Watch CBS News

Hit man: Has a mobster found redemption?

John Veasey was a hit man for the Philadelphia mob, but now he says he's found God. Has the one-time killer really changed?
Hit man: Has a mobster found redemption? 13:41

The following is a script from "Hit Man" which aired on March 17, 2013. Byron Pitts is the correspondent. Clem Taylor, producer.

In the early '90s, John Veasey was a man with an unusual occupation: He killed people. Veasey was a hit man in the Philadelphia Mafia and found himself smack in the middle of the bloodiest mob war in the city's history.

As is often the case with hit men, Veasey's career was a short one. When he learned his own crew might want to kill him, he became a government witness: a rat. His testimony helped send two dozen wise guys to prison, some for the rest of their lives. And the Philly mob would never be the same.

Today, the one-time killer is a free man, living under an assumed name somewhere in America. We have agreed not to divulge exactly where. He's married, has a good job and says he's found God.

But back in his old South Philadelphia neighborhood, not everyone believes John Veasey's story of redemption. They say he's still the same low-life thug he was 20 years ago when the mob made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

Byron Pitts: In 1993, you were an ex-con, a laborer. And a guy walks up to you and offers you $10,000 to do what?

John Veasey: Kill a guy.

Byron Pitts: Were you interested?

John Veasey: I just said, "Yeah, where's the gun?"

Byron Pitts: That casual?

John Veasey: Yeah. He says, "Take some time to think about it." Just said, "Take some time to get me the gun. And let's get it done."

That's how it was for John: one bad choice after another. He grew up in the mostly Italian neighborhood of South Philadelphia, home to the city's underworld. He was the youngest of five. His mother sold crystal meth out of her family's bakery. By his mid-teens, John was a junkie and the father of two. By his late 20s, he'd been arrested more than 60 times. He says he never aspired to join the mob. But the promise of a big payday got his attention.

John Veasey: I mean, you got $10,000 and you never have no money.

Byron Pitts: They're offering you money to take somebody's life.

John Veasey: But my question to that is real simple. How many poor people are being offered 10,000 to kill somebody?

Byron Pitts: But that's not an economic issue. That's a moral issue.

John Veasey: No, it's moral if you have morals.

Byron Pitts: You had no morals?

John Veasey: Correct, none.

In the early '90s, the Philadelphia mob was at war. Blood and body bags routine. On one side was a group of older, Sicilian-born wise guys led by John Stanfa. On the other: younger American mobsters headed by Joey Merlino. For 30 years, George Anastasia covered the mob for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He says a young, streetwise thug like Veasey was the kind of muscle John Stanfa needed.

George Anastasia: Stanfa was getting an enforcer. Stanfa was getting a guy who wasn't afraid to go out there and bust heads. He was getting a guy who would go out and collect money, who would go out and intimidate people, and who would go out and kill people if he was ordered to do so.

John Veasey's first hit was in broad daylight. The targets: rival mob boss Joey Merlino and his top lieutenant, Michael Ciancaglini. Veasey and a partner drove up on the pair, hit the brakes and opened fire.

Byron Pitts: Was your heart racing as you were coming down the street?

John Veasey: No, I didn't really take it like that? I was going to work and part of my work that day was to kill somebody.

Joey Merlino survived the attack. But Michael Cincaglini was killed -- one name off the boss' hit list.

Byron Pitts: How many names on the list?

John Veasey: 25-35 maybe.

Byron Pitts: If you see one of the guys on the list on the street, you take 'em out?

John Veasey: Yeah.

One month later, Veasey struck again.

[Reporter: The victim, identified as Frank Baldino, was getting into his white Cadillac after having dinner at the popular Melrose Diner in South Philadelphia, bullet casings all over.]

Frank Baldino was a bartender who just about everyone in the neighborhood knew and liked including John Veasey. But John Stanfa thought Baldino had become too friendly with the other side and wanted him dead.

John Veasey: Put my gun right through the window.

Byron Pitts: And this was a guy you liked.

John Veasey: Yeah.

Byron Pitts: If you shoot someone in the head six times who you like, what would you do to someone you didn't like?

John Veasey: I shot him six times in the head because I was supposed to kill him. I wanted to make sure he was dead.

But amid all the carnage, the hit man says he was volunteering as a Boy Scout leader.

Byron Pitts: Now there's a positive role model for Boy Scouts, a hit man.

John Veasey: I'll tell you what, the kids didn't know I was a hit man. A lot of their parents were mad, but their kids had fun when I took them camping, I can tell you that.

Byron Pitts: John, do you get how crazy that sounds?

John Veasey: I could tell you I do, but I never really thought about it like that. I mean, I would drive by and I'd have the kids in my station wagon. And then at nighttime I might be in the Cadillac.

Byron Pitts: Hunting for people you were supposed to kill?

John Veasey: Yeah.

Veasey's star was rising. He was summoned to this Philadelphia hotel to become a "made" member of the mob. But the sacred ceremony was the last thing on his mind. He wanted the $10,000 he'd been promised for his first hit.

John Veasey: I wanted the money. I never got the money.

Byron Pitts: Why didn't John Stanfa pay you?

John Veasey: He said they were saving money for the war. And I said, "What are we buying, a Sherman tank?" I mean, I'm bringing all this money. All this money's coming in. $100,000, $50,000. Nobody's getting paid.

Those complaints did not sit well with Stanfa. A few months later, the mob boss ordered another hit...this time on Veasey. But John had an older brother, Billy, with friends in the mob. When Billy learned John might be in trouble, he pleaded with him to turn himself in -- to become a government informant: a rat.

Byron Pitts: Why do it?

