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

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Phillip Carlo, True Crime Author, Fights Lou Gehrig's Disease

FOR nearly a year starting in July 2004, Philip Carlo traveled some 50 times to the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton and sat knee to knee with Richard Kuklinski, interviewing him about the more than 200 victims he claimed to have shot, knifed, bludgeoned, poisoned or fed to giant rats.

Mr. Carlo, perhaps the dean of true-crime horror writers and the sometime muse of Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro, was drawn to Mr. Kuklinski, a coldly detached Mafia killer known as the Iceman, for a book now heading to the big screen starring Mr. Rourke.

“I could kill you,” the subject reminded the author at one of the jailhouse sit-downs.

“I’m not that easy to kill,” Mr. Carlo ventured. “I’m fast.”

Mr. Kuklinski brought down a huge fist, stopping just short of the writer’s knee. “I just broke your leg,” he said. “You’re not that fast.”

Mr. Carlo, a bullet-domed Brooklynite who grew up surrounded by criminal intrigue, has built his career profiling serial killers, psychopathic crime lords, Mafia hit men and sexual predators. His “Night Stalker” (1996) featured Richard Ramirez, the satanic mass murderer whose rampage of rape and killing terrorized Los Angeles in 1984 and 1985. Next was Mr. Kuklinski, a Gambino family associate who killed for the first time at age 13. Then, last year, came “Gaspipe,” about Anthony Casso, the sadistic ex-boss of the Luchese family. And in September Mr. Carlo published “The Butcher,” about Thomas Pitera, known as Tommy Karate, a Bonanno family hit man who relished chopping people up.

“He works on the dark side,” said Tony Danza, another actor friend of Mr. Carlo.

Mr. Carlo, 60, matches immersion-reporting with authentic street cred. He grew up in Bensonhurst, which he has called a graduate school for the Mafia; Mr. Casso, the subject of nonfiction book No. 3, was once a neighbor. The combination has earned him respect among fellow crime writers like Nicholas Pileggi, whose books became the Scorsese films “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” “I just grab everything he writes,” Mr. Pileggi said of Mr. Carlo.

But after 28 years of stalking killers, the tables have turned on Mr. Carlo. Death is now stalking him.

Nearly five years ago, he was stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the almost invariably fatal motor neuron disease that felled Lou Gehrig, the jazz bassist Charles Mingus and Morrie Schwartz, the teacher in Mitch Albom’s best seller “Tuesdays with Morrie.” Stephen W. Hawking, the British physicist who has lived almost 40 years with the condition, is a notable exception.

“The worst disease of modern times has got me by the throat,” said Mr. Carlo, who uses a motorized wheelchair and breathes through a hose that forces pressurized air into his lungs. “I can’t brush my own teeth. I can’t feed myself.”

But he continues to work on a new book, a memoir, writing the words in his head and dictating them to an assistant at a laptop. “I have a deadline,” he said. “My own death.”

“PICK me up at the corner,” shouted Mr. Carlo one day in late October, hitting his wheelchair accelerator and whizzing down the sidewalk near his Upper West Side brownstone. When he reached West End Avenue, his white Chevrolet van was waiting at the curb cut.

Mr. Carlo’s wife, Laura, a slim blond woman of 35, hopped out, opened the rear doors and unfolded a ramp.

“Ready?” she asked.

“Ready,” he said, propelling the chair inside. Ms. Carlo strapped him in and slid behind the wheel.

“I’m the chauffeur,” said Ms. Carlo cheerily. “I’m driving Miss Daisy.”

The two met in August 2006, through the Mafia, of course. Mr. Carlo was doing a radio show and mentioned that one of his childhood friends, Manny Garofalo, had a brother, Eddie, who had been killed on orders of the Gambino underboss Salvatore Gravano, known as Sammy the Bull.

Someone listening called Manny, and the two Brooklyn buddies reunited, along with Manny’s niece, Eddie’s daughter, Laura Garofalo.

Love bloomed. Mr. Carlo, whose A.L.S. had been diagnosed 10 months earlier, did not at first tell her the truth about why he was limping. “He told me it was a torn kneecap,” she recalled. But that October he broke the news. “This is what I have,” he said, “but don’t look it up.”

She eventually did. “The first thing I read is that it’s fatal,” Ms. Carlo said. She learned everything she could about the disease, but stuck around anyhow. By late 2007, Mr. Carlo was in and out of a wheelchair. That December, they were married by the city clerk.

