Wave of informants leads to indictments in old Mafia cases

Sunday, July 25, 2004

NEW YORK -- For 23 years, it was an unsolvable crime: a mob hit on three Bonanno family captains, slaughtered by machine-gun fire in a social club.

The details emerged this summer as the family's ex-underboss, now a government informant who remembered everything but the definition of "omerta," implicated Bonanno chief Joseph "Big Joey" Massino.

Thanks to a seemingly endless parade of Mafia turncoats, prosecutors are indicting and convicting mobsters on crimes dating back decades.

The latest example was the indictment this past week of John A. "Junior" Gotti for an alleged 1992 botched attempt to kill talk radio host Curtis Sliwa over slurs directed at the mobster's father, the one-time head of the Gambino crime family.

The link to Gotti reportedly came from a former Gambino family capo, Michael "Mikey Scars" DiLeonardo.

"It's the critical difference," former federal prosecutor Jim Walden said of informants. "Without the testimony from these insiders, many of these cases against the Mafia would never have happened."

In 2001, using 10 cooperating witnesses, Walden won a conviction against Bonanno family "consigliere" Anthony Spero for murder, gambling and loansharking. One of the murders had occurred a decade earlier, when Spero ordered the execution of a neighborhood junkie who broke into his daughter's home.

In the Massino case, where closing arguments were heard this past week, the alleged crimes date back even further. One of the eight turncoat witnesses against him was his own underboss and brother-in-law, Salvatore "Good Lookin' Sal" Vitale. The two had a friendship that began when they were teens, and Vitale, who has confessed to 11 murders, said Massino taught him everything he needed to know about organized crime.

For prosecutors, the advantages of these longtime mobster witnesses are twofold.

First, by turning back the clock, they give prosecutors more leeway to find the crimes necessary for a racketeering indictment.

Secondly, the informants can testify about the years that predate a defendant's ascension in the family -- a time when he lacked the insulation from activity on the streets that comes with the title of boss. That was the fate of the 61-year-old Massino.

"There's a parade of witnesses who have not only direct conversations with Massino, but who were present during murders," Walden said.

Even really old informants seem to have new life these days.

The Massino trial brought out rumors that Joe Pistone, the FBI agent who infiltrated the Bonannos by posing as mobster Donnie Brasco from 1976-81, might testify -- although he never did.

And even informant Henry Hill, who joined the witness protection program in 1979 after a life that was immortalized in the film "GoodFellas," has resurfaced. Although he's been out of the mob for a quarter-century, the former Luchese associate met last year with a pair of homicide detectives investigating cold cases.

"I can't believe I'm still useful to them," Hill said after his session.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: