient evidence to prosecute Alfonso Caruana in Canada rather than arrest him and turn him over to Italian authorities, as suspects’ appeals of extradition procedures tended to drag on endlessly.
Thanks to electronic surveillance, police were able to locate Pasquale Cuntrera: he was hiding out with his wife near the small resort town of Fuengirola, on Spain’s Costa del Sol, a spot favoured by celebrities including Antonio Banderas and Sean Connery. Italian and Spanish police went after the fugitive and found him strolling arm in arm with his wife along a palm-lined boulevard. He no longer needed his wheelchair but walked with a cane. He offered no resistance to the arresting officers and was sent back to prison in Italy.
Alfonso Caruana took over as the head of the clan. The sentence handed down by the Palermo court stated that his involvement in the importing of eleven tonnes of coke was “further indication of the extremely high capacity for criminal action” displayed by the Canadian citizen. Caruana, the court added, “had evaded all judicial actions in recent decades and succeeded in reaching the summit of the international drug trade, making use of his network of criminal contacts and demonstrating such a degree of expertise that he is considered one of the leading organizers of this activity.”
Changings of the guard were also taking place in New York. There, as well as in Montreal, bosses were dying, whether of natural or ballistic causes, or being sent to prison to serve lengthy terms. Others took their place.
The Bonanno family’s star had already been paling for several years when its head, Philip “Rusty” Rastelli, succumbed to liver cancer in 1991. Convicted on racketeering charges, Rastelli had spent a good part of the 1980s behind bars and had died at seventy-three, just days after being released on humanitarian grounds. He was buried in St. John Cemetery, in Middle Village, Queens—in the company of several congressmen but also two dozen infamous leaders of New York Mafia families. They include Carlo Gambino, who gave his name to the largest of the Five Families; Vito Genovese, one of the rare mobsters to lay claim to the title “boss of all bosses”; and Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who founded the Commission in 1931. At a suitable distance from Rastelli’s grave is that of Carmine “Lilo” Galante, the cigar-chomping boss who had been executed under Rastelli’s orders.
By the early 1990s, however, those members of the Bonanno family who were still above ground weren’t that much more animated than those resting six feet under it. They were now looked down upon by the four other families. The successful infiltration by FBI agent Joe Pistone, alias Donnie Brasco, had heaped scorn upon them. Such unforgivable stupidity had led to the Bonannos being stripped of their vote on the Commission.
The new boss, Joe Massino, had not abandoned all hope. Big Joey favoured a strategy grounded in caution: think before acting, advance slowly but surely. He too had been imprisoned several years on racketeering charges. The long sabbatical behind bars had given him time to imagine ways to breathe new life into the Bonanno family. He also discovered the virtues of silence and circumlocution. He refused to emulate the new boss of the Gambino family, John “The Dapper Don” Gotti, whose assassination of the former boss, Paul Castellano, as a means of usurping power was a violation of protocol: Gotti had not obtained the prior consent of the Commission. Massino liked Gotti personally, which was sensible insofar as the two lived just a block from each other in the Southwest Queens neighbourhood of Howard Beach. (After he ordered Vito Rizzuto and other hit men to take out the three rebel Bonanno capos in 1981, it was to Gotti that Massino turned to dispose of the bodies.)
Joe Massino was more discreet than his friend. While Gotti paraded in front of photographers and TV camera operators, and revelled in his tabloid celebrity status, Massino was notoriously camera-shy and, despite his capacious girth, had a knack for disappearing whenever police photographers tried to train their lenses on him. Despite deploying ultra-sophisticated surveillance technology, investigators were never able to record even the slightest incriminating remark. “Joe wanted to do it [become Bonanno family boss] the right way. He wanted to wait for his boss to die, to assume the power,” Salvatore “Good-Looking Sal” Vitale, his friend and brother-in-law, later said. The Bonanno family soldiers were looking for stability in the wake of the Donnie Brasco fiasco, and that was exactly what Massino brought.
Massino advised his men to keep a low profile, steer clear of seedy bars and put an end to meetings in their Brooklyn social clubs. He ordered them to never say his name out loud, and if they absolutely had to talk about him, to simply point to or tug on their ear (he got the idea from another wily New York boss, Vincent “The Chin” Gigante. This way, the police would never be able to catch a Bonanno soldier on tape saying anything like “Big Joey told me to whack So-and-So.”