Heading downtown in the van for lunch, Mr. Carlo took the breathing tube out of his mouth to speak. “To sleep, I have to wear a mask,” he said. “I look like an octopus. It’s not very good for my love life.”

But he sleeps dreamlessly, sometimes waking up confused. “I don’t know where I am,” he said. “There’s this blond girl standing over me. I ask who she is and she says, ‘I’m your worst nightmare.’ ” He guffawed.

“Laura, make your turn,” he commanded.

“I’m going to pull in front, Phil,” she said, cheerfully resigned to his back-seat driving.

At the restaurant, Beppe, on East 22nd Street, Valerie Estess was waiting. As chronicled in a documentary broadcast on HBO in 2004, Ms. Estess’s sister Jenifer died from A.L.S. at age 40, after six years fighting the disease. Valerie Estess and another sister, Meredith, have raised $53 million for Project A.L.S., a nonprofit group Jenifer founded to finance research.

“In all honesty, I’m counting on Valerie to save me,” Mr. Carlo said.

“No pressure,” she said. “Sorry I missed the book party. He’s writing them faster than we can read them.”

A latecomer arrived — Mr. Carlo’s amanuensis, Kelsey Osgood, 25, a Columbia graduate from Brooklyn who has assisted him on two previous books. When he is writing, they often work side by side from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. At the restaurant, she flipped open a MacBook laptop as soon as she sat down at the table, ready to take notes.

“She can type faster than I can talk,” Mr. Carlo said. “She’s staring at me, waiting for another sentence, and I’m rummaging around my memory, almost like I’m talking to myself.”

THE urge to write, Mr. Carlo said, came on him abruptly in the late 1970’s when he was in his 20s and owned an apartment-rental business on Central Park West. He was healthy then, addicted to biking and running seven miles a day.

“I wanted to write about crime,” he said. “I felt I had a personal innate understanding.”

In Bensonhurst, Mr. Carlo’s father imported and exported bristle for brushes — “a legitimate guy,” Mr. Carlo said — but mobsters were everywhere. It was the kind of place where Mary’s, a neighborhood restaurant, would shut down when Carlo Gambino came to dine. Where, as a boy, Phil Carlo would pass mob soldiers milling outside their window-darkened social clubs, and went to school with baby mobsters who were picked up by fathers dressed in sharp silk suits. At 13, he often saw Paul Castellano, the mobster gunned down in 1985 on orders from John J. Gotti, working in his family’s butcher shop; later, Mr. Carlo dated Mr. Castellano’s granddaughter.

After Mr. Casso, then a rising enforcer for the Genovese family, married and moved in next door to the Carlos, the two families grew close, sharing Sunday dinners and vacations. Mr. Carlo’s sister, Doreen, became the Cassos’ favorite baby sitter.

“We knew Anthony was connected, but in that neighborhood it was not an oddity — it was almost the norm,” Mr. Carlo recalled. “I grew up thinking that being in the mob was a good thing — you got respect.”

That changed when he was about 15 and saw a buddy shot to death on the street after he had assaulted a Colombo captain. “There was a thick snake of blood,” Mr. Carlo recalled, with writerly vividness. “It looked like his lifeblood was crawling out of him.”

Suddenly the underworld did not seem so romantic. Mr. Carlo was in a gang, the 24th Avenue Boys, and one day in a rumble he was shot in the head, somehow escaping with little more than a scar over his left eye.

Dyslexic, with a checkered high school record (he would later spend a year in community college), he found solace in reading, sliding his fingers slowly over the words. He grew his hair long and moved to Manhattan, supporting himself, he acknowledged ruefully, by selling marijuana. He graduated to real estate and, in 1976, bought his brownstone in the West 80s, between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue, for $80,000.

Then he began to write. Rather than rely on the shock value of his story lines, Mr. Carlo sought to infuse his prose with soul. As he put it: “A lot of what occurs in writing is between the lines. It is not the lines.”

He got the idea for his first book when he was hospitalized at Bellevue with an infection and a woman was murdered there. He spun it into a thriller about a killer loose in the wards. He collected 125 rejection letters and shelved it forever.

Disillusioned, he decamped for Europe, where, in Amsterdam, he said he was shocked to see children performing sex shows in shop windows as police officers stood by. He studied the sex trafficking of children and, in a sidewalk cafe in Ibiza, scrawled out another novel, this time about the kidnapping of a American girl in Pompeii by a child pornography ring. After 10 rejections, Dutton published it as “Stolen Flower” in 1986. Universal optioned the book for Mr. De Niro, and the two men spent weeks scouting movie locations. Five scripts later, the project languished. But Mr. Carlo became a frequent television guest and lecturer on the sex trade.

