Revealing Portrait : Wiretaps: Tuning In to Mob Life

Times Staff Writer

As longtime underboss of the New England mob, Gennaro Angiulo was not an articulate man. But, when it came to business, he did not mince words.

“We’re illegitimate business,” he once explained, with many an expletive. “We’re a Shylock . . . . We’re a bookmaker . . . . We’re selling marijuana . . . . We’re, we’re illegal here, illegal there. Arsonists! We’re everything!”

Reluctant debtors, for example, required a special touch.

“What would you do . . . ? Meet him in a dark alley with an ax . . . . Throw it. Pray it hits him right between the eyes.”


Still, the 67-year-old, silver-haired Angiulo had his sentimental side.

Used to Kick TV Sets

“Remember the old days?” he mused to a friend. “I used to kick televisions through on a day like this. Now I don’t kick them no more.”

Unknown to him at the time, the FBI was listening. In 1981, it placed an electronic bug in Angiulo’s north Boston office. Thus, by his own words--hundreds of hours’ worth--did a federal jury come to know “Jerry” Angiulo. Last year, the TV-kicking Mafioso and his chief cronies were convicted of racketeering and murder and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

Angiulo’s conviction was another notch in a historic roundup of La Cosa Nostra leaders. From Boston to Kansas City, New York to Los Angeles, federal prosecutors have convicted more than 900 mob members and associates. Last week, the feds broadened the attack, suing for the first time to take control of the allegedly mob-dominated commercial complex, Manhattan’s landmark Fulton Fish Market.

Tapes Key Factor

Key to almost every case were court-approved wiretaps, sophisticated electronic surveillance and use of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law. In courtroom after courtroom, prosecutors played gripping audio- or videotapes of mobsters casually discussing grisly murders, shakedowns, drug deals and more. Other details came from mob turncoats and informants.

Juries heard mobsters beg, brag, bully and badger. They heard mobsters weep, whine and philosophize. They heard mobsters complain about poor manners and bad toupees. They heard endless chatter about card games and point spreads. They heard that the Mafia does not work on Mother’s Day.

They heard of Damon Runyon monikers like “Cuddles,” “Peanuts” and “Benny Eggs.” They heard a Chicago gangster sneer at California’s “Mickey Mouse Mafia” and a Philadelphia loan shark charge 1,800% interest. They heard one hood ask another: “Are you alone or are you by yourself?”

They heard the mob as never before.

“The bugs have proved beyond a doubt that there is a mob, that there are families, that there is a ruling ‘commission’ and that they are involved in a wide range of criminal activities,” said Ronald Goldstock, head of New York State’s Organized Crime Task Force. “They also show these are not brilliant guys.”

Brilliant, no. Powerful, yes. Two years before he was shot to death outside a Manhattan steak house in December, 1985, Gambino crime family chief and “boss of bosses” Paul (Big Paul) Castellano confided to his maid, Gloria, that he always was willing to lend a hand.

“If the President of the United States, if he’s smart, if he needed help, he’d come, I could do a, some favor for him,” Castellano said, according to a bug hidden in his white-pillared Staten Island mansion.

Not Unreasonable Boast

The boast was not unreasonable, according to a report last year by the President’s Commission on Organized Crime. The report estimated that there are 1,700 “made” Mafia members, mostly in New York and Chicago, with lifetime vows to one of 24 “families.” That hard-core group is backed by about 17,000 “associates” and is supported by 280,000 corrupt union workers, truck drivers, longshoremen and others, the report said.

The mob’s work is as varied as America: gambling in Los Angeles, unions in Chicago, construction in New York, loan sharking in Kansas City, narcotics in Tucson, steel hauling in Detroit, stolen credit cards in Newark, N. J. (where mobsters reportedly work from the Hole-in-the-Wall Luncheonette).

Moreover, crime pays. The President’s commission estimated that income to all organized crime groups (including black, Colombian, Chinese and other groups) last year would top $47 billion. If accurate, that’s more than is earned by all U.S. iron, steel, aluminum and copper manufacturers combined.

Sees Mobsters’ ‘Edge’

Like other global cartels, the modern Mafia employs high-priced lawyers, sophisticated shipping companies and Swiss bank accounts. The difference is that mobsters have “an edge,” said Nicholas L. Chiarkas, former deputy chief counsel and research director of the President’s panel.