For example, police were never able to accuse Massino of having sanctioned the murder of Joe LoPresti, a key Bonanno soldier in Montreal and a good friend and neighbour of Vito and Nick Rizzuto. After Good-Looking Sal Vitale, Massino’s lieutenant, became an informant, he let it be understood that Massino had taken the liberty of agreeing to LoPresti’s elimination despite the fact that such executions are supposed to be decided at the highest level.
Like Vito Rizzuto, who was two years older, and Gerlando Sciascia, fourteen years his senior, Giuseppe “Joe” LoPresti, born on January 24, 1948, came from Cattolica Eraclea. He was married to Rosa Lumia, a native of the same town; the couple had two children. LoPresti arrived in Halifax in 1969 and was quickly inducted into the Montreal Mafia. Proudly Sicilian, he naturally sided with the Rizzutos in their war against the Calabrian Paolo Violi, and was a suspect in the latter’s 1978 murder. Two years later, he was among the guests at the extravagant Bono wedding at the Hotel Pierre.
With an athlete’s build, standing six-foot-two, his black hair always impeccably combed, LoPresti was an elegant man, but he avoided the limelight. He owned the Casablanca, a Montreal nightclub, and had stakes in several companies, but was not given to ostentatious displays of his wealth. He wore subdued grey suits that suggested he was an ordinary businessman looking to get ahead in life without a fuss. And get ahead he clearly did: at the age of forty-four, he was a millionaire.
LoPresti often spoke in a neutral, emotionless tone so he wouldn’t attract attention. Seemingly innocuous words, depending on his inflection, could mean something altogether different. Occasionally, however, he broke his own rules. His voice was unmistakably among those heard in police recordings made in New York in the early 1980s.
The electronic surveillance had taken place in the home of Angelo Ruggiero, a close associate of John Gotti and his brother Gene, of the Gambino Family. Ruggiero, a corpulent and crude figure, had earned the moniker “Quack Quack.” He suffered from plantar fasciitis, a painful heel inflammation, in one foot, which caused him to waddle like a duck. Moreover, he simply could not stop talking. Gotti once berated him on the phone, telling him to “keep [his] fucking mouth shut.” Quack Quack’s loquacious nature was a godsend to police, who had extensively bugged his home in Cedarhurst, Long Island.
In May 1982, police keeping an eye on the funeral of Salvatore Ruggiero, Angelo’s brother, were intrigued by the fact that Joe LoPresti was in attendance, and decided to tail him. The Montrealer seemed to be everywhere, meeting everyone—in short, he was clearly an emissary of some kind. Officers watched as he went to pick up Gerlando Sciascia, alias “George from Canada,” at Quack Quack Ruggiero’s home. Joe and George were then seen meeting with Cesare “The Tall Guy” Bonventre at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Queens. Bonventre, a fellow “Zip,” worked for Bonanno boss Carmine Galante. Police then observed LoPresti with Salvatore “Totò” Catalano, another notorious Bonanno Zip. It was Catalano who had introduced Tommaso Buscetta to Pasquale Cuntrera years earlier in Montreal.
On May 16 a hidden microphone in the basement of Ruggiero’s home captured a most interesting conversation: Joe LoPresti told Quack Quack that he had been speaking with his heroin supplier, a member of the Cuntrera–Caruana clan in Caracas. “He said he was 100 percent certain that our load is coming. It’s in Canada say a week and a half before it’s here,” he said.
Around the same time, George from Canada—who obviously was no more gifted at the art of code-talking than was LoPresti—told Ruggiero: “I got thirty things … that’s why I’m here.” Even a police cadet could have guessed that “thirty things” meant thirty kilograms of heroin.
The investigation concluded with charges being laid against Joe LoPresti, Gerlando Sciascia, Angelo Ruggiero, Eddie Lino and several other members of the Bonanno and Gambino families for importing thirty kilos of heroin. They were in up to their necks in the so-called Pizza Connection, the heroin importing network that relied on Sicilians on either side of the Atlantic. Soldiers in the Gambino family were by now very nervous. Their boss, Paul “Big Paul” Castellano, had threatened to kill those among his troops who dared get mixed up in drug trafficking—a racket that he felt was far too dangerous. Indeed, police had stepped up efforts and often succeeded in persuading drug dealers to turn state’s evidence. Castellano wanted his men to focus on less risky enterprises like stock market fraud, which brought in a lot of money but resulted in lighter prison sentences should the perpetrators be caught.
