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Monday, June 27, 2011

The Real Mob Wives: Scarpa Widow Linda Schiro's Lonely Life

Gregory Scarpa Sr.Greg "The Grim Reaper" Scarpa

Big Linda and Little Linda are living proof that the glitzy stereotypes of life in a crime family are pure fiction. Their years as girlfriend and daughter of murderous capo Greg Scarpa have left them trapped by poverty and gruesome memories.

We think we know the women of the mob—loud, crude, fond of bling, and indifferent to the crimes that support their families in tacky splendor. Even when their husbands are in jail or under indictment, we imagine mob wives ensconced in their own garish version of suburbia, channeling Victoria Gotti with their French manicures, leopard-print stilettos, and cascades of hair.
But, as it turns out, being married to the mob, particularly in its declining years, is often a far grittier proposition—lonely, dangerous, and squalid. Just ask Linda Schiro, widow of notorious Columbo capo and executioner Greg Scarpa. Nowhere can the collateral damage of life in organized crime be more clearly glimpsed than in the faces of Schiro, 65, and her daughter, Linda Scarpa, 42.
"This is not some glamorous fantasy," says Schiro, known as Big Linda, while her daughter is called Little Linda. She spends most of her days at the kitchen counter of the rented, sparsely furnished Staten Island condo that she shares with Linda and three of Linda’s four children. Instead of gazing at a banquet-length dining table laden with stolen diamonds and gold, as she did many nights during her 30 years with Scarpa, Schiro clears a place amid the box of Cheez-Its and sleeves of Oreos to rest her elbows and put her graying head in her hands. A pair of Yorkshire terriers yap nonstop at her feet. "This is hell, my life."
Her daughter shoots her a look of pure contempt, black eyes narrowing just like her father’s. Little Linda pays the rent with her small salary from selling beer for a wholesaler door to door at restaurants; no one, not even the feds who arrested him in 1992 for murder and racketeering, ever figured out where Greg Scarpa’s millions went. This is all they have, this sheetrocked rental with kids’ bikes in the living room and half-empty plastic cups of Arizona iced tea everywhere. It is a lifetime away from the decked-out three-story house in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, the home in Florida, and the apartment Scarpa had use of on Sutton Place. The fast cars are gone, as are the handsome wiseguys lounging in the front room, ordering in Chinese food with stolen credit cards. Outside on the concrete stoop, her daughter’s kids yell for money to go to Burger King; the sliding doors look out at a strip of asphalt. With a history of psychiatric hospitalizations, Big Linda has nowhere else to go. "I work like a dog to put this roof over your head, Ma," says Little Linda. "Time to shut up."
Greg Scarpa was no ordinary mob guy. He earned the moniker "the Grim Reaper" because he preferred to do the killing himself instead of jobbing out the task to hit men. And through his decades on the street, he seemingly never tired of the work. He was widely considered the most brutal member of New York’s most violent, dysfunctional mob family, the man at the center of the Columbo war of the early 1990s. The war’s opening salvo took place in the Scarpas’ driveway in Brooklyn, when gunmen from a rival faction opened fire on Scarpa in his Lincoln, just steps away from where he had kissed Little Linda goodbye as she loaded her infant son into her Mercedes. He emerged from the sedan unscathed, but a year later, a dozen men were dead. Scarpa began cruising the streets with his crew, looking for enemies. Once he shot and killed a guy who was hanging Christmas lights. "Putting his family in danger was the beginning of him just going off," says Little Linda, looking over at her son, now 20 and home from college, dozing on the sofa with the television blaring.

