Somewhere in northeast Ohio, an 88-year-old retiree peacefully enjoys his dwindling days. His name is Angelo Lonardo. His previous job, back when he was called “Big Ange,” was underboss of the Cleveland mob.
In a Phoenix suburb, his face altered by plastic surgery and his pockets lined by proceeds from a best seller, Salvatore Gravano enjoys a new life in the sun. He’s a killer best known as “Sammy the Bull,” and he was John Gotti’s right-hand man.
Lonardo and Gravano became government informants, turning on their Mafia cohorts. Both appear likely targets for revenge. Yet both have abandoned the federal witness protection program. And neither lives in fear of his life.
They’re not alone. From Arizona to Buffalo, from New Jersey to parts unknown, the fear of Mafia retribution has disappeared among mob rats in and out of the program.
“I’m not running from the . . . Mafia,” the ever-eloquent Gravano recently snarled--and there’s probably no need to, according to mob experts.
“The mob’s ability to go out and find people has always been greatly overstated,” says Jerry Capeci, author of three books on John Gotti and New York’s Mafia.
“It’s been diminished even more by the large number of turncoats, and by the large number of ready, willing and able shooters in jail doing life or long time,” continues Capeci, now a spokesman at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Bill Bonanno, onetime boss of the New York crime family that still bears his name, agrees that today’s mob lacks the juice to punish its ever-growing legion of informants.
“I doubt it could happen,” says Bonanno, who retired to Arizona years before Gravano. “Someone asked me what Gravano’s neighbors are thinking. My only response is that must be the safest street in the world.”
Why? Here are some reasons offered by Mafiologists:
* The new generation has no interest in settling old scores. Henry Hill, the informant behind the movie “GoodFellas,” joined the witness protection program in 1980 and dropped out seven years later. To the mob’s new blood, what there is of it, Hill might as well be 1950s boss Albert Anastasia.
“A lot of those people are gone,” Hill once replied when asked if he still feared for his life.
* Omerta, the mob law of silence, is long dead. There are so many informants that targeting just one is pointless. Before John “Junior” Gotti pleaded guilty in April 1999 to racketeering and other charges, federal prosecutors planned to call half a dozen mob-linked witnesses against him.
* Once a witness testifies, the incentive to kill him drops drastically. “The cat’s out of the bag,” says Howard Abadinsky, head of the International Assn. for the Study of Organized Crime. “Once they’ve given evidence, they’re no longer a threat.”
But what of revenge? It’s a dish best served in mob movies at the local Blockbuster Video.
“That’s one of the fallacies of conventional wisdom--if you squeal against the mob, they will hunt you down and kill you,” says Abadinsky.
Bonanno agrees. The stereotype of mobsters leaving the family only in body bags, most prominently perpetuated by the Corleone family in “The Godfather” movies, was never entirely true.
“That’s law enforcement and the news media,” Bonanno says dismissively.
There’s one other obvious reason: The mob lacks the clout it once wielded, in terms of manpower and money.
In Cleveland, where Lonardo became a made man in the 1940s, authorities now say there are only two made members left. That wasn’t the case in 1984, when Lonardo--facing a sentence of life without parole--cut his deal.
He testified in Kansas City about the mob’s skim of casino money from Las Vegas, and in New York about the Mafia’s ruling commission. He was enlisted in the witness protection program, but eventually decided to bolt its constricting rules and regulations.
“He’s supposedly living in northeast Ohio, and he’s no longer concerned about anything,” says Rick Porrello, a Cleveland-area policeman, mob author and keeper of the American Mafia Web site:
Who’s Afraid of Milked-Down Mob?
The same dearth of mob troops in Cleveland is standard in most of the other 23 cities where the Mafia once operated. Currently, only New York and Chicago have traditional, functional mob families.
The evidence of the witness defections is anecdotal; federal officials refuse to acknowledge when a cooperating witness joins the protection program, much less leaves it. But it is clear that more people are saying arrivederci than in the past.
Gravano left the witness program in 1997, but he hardly dropped out of sight.
Last summer, Gravano appeared on Page One of the Arizona Republic. The headline read: “Sammy the Bull living fearlessly in sunshine.”
Sammy boasted in Vanity Fair magazine about his invulnerability. Gravano, once the target of a reported $1-million contract, actually hired a publicist.
Hill was tossed out of the program in 1987 for cocaine use, but he endures. He became a semi-frequent guest on Howard Stern’s nationally syndicated radio program, and turned up occasionally on television. The only mobster who did any harm to Hill was Hill himself; he became a drug addict and an alcoholic.
Joseph “Joe Dogs” Iannuzzi was dumped from the program in 1993 for breaching security: He planned an appearance with David Letterman to promote his book, “The Mafia Cookbook.” Joe Dogs continued to eat well despite his departure.
George Fresolone, a Philadelphia mobster whose testimony led to 41 convictions, gave a lengthy interview to the Philadelphia Inquirer last summer.
Still in the witness program, Fresolone said he had trouble sleeping at night--not for fear of hit men, but waiting for his teenage son to get home safely with the family car.
It wasn’t always this way, with informants living comfortably. Bonanno, author of the recent mob memoir “Bound by Honor,” says government informants--with the exception of the infamous Joe Valachi--were nonexistent until the Mafia’s values began breaking down in the 1970s.
“I can’t think of anybody who ever testified for the government, not in our family,” says Bonanno, who quit the family business in 1968. “There was no need for it.”
Today, Bonanno says, the mob is more street gang than major corporation. Given that, it seems that Gravano may actually have more to fear from a ponytailed, left-leaning Manhattan lawyer than he does from any slicked-back Mafia gunman.
Attorney Ron Kuby represents the families of the brutal Mafiosi’s 19 murder victims; they are suing Gravano for any profits made from his Peter Maas-penned biography, “Underboss.”
The suit is tied up in appeals. If Kuby wins, he expects to track Gravano down and hold a subpoena to his head.
Kuby, whose late partner, William Kunstler, once represented the elder Gotti, believes he will probably get to Gravano before any mob gunman.
“I don’t think those guys could name the 50 states, much less find somebody living out in one of them,” Kuby said. “Once they get beyond the Brooklyn Naval Yard, they’re lost. Australia merges with Colorado.”