“To kill, to threaten, to bribe, that’s OK (with them),” he said. “That’s their edge . . . . It’s a very, very different value system.”

Vito Arena, for example, a mob killer turned informant, testified in one New York trial that he and two accomplices silenced a rival used car dealer by shooting him twice, “whacking him on the head with a sledgehammer,” stuffing his body into a 50-gallon drum and pouring in wet cement.

“Then we went to Chinatown to eat,” Arena added.

Many of the tapes would be comical if they weren’t so deadly serious. Mob life, for example, is surprisingly mundane.

Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno, the aptly named boss of New York’s Genovese crime family until his 100-year prison sentence last year, went to fat farms to trim his lasagna-stoked girth. But, when an aide suggested that he avoid arrest by enrolling under a false name at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Monica in early 1985, Salerno demurred.

“Nah,” he muttered. “They’ll put (me) on the wanted list. Who the hell wants that?”

There are pressures at home. Angry wives were partly to blame when Philadelphia mobsters shotgunned local mob boss Angelo Bruno to death in 1980. More than 20 people were killed in the ensuing gang war.

“All the soldiers’ wives were complaining,” former Cleveland underboss Angelo Lonardo said last year. “They didn’t have nothing and (Bruno’s wife) could write a check for $5 million.”

Neatness counts. Joseph Pistone, an undercover agent who infiltrated the Bonanno crime family for seven years, said he was told to shave his mustache, trim his hair and “keep a neat appearance at all times” because “a wise guy doesn’t have a bushy mustache and long hair.”

A “wise guy,” a term used to describe a Mafia member, rarely holds a job outside the Mafia. “They (wise guys) like to (browse) in Cadillac showrooms,” another informant disclosed. Gambling is always popular. John Gotti, current boss of the Gambino crime family, the nation’s largest and most powerful, bets up to 15 sports games on a Saturday, wagering up to $20,000 a game. Apparently, he usually loses.

But if anyone is on a winning streak, it is prosecutors using wiretaps. The FBI has received court approval to use electronic surveillance more than 450 times since 1984. State prosecutors listened in far more often, 504 times last year alone, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Credit-Card-Thin Devices

Bulky, hard-to-hide devices have given way to credit-card-thin recorders with thumbtack-sized microphones. Bugs have been hidden in a 1982 Jaguar, binoculars, a stuffed toy, a lawyer’s office, even a church restroom.

“They make believe,” complained one mobster taped at the Genovese group’s headquarters, the Palma Boy Social Club in East Harlem. “They send the telephone company in. What does it take? Two minutes, somebody’s not looking. Even if you’re looking, you can’t tell what they’re doing.”

It’s not often so easy: New York detective John Gurnee was chased by six men waving baseball bats and then had to use drugged meatballs to get past Duke, a snarling German shepherd guarding the Gambino group’s Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy. The bug was discovered several days later.

And it’s not always successful. FBI agents hid a microphone in the blue Lincoln Continental used by mob boss Anthony (Whispers) DeStefano in upstate New York several years ago. But DeStefano had undergone throat surgery and spoke in a barely audible rasp. After 50 days, frustrated agents gave up.

Still, the tapes roll in by the mile. FBI agents amassed the equivalent of 5 1/2 years of round-the-clock recordings while investigating the $1.6-billion “pizza connection” international drug ring. Hour after hour was played during the 17-month New York trial, which ended with convictions of 18 Sicilian and American mob figures last March.

‘Give a Good Picture’

“The real value of wiretaps is the massive intelligence they provide,” said Rudolph W. Giuliani, the racket-busting U.S. attorney in Manhattan. “They give the FBI a good picture of who is involved, how they function with one another, how they operate.”

How they talk is something else. Rivals are “hit,” “whacked out,” “dusted” or “put in the pond,” never murdered. The password to talk to the mob boss in Providence, R. I., was, “I wanna have an ice cream.” Prosecutors in the “pizza connection” trial patiently explained that a telephone order for “22 parcels” of “shirts” meant 22 kilograms of cocaine. Profanities are profuse.