After Mr. Ramirez, the Night Stalker, was convicted in 1989 of 43 crimes, including 13 murders, Mr. Carlo wrote him on death row, seeking material for a novel about a serial killer. A correspondence blossomed, and the novel turned into nonfiction. Mr. Carlo’s 1996 chronicle of Mr. Ramirez’s troubled early life and brutal crimes drew strong reviews — Publishers Weekly called it “exceptionally well-told” — and has gone through 23 printings.

Then in December 2001, after seeing an HBO documentary about Mr. Kuklinski, Mr. Carlo embarked on 240 hours of interviews with him at the prison in Trenton. Mr. Kuklinski recounted his many deadly assignments, including, Mr. Carlo later wrote, participating in the murders of Mr. Castellano, Carmine Galante and the Teamsters president James R. Hoffa.

“I met a gentle giant who gleefully killed people,” Mr. Carlo said. “He turned out to be a severely abused child. He saw his brother beaten to death by his father. I knew I had hit gold.”

But while he seeks to find the humanity in even the most monstrous of men, Mr. Carlo does not shy from recounting the gruesome details. In “The Night Stalker,” he tells how Mr. Ramirez suffered from undiagnosed epilepsy as a boy and fell under the sway of a disturbed cousin — but also recreates a ghastly scene in which Mr. Ramirez tried to cut out a woman’s heart and then removed her eyes, saving them in a jewelry box. In “The Ice Man,” Mr. Kuklinski warns his beloved eldest daughter that she, too, might become his victim: “You’ll be the hardest to kill, you understand?”

Mr. Carlo’s literary agent, Matt Bialer, recalled his client’s immediate excitement on meeting the Iceman. “He said, ‘Does anyone realize what a monster he is?’ ”

Mr. Kuklinski died in prison in 2006 without seeing the book. Barbara Kuklinski, his widow, who suffered her own abuse at her husband’s hands, said he came to deeply trust Mr. Carlo, as did she. “He never lies to you,” she said.

ON his path to success, Mr. Carlo has hit some bumps. While writing “The Night Stalker” in 1994, he encountered a deliveryman leaving menus in his building in defiance of a no-menu sign. A fistfight ensued, and Mr. Carlo ended up convicted of misdemeanor assault and spent 60 days in Rikers Island. “It was a crazy, ridiculous incident,” he said.

The year before, he was fixing a second-floor window in his brownstone when he tumbled out, shattering bones in both feet.

And after “Gaspipe” came out, its protagonist, Mr. Casso, who is serving multiple life sentences in prison, added Mr. Carlo to his enemies list, claiming the author owed him money from the book. Mr. Carlo said he never agreed to split profits with the mobster and was not intimidated. “I got A.L.S.,” he said. “What are they going to do to me?”

The grim sentence announced itself without warning on a winter afternoon in 2005. “I was coming back from an interview with the Iceman,” Mr. Carlo recalled. “I was walking through Penn Station. My left foot was flapping. I thought I had strained myself from running. I stopped for a day or two, but it didn’t help.”

He consulted a chiropractor, to no effect. That summer on Mykonos, the Greek island where he had gone to write, he tried to run his usual seven miles but had to stop, winded. Back in New York in the fall, a doctor ordered tests and then delivered the brutal verdict: “It could be cancer of the spine. If it is, you’re lucky, because the other thing we can’t treat.”

As Mr. Carlo recalled it, “I thought to myself, ‘If I’m lucky if I have cancer, this is bad.’ ”

The diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease followed shortly. Mr. Carlo was devastated. He cried a lot. Then, he said, “I made up my mind to stand up, not lie down.”

One of his doctors, Raymond P. Onders, a surgeon at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, was struck by his resolve. “He was barely able to walk, and he’d ride his bike and fall down and nearly kill himself,” Dr. Onders said.

Chasing every hope of a miracle, the Carlos traveled to Italy last year to obtain Iplex, a scarce experimental drug some think may help A.L.S. sufferers. They could not get any, but Mr. Carlo was later accepted as one of a handful of people in the United States approved for a Food and Drug Administration trial of the drug. It has not helped much so far, he said. Now, unable to stand the cold, he spends winters in South Beach, Fla. He is there now with his wife and Ms. Osgood, so he can work on his latest book.

“My next one is a doozy,” Mr. Carlo said. “It’s about how I got the Iceman to talk, juxtaposed against coming down with A.L.S. and suddenly having the grim reaper stalking me.” He is calling it “The Killer Within.”


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