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

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Decline of New Jersey mafia mirrors storyline from The Sopranos

YouTube hits on old “Sopranos” clips spiked last week with the death of James Gandolfini, the hulking actor who spent six seasons on HBO channeling the complexities of Mafia life in New Jersey.

By the time the show ended in 2007, Tony Soprano was a diminished don ruling over a shrinking empire laid low by years of prosecution, infighting and betrayal. But he was still in business.

Prosecutors and other mob watchers who have spent years tracking the state’s mob underworld say that depiction is just about right.

They say the Jersey Mafia, and the goombah gentry that Gandolfini evoked so convincingly, may be a shell of its former self, but it is still out there running classic rackets at job sites, union halls and betting parlors.

“La Cosa Nostra is vastly diminished but still part of life in New Jersey,” said Lee Seglem, a spokesman for the State Commission of Investigation, an independent agency that was created to track organized crime. “As long as there’s a demand for illicit goods and services, the mob will be there to provide it.”

The SCI recently published a report that found that the state’s garbage-hauling business is still prone to organized crime figures and others who have successfully circumvented regulations designed to keep them out.

New Jersey’s heavy recycling industry, meanwhile, has become a haven for underworld demolition firms and assorted dumpers who have been barred from New York for mob ties, the SCI found.

The Mafia is still cruising Jersey’s docks, too: Since 2010, no less than 19 people have been convicted in racketeering and other mob-related crimes at New Jersey’s maritime ports, officials say.

And remnants of the same homegrown crime crews that once owned city halls and county courthouses across the state are still out there. Their movements are tracked by state and federal authorities that track the rise and fall of caporegimes, their lieutenants and street soldiers.

Officials said they took careful note recently when 88-year-old Giovanni “John the Eagle” Riggi returned to New Jersey after a long stint in a Massachusetts federal prison, where he was serving time for a smorgasbord of crimes, including murder.

Riggi, officials said, was at one time the handpicked heir of longtime Jersey boss Simone “Sam the Plumber” DeCavalcante, who ruled over Newark from a heating and air-conditioning shop in Ken¬il¬worth. The DeCavalcantes, like the fictional Sopranos, are New Jersey’s only homegrown crime family.

DeCavalcante crew members, much like the Sopranos, fought over their roles in the family hierarchy, and Riggi ended up sharing his leadership role. In 2009, the reputed acting head of the family, Francesco “Frank” Guarraci, 54, was charged with extorting money from the general manager of a Warren County pizzeria. He avoided jail with a plea bargain last year, federal court records show.

High-tech scams

Beside the continuing trickle of arrests and headlines highlighting old-style mob rackets, officials also point to a new breed of mobster that isn’t directing hits and heists from a back room of the local strip club. He’s more likely working behind a bank of computer screens and high-tech data servers.

Today’s Jersey mobster, Seglem said, has been forced to find new targets and take up new technologies: Internet sports-betting scams, Medicare fraud and credit-card schemes, all part of the Mafia’s high-tech crime horizon.

Nicodemo S. Scarfo Jr., the scion of a Philadelphia-based Mafia family that controlled the South Jersey rackets for years, has earned the nicknames “Mr. Apple” and “Mr. McIntosh” for his alleged pursuit of such techno-scams.

Scarfo was indicted in 2010 after the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office accused him and North Jersey mobsters linked to the Lucchese crime family of using the Internet and a computer operation based in Costa Rica to run sports bets.

Scarfo and his associates are accused of taking in more than $2 billion in bets.

Federal prosecutors also allege that Scarfo used the Internet to defraud a Texas-based mortgage lender of $12 million. He could get 30 years in prison if convicted on the federal charge.

Indeed, law enforcement officials caution against underestimating the modern mob and its continuing impact on the rest of us.

“The reality is that our battle against organized-crime enterprises is far from over,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last year after announcing the arrest of 91 New York and New Jersey residents accused in a variety of mob-related rackets.

“Mafia operations … negatively impact our economy — not only through a wide array of fraud schemes but also through the illegal imposition of mob ‘taxes’ at our ports, in our construction industries and on our small businesses,” Holder said.

Still, ex-mob-busters like Ed Stier, a former state and federal prosecutor from New Jersey who investigated hundreds of organized-crime cases, point out that the mob’s persistence does not mean there has not been significant progress.

During La Cosa Nostra’s high point in the mid-1960s, Stier said, there was little impetus for reform because many of New Jersey’s political figures were bought and sold by the mob. New Jersey, he said, was also hobbled by a lack of basic crime-fighting tools like electronic wiretaps.

“There simply weren’t resources or, frankly, the interest in investing organized crime here,” Stier said.

That, however, began to change in 1967 when Life magazine published an exposé about Jersey corruption using wiretap transcripts that frustrated FBI agents had leaked to the writers. The stories prompted the formation of the SCI and a string of reforms. Soon, there were scores of successful prosecutions.

“New Jersey was the laughingstock of the nation,” said Herbert J. Stern, a former U.S. attorney who presided over the mob-related prosecution of former Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio and a string of landmark Jersey corruption cases. “There were public officials on the take all over the place, some with six-, seven-hundred-thousand-dollar bank accounts. All from graft.”

Many of today’s public-corruption arrests, Stern said, net “nickel and dimes” in comparison.

Stern and Stier reject the notion that New Jersey has a special affinity for the mob and corrupt political leaders.

“New Jersey isn’t any more prone to corruption than any other urbanized, overcrowded area,” Stern said.

But law enforcement officials acknowledge that fictional characters like Tony Soprano — reported to be patterned after real-life Genovese capo Ruggiero “Richie the Boot” Boiardo — reflect the state’s experience.

New Jersey, it seems, is destined to be forever linked with underworld figures like Sam the Plumber and John “Johnny Dee” DiGilio, a Bayonne boxing champion whose body was found in the Hackensack River after ratting out his Genovese family superiors.

Even today, state officials keep well-maintained lists of Mafiosi capos and soldiers, and chart their movements across the region.

“There’s always surveillance going on,” Seglem said. “You have to keep track of these guys because you don’t know where they might pop up,” he said.



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