The longtime boss of the infamous Colombo crime family, Carmine "The Snake" Persico, has died at age 85 while serving a 139-year prison sentence.
Persico died Thursday at the Duke University Medical Center, said his attorney, Benson Weintraub. He had been serving what was effectively a life sentence at a federal prison in Butner, N.C.
Persico was among eight defendants convicted in a 1986 prosecution called the "Commission Trial" that was overseen by then-U.S. Atty. Rudolph W. Giuliani. At the time, it was the biggest legal assault on the heads of the Mafia's five families. Persico was convicted of racketeering and murder.
The son of a law firm stenographer and a stay-at-home mother, Persico was a high school dropout who was part of a local street gang.
His first arrest was at 17 in the fatal beating of another youth during a melee in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. When the charges were dropped, he was recruited to the world of organized crime — working in bookmaking and loan-sharking operations. By his mid-20s, Persico was a "made man" in the family headed by Joe Colombo, and worked his way up the hierarchy.
Prosecutors said Persico took over the murderous New York-based Colombo organization in 1973, two years after Colombo was shot and paralyzed.
The commission trial indictment said Persico and his fellow mobsters ran "La Cosa Nostra" in a racketeering pattern that included murders, loan-sharking, labor payoffs and extensive extortion in the concrete industry. Through he wasn't charged in the murders, prosecutors said during the trial that Persico was involved in the legendary assassinations of two other mobsters — Albert Anastasia, the Murder Inc. leader who was killed in a barber's chair in Manhattan in 1957, and Joseph Gallo, who was shot at Umberto's Clam House in Little Italy in 1972.
Persico acted as his own lawyer at the trial, using an aggressive style that often had prosecutors objecting, spectators laughing and the judge pounding his gavel for order, according to a 1986 Associated Press account.
Persico questioned prosecution witness Fred DeChristopher, his cousin by marriage, who admitted turning him in for a $50,000 reward.
When DeChristopher had trouble hearing his mumbled questions, Persico exploded: "Why do you say, 'Pardon me?' You waiting to think of an answer or something?"
Persico’s stint as a self-made legal expert was ultimately in vain.
At the sentencing, U.S. District Judge John F. Keenan suggested that Persico could have been a great man, if he'd chosen another calling.