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

Monday, October 4, 2021

Inside the life of 83 year old Colombo Underboss known as The Claw


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Accused mob underboss Benjamin Castellazzo is known as the “Claw” because he gets his hands on everything.

It started in the 1950s when he was convicted for hijacking a carpeting truck and continued in the decades since.

But when he appeared before a federal judge in New York in 2013 to be sentenced as the underboss of the Colombo crime family on a racketeering charge, which included extortion over a pizza sauce recipe of a famed Brooklyn pizzeria, Castellazzo said he was done with the life of crime.

He was 75, his wife of 58 years had health issues and he wanted to live out his final years in New Jersey with his two children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

The claws would be retired, he promised.

“I have reflected on my life during the last two years I have been in jail since my arrest. I can tell your honor without hesitation, I am not proud of the life I have led,” Castellazzo wrote to the judge before being sentenced to 63 months in prison. “...I can tell your honor in all sincerity that you will never see me before this or any court of law again.”

He was released from federal prison in 2015, but the feds came calling once again last month.

Castellazzo, now 83, was indicted once again as the underboss of the Colombo crime family on a number of charges related to its long-running scheme to take control of a New York City-based labor union. Federal authorities have pinpointed Castellazzo as the man in charge of the matter recently.

He was denied bail and is currently being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Castellazzo has pleaded not guilty to the latest charges.

“Mr. Castellazzo plans to fight the charges against him,” his attorney, Jennifer R. Louis-Jeune, said in a statement. She did not respond to additional requests for comment.

The 19-count indictment unsealed in the Eastern District of New York delivered a blow to the Colombo crime family as its administration (the boss, underboss and consigliere) were all charged in connection with the conspiracy, along with a number of other members.

Mob organizational structure

The FBI's depiction of the mob's organizational structure is shown in a file graphic.

It also highlighted how the mob continues to operate in the region. The indictment details discreet meetings in Brooklyn garages, threats to union officials and how the family allegedly maneuvered money to top mobsters from union health funds.

“The underbelly of the crime families in New York City is alive and well,” Michael Driscoll, the assistant director-in-charge of New York’s FBI field office, said when announcing the charges.

It’s a world that Castellazzo, a longtime Manahawkin resident, has long been a part of, according to court documents from numerous convictions related to his life in the underworld.

Theft. Drugs. Extortion. Gambling operations. Racketeering.

Dating back to the mid-20th century, Castellazzo has faced charges for a wide range of crimes that the mob is often involved in.

And at 83 — despite a large family and numerous health concerns of his own — the Claw apparently hasn’t been able to leave the life, which is not uncommon for those entrenched in the Mafia, according to organized crime experts.

Because of this, many of the leaders stay in the game over decades and earn status as a leader.

The Colombo crime family boss busted earlier this month, Andrew Russo, is 87. And years ago, during the monumental Mafia Commission Trial, which took down the leaders of the five families in New York City in the 1980s, multiple high-ranking members were over the age of 70.

“Whenever you look back on a lot of these cases of these guys, they are not often spring chickens,” said Jay Albanese, a criminology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, who specializes in organized crime.

The blend of street crimes and white-collar schemes is all many of them know, and since much of the money members earn is off the books, there is a financial incentive to remain in the game.

Castellazzo, according to court documents, has lived in a New Jersey trailer park in recent years and his wife previously filed for bankruptcy.

“You have these guys that are doing this their whole lives,” said David Shapiro, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and former FBI agent who investigated the mob in New York City. “What else are they going to do?”

It’s unclear when Castellazzo earned his nickname as the Claw, but it was more than 60 years ago when he was first sentenced for getting his hands on something that wasn’t his.

In 1959, Castellazzo, then in his 20s, was sentenced to a four-to-eight-year prison sentence following a conviction for grand larceny after he was involved in a theft, with others, of a tractor trailer truck containing carpeting, according to court documents.

It would be the start of a life of crime spanning decades.

Castellazzo got caught up in a heroin importation and distribution ring and was sentenced to four years in prison in 1976 following a conviction for the unlawful use of a telephone in the commission of a felony.

His next prison stint would be in 1995 when he was sentenced to an eight-months after being convicted of operating an illegal gambling business that held craps games, conducted illegal numbers betting operations and accepted wagers on sporting events, according to court documents.

It wasn’t until 2002 that federal authorities identified Castellazzo’s place in the mob. He was described that year by authorities as a captain — a prominent position — of the Colombo crime family when he was convicted of owning and operating a social club where he used extortive measures related to credit, gambling and other criminal activity.

As a 64-year-old, he pleaded with the judge then to lessen his sentence due to his age and health reasons, including hypertension and other blood-related issues, but was eventually sentenced to three years in prison for running the club.

Upon being released in 2005, Castellazzo still couldn’t leave the life behind.

Castellazzo was able to elevate himself within the Colombo family’s hierarchy. By 2008, according to court documents, he became the family’s underboss, or second-in-command.

He helped lead a “months-long project to re-energize the Colombo crime family,” prosecutors said in court documents, and presided over a 2009 ceremony inducting new members into the family.

It came to a head in 2011 when federal authorities arrested 127 accused mobsters, including Castellazzo, from around the region, making it the largest one-day Mafia bust in U.S. history.

He was indicted on charges of racketeering, money laundering conspiracies, extortion and possessing a firearm.