Lawyers for the accused obtained transcripts of the police surveillance tapes. Castellano demanded a copy. If he didn’t get one, he warned, he would depose John Gotti and reassign his soldiers to other captains. Gotti was well aware that if his boss read the transcripts, he would uncover the truth. Not only had Gotti created a narcotics smuggling faction within the family, but the recordings proved that he and his associates discussed it with people outside the family, another off-limits practice. On December 16, 1985, Castellano and his new underboss, Thomas Bilotti, were gunned down in front of the Sparks Steak House, on Forty-sixth Street in Midtown Manhattan. The killers disappeared into the crowd of Christmas shoppers. One of them was Eddie Lino, who faced heroin trafficking charges along with Quack Quack Ruggiero and the others. With Castellano out of the way, John Gotti ascended to the Gambino family throne.
On the day the prattling Quack Quack and his Pizza Connection cronies were arrested, Joe LoPresti was in New York, and the FBI easily collared him. Gerlando Sciascia managed to escape back to Montreal, where he lived for a time under an assumed name before authorities tracked him down. The U.S. government wanted him extradited. Sciascia was arrested on a Montreal street by Sergeant Yvon Thibault, of the city’s RCMP detachment, on November 7, 1986. Sciascia was imprisoned for the next two years, during which he fought to have the extradition order overturned. The struggle was in vain, and in late 1988 he was back in New York to answer the heroin trafficking charges.
John Gotti’s brother Gene was among the accused. He asked a friend to buy off a member of the jury. The friend promised the juror a BMW if he would support Gotti’s acquittal. What Gotti had failed to realize was that the juror had been excused by the judge two days earlier because he was not a U.S. citizen. The FBI found out about the attempted bribe, and a mistrial was eventually declared.
The group of co-defendants disintegrated: Angelo “Quack Quack” Ruggiero died of cancer; Gene Gotti and John Carneglia, a Gambino soldier, were tried separately and sentenced to fifty-year prison terms. A new trial, with Gerlando Sciascia, Joe LoPresti and Eddie Lino facing narcotics trafficking charges, began early in January 1990. John Gotti’s underboss, Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, put up ten thousand dollars to bribe a juror. (This time, the police only learned of the corruption a year later, when Gravano became an informant.) Sciascia, LoPresti and Lino were acquitted after four weeks.
The three co-accused would then be murdered one after another, but for different reasons. Eddie Lino was the first to be rubbed out, on the order of Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, boss of the Genovese family. Lino was killed in November 1990 by two corrupt NYPD detectives. The cops, driving an unmarked patrol car with a warning beacon activated, ordered Lino to pull his Mercedes-Benz to the side of a freeway service road in Brooklyn, then shot him to death. Gigante’s intent was to weaken his hated rival, John Gotti; taking out one of his captains did the job.
As for Joe LoPresti, he returned to Montreal after his acquittal and resumed his business. He managed a building company, Construction LoPresti, along with several other businesses, including a video poker machine company that he ran with his son Enzo. In late April of 1992, Joseph Mark Sciascia, son of Gerlando Sciascia, called LoPresti at home. The younger Sciascia owned a Mikes restaurant franchise in east-end Rivière-des-Prairies with Agostino Cuntrera, who had been part of the conspiracy to murder Paolo Violi. Joseph also claimed to be a co-owner of Quelli Della Notte, a swanky Italian restaurant on Saint-Laurent Boulevard. He told LoPresti he needed to see him immediately. LoPresti asked if it could wait a few days. “I need to see you right away,” Joseph Sciascia repeated curtly. Police never found out the reason for the call; they knew only that LoPresti had to follow orders from George from Canada, Joseph Sciascia’s father.
On April 29, three days after the call from Joseph Sciascia, LoPresti left his neo-Tudor-style home on Antoine-Berthelet Avenue, got into his cherry-red 1988 Porsche and drove to a restaurant on Décarie Boulevard, in western Montreal. He was unsuspecting, despite the fact that life had taught him to be constantly on his guard and that several of his associates had been killed in recent years. In all likelihood, when LoPresti entered the restaurant he met with a man he trusted, because he parked his Porsche in a lot nearby and left with the man.
Somehow, LoPresti soon found himself in a car wash, where an unknown assailant shot him in the back of the neck with a small-calibre weapon. He was forty-four years old. It is not clear whether he knew that his life was in danger, but one thing is certain: he did not defend himself. It was a clean, careful hit: a sign of respect. The body was wrapped in a plastic bag, tied with cord, transported in a vehicle and abandoned, covered in a painter’s drop cloth, next to a gravel road leading to the railway tracks in Rivière-des-Prairies. Around eight-thirty in the evening, a railway worker who had spotted bloodstains on the ground called CN police, who alerted Montreal police. Investigators found approximately four thousand dollars on the body—proof that theft was not the motive for the murder. The victim’s ID, however, was missing.
