A Simple Queens Caterer, or 'Big Joey' the Mob Killer?

Times Staff Writer

As crime bosses go, Joseph Massino has been strictly old school, a wiseguy more wary than wild in a city that turns reputed mob leaders into celebrities.

Unlike John Gotti, who loved fancy clothes, flashy cars and media attention, the alleged head of the Bonanno crime family has long shunned the spotlight. But as Massino prepares to stand trial this month on seven murder charges -- a case that is being billed as one of New York's great mob trials -- notoriety is about to engulf him.

Big Joey, as he is known, has been called the Last Don, the only leader of one of New York's five crime families not to have been sent away to prison. Prosecutors are eager to bring him down, hoping to strike a major blow against organized crime.

"The Bonanno family is reeling," said Pasquale J. D'Amuro, who spent four years directing an FBI probe of Massino and others, resulting in the indictment of 27 members. "Today, to say it has an organized structure is to give it too much credit."

To many observers, a conviction in this trial -- as well as in a separate murder case that might lead to a death sentence for Massino -- could end a notorious chapter in Mafia history. His rise and fall is a classic tale of old-style mob values colliding with modern realities, according to federal court records, FBI reports and knowledgeable observers.

"He's the last of the old-time gangsters, and he's had a 10-year run at the top of a legendary crime organization," said Jerry Capeci, an expert on the mob and author of "Gang Land," a weekly column in the New York Sun. "But now the end is in sight, because prosecutors are more powerful than ever and the Mafia itself has changed greatly."

Once a dominant force in the criminal underworld, members of the Bonanno, Gambino, Luchese, Colombo and Genovese crime organizations have seen their power slipping over the last 40 years. They no longer have the control over labor unions and politicians that they once enjoyed, and criminal organizations run by other ethnic groups -- from Russia, China, Colombia, Jamaica and elsewhere -- have gained more influence over a range of illegal activities, said Ronald Goldstock, former head of the New York State Task Force on Organized Crime.

Despite this decline, he said, America's cultural fascination with the New York families continues to echo in movies, novels and TV. And Massino's saga, filled with murder, mayhem and manicotti, has no shortage of Hollywood angles.

In 1976, for example, FBI agent Donnie Brasco -- whose real name is Joseph Pistone -- infiltrated the Bonanno crime family. He spent six years gathering crucial information from unsuspecting mobsters, and when he finally revealed himself, the federal agent helped put more than 120 members of the Mafia in jail.

The movie based on his exploits was a hit, yet Pistone's testimony failed to get Massino and other family members convicted on murder charges. Some observers call the coming trial "Donnie Brasco II" -- an effort to complete unfinished business.

Others say the prosecution is a mean-spirited vendetta that is bound to fail.

"Massino is an innocent man being hounded by liars," says his attorney, David Breitbart. "This whole case is built on phony evidence, and it adds up to nothing."

Like many of his peers, Massino, 61, respected the importance of omerta, or silence, when he became a family member. This meant refusing to cooperate with prosecutors and giving information in exchange for a lesser sentence. To do so was unthinkable to members of his generation, an act of dishonor that could result in death.

But younger family members today feel no such ties of loyalty. And six of them -- including Massino's brother-in-law -- are expected to offer damning testimony against him on seven mob-related killings and other crimes.

"Look at the number of people who have turned against him [Massino] from his own family," said Pistone. "He's been betrayed by a new, younger generation of Mafia guys who could care less about the traditions of refusing to cooperate with law-enforcement officials. They'll cut a deal for themselves the first chance they get."

Many feel they have no choice, given the powerful tools federal prosecutors have used to weaken the five families in the last 20 years. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act -- known as RICO -- has enabled the government to put the leaders of an entire crime organization on trial instead of a handful of individuals.

As a result, prosecutors have become more aggressive in attempting to seize mob assets, impose tougher federal sentences and conduct more far-reaching electronic surveillance of crime activities. Before the RICO laws took effect in the mid-1980s, many mob criminals typically got two- to five-year sentences for a variety of offenses and served their time quietly, without offering any information to prosecutors, said Robert Castelli, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

"Now, looking at 15- to 20-year sentences under RICO laws, they are more likely to cooperate in return for a more lenient jail penalty," he said. "It's changed the whole cat-and-mouse game for prosecutors, and the results have been spectacular."

In the last 10 years, he noted, most of the high-ranking leaders of New York's traditional crime families have either died or been sentenced to long prison terms.

