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Hard Times For The Mafia

More than 70 years after a bloody mob war ended with a peace producing New York City's five Mafia families, the heads of these crime syndicates are simultaneously behind bars for the first time.

"There was a time when no mob boss was even convicted," said Ronald Goldstock, former head of the state Organized Crime Task Force. "Symbolically, this is one more milestone in the fight against the mob."

Realistically, the mass jailing - indicative of the mob's dwindling 21st century fortunes - could also create street-level tensions and problems between the families that would ordinarily be resolved by the five bosses at Mafia "Commission" meetings, experts said.

"If the situation remains the way it is, problems will begin to arise that are not as easily solved by acting bosses," said author and mob expert Howard Abadinsky.

Most recently jailed was Joseph Massino, 60, reputed boss of the Bonanno crime family. Massino was indicted in January in connection with a 1981 murder tied to the FBI's infiltration of his family by undercover agent "Donnie Brasco."

Two other crime bosses are serving lengthy jail terms, one is being held while on trial, and another is jailed while awaiting trial.

U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf, noting that the "Commission" emerged after the 1931 Castellamarese War ended with a mob hit in a Coney Island restaurant, said it was appropriate that Massino wound up in a Brooklyn federal court.

"The structure of traditional organized crime was formulated, in large measure, right here in Brooklyn," she said.

For decades after the mob war, the city's bosses operated with impunity, avoiding draconian jail sentences and directing illegal multimillion-dollar operations. Their empire stretched from the Fulton Fish Market to the concrete industry to garbage carting.

Jail remained a petty annoyance.

When Vito Genovese went away in 1959, it was only after fellow bosses set him up on a bogus drug charge. Genovese died in prison - an extraordinary departure for a mob boss of his generation.

His contemporaries fared better: Joseph Bonanno - aka "Joe Bananas" - died last May at the ripe old age of 97. Septuagenarian Carlo Gambino passed of a heart attack in 1976. Tommy "Three Fingers" Luchese died of natural causes in 1967.

Such happy retirements no longer await:

  • Genovese's linear successor, 74-year-old Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, remains jailed on a racketering conviction while awaiting trial on charges that he was running the Genovese family from his cell.
  • Gambino head Peter Gotti, 62, followed a family tradition by getting locked up - just as his late brother John and his nephew John Jr. did. Peter Gotti recently went on trial, charged with racketeering and extortion on the city's waterfront.
  • Colombo chief Alphonse "Allie Boy" Persico cut a deal with federal prosecutors 13 months ago in which he admitted he was the family boss. Joel "Joe Waverly" Cacace became acting boss - only to be indicted himself last month on a charge of orchestrating a hit where the father of an ex-mob prosecutor was mistakenly murdered.
  • Vittorio "Vic" Amuso, who reportedly runs the Lucheses, is doing life without parole on racketeering and murder charges.

    Other than Gigante, they're hardly household names: Massino worked hard at keeping a low profile, and Amuso went away in 1992. Peter Gotti and Persico, the latter the son of infamous mob boss Carmine "The Snake" Persico, boast little more than mob pedigrees.

    Even worse for the mobs, the bosses are now working for the feds. Former acting Luchese chieftain Joseph "Joe D" DeFede was one of the key witnesses against Peter Gotti, saying they had met at eight "Commission" meetings between 1994 and 1998.

    Such a meeting would now be almost impossible given the disarray of mob leadership, experts said.

    "Once you have these people in jail, the Commission as an entity can't exist," said Goldstock. "It's designed to resolve disputes between families, and now there's no mechanism to do that."

    The current incarcerations completed a job launched in the mid-1980s, when prosecutors armed with the RICO statute went after the five bosses. In 1987, they had as many as four behind bars.

    With the threat of heavy punishments hanging over mob bosses, few in the rank-and-file aspire to the top spot anymore. And those who do land the title are hardly the best and the brightest.

    "A guy like Peter Gotti - if he was running your dad's clothing store, you'd pray for him to call in sick," Abadinsky said.

    By LARRY McShane

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