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Talking to the Feds

The chief of the FBI's organized crime unit on the history of La Cosa Nostra

The structure of La Cosa Nostra has not changed since the 1930s, when Lucky Luciano established the framework. As new people came in to run families, they take on the name of that individual. Joe Bonanno's group became the Bonanno family; Carlo Gambino's group became the Gambinos. Vito Genovese gave his name to the family he controlled. The names have changed, but the structure has been steady over the last 75 years.

How powerful is it today?
La Cosa Nostra, in various forms, has existed for over 100 years. The government, authorities, FBI, prosecutors didn't start to make a significant impact on La Cosa Nostra until the late 70s, early 1980s.

At one point, La Cosa Nostra wasn't thought to exist. It was a myth, a legend. That was until 1957, with the Appalachian meeting in upstate New York. That was a big meeting where the heads of all the families got together for a strategy session. They were discovered by New York state troopers. It's a famous story in the history of organized crime. You had mob bosses trying to make a break through the woods. It forced people to acknowledge that, yes, there is La Cosa Nostra in this country. It does exist.

What's RICO?
The one single event that did more than anything to curb organized crime was the passage of the RICO statutes in 1970. RICO being the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. It passed in 1970 but wasn't implemented until the late 70s, early 80s. That's when we started seeing the huge success against La Cosa Nostra that we've seen in last 25 years.

In the past, you'd prosecute a mobster for extortion or loan sharking. That might carry a three-year sentence. To these guys, that's nothing. They would go away, do time, their families would be taken care of, they'd come out and do what they wanted to do again. RICO took predicate acts, certain crimes, and instead of prosecuting them for individual acts, such as extortion, you lumped them under a racketeering statute. What happens then, when you start prosecuting folks, that 3- to 5-year sentence becomes 25 years. With multiple counts, it's 100 years in prison.

In the mid 80s, with the Commission case, the major players in the New York underworld all received 100-year sentences. These guys were in their 60s and 70s at the time. People started to make deals for themselves by cooperating. Then you had mobsters turning on other mobsters. It was an opportunity for us to exploit that situation to our advantage.

Before that time, did mobsters ever talk to the FBI?
It was rare 50 years ago. In 1963, Joe Valachi, a Genovese soldier, was doing time in a federal prison in Atlanta, as was Vito Genovese. It got back to Joe that Genovese wanted him killed. So Joe sees an inmate come up to him in prison one day. Thinking it's Vito's guy coming to whack him, he picked up a lead pipe and beats him to death. Turns out it was just some other inmate. Now he's facing a death sentence, and decides to talk. He's the first really significant cooperator to come forward.

Other than that, it was rare to have a made guy talk. In La Cosa Nostra, you have made people and associates. In order to be fully made, you have to be Italian, Sicilian and male. Associates were basically anybody else—anyone who could generate money for the enterprise. We didn't really have made guys talking until the late 70s, early 80s, when big cases started to break. The Commission case, the Donnie Brasco case. The infiltration of the Bonanno family by Joe Pistone, an undercover FBI agent, was the first ever penetration of an organized crime family by the bureau. It became known as Donnie Brasco. That gave us inroads we hadn't had. All those things happened in the same period of time. These guys were looking at huge terms in jail, thinking I gotta do what I can.

What's the status of La Cosa Nostra?
Are they wounded? Yes. Are they dead? No. Will they ever be dead? I don't think so. It goes back to what I said at the outset: There's too much of a demand out there for things they can provide.

What figure interests you most?
Carlo Gambino, the head of the Gambino family. He was different in that he died at home in bed, just stopped breathing one day. He was succeeded by son-in-law, Paul Castellano, who was helped to his great reward by John Gotti, who took over the Gambino family. The contrast between Gambino and Gotti was huge. Gambino led a nondescript existence, had no big mansion, didn't draw attention to himself running around town with girlfriends. At the other end of the spectrum was John Gotti, who started to believe his own press.

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