The next day, police found the red Porsche, licence plate number KMK 558, in the Décarie Boulevard parking lot where its owner had left it. Inside, a pager was beeping repeatedly. Officers called the requester’s number: Enzo LoPresti, the victim’s twenty-three-year-old son, answered. Enzo identified his father’s body at the police morgue on Parthenais Street. The visitation was held in a funeral home on Beaubien Street in Montreal. Several friends and relatives came to pay tribute. Vito Rizzuto arrived in a white Jaguar and offered his condolences. A number of Mafiosi from New York and Toronto also turned up at the funeral home. Well-known business people, including Lino Saputo, owner of the Saputo cheese company, attended the funeral. “Joe LoPresti was an important person in the Italian community,” Saputo explained simply, several years later.
An important person, indeed. Investigators racked their brains for many months trying to understand the motive for the murder. To them, the slaying had all the hallmarks of a Mafia hit authorized at the highest level, very probably by Gambino family boss, John Gotti. At least, that was what Gotti underboss–turned-informant Salvatore Gravano claimed. Perhaps there had been a disagreement over the sharing of profits from drug deals.
More illuminating testimony came years later from Salvatore Vitale, the underboss to Bonanno family head Joe Massino. When Vitale testified at the trial of several Bonanno family members, he recalled a conversation with Gerlando Sciascia. “George from Canada” was LoPresti’s boss and was furious at him for using drugs. “It didn’t make sense to him that a capo could be getting high,” Vitale explained. “He thought it harmed our prestige in the eyes of the other families.” Vitale added that Sciascia had asked him for permission to eliminate LoPresti. Vitale had green-lighted the hit, on behalf of his boss, Massino. “If that is what you want to do, do it,” he said. “Take care of business.”
It would be surprising if Sciascia had in fact decided to take out LoPresti for the simple reason that he was using drugs. There was surely a more useful motive for the murder, which had been carried out in the purest mobland style. It certainly appears, however, to have been sanctioned by high-ranking persons in the New York Mafia, not only Sal Vitale.
Gerlando Sciascia was the last of the accused trio to die. After his 1990 acquittal, he resumed efforts to obtain permanent resident status in Canada for himself and his Scottish-born wife, Mary. In his application, made to the Canadian Consulate in New York, he said he wished to enter Canada under the country’s investor immigrant program, explaining that he owned two restaurants and a car wash, and that he was prepared to invest U.S.$200,000 in Canada. He added that he spoke both English and French, and that his son, Joseph Mark, was already a resident of Montreal. Susan Burrows, a visa officer at the Consulate, rejected the application. In a less-than-encouraging letter, she wrote: “reasonable grounds exist to believe that you are a member of an organized crime group; namely, the American Cosa Nostra.”
Joseph Mark Sciascia appealed Burrows’s decision. A senior official in the immigration department not only agreed with Burrows; he went one better, branding Gerlando Sciascia “a danger to the public in Canada.” The official wrote in a report, “I am concerned that Mr. Sciascia’s close relationship to figures of the Mafia in New York, Sicily and Montreal would strengthen the Mafia situation in Montreal. Mr. Sciascia is a danger to the Canadian public because of his involvement with the Mafia and the nature of the activities carried out by these organizations.”
In 1988, a U.S. Senate subcommittee report on organized crime had named Sciascia as a member of the Bonanno crime family. Under amendments to Canada’s Immigration Act made in 1993, anyone belonging to an organized crime group was barred from entering Canada.
Sciascia challenged the “public danger” label before the Federal Court of Canada. Justice Marshall Rothstein found in his favour and ordered that the declaration be set aside. This cleared the way for Sciascia’s son Joseph Mark to appeal to the Immigration and Refugee Board to overturn the visa officer’s decision barring his father from entering Canada. Despite that victory, the younger Sciascia withdrew his appeal request, and his father gave up his attempts to become a permanent resident of Canada. The Canadian immigration department continued to refer to Sciascia as a “subject linked to the Mafia.” “George from Canada” earned the distinction of being the only person ever barred from immigrating to Canada by reason of association with the Mafia. He was notified that, should he attempt to set foot in the country, he would be detained.