“In our business, we don’t even mention names,” Nicholas (Nicky Crow) Caramandi, mob killer turned informant, explained in a recent Philadelphia trial. “We got codes for people: They. This guy. That guy.”

“Organized crime” is a police term. Mobsters rarely even refer to the Mafia by name. But tapes disclose reverent testimonials to “Our Thing,” or “This Thing,” the English translation of La Cosa Nostra.

Now-imprisoned Boston consigliere (counselor) Ilario Zannino, for example, spent hours explaining the mob’s rites and rituals to aspiring hoodlums in his bugged gambling hall. Zannino said he even left his own daughter’s funeral to attend mob business.

Primacy of ‘This Thing’

“My heart was broken,” he recalled. “But ‘This Thing’ comes first.” Another time he told an underling, “Johnnie, ‘This Thing’ we got here is beautiful, you understand? ‘This Thing’ is so beautiful that if someone slapped Debbie in the mouth tonight, your girl, we would kill.”

But ‘This Thing’ is changing. Most important, perhaps, is the aging leadership. Most mob leaders are over 60. Many others have died: Los Angeles boss Dominic Brooklier, New England boss Raymond Patriarca, Cleveland boss James T. Licavoli, Kansas City boss Nick Civella.

“They’re all dying off, you know, and we don’t replace them,” now-imprisoned Salvatore (Tom Mix) Santoro, underboss of the Lucchese family, lamented on one tape. " . . . I can’t keep up with them. If I don’t write ‘em down, I forget who died.”

Experts say that the mob is struggling to replenish its ranks from the deaths and prosecutions. Some blood relatives have followed their fathers’ and uncles’ bloody footsteps.

“But there’s no baby boom syndrome there,” said Fred Martens, head of the Pennsylvania Crime Commission. “Younger people don’t want to go into organized crime.”

Loyalty Often Ignored

And upwardly mobile mobsters often ignore old mob mores of kinship, loyalty and discipline, experts say. An increasing number of low- and middle-level mobsters have broken the once-hallowed code of “omerta,” or silence, to testify against their peers in exchange for reduced sentences or placement in the federal witness protection program.

“They’re like yuppies,” said Chiarkas of the President’s commission. “More interested in themselves, not the families . . . . They’re not going to go to the chair quiet, as the old Mustache Petes would.”

Aging dons cringe at the new-found ways. Salerno moaned aloud when one young hood called him “Fat Tony” to his face. And the late Aniello Dellacroce, underboss of the Gambino crime family, merely chewed out an insubordinate soldier instead of shooting him.

“If this was like, uh, 20 years ago, youse would have found yourselves in some . . . hole someplace,” Dellacroce added.

“You’re right, Neil,” the contrite hood replied.

‘No More Respect’

“Things change now because there’s too much conflict,” Dellacroce continued. “People do whatever they feel like. They don’t train their people no more. There’s no more--there’s no more respect. If you can’t be sincere, you can’t be honest with your friends, then forget about it. Ya got nothing.”

Many of the new “wise guys” are wise to wiretaps. They surround themselves with blaring TVs and radios. They eschew “sit-downs” and business lunches. They use couriers, not telephones, to pass orders.

“They are more circumspect now,” said New York Police Detective Lt. Remo Franceschini. “When they meet, they walk arm and arm and walk down the street away from everybody else. I observe it all the time now.”

High-tech mobsters use sophisticated scanners to listen to high-frequency police radio channels, said Col. Clinton Pagano, head of the New Jersey State Police. “Plus, they’re sweeping their homes for bugs,” he added.

Seen as Less Organized

Still, organized crime appears less and less organized. A gang war rages in New York, with 12 victims so far this year. Experts say the rub-outs reflect mob instability following the convictions of eight members of the Mafia’s supreme ruling ‘commission’ on Nov. 19.

Thomas L. Sheer, head of the FBI’s New York office, predicted that the Mafia will “be reduced to a street gang” in another decade because of the changes.

And Edward A. McDonald, head of the federal organized crime strike force in Brooklyn, observed: “I’m not going to say they’re on the run, or that we’ve wiped them out. But they’re not as efficient. They don’t have the quality, the character or the expertise they once did. They’re in disarray.”