It was Christmastime on the icy shores of New Jersey, and “The Bull,” a heavy in the Genovese crime family, was looking for his holiday bonus, authorities said. Longshoremen knew better than to argue when “The Bull” came calling, because nobody who wanted to live argued with the mob.
If they did, they might end up like the two men in the Shamrock Bar in Queens: shot dead after quarreling with a mobster over a spilled drink.
On Thursday, law enforcement officials announced the arrests of the alleged perpetrators of the Christmas shakedowns and the Shamrock Bar killer, along with more than 100 other suspected organized crime members in the biggest mob bust in recent history.
U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. came to Brooklyn -- where 12 of the 16 indictments were unsealed -- to announce the operation. The details seemed ripped from the pages of Prohibition-era tabloids: men with nicknames like “Lumpy,” “Mush,” “The Claw,” “Jello,” “Meatball” and “Jack the Whack”; and allegations of extortionate extensions of credit to gamblers in a mob-organized baccarat game and beatings to force debtors to repay loan sharks.
For all the official crowing over the huge roundup, the case also underscored the futility of federal efforts to wipe out the mob. The ethnic Italian Mafia, which seemed to have receded in public profile save for “The Sopranos” and “Godfather” reruns, nevertheless remains a “major threat,” Holder said.
Janice Fedarcyk, head of the New York FBI office, said that even as law enforcement arrests bosses and underbosses, there are always others coming up through the ranks. “Just as the retirement or resignation of a corporate CEO does not spell the end of the company, neither does the incarceration of a mob boss or other key executive mean the dissolution of their family,” she said.
Holder said 800 agents and officers from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and local police made the arrests in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Florida, and that one man was arrested in Italy. He described some of the crimes as “classic mob hits” to get rid of perceived rivals, and some as standard mob activities such as racketeering and illegal gambling.
“Others involve truly senseless murders,” Holder said, referring to the 1981 shooting at the Shamrock Bar in the New York borough of Queens.
Of the 127 charged, 110 were in custody early Thursday, many of them having been surprised at home. Fedarcyk said none put up resistance, and as they shuffled, handcuffed, into a processing center in Brooklyn under the glare of TV cameras, bellies sagging over wrinkled jeans and sweat pants, they bore little resemblance to the intimidating characters described in court papers.
The raids targeted the major East Coast crime families: Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Decavalcante and Luchese, in addition to the New England Cosa Nostra. Collectively, they are known as the Mafia and are an offshoot of the Italian Mafia, having emerged in the United States from the flood of Italian immigrants in the early 1900s. Over the decades, prosecutors say, the families have sought to control a variety of illegal activities, such as drug trafficking, as well as corrupting legitimate industries, such as construction. Bosses set the rules, which associates and foot soldiers obey under penalty of death, or at least a good beating.
“The Bull” is Albert Cernadas, described in court papers as an associate of the Genovese crime family and a Longshoremen’s Assn. local union leader who used his position to shake down members for their Christmas bonuses.
According to the indictment, Cernadas and other Genovese associates who also worked the docks demanded anything from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars from colleagues each holiday season to bolster Genovese family coffers.
Those who resisted were threatened with violence or the loss of their jobs, according to court documents, which say the shakedowns had been going on since 1982.
“Simply put, these defendants preyed upon their co-workers’ vulnerability and fear for their physical safety and job security,” the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey said in court documents.
The Shamrock Bar killings occurred in 1981, but prosecutors say they have witnesses to the altercation, which they say began when a young Gambino family associate became enraged after someone spilled a drink on his suit. He was thrown out of the bar, but he is accused of returning with two friends who opened fire on the bar’s owners, killing both.
Bartolomeo Vernace, a Gambino leader charged in that case, was acquitted on state charges in the case in 2002, but officials said the federal case is stronger and includes a witness who will testify that Vernace, also known as “Pepe,” was one of the gunmen.
Fedarcyk said the FBI “used every tool” in their toolbox during the investigation, including informants and secretly recorded tapes, some of which were featured in the thousands of pages of court documents that accompanied Thursday’s announcement.
“You’ve been watching ... too many movies,” a debt collector for Vernace tells someone identified as John Doe, who is worried for his safety after falling behind on repaying a $70,000 loan.
“I’m, uh, I, you know. I’m afraid I’m going to get hurt,” John Doe tells the collector, who at times laughs off his worries but also warns him that if he does not pay back the loan, his creditors could either walk away and lose the money, “or ... kill you. That’s the bottom line.”
In another transcript, an alleged Gambino associate named Anthony Scibelli, charged with extortion and racketeering, expresses astonishment that someone has tried to cross the mob. “Are you kidding? What do they think -- that this is make-believe?”
In addition to recordings, Fedarcyk said informants were key to many of the cases. “The vow of silence is more myth than reality today,” she said, referring to insiders who turned on their mob associates in violation of one of the cardinal rules of organized crime.
Fedarcyk said the arrests had made a “serious dent” in mob activity, and she and Holder said the goal remained to eradicate organized crime. “How much time that is going to take, I can’t predict, but that is certainly the goal that we have,” Holder said.
But David Shapiro, an assistant professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal justice and a former FBI agent and prosecutor, said it was too soon to know whether the latest arrests would seriously undermine the major mob groups.
“You have a disparate group of individuals that are lumped under organized crime arrests ... and you list the big-name families,” he said. “But what does it mean? Are these guys the brains behind us paying more money for things we get? I’m not sure.”
Len Levitt, a former longtime police reporter who has written extensively on the mob, said the fact that none of the suspects was well-known outside of mob circles may be a sign “the mob is not what it used to be. The mob keeps coming back despite all these arrests. Yet at the same time nobody who knows who these guys are,” he said, contrasting them with such notorious past bosses as Carlo Gambino and John Gotti.
Levitt attributed that in part to competition from new organized crime gangs from Asia, Mexico and elsewhere. “They just don’t have the same monopoly,” he said of the Italian mobster families.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, in a veiled jab at movies and TV shows that cast mobsters in a likeable light, said the charges involving the dockworkers in particular showed the reality.
“Actual longshoremen in this case, with real mortgages and real families, were forced to kick back to corrupt officials ... between $500 and $5,000 each from their annual Christmas bonus if they hoped to rise above entry-level jobs,” he said. “For Hollywood, the mob is just good material for the big screen. But in real life, the mob commits real murder and actual extortion.”
Times staff writer Geraldine Baum in New York contributed to this report.