The Genovese Family is the most powerful of the Five Families that formed independently out of the underbelly of the many thousands of Italian immigrants who flocked to the new world around the turn of the twentieth century. It's often called the Ivy League of Organized Crime.
Its boss in 1931, the same year the Mafia Commission was created, was Joseph (Joe the Boss) Masseria, (left) who rose from the ranks and took over as leader in the early 1920s the usual way – killing off his rivals. In the late 1920s, particularly after he orchestrated the October 11, 1928 murder of Salvatore D’Aquila, the leader of what we know as the Gambino Family, Masseria was recognized by Cosa Nostra leaders as the ultimate arbitrator of all major decisions that cut across family lines. Masseria enjoyed this prestige and didn't hesitate to flex his muscle at the least opportunity. For all intents and purposes, he was the boss of bosses of the era.
Masseria, who had success sending one of his powerful soldiers from Brooklyn, Al Capone, to Chicago to help strongman Johnny Torrio take control of that city, spread himself too thin, however, and he ultimately had fatal trouble at home.
His demise came from within, at the hands of an ambitious capo, Salvatore Lucania, better known as Lucky Luciano. Charlie Lucky arranged Masseria’s killing at an Italian restaurant in Coney Island, and easily assumed control of the family.
Luciano, who is credited by most as the brains and driving force behind the formation of the Commission, the supreme Mafia ruling body in 1931, ruled for only a few years. By the mid 1930’s, Charlie Lucky was a household name, much to his regret. He became an important target of famous rackets buster, Thomas Dewey. In 1936, he was convicted of organizing a prostitution racket and was sentenced to 30 to 50 years.
Despite numerous appeals and a consensus that the sentence was outrageously harsh, Luciano (right) languished in prison until February of 1946, when he was released and deported to Italy, winning an early parole for cooperating with a naval intelligence effort to prevent sabotage on the New York waterfront during World War II. In 1947, Luciano traveled to Cuba and met with leading Cosa Nostra figures. American government pressure forced his return to Italy, however. Despite repeated rumors that he was involved in the heroin trade, nothing was ever proven. He died in 1962.
Luciano’s underboss, Vito Genovese, the logical successor, was facing a murder inquiry, however, and fled to Italy at about the same time that Luciano was incarcerated. Capo Frank Costello took over, first as acting boss and then later as official boss when it became clear that Luciano’s appeals of his conviction would fail and he would never be able to retake the reins. Costello ran a low-key operation, solidifying political and union connections to protect and enable a wide range of rackets from New York to Las Vegas, earning himself the title of the "Prime Minister of Organized Crime.”
After World War II, the murder case against Genovese fell apart. He returned to New York and chafed under Costello's leadership and plotted to take over. By 1957, Genovese felt he had enough support and made his move. He entrusted a former boxer and drug dealer who was then an up-and-coming wiseguy to “hit” Costello. The gunman, Vincent (Chin) Gigante, only wounded Costello, (left) but he promptly stepped down. Unfortunately for Genovese, just two years later, he was convicted of narcotics conspiracy and was given a 15-year sentence.
Four months after Don Vitone arrived at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, family soldier Joseph (Joe Cago) Valachi for there courtesy of his own 15-year-sentence for heroin trafficking. When Valachi got there, he got a frosty reception from his boss.
This was two years before Valachi would become the first American mobster to publicly break his vow of omerta, but Genovese already looked on him as a traitor – for dealing drugs for a crew whose capo, Anthony (Tony Bender) Strollo, was not sharing his profits with the boss.
In March of 1962, after Valachi was convicted in a second drug case, and sentenced to 20 years, he went back to Atlanta accompanied by rumors that he was an informer. And Genovese believed them.
Valachi began to fear for his life. He had himself placed in solitary confinement, but was returned to general population when he refused to reveal the reason for his request. Finally, on June 22, 1962, Joe Cago’s nerves cracked. He bludgeoned to death an inmate who resembled drug dealer Joseph (Joe Beck) DiPalermo, a man Valachi thought Genovese had commissioned to kill him.
A few weeks later, after then–Manhattan U.S. attorney Robert Morgenthau was contacted, Valachi agreed to cooperate in return for protection. On July 17, he pleaded guilty to murder and was transferred to New York.
On September 8, 1962, FBI agent James Flynn coaxed Valachi into spilling his guts about his life in the mob.
“Joe, let’s stop fooling around,” said Flynn, according to the account by Peter Maas in The Valachi Papers. “I want to talk about the organization by name, rank, and serial number. What’s the name? Is it Mafia?”
“No, it’s not Mafia,” said Valachi. “That's the expression the outside uses.”
“We know a lot more than you think,” said Flynn, who had a wealth of information on La Cosa Nostra from the FBI’s many illegal bugs and informants they had cultivated. “Now I’ll give you the first part. You give me the rest. It’s Cosa!”
“Cosa Nostra! So you know about it,” said Valachi, after staring blankly at Flynn for nearly a minute.