A photo from Linda Schiro's collection.
The lowest moment came near the end of the seven-month war. After someone threatened Little Linda’s brother, Joey, Scarpa headed out to hunt. He returned with his eye shot clean out of the socket. "He didn’t even know he was hit," recalls Big Linda. "He kept saying, ‘I’m fine,’ and he had this big hole in this head." One of Joey’s friends also took a bullet; Little Linda sat with him in the back seat of her father’s car, holding in his brain matter until the ambulance arrived. "I kept telling him he was going to be OK, though I knew he wasn’t."
But it wasn’t just Scarpa’s brutality that made him a historic figure in Mafia lore: it turns out he was an FBI informant for most of his years in the mob. Which may be why he was able to elude prison for so long. So valued was he—the bureau used his information to nail dozens of his rivals—that in 1964, when J. Edgar Hoover couldn’t locate the bodies of the three murdered Freedom Riders, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, he sent Scarpa to beat the information out of Ku Klux Klan members (it worked). His longtime FBI handler, Lindley DeVecchio, confirmed the story on 60 Minutes in May. DeVecchio, promoting a book on his relationship with the mobster and its aftermath, told Anderson Cooper that Scarpa had become a close friend. "He really was a very charming guy."
For Big Linda, the trip with Scarpa to Mississippi was a high point. "It was my first time on a plane," she recalls. "Greg bought me a whole new wardrobe."
Little Linda flinches when she hears her mother get lost in such reveries. "Let’s not forget he killed people, Ma—a lot of people," she says, interrupting. A classic coddled mob princess, by her midteens she knew something was terribly wrong. Sure, being Greg Scarpa’s daughter had its perks—restaurant tables materialized and tabs evaporated, the kids on the street grew silent as she passed, shopkeepers just "gave you stuff," but when she had even a minor beef with someone—a boyfriend, a valet at the club—the guy disappeared or turned up battered. She became afraid of getting close to anyone. "I loved my father—he was everything to me. But I just couldn’t take it."
Her mother didn’t have such misgivings. She met Scarpa when she was 17, from a family with less than nothing; he was a made man already and married with four kids. (His son Greg Jr. would go on to become a wiseguy, and is now serving a 40-year sentence.) Through the years he confided to her about everything—the robberies, the killings, how the bureau let it go on despite the pileup of bodies. In 1973 he left his wife to live with her and Little Linda and Joey. Scarpa, she says, was gentle and generous at home, a classic protective dad with a marshmallow center. "I never thought anything would happen to Greg," she says. "I thought he was invincible."
In the end, it wasn’t a prison shiv or pistol fire that killed him; it was AIDS. Scarpa got the disease in the late 1980s, from a transfusion following a bleeding ulcer. In what is hard not to see as divine retribution, he had insisted the blood come from his foot soldiers; he was afraid of AIDS in the hospital blood supply. One of the guys who donated was a bodybuilder who’d gotten infected by a steroids needle. Scarpa died of the virus in the federal penitentiary in Rochester, Minn., in 1994, at 66, shriveled from his brawny 200 pounds to less than half that. "In the end I used to wheel him out to the yard in his chair, and the guards would be all around us," recalls Big Linda. "I used to ask them, ‘What do you think he’s going to do now, like this?’ But they still treated him like he was a threat."
Eleven months later, Joey was shot dead in a drug deal. For all the body count of the mob war, the friends gone, the possessions lost, Greg Scarpa’s tortured end—that’s what finally broke both Lindas. "It was the worst thing that ever happened to me," says Little Linda. "I would give up everything just to see Joey’s face again."
The death of Greg Scarpa came as the American mob itself began its final descent. Getting mired in the drug trade proved fatal to the old-line crime families; it spelled the death of omertà, the code of silence that had kept the men out of jail. It was one thing to do a five-year bid for extortion, another entirely to be facing the 25-to-life sentences of the Rockefeller drug laws or RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Taking the lead of Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, who snitched on the entire Gambino family, foot soldiers and made men alike started talking to get a better deal. Today virtually every important mobster is locked up, including Sonny Franzese, the 93-year-old boss of the Colombo family, who was sentenced to eight years in 2011. The mob may not be dead, but it certainly is doddering: in a massive January sweep that arrested 125 mobsters across the country, the six leaders caught in the net had an average age of 72. No wonder Tony Soprano was so depressed: the job of don just isn’t what it used to be.
"The heyday of organized crime is definitely over," says George Anastasia, the Philadelphia Inquirer mob expert and author of Blood and Honor, "but you can just look at these women and still see a trail of destruction. The mob talks about family values, but there’s never really been any of that. It’s a soap-opera life, in the worst sense."
Even when her father was alive, Little Linda and her mother never got along. He used to call them "a pit bull and an alley cat." Now they are stuck with each other, seemingly forever, in their prefab corner of Staten Island. It’s the borough where many mobsters took their families in the 1980s after Brooklyn became buried in crack vials, but to mob royalty it’s Siberia.
Little Linda, who for decades refused to be interviewed, is still uncomfortable talking about the pain of her past. "I think about the people whose kids my father killed and I wonder, how can I call myself a victim?" Big Linda spends her days on the computer, an old desktop, scrolling through the website she made about Joey, full of soft-focus snapshots of mother and son, and chatting online with her support group for parents of murdered children. She watches her daughter’s kids halfheartedly while Little Linda is in Manhattan, trudging from restaurant to restaurant. The dogs scarf down bits of Oreos and chips from the floor.
Five years ago, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office tried to go after DeVecchio, the FBI agent, for feeding Scarpa information that might have led to murder. Co-workers at the bureau who had long been uneasy with DeVecchio’s methods pushed the case. Prosecutors recruited Big Linda as their star witness, though she says she told them from the beginning that over the years she’d told people, falsely, that DeVecchio hadn’t crossed the line. The trial gave her something to do, a purpose, and she liked being a part of the action again. But in 2008, when an old tape recording surfaced of her telling an interviewer that the agent hadn’t done anything illegal, the case fell apart. Her picture was everywhere: "Mob Wife Lies on the Stand." To her, it was just another humiliation in a life full of them. Worst of all, the phone quit ringing, leaving her alone with her website and her memories.
Every day, Little Linda tries to think of a way to escape what has become of her life, but mob princesses don’t get much in the way of job training, and she comes up empty. Occasionally she clicks to the new TV-ratings hit Mob Wives to watch the women, some of whom she’s known since childhood and sees in the neighborhood. As they act out the traditional Kabuki of mob-wife life, clawing at each other, throwing back pi–a coladas, and hopping into their shiny cars, she wonders if, late at night, once the camera crew has headed back to Manhattan, they think about the crimes the men in their lives have committed, the drugs on the street, where the money that paid for their granite kitchen counters came from, the mothers without sons.
"All I want is a real home for my kids," she says over lunch a few days later at Sparks Steak House (her choice), a stop on her beer route, where mobster Paul Castellano was famously gunned down on the sidewalk in 1985. Her three youngest kids are the product of a relationship she had after her father and brother died, with a man who was arrested dozens of times for beating her. Every time he hit her, her mind raced to what her father would have done to the guy. Even now, the thought is like another kick to the gut; a stab of anger, then a flood of guilt.
"You know how a home has its own scent?" she says. "I had that growing up, even with all the horror, and I want that for my kids. But really, at this point, I can’t imagine how I’d ever get it."

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