He moved into an upscale home on Stadium Road, in the Bronx, a fair distance from the spot where, in 1981, he had run his hand through his hair, signalling the hit squad to wipe out the three renegade Bonanno captains. He was now sixty-three, his hair greyer but still thick. Incorrigibly fashion-conscious, he still combed that hair into a pompadour style and was a sharp dresser. He looked more like a rich jeweller than a crook. And in fact he did open a jewellery store, on East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx.
Nineteen ninety-seven, the year Sciascia was deemed persona non grata by Canadian authorities, also saw the release in theatres of a film that surely piqued his interest—as well as that of Vito Rizzuto, Salvatore Vitale and Joe Massino. Entitled Donnie Brasco, it starred Al Pacino as Mafioso Benjamin “Lefty Guns” Ruggiero (no relation to the brothers Salvatore and Angelo Ruggiero) and Johnny Depp as Special Agent Joe Pistone, FBI, alias Donnie Brasco, who infiltrated the Bonanno family. The film helped popularize an expression dear to American Mafiosi: “Fuggedaboutit.” Another memorable line, spoken by Pacino’s character, was “A wise guy’s always right. Even when he’s wrong, he’s right.” The movie’s reconstitution of the three capos murder contained no allusions to George from Canada’s and Vito Rizzuto’s roles. But no doubt Sciascia felt a degree of discomfort when he realized that this unsavoury slice of his life had been immortalized on the silver screen.
Sciascia had taken part in the massacre of the three captains at the request of Joe Massino, but by 1999, the latter seemed to have forgotten about that gesture of loyalty. Massino was at the height of his power. He was now “The Last Don,” as New York’s other godfathers were all in prison: John Gotti, of the Gambino family; Vincent Gigante, of the Genoveses; Vittorio Amuso and Anthony Casso, of the Luccheses; and Carmine Persico and Victor Orena, of the Colombos. The Bonannos were the exception. After the Donnie Brasco affair, their numbers had dwindled to below one hundred. Massino, however, had managed to rebuild their ranks, and he was now the head of a crew of 150, divided into fifteen efficient teams, including the Montreal decina. As the only boss not behind bars, Massino exercised his power like a monarch, brooking no digressions. He had promoted his friend Anthony Graziano to the rank of captain. Graziano, nicknamed “T.G.,” was renowned for his sadistic ways: he occasionally tortured his victims with the flame from a cigarette lighter. But he brought in a lot of money.
Sciascia, who was supposed to “work” with Graziano, started complaining about his erratic behaviour. He thought the new captain was unreliable and bemoaned his tendency to dip into the cocaine he was dealing. “Every time I see this guy, he’s stoned,” Sciascia told Sal Vitale, and he asked him to mention it to Massino. Swearing “on [his] children’s eyes,” T.G. assured Massino that he wasn’t doing coke. Massino settled the rift between his two captains his way: during a wedding anniversary party, he took Sal Vitale aside and told him, “George has got to go.” The boss obviously construed George from Canada’s remonstrations as a challenge to his leadership. Massino was leaving for a holiday in Cancún, Mexico, the next morning, and he wanted the job done before he returned.
On Thursday, March 18, 1999, Sciascia got a note at his jewellery store, which read simply, “Pat D 79.” It meant that he was to go and meet a captain named Patrick DeFilippo in a diner on Seventy-ninth Street in Manhattan. At the diner, DeFilippo told him he was taking him to another location for a sit-down with someone who could help settle the dispute with Graziano. The two left the diner and got into a burgundy-coloured Ford van, driven by John “Johnny Joe” Spirito, a Bonanno associate. As they drove, DeFilippo pumped four bullets into Sciascia: one in the left side of the chest, a second in his left eye, and two others in his head. Spirito headed down Boller Avenue, a dead-end street in the Bronx, where DeFilippo dumped the lifeless body of George from Canada onto the road, across from a small church.
A man visiting his girlfriend on Boller Avenue told the police he had seen a van pull a 180-degree turn at the end of the street. At first, he thought the driver must have turned down the wrong street. Then he saw the bloodied body of a man lying on the road. No one had heard any gunshots. A woman said the man’s silver-grey hair was well combed and he was wearing expensive-looking clothing. “He looked like somebody’s grandpa lying there,” she told a reporter from Newsday.
Sciascia was sixty-five years old. Unlike the execution of Joe LoPresti, the killing of George from Canada showed none of the consideration due a “man of honour.” The New York Mafia usually showed their corpses more respect—more, at least, than unceremoniously dumping them in the street. Yet Gerlando Sciascia had been slain by members of the Bonanno family, with the collusion of old friends even, like Sal Vitale. Vitale had nothing against Sciascia, but he had obeyed orders, knowing that if he protested he would sign his own death warrant.
