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

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Mafia Boss Breaks a Code in Telling All

It was a straightforward question, but not one usually answered by the likes of Joseph C. Massino. At least not with such candor.
Joseph C. Massino, a former head of the Bonanno crime family, testifed in Brooklyn on Tuesday.
The longtime boss of the Bonanno crime family was asked by a prosecutor, “What powers did you have?”
Mr. Massino, seated at the witness stand, offered a quick, matter-of-fact reply.
“Murders, responsibility for the family, made captains, break captains,” he said.
And so it was that Mr. Massino, 68, the only official boss of a New York crime family ever to cooperate with federal authorities, appeared in United States District Court in Brooklyn on Tuesday and became the first to testify against a former confederate.
For nearly five hours, Mr. Massino cataloged his misdeeds, recounting murders and other acts of varying criminal scope.
Mr. Massino would tell the jury that the man on trial, Vincent Basciano, the family’s former acting boss, had spoken to him about ordering the 2004 killing of Randolph Pizzolo, a Bonanno associate, a conversation Mr. Massino secretly recorded. Mr. Basciano is charged with ordering Mr. Pizzolo’s murder.
But for much of the day, Mr. Massino established his credentials and gave the jury his view from the top, his philosophy of mob management and his personal history — all larded with a steady stream of culinary metaphors and references.
“If you need somebody to kill somebody, you need workers — it takes all kinds of meat to make a good sauce,” said the onetime restaurateur, catering consultant and coffee truck owner, referring to what he said were both Mr. Basciano’s skill as a killer and as an earner for the crime family.
He recounted turning to crime early as a 12-year-old, stealing some homing pigeons. By the time he was 14, he had run away from home; he said he hitchhiked to Florida, getting arrested twice for vagrancy on the way, and worked as a lifeguard in Miami. By the 1960s, he said, he had progressed to murder, and he testified that he eventually was involved in roughly a dozen killings, some that he ordered, some that he orchestrated and some that he helped carry out.
Mr. Massino’s testimony also highlighted his underworld executive acumen in addition to his lifetime of crime, much of it in service of the Bonanno family, with which he said he had been affiliated for 33 or 34 years.
His unassuming appearance, with heavy jowls, drooping eyelids and an expansive midsection, was belied by his authoritative-sounding responses to the prosecutor, Assistant United States Attorney Taryn A. Merkl, who took him through his personal and professional history. (He will not undergo cross-examination until Wednesday or Thursday.)
Mr. Massino began cooperating with the authorities after he was convicted of seven murders in 2004, for which he faced life in prison, and was set to go to trial for an eighth, for which he could have faced the death penalty. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to the eighth killing, and Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis of the United States District Court, who is presiding over Mr. Basciano’s trial, sentenced him to two consecutive life terms.
By testifying for the government, he is seeking a sentence reduction, though he told the jury that none had been promised. In his words: “I’m hoping to see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Dressed in a zippered black and gray paneled jogging suit with a white T-shirt visible beneath, he alternately rested his folded hands on the edge of the witness stand or on his belly as he answered questions about his early crimes, his rise in the Bonanno family and his management of hundreds of members and associates after he became boss in 1991.
The jurors at times appeared rapt, but at times seemed to fade as photograph after photograph of Bonnano crime family figures were introduced into evidence.
He presented himself as a master of the deft bureaucratic maneuver, both in his dealings with internal family rifts and with other crime clans, and in his efforts to thwart law enforcement.
He described going to the bosses of the Gambino and Colombo families — Paul Castellano and Carmine Persico, respectively — in 1981 before taking pre-emptive action against three senior Bonanno figures who were moving against his faction in a brewing power struggle. After securing approval to kill the men, Mr. Massino and several others shot them to death in an ambush in the basement of a social club.
He also testified about codes that he and his confederates worked out — to discuss murder plots and in one instance to determine if a social club had been bugged — without alerting law enforcement, who he said he and his confederates assumed could always be eavesdropping on their conversations. He described changes he put into effect after becoming boss that were meant to reduce the risk that members of his family could incriminate themselves or one another.
For example, Mr. Massino closed all the family’s social clubs, saying that if crime family members hung out in these storefront establishments, they made the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s job easy, because one agent conducting surveillance outside could see everyone come and go. “If you close the club,” he explained, “it takes 50 F.B.I. agents to watch 50 people.”
He was, he said, extremely careful about where and when he talked about mob business.
“You never talk in a club, you never talk in a car, you never talk on a cellphone, you never talk on a phone, you never talk in your house,” he testified, saying that so called walk-talks, where two or more crime figures would carry on a roving conversation as they strolled the streets, were safest.
Indeed, Mr. Massino said he discussed mob business in a walk-in refrigerator at a catering business where he worked to avoid electronic eavesdropping.
He also said he barred members of the family from mentioning his name, even though, in an apparent act of vanity, he told them the group had changed its name from the Bonanno family to the Massino family.
While most of his testimony on the first day of the trial focused on Mr. Massino’s background and the family’s history and leadership, Ms. Merkl did ask a number of questions about the man on trial, Mr. Basciano.
Mr. Basciano has already been convicted in a separate case of murder and racketeering, also before Judge Garaufis, and was sentenced to life in prison in 2008. In this case, he is charged with ordering the murder of Mr. Pizzolo, who prosecutors said had insulted Mr. Basciano when he was the acting boss; he faces the death penalty if convicted.
Mr. Basciano’s lead lawyer, George R. Goltzer, said in his opening statement that his client had not ordered the killing, but falsely admitted doing so to Mr. Massino to protect a friend who did order the killing, and his own business interests.



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