Prosecutors said in his capacity as the underboss, Castellazzo “sanctioned and indirectly oversaw, and profited from, several of the crimes of violence alleged in the Indictment.”

But he quickly cut a deal. Within nine months of being charged, Castellazzo pleaded guilty to one count racketeering conspiracy related to shaking down a construction company, as well as being involved in a pizza sauce recipe war.

A family member of a Colombo associate owned L&B Spumoni Gardens, a famed Brooklyn pizzeria. The family came to believe that the children of a Bonanno crime family associate, who worked at the pizzeria and later left to open their own store on Staten Island, stole the sauce recipe for their new venture.

Members of the Colombo family confronted the new owners and wanted proceeds from the Staten Island pizzeria. Eventually, they settled on a few thousand dollars, a cut of which was given to Castellazzo, who had been “kept apprised of the situation,” according to court documents.

Prosecutors even alluded to his nickname in their sentencing memo.

Castellazzo was able “to get his ‘claw’ into any crime committed by any member or associate of the Colombo crime family, including violent crimes,” they wrote.

‘An extraordinary man’

Castellazzo was seen as a much different man to those close to him than to prosecutors.

As he went before a judge in 2013 to be sentenced after pleading guilty to racketeering from the 2011 indictment, those around him described Castellazzo as a loving and devoted family man, who was ready to put his criminal life behind him and live within the law.

James J. Dipietro, his attorney, said Castellazzo had “deep remorse and (made an) unconditional promise to be rid of his past life involving crime.”

“I know he has a criminal history, but I truly believe he has now come to the realization that the only real issue in life that matters is to spend the rest of his remaining years in the comfort of his wife, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren,” Dipietro wrote eight years ago as he sought a lesser sentence for his client.

“He is an extraordinary man,” Castellazzo’s daughter wrote at the time.

His daughter-in-law described how Castellazzo gave shoes and food to less fortunate residents near his Manahawkin home.

“He is a loving, caring individual who has touched many lives with his gentle ways,” she wrote.

A retired school teacher and former tutor to his children even wrote to the judge on behalf of Castellazzo.

“The values of family and community are the very fabric of our society,” the woman wrote. “In my estimation Mr. Castellazzo has always demonstrated the importance of being a loving father and caring, compassionate neighbor.”

He did not live the flashy lifestyle of a mobster often depicted in pop culture.

For at least the last 15 years, Castellazzo and his wife, Sophie, lived very modestly in Manahawkin and struggled financially, according to court documents.

His wife filed for bankruptcy in 2011, saying the combined monthly income between her and her husband was $1,115 — entirely from Social Security, according to a bankruptcy filing. Their monthly net income was -$490, according to the filing.

They were paying $450 per month to live in a mobile home in Manahawkin, the filing says.

Sophie Castellazzo was also sued numerous times for failing to pay other small claim debts in state court in New Jersey, according to court documents.

Shapiro, the professor and former FBI agent, said Castellazzo is an example of how made men aren’t always as wealthy as the general public imagines.

“The kernel of truth of what he was saying (about the mobile home) is that a lot of these guys aren’t nearly as wealthy as you think,” Shapiro said. “They don’t make nearly as much money as you think so if they want to live large, they have to stay in the game. There is no way to get out of the game and live that kind of lifestyle. They don’t have savings or severance plans.”

“What are they going to do?” he added. “Go work at Costco?”

Latest charges

So the Claw apparently kept working, according to federal authorities.

In the latest allegations against him, authorities said Castellazzo was recently put in charge of the Colombo family’s two-decade long scheme to infiltrate and take control of a Queens-based labor union and its health care benefit programs as their extortion efforts stalled.

The scheme was centered around forcing a senior union official and others to make decisions that benefitted the crime family, like forcing them to select vendors for contracts who were associated with the mobsters, according to the indictment.

Castellazzo reportedly worked directly with Vincent Ricciardo, also known as “Vinny Unions,” who was on the ground leading the alleged extortion efforts, authorities said. Ricciardo could be heard on a recording in April saying that Castellazzo was in charge of the Colombo crime family’s takeover of the union and its health fund, according to the indictment.

Ricciardo was also caught in a recorded conversation threatening to kill the senior union official the family was allegedly extorting, authorities said.

Castellazzo and other Colombo mobsters also allegedly used a scheme to launder money from the health benefit programs to themselves, according to the indictment. They sought to divert more than $10,000 per month from health fund to the administration of the Colombo crime family, which included Castellazzo, authorities said.

He has been charged with racketeering, extortion and money laundering conspiracies, conspiracy to steal and embezzle health benefit funds, and conspiracy to commit health care fraud, among other charges.

Authorities said crime families cannot survive without structure and leadership, which they allege Castellazzo played a role in.

“Members and associates of the crime family could not commit the bread and butter crimes of the mafia such as extortion and loansharking, if not for Castellazzo,” the indictment says.

It was the role he told the judge he was going to leave in 2013 after a life of crime.

Castellazzo knew his life would soon come to a close. He told the judge he wanted to spend the remaining years of his life with his immediate family, who he had embarrassed once again.

Instead, Castellazzo now sits behind bars once again and could for years, as the prosecution moves forward with another case against him and his other family.

https://www.nj.com/news/2021/10/inside-the-criminal-life-of-the-83-year-old-mob-underboss-from-nj-known-as-the-claw.html



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