The hit squad had a good reason for throwing Sciascia’s body from the van. Massino wanted the killing to look like a drug deal that had gone wrong, not a “sanctioned hit,” and he wanted to avoid reprisals from Montreal. He put the word out on the street that he was looking for Sciascia’s killers and ordered forty Bonanno soldiers to attend the funeral. Even Pat DeFilippo, the triggerman, pretended to mourn George from Canada. Massino, though, stuck with his policy of avoiding locations where he might be filmed or photographed. In his book Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires, The New York Times journalist Selwyn Raab wrote that Massino told two of his captains that Sciascia’s punishment was appropriate. “It served him right for telling me how to run the family,” he explained to one. “That’ll teach him to talk about my capos,” he said to the other.
At a meeting at a diner in Howard Beach, Sal Vitale told Massino that he and his associates had been forced to get rid of the burgundy Ford van in which Sciascia had been killed. They hadn’t been able to get the bloodstains out of the seats. “Poor George must have bled to death,” Massino sighed, adding that he would dip into the family funds to make sure Johnny Joe Spirito, the van’s owner, would be reimbursed. The boss then congratulated Vitale on a job well done.
In 2007, Vitale was interrogated at length about the grisly episode during the trial of Patrick DeFilippo, accused of the murder of Gerlando Sciascia. Massino’s orders were clear, Vitale recalled: the Bonanno boss asked him to meet with each of the family’s fifteen captains individually and explain to them that no one knew why George had been whacked. Vitale told them, “If you find anything out, bring it to our attention. We want to know who killed George.”
“What was the purpose of telling the captains that?” federal prosecutor Greg Andres asked him in court.
“To put up a smokescreen, a diversion,” Vitale answered.
“At some point after the murder of George, did you go to Canada?”
“Why did you go to Canada?”
“Joe Massino wanted me to go up there to speak to Vito [Rizzuto], to get what was going on, to familiarize ourselves [with] what was going on in Canada now that George was dead.”
“Did you go alone?” Andres asked.
“No, I went with Anthony Urso,” Vitale replied. Urso had just been named acting consigliere for the Bonanno family.
“When you were up there, did you attempt to put somebody in George’s place with respect to his position in the Bonanno family [that of captain responsible for the Montreal crew]?”
“I probed the area; who did they respect up there. Who is the man up there. Vito said: ‘We are all brothers. We are all equals.’ First, he was very annoyed that no one told him about George. I don’t think he believed that it was a drug deal gone astray.”
“What else did you discuss with Vito when you were in Canada?”
“How many individuals—how many made men are in Canada. He told me nineteen.”
“Do you know who paid for the trip to Canada?” the prosecutor asked.
“The Bonanno family paid for it … I laid out the money for the hotel, for the food, for me and Tony [Urso], and when I got back, Joe [Massino] said, ‘How much did you lay out?’ and I said, ‘Nine hundred.’ He gave me the nine hundred.”
The Bonanno family wanted to make Vito Rizzuto captain in Gerlando Sciascia’s stead. Vitale insisted, but Vito refused the promotion and suggested his father. There was no doubt that the murder of George from Canada had upset him: they were both from Cattolica Eraclea originally, they got along well, and they had worked together to build a new heroin pipeline; furthermore, no one had consulted Vito before executing his friend. And Vito saw no benefit in taking Gerlando Sciascia’s place. For one thing, the position would have required regular travel to New York, which would have been difficult, since he knew he could not cross the U.S. border without risking arrest.
Several members of the Montreal Mafia attended the meeting with the two New York envoys, Vitale and Urso. Vito purposely left an empty chair at the table—the one that should have been occupied by Gerlando Sciascia. He asked the Bonanno captain and consigliere many questions about the circumstances of Sciascia’s murder. He was clearly furious and didn’t believe for one moment that his friend had been killed because of a botched drug transaction. After the meeting broke up, Urso accompanied Vito Rizzuto to some choice Montreal bars and restaurants. Another participant in the meeting, Joe Di Maulo, left with Vitale. Good-Looking Sal thought his number was up: he was sure he was being led into a trap and would be taken out. Instead, Di Maulo took him to meet some other members of the Montreal crew.
The assassination of George from Canada would cast a permanent pall over relations between the Bonanno family and the Rizzuto clan. But business continued.
And Vito remained a good soldier.