A woman they can't refuse

Sunday, May 13, 2007
Jimmy "The Gent" Burke was led handcuffed by police in New York in April 1979. Burke reportedly bought dozens of red roses every Mother's Day and then toured the homes of his jailed Luchese crime family pals, providing their mothers with a bouquet and a kiss. (Associated Press file)

NEW YORK -- Each and every Mother's Day until he landed behind bars, mobster Jimmy "The Gent" Burke performed a sacrosanct ritual.

Burke, the mastermind behind the $5.8 million Lufthansa heist immortalized in "Goodfellas," dropped a few C-notes on dozens of red roses from a Rockaway Boulevard florist. He then toured the homes of his jailed Luchese crime family pals, providing their mothers with a bouquet and a kiss.

He never missed a year, or a mom.

Burke's gesture was no surprise to his fellow hoodlums: Mother's Day was the most important Sunday on the organized crime calendar, when homicide took a holiday and racketeering gave way to reminiscing -- often over a plate of mom's pasta and gravy.

"These guys, they do have a love for their mothers," said Joe Pistone, the FBI undercover agent who spent six Mother's Days inside the Bonanno family as jewel thief Donnie Brasco. "They thought nothing of killing. But the respect for their mothers? It was amazing."

So amazing, Pistone recalled, that Bonanno member Benjamin "Lefty Guns" Ruggiero once told him that the Mafia -- like a suburban Jersey mall shuttered by blue laws -- closed for business when Mother's Day arrived each May.

No vendettas or broken bones. Just gift baskets and boxes of candy.

"Absolutely," said mob informant Henry Hill, who described his old friend Burke's annual rite. "It's Mother's Day, you know?"

The bond between gangsters and their mothers is more sacred than the oath of omerta and more complex than anything imagined by Oedipus. Pistone watched stone murderers suddenly grow misty when discussing their moms -- or her meals.

"They're not embarrassed to say how much they love their mother," said Pistone, author of the new mob memoir "Unfinished Business."

"I can remember guys talking about cooking: 'My mom made the best braciole.' Or 'my mother taught me how to make this sauce.'"

Finger paint to fingerprints

No surprise there: The way to a made man's heart was often through his stomach, as many mob moms knew long before their sons moved from finger paint to fingerprints.

Mob heavyweight Al Capone -- a man who never needed a restaurant reservation during his Roaring '20s reign atop the Chicago underworld -- preferred his mother's spaghetti with meat sauce, heavy on the cheese.

(Capone's sentimentality didn't extend to other holidays. On Feb. 14, 1929, he orchestrated the submachine-gun slayings of seven rival bootleggers in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.)

Capone wasn't alone in his mismatched emotions: warm, maternal love and cold, homicidal rage. Genovese family boss Vincent "The Chin" Gigante shared a Greenwich Village apartment with his ninetysomething mother, Yolanda, even as he ruthlessly directed the nation's most powerful organized crime operation during the 1980s and 1990s.

New England capo Vincent "The Animal" Ferrara did a 16-year prison stretch for racketeering, getting out of prison just two years ago. His first trip as a free man: a visit to see his 90-year-old mom.

But gangland mother-son ties transcend more than just geography and generations; they cross ethnic lines, too.

For some, like Robert Spinelli, love of Mom complicated their chosen profession. Spinelli served as the getaway driver after his brother and a second man tried to kill the sister of mob informant "Big Pete" Chiodo, but he was stricken with guilt over the shooting.

At his 1999 sentencing, Spinelli stood with tears streaming down his face when recounting the botched hit against Patricia Capozzalo, who had just dropped her two children off at school. "She reminded me of my mother," the weepy gangster confessed before getting a 10-year jail term.

For Hill, his mother provided a passport -- Italian -- into the Mafia back in the 1950s.

Young Henry was a mob wannabe, hanging around the taxi stand that served as the business office for Luchese capo Paulie Vario. When the mobsters discovered the kid with the Irish surname was half-Sicilian, on mother Carmela's side, he was greeted like a paisano.

"Everything changed when they found out about my mother," Hill told author Nick Pileggi for the book "Wiseguy," which chronicled his evolution from wiseguy to mob turncoat.

Hill, speaking from his current home somewhere on the West Coast, recalled that Jimmy Burke attached particular importance to Mother's Day because he was abandoned by his own parents at age 2. Hill also recalled how his hot-tempered pal wasn't so dewy-eyed one day later.

"He'd kiss all the mothers on Sunday," Hill said. "And then the next day, he'd kill their husbands."

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