Updated news on the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Lucchese and Colombo Organized Crime Families of New York City.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Jerry Capeci stands alone in his coverage of the New York Mafia

When Jerry Capeci walks into a courtroom, Mafia defense attorneys and prosecutors alike smile, slap his back, reminisce.
"You're making some friends in the jails," joked a onetime lawyer for John A. Gotti, known as "Junior," a former head of the Gambino crime family, as he slid into a seat near Capeci. "They're saying you're taking a more anti-government approach. You've turned."
In fact, for 20 years, Capeci's "Gang Land" column on the Mafia has given space to both those breaking the law and those enforcing it, offering a mix of exclusive interviews, prescient analysis and juicy details of Mob rubouts. The column started in 1989 in the New York Daily News, where it ran until 1996, when Capeci took it online. It also ran in the New York Sun for five years until 2007, when Capeci quit in a salary dispute shortly before the newspaper folded.
These days, both the Mob and Capeci seem like survivors of a previous New York, a more chaotic, less professionalized place, where Mafia bosses ruled their own bits of the city, and reporters for eight daily newspapers pounded the pavement in hot pursuit of wrongdoing. Colleagues describe Capeci as an old-time New York City newsman in an industry that's going extinct.
Well, don't write the career obit just yet.
Last year, Capeci took the innovative step of making his Web-only column subscription-based, charging $5 a month at a time when he had 50,000 to 60,000 unique visitors per week on his site. "I'm doing well enough to make a living," he said, unwilling to divulge details. Yet at a time when newspapers are trying to figure out ways to charge for content on the Web, Capeci could be seen as something of a small-scale trailblazer.
His stories are frequently picked up by the Huffington Post news aggregator, which in this new world of journalism has become emblematic of impact.
"I print his column every Thursday for my assistants to read," said Gerard Brave, chief of the organized crime and rackets bureau in the Queens District Attorney's Office.
"I have mailed his column to my clients in prison," said Seth Ginsberg, who has served as a defense lawyer for various organized crime figures.
Capeci appeared as himself on HBO's "The Sopranos," and gave the show's writers pointers on Mob etiquette and history. "It was like writing about fish and having Jacques Cousteau available," said Terence Winter, a writer and executive producer. "His knowledge about the gangster world goes back to the first caveman who tried to extort another guy."
More than a Mob gossip, Capeci, 65, has sources everywhere: underworld associates, victims, witnesses, prosecutors, FBI agents, cops and private investigators. Still, fully inducted mobsters must take a vow of omerta, and promise not to reveal the secrets of La Cosa Nostra. Capeci said he has had only two sources who are "real live, true-blue gangsters" who didn't flip. He often relies instead on documents and trials.
His work requires close knowledge of the complex geneaologies of Mafia families and instant recall stretching deep into their history of brutal crime, meaning he's the one approached at parties to answer trivia questions.
Who assassinated Mafia boss Albert Anastasia in a barber chair at the Park Sheraton Hotel in 1957? Capeci broke that story nearly 44 years after the fact. (It was a three-man hit team for Carlo Gambino, who took over the crime family when Anastasia hit the floor.)
Who killed John Favara in 1980 after he ran over neighbor John J. Gotti's 12-year-old son in a tragic car accident? Capeci broke that story, too. (Eight members of Gotti's crew killed Favara as he pleaded for his life, then put the body in a barrel, filled it with cement and sunk it in the Atlantic.)
In 1994, Capeci broke the story of the two New York Police Department detectives who took part in gangland slayings for a fee, sometimes using their badges to find victims. It took 11 years for investigators to gather enough evidence to press charges, but eventually, the detectives were convicted.
Capeci talks intimately about people with names like "Tommy Sneakers," "Mikey Scars," "Bobby the Jew" and "The Greaseball." Tom Robbins, a reporter at the Village Voice, met Capeci when they both worked at the Daily News. Robbins recalled asking Capeci for background on a minor Mob affiliate known as "Benny the Bump."
"Jerry said, 'I haven't heard of him, but anyone nicknamed "Benny the Bump" can't be all bad.' "
"He knew more about the five organized crime families in New York than I probably ever will," said Mitra Hormozi, who served as the chief of the organized crime unit in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn.
"I remember looking at his stories, and thinking, 'How does he get the information?' said Michael Campi, now retired from the FBI, where he worked for 30 years, mainly in New York's organized crime division. "From attorneys? From people on the street? Did he grow up in those neighborhoods?"
Actually, Capeci grew up in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, where Mafia men were a presence on the streets, in the bowling alleys and in the pool halls. The son of a cabdriver father and a mother who held various jobs, he never finished college. But in 1966, he started as a copy boy with the New York Post. He soon became a reporter covering cops and courts.
In 1976, Capeci was sent to cover the funeral of Mafia boss Carlo Gambino. Reporters were barred from the church, but Capeci knew the building and walked into a side entrance. He introduced himself to the priest, sat down in a pew and exited after the service only to be interviewed by other journalists. A Mafia expert was born.
In the 1980s, as Gambino crime family boss John Gotti became a household name, Capeci, then at the Daily News, was assigned exclusively to the Mob. A special intrigue surrounded Gotti, "the Teflon Don," who twice won acquittals on federal charges (once, by buying a juror) and saw another case dismissed before finally being convicted.
Of course, covering the violent, vengeful Gotti did not come without risk.
"Why don't you punch him in the [expletive] mouth?" Gotti said during a wiretapped conversation that was played at his 1992 murder trial, speaking of Capeci. "Make an appointment, I'll punch him in the [expletive] mouth for you, that rat [expletive]."
Capeci dismisses such talk and said law enforcement delivers more serious threats: In retaliation for exposing aspects of investigations, some officials have instructed subordinates to stop speaking to him, he said.
Still, pretty much no one questions his integrity, and most everyone calls him fair. Even Junior, Gotti's son, respects Capeci's column, said his lawyer, Charles Carnesi, though "he's not necessarily a fan."
The mother of imprisoned gangster James "Froggy" Galione once called Capeci in a panic and asked him to put out the word that her son had been wrongly accused of cooperating with federal investigators, Capeci said. He made some calls, found no evidence that Galione had turned, and published a column titled "Mom: My Son Is Not a Rat."
Lawyers to the Mob say it's well known that prosecutors leak news to Capeci, and so they read his column like a crystal ball in an effort to tell the future. Meanwhile, prosecutors say the column is valuable for telling them the latest word on the street.
Capeci is uncomfortable talking about his professional influence. He and his wife, Barbara, a high school science teacher, have three children -- a chemical engineer, an orthopedic surgeon and a human rights activist -- and he likes to spend time with his three grandchildren on the beach.
Capeci acknowledges that his column has outlasted many of those he set out to cover. John Gotti is dead. Junior Gotti is in prison. The clout of the Mafia has faded.
Still, the five families persevere, Capeci said. "One of them, the Bonannos, have been really battered and bruised and beaten up, and their boss became a cooperating witness. But all five families still have some sort of structure, and are trying their best to maintain the rackets they have and move on to more things."
And he writes about it.


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