But the Bonanno organization, long the most secretive of the families, largely escaped this dragnet. In the aftermath of the Brasco probe, federal agents thought the family was in disarray and turned their attention elsewhere. While the FBI focused on Gotti and other high-profile targets, Massino quietly rebuilt the family, observers say.

In the coming trial, Breitbart said he may not contest the fact that Massino runs the organization, suggesting this in itself is not a crime and that prosecutors must prove a variety of criminal charges. Although his client has been held in jail as a flight risk, the lawyer insists the government's case is weak.

"There is no physical evidence that Joe did any of the things that he has been accused of," he said. "What we have here are people [informants] who are facing the death penalty themselves, and in order to walk away unscathed are willing to say that 'Joe made me do it,' or 'Joe gave the order for all of this.' "

Friends hope to show Massino's human side, but they may have their work cut out for them. A gruff, intimidating man who is accused of vicious killings -- one of his alleged victims was hacked into small pieces and stuffed into concrete barrels, Massino insists he is a hard-working food catering executive whose popular Queens Italian restaurant, Casablanca, features good fare, not goodfellas.

On a recent Saturday night, the restaurant was crowded with diners, many of whom appeared to be regulars. They feasted on traditional veal and chicken dishes, pasta entrees and generous helpings of classic desserts, such as sfogliatelle.

The upbeat mood was enlivened by posters and other memorabilia from the movie "Casablanca," including a life-size statue of Humphrey Bogart as Rick. But other decor might strike visitors as bizarre: On one wall, there's a smiling photograph of actor Johnny Depp, who played Brasco in the movie.

Associates say Massino has a humorous side. Once, as Pistone passed him in court during a 1987 trial, he said: "Hey, Donnie, who you got to play me in the movie?" Pistone, who needed protection to guard against death threats, shot back: "You know, Joey, that's the problem. We just can't find anyone as fat as you."

Born Jan. 10, 1943, in New York, Massino drifted into the world of organized crime in the mid-1970s. He became a capo in the Bonanno family when crime boss Carmine Galante was killed in 1979. During a fight for control, Massino sided with a faction headed by the winner, Philip Rastelli, and his clout increased.

Two years later, three rival Bonanno family members who had opposed Rastelli were found slain, and prosecutors have long suspected that Massino and his brother-in-law Salvatore Vitale, were directly involved in the killings. But despite Pistone's testimony against him, the rising young capo was found not guilty.

He was convicted, however, in a 1986 trial on corruption charges involving mob infiltration of the furniture movers' union, and remained in prison until 1992. By then, Rastelli had died, and Massino was chosen to head the family.

During his years in prison, he had time to gauge what had gone wrong with organized crime and he didn't have to look far for examples, one observer said: Gotti's exhibitionism spoke for itself, and one of the legendary leaders of Massino's family, Joe Bonanno, had cooperated in the release of two bestsellers that blew the lid of secrecy off the Mafia.

On his release, Massino closed all of the social clubs where members of the organization gathered, believing them to be ripe targets for federal surveillance. He ordered associates to keep a low profile and avoid mob-linked public events such as funerals. Aware that federal agents might stalk him, Massino conducted meetings in Italy, Mexico and other countries where he knew surveillance would be more difficult, Capeci said.

The strategy seemed to pay off as the Bonanno family grew in numbers and made millions in gambling, loan-sharking, extortion and other ventures, according to federal court documents. Big Joey ran his family according to the old rules, dispensing orders from a table at his restaurant and trying to stay out of the headlines. He lived with his wife, Josephine, in a modest Queens home, not far from Gotti, and was largely unknown to many New Yorkers.

Prosectors failed to capture him on wiretaps, but found weak links in other family members. Vitale, one of the highest Mafia members ever to turn on his leader, is considered a prize catch -- the capstone of "one of the most far-reaching investigations ever conducted into organized crime," said U.S. Atty. Roslynn Mauskopf.

But if Massino gets a life sentence, or the death penalty, no one should expect it to mean the end of organized crime in New York, cautioned Goldstock.

Long after a crime boss goes to prison, he explained, there will still be members of the five families hijacking trucks, selling drugs and running gambling rings. Yet the glue that has long held them together -- a tightly organized command structure built on loyalty and obedience to crime family leaders -- will have further lost its grip.

"For those of us on the outside, it may seem that there is still organized crime out there on the streets," Goldstock said. "But to those on the inside of the Bonanno family, who see the impact of these prosecutions, there will be chaos and disarray."

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