Bonanno Crime Family Finds Wealth, Turmoil

When Giuseppe Bonanno arrived at his uncle’s Brooklyn home in 1924, he surveyed a land of infinite opportunities. The immigrant youth quickly took advantage.

Known in his new home as Joe, the precocious teen began bootlegging liquor. He fell in with a “family” of fellow Sicilians involved in wider-ranging criminal activity; within seven years, he was their boss.

Under his leadership, the family grew into a massive, multimillion-dollar enterprise. “I was the most respected man in New York and all over the country,” he boasted during a 1983 interview on “60 Minutes.”

No more. Not even close.

In the spring of this year, in a Brooklyn courtroom, Bonanno’s linear successor stood accused of three murders. Respect had become a rare commodity for boss Anthony Spero; 10 mob associates were lined up to testify against the 72-year-old Mafioso.

The courtroom was half-empty, a metaphor for the fortunes of the fractured crime family. Still known to law enforcers as the Bonannos, the current incarnation bears scant resemblance to the original.


“What’s out there now,” says Bill Bonanno, once his father’s top advisor, “is nothing more than a parody.”

As one of New York’s original five Mafia families, the Bonannos opened bookmaking, protection and loan-sharking operations. By the 1960s, they had interests in the Fulton Fish Market, the city concrete business, Kennedy International Airport, the drug trade, the pornography business and various unions.

But since old man Bonanno’s 1968 retirement, the family--a founding cog in the crime conglomerate once compared by Meyer Lansky to U.S. Steel--has descended steadily into dysfunction and self-destruction.

“This thing of ours,” as the old-school mobsters called it, belongs to a new generation with no apparent heirs. As Spero sat at the defense table in March, the Bonanno “empire” had this in common with the Roman Empire: It was in ruins.

The family was crippled by informants, infiltrated by the FBI, depleted by bloody internal wars. Family values? Try greed, drugs and jealousy.

The family’s fortunes mirror the Mafia’s rise and fall in the United States, a true-life version of the cinematic mob. Joe and Bill Bonanno were often mentioned as the models for Vito Corleone and his son, Michael.

The parallels were obvious. But even Mario Puzo couldn’t foresee the end to this “godfather” story.

Like Vito Corleone, Joe Bonanno was born in a small Sicilian village; the year was 1905. His father was a local “man of honor” killed in World War I; his death sent Bonanno to the United States.

Bonanno became the right-hand man of Salvatore Maranzano, a barrel-chested bull who could break an adversary’s neck with his thumbs.

Maranzano established his “family” in Brooklyn as four other Mafia factions arose in New York City--the groups now known as the Gambino, Lucchese, Colombo and Genovese families.

Maranzano’s slaying in a 1931 mob war left a void, and when peace was made, that void was filled by Bonanno. His family was New York’s smallest--barely 300 members--but Bonanno wielded much influence. The new boss helped establish “The Commission.”

The seven-member board, including the leaders of New York’s five families, provided a forum for discussion and arbitration. It arranged national Mafia conventions, one every five years. It kept the peace by dividing the lucrative New York rackets.

With Bonanno in charge, the Commission in place and the FBI in denial, the family enjoyed a quarter-century of growth and harmony, extending its reach into local unions. Bonanno’s illegal profits were invested in legitimate businesses, such as the garment industry and cheese manufacturing.

But some ways of turning a buck remained off limits. Bonanno spurned prostitution and drug-dealing.

The boss insulated himself from the Brooklyn streets, moving to a suburban Long Island estate and vacationing at a 280-acre upstate farm.

“My family enjoyed balmy days, right through the Depression of the 1930s, the war years of the 1940s and the heydays of the 1950s,” Bonanno wrote in his 1983 autobiography, “A Man of Honor.”

The good times rolled into 1956, when “made man” Bill Bonanno married the niece of boss Joe Profaci in a wedding that presaged “The Godfather.” Tony Bennett performed for a who’s who of Mafiosi.

Things changed dramatically within a year, as the Bonannos were beset by internal disloyalty and law enforcement scrutiny. It began with a summons to a national Mafia meeting in Apalachin, N.Y.

The November 1957 call left Bonanno uneasy.

He was shaken by the recent hit on friend and fellow boss Albert Anastasia, murdered in a barber’s chair. And he distrusted his cousin, Buffalo boss Stefano Magaddino, who had reportedly OKd the Anastasia hit while Bonanno was vacationing in Sicily.

In Apalachin, local police were intrigued by the rural town’s sudden influx of Cadillacs and silk suits. “65 HOODLUMS SEIZED IN A RAID,” read Page 1 of the New York Times. The long-anonymous Bonanno had become front-page news.

A flood of subpoenas followed. With legal pressures mounting, Bonanno suffered a heart attack.

“People tell me they wish . . . they had Joe Bonanno’s power, his influence, his wealth,” Bonanno wrote. "[Nobody] ever told me he’d like to have Joe Bonanno’s blood pressure.”

After Apalachin, the newly paranoid Bonanno avoided the other New York family heads for four years.

Bonanno’s absence in the early ‘60s aided his eldest son’s ascendance. Bill Bonanno became his father’s man in New York.

By now, the Bonannos were a mob powerhouse. They boasted 15 money-making crews and about 500 members. They enjoyed a lucrative alliance with the Teamsters Union.

Construction, airports, garbage hauling--they were all “in one way or another influenced or controlled by us,” Bill Bonanno wrote in his 1999 autobiography, “Bound by Honor.”

But the Bonannos entered another business that would decimate them: the heroin trade.

Drug-dealing once carried a mob-imposed death sentence. But Joe Bonanno, approaching age 60, had lost his killer instinct--and his iron grip on the family. He was also feuding with his fellow bosses.

The Commission was split by rumblings that Bonanno planned to protect his interests by killing younger bosses Carlo Gambino and Tommy Lucchese. Magaddino believed his greedy cousin was ready to move in on the Buffalo-controlled Toronto rackets.

The Bonanno family was split too--mostly over the installation of Bill Bonanno as his father’s advisor, leaving a family veteran in the cold. Cousin Magaddino allied with Lucchese and Gambino to declare a new Bonanno boss: the spurned veteran, Gaspar DiGregorio.

Joe Bonanno felt betrayed by his cousin and his friend, DiGregorio. FBI wiretaps showed his fellow bosses were tired of the haughty Bonanno too.

“This guy don’t want to listen to reason,” New Jersey mob boss Sam “The Plumber” DeCavalcante complained. “He’s causing so much friction amongst everybody!”

War was inevitable. The Magaddino faction struck first, snatching Joe Bonanno off a Manhattan street. “MOB KIDNAPS JOE BANANAS--CALL HIM DEAD,” shouted one headline after the Oct. 20, 1964 incident.

Bonanno was secretly taken to an upstate farmhouse to meet with Magaddino. He was released after six weeks, then stayed clear of family infighting.

With his father gone, Bill Bonanno was invited to a Brooklyn peace talk with DiGregorio. He arrived at the January 1966 meeting only to hear that his dad’s old associate, DiGregorio, couldn’t make it.

Bonanno prepared to leave. Outside, machine-gun toting assassins prepared to open fire once he did.


NEXT WEEK: A new generation tries to hold the family together.