After Flynn turned him on, Valachi was never turned off. He filled in many gaps about the knowledge of the Mafia. His accounts complemented thousands of hours of bugged talks the FBI had heard the previous three years. He detailed the family structure and the role of the Commission. He gave excellent estimates of the sizes of the Genovese and Gambino families and others he knew about. He described the induction ceremony and the rules they lived by and died for. He detailed murders of bosses going back three decades and gave insight about many significant events.
In addition, Valachi was a great public relations tool. In September and October of 1963, he appeared before a nationally televised session of the McClellan Committee. Through his public testimony, authorities were able to describe the structure, personalities, and rackets of Cosa Nostra. He was a real-life gangster who put flesh and bones on an organization that, until then, many claimed was merely a rumor and gossip in newspaper and magazine stories. His appearance was a bombshell and made the Mafia big news.
Five decades later, it still is.
Valachi died in 1971 in a federal prison in El Paso, Texas, two years after the Genovese (left) bit the dust behind bars.
Even with the Valachi breakthrough, the Genovese family managed to keep the identity of its real boss a secret, often even from the leaders of the other four families, for the next decade.
Philip (Benny Squint) Lombardo headed the family from 1969 until his death in 1981, but a series of “up front” bosses – Thomas (Tommy Ryan) Eboli, Frank (Funzi) Tieri, and Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno – dealt with the other families and were carried in FBI files as family boss. Salerno was convicted as the family boss in the historic Commission case and was sentenced to 100 years in 1987.
In reality, however, Gigante took over as boss shortly after Lombardo’s death and remained the family’s official boss until his death in a federal prison hospital in 2005, as he served back-to-back sentences for racketeering and obstruction of justice that were scheduled to end in 2010.
Vincent (Fish) Cafaro, the second family turncoat, was the first to clear up the identities of the real family bosses after the Genovese’s death. Like Joe Cago, Fish decided to cooperate while he was in prison. His reasons were not quite as dramatic.
During a jailhouse argument about money, Salerno, his mentor of more than 30 years, threatened to hit Cafaro with his cane. Cafaro felt that to be an insult, and reached out to the feds and became the second family turncoat.
Essentially, the identity of the “real” boss is academic. All of the named mobsters played leading roles in the family. They controlled the Fulton Fish Market, the San Gennaro Festival, the Javits Convention Center, the New York, New Jersey and Miami docks, large gambling rings, and a major portion of the labor racketeering activities in Manhattan and parts of New Jersey, along with a host of other illegal enterprises.
For 30 years, Gigante (right) avoided trial by pretending to be mentally ill. He would often walk through Greenwich Village in slippers and a bathrobe, muttering to himself. Following his 1990 arrest on a racketeering indictment, he played his crazy act to the hilt, and avoided trial until mid-1997. But the game ended, and he was convicted of racketeering, and lived the rest of his life in prison.
Even though Gigante’s Oddfather routine was anything but a traditional modus operandi for a mob boss, he did view one Mafia Commission rule as most important, and punishable by death – the murder of a mob boss.
Along with leaders of the Luchese family, Gigante wanted John Gotti to pay the ultimate price for killing Paul Castellano, and according to Luchese turncoats Alphonse (Little Al) D’Arco and Anthony (Gaspipe) Casso, Chin was part of a years-long plot to whack the Dapper Don. Casso claims to have been on the scene in April 1986, when Gotti’s first underboss, Frank DeCicco, was blown up in a Sunday ambush that had been planned to get both DeCicco and Gotti. Gigante was looking to install Gambino capos Jimmy Brown Failla and Daniel Marino in place of them, but Gotti, a late riser, thwarted that plan by deciding to meet up with his underboss later in the day.
The Genovese Family has lost major sources of income since the feds began an all out assault on the mob in the early 1980s. And convictions of Gigante and others, including underboss Venero (Benny Eggs) Mangano, and acting bosses Dominick (Quiet Dom) Cirillo, Ernest Muscarella, Lawrence (Little Larry) Dentico, have also hurt. Daniel (The Lion) Leo, a powerful, low-key capo who rose to acting boss after Gigante’s death, was convicted of racketeering in 2007, and won’t get out of prison for about five years.
But the family's structure is solid and still in place.
Liborio (Barney) Bellomo, (left) a capo Gigante tabbed as acting boss when Chin was indicted in 1990, has been hit with racketeering charges three times since 1996. Even so, he was released from prison in 2009, at age 52, and is a force to be reckoned with.
Capo Tino Fiumara, a feared New Jersey-based wiseguy with power and influence on the family’s waterfront rackets on the New York and New Jersey piers, is viewed as a viable contender for the family's top spot. Fiumara, (right) whose ability to meet with mobsters has been curtailed by post-prison restrictions following his most recent stay behind bars, was expected to start flexing his mob muscles when his supervised release restrictions ended in January, 2008, and he did. His push ended two years later however, when he died of cancer.
With a membership of nearly 250 members, the Genovese family is still the largest and most powerful family in the New York area, and arguably the entire country. – research furnished by Andy Petepiece