'Donnie Brasco' sequel playing in courtroom

Monday, May 10, 2004

NEW YORK -- A sequel to the mob movie classic "Donnie Brasco" is about to unreel, with Johnny Depp and Al Pacino nowhere in sight.

The star of this real-life production, reputed Bonanno family head Joe Massino, steps uncomfortably into the spotlight in a courtroom this month on racketeering charges.

He's accused of seven murders -- including hits on a pair of mobsters who had vouched for FBI undercover Brasco two decades ago, and three more slayings during a Brasco-era family war.

Massino, alleged head of the Bonannos since 1991, is an unlikely leading man. The stocky ex-convict keeps a low profile, embraces "omerta" -- the code of silence -- as more than a plot device, and avoids media scrutiny. His wardrobe is neither expensive, a la John Gotti, or eccentric, a la "Oddfather" Vincent Gigante.

His lone nod to the stereotypical mob image: "Big Joey" loves food, and owns an Italian restaurant and catering hall that allegedly doubles as his family's headquarters.

"Joey's the last of the real gangsters," says ex-FBI agent Joe Pistone, who posed as mobster Brasco.

With lawyers' questioning of potential jurors starting today, Massino faces a racketeering rap that could land him behind bars for the rest of his life.

Massino also faces another federal trial, for a 1999 slaying, and if convicted for that he could receive the death penalty.

His immediate woes date back to the era when Pistone infiltrated the Bonannos from 1976 to 1981. The agent's testimony helped jail more than 120 mobsters, putting the Bonannos on the brink of extinction until Massino revived their fortunes.

Many of Pistone's mob associates were stunned to see him on the witness stand.

But there's an even more unlikely witness expected against Massino: his ex-best-friend and brother-in-law, Salvatore Vitale, known as "Good Looking Sal."

He and Massino became friends as youths, and Massino married Vitale's sister, Josephine.

Until Vitale's decision to testify, the pair were co-defendants as well, accused of murders that dated to a bloody 1981 war for control of the Bonannos.

Beyond the Bonannos, "Big Joey" -- he once weighed nearly 400 pounds -- was a friend and neighbor of late Gambino family boss Gotti.

When Gotti's daughter was married in 1984, Massino was at the reception. When Gotti's underboss was blown up in a mob hit two years later, Massino attended the wake, court papers said.

Unlike Gotti, who reveled in Manhattan nightlife and ruled from his Little Italy social club, Massino established his base of operations in the remote Maspeth section of Queens.

His CasaBlanca Restaurant, with its sign promising "Fine Italian Cuisine," once hosted a sitdown of the mob's ruling commission, authorities said. It's a joint where you could round up the usual suspects, too -- Bonanno capos were regular guests at the restaurant, court papers said.

CasaBlanca pays homage to the classic Bogart-Bergman movie; Bogie's picture adorns the men's room door, and Bergman is featured outside the ladies' room. A blue neon sign over the dining room announces "Play it again, Sam."

Pistone, who met Massino during his time undercover, said Massino was known as a "tough guy. Not to be messed with."

Bonanno capo Dominick Napolitano allegedly discovered that the hard way. "Sonny Black" -- his nickname derived from a devotion to hair dye -- introduced Brasco to several high-ranking mob officials.

Napolitano was quickly killed, allegedly on Massino's orders, once Brasco was revealed as Pistone. Napolitano's hands were also chopped off, to discourage other mobsters from letting turncoats shake hands with "made men."

Tony Mirra, another mobster who befriended Brasco, was shot to death in 1982. Massino was also charged in that slaying.

Now, a generation later, Massino must revisit the Brasco years. Prospective jurors were asked if they had ever seen the "Donnie Brasco" movie. Federal authorities even want to seize his beloved restaurant.

Massino has pleaded innocent.

"He didn't need the attention," Pistone said. "Gotti needed that publicity. Joey didn't."

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