John Veasey: I don't know. I guess it was the right thing to do.

Byron Pitts: When Billy was talking to you, what was he telling you?

John Veasey: He told me it was the only opportunity, the only way. That he didn't want to watch me get executed.

Billy Veasey drove John to the U.S. Attorney's office. FBI Agent Paul Hayes, now retired, became John's government handler.

Paul Hayes: Billy understood the mob. That's why he wanted him to come in and cooperate. Because he knew how the mob could turn on you and kill you in a moment. And, in fact, I think he was right.

Veasey agreed to wear a wire and collect evidence. But he wasn't wearing it on the night he went to this South Philadelphia apartment with two trusted mob associates. Inside, everything was covered in plastic.

John Veasey: It's not normal to walk in to a room with plastic. But I did. I never thought anything.

Byron Pitts: What did you think was about to happen?

John Veasey: They told me they were painting.

He was shot four times with a small caliber pistol, three times in the head; once in the chest.

Byron Pitts: The guy shoots you in the back of the head. They had two men, two-to-one. How did you manage to get out?

John Veasey: You fight. You do what you grew up doing.

He wrestled a knife from one attacker, stabbed him and ran from the building. The legend of John Veasey was born.

George Anastasia: This is a guy who can't be killed now. You know, you can't bring him down. And it enhances that whole reputation as a tough guy. John Veasey should have been dead that night and he wasn't.

Byron Pitts: How do you explain it?

George Anastasia: Poor equipment? They should have had a better gun, a bigger gun? I don't know. Maybe it's destiny. Maybe this was supposed to happen.

John Stanfa and 23 members of his crew were indicted on charges including murder and racketeering. Veasey's appearance at their trial as a government witness was eagerly anticipated. But, on the morning he was to testify, he was approached by FBI agent Paul Hayes.

Paul Hayes: And I said, "John, I have something to tell you. Uhh...your brother was murdered in a hit." And John crumbled to the floor.

Billy had been ambushed in his car not far from his home. Five days later, John took the stand, giving jurors an unvarnished account of life in the mob.

George Anastasia: He was a highly effective witness, very good, one of the best I've ever seen.

Byron Pitts: What was so good about him?

George Anastasia: Because he was genuine. "This is what we did. I shot this guy and that guy over there told me to do it."

Paul Hayes: The defense tried to diminish his testimony. They said, "John, we see you're wearing glasses. The government buy you those glasses?" And he said, "Yes they did." And they said, "Did the government buy you those glasses to make you more believable and credible in front of the jury?" He says, "I don't know, but ever since your client shot me in the back of the head, my vision's been slightly off."

All the defendants were found guilty. John Stanfa was sentenced to five consecutive life terms. Veasey, as part of his plea agreement, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, plenty of time for dark thoughts of revenge.

Byron Pitts: You wanted to kill the people who killed your brother?

John Veasey: Them, family, it didn't really matter.

Byron Pitts: You were gonna shoot 'em? Were you --

John Veasey: Well I had plans to, like, inject their wives with AIDS.

Byron Pitts: What?

John Veasey: Yeah. I was going to bump into them with a shopping cart, like have a little needle. They wouldn't even feel it.

Byron Pitts: That's just evil.

John Veasey: It is evil. But you know what? I was pretty evil. And I ain't gonna try to say I wasn't.

This is John Veasey today, just another suburban homeowner, trying to stay ahead of the yard work.

John Veasey: I have a great wife, a great family, nice home, good job.

Veasey shares his new life with Norma, his wife of eight years. They married after John's brief stint in the witness protection program.

Byron Pitts: Can you even fathom the person that he was or the things he used to do?

Norma: No, no, because I don't know that person. I know my husband. I know who he is, and I...who I fell in love with, the caring individual, that's who I know.

Byron Pitts: But John didn't rob ice cream trucks. I mean, he did some bad things.

Norma: But if God is willing to forgive, why, why wouldn't we? I mean he's human.

As an ex-con, finding work was difficult. But with his wife's encouragement, Veasey talked his way into a job: selling cars. Turns out, he was a natural. He's earned "Salesman of the Year" awards and a six-figure salary.

Byron Pitts: Do you tell customers about your past, now?

John Veasey: Yeah.

Byron Pitts: You do?

John Veasey: If they ask.

Byron Pitts: What might they ask?

John Veasey: Well, some people will be like, "Man, you're like one of them mob guys," you know? I mean, I'm like, "Believe it or not, I am," you know? "But I've changed." I've autographed books for some of my customers who asked for it.

The book, "The Hit Man," written by two Philadelphia journalists, details Veasey's criminal past and efforts to turn his life around.

[Pastor: Search for peace.]

And on most Sundays, you'll find John Veasey here -- a church near his home.

John Veasey: I'm not all the way there yet, but I got baptized. I'm working on it with my pastor. I've been going every week now. I actually drive the bus for them.

Byron Pitts: You are a church bus driver?

John Veasey: Yeah.

[John Veasey: Good morning. How you doing young lady?

Woman: Pretty good. How are you?

John Veasey: Alright.]

John Veasey: Like I always say now, "I'm not who I want to be. I'm not who I'm gonna be. But I'm definitely not the person I used to be.

George Anastasia: I don't believe it.

Byron Pitts: You're not buying that car?

George Anastasia: I'm not buying it.

Reporter George Anastasia isn't alone in his skepticism. Many in South Philadelphia don't believe Veasey is capable of changing.

George Anastasia: He's found God because its expedient to find God, because he's at somewhere in Middle America and it works to find God there. I don't think if he's back on the street corner in South Philly he's found God. He's looking to avenge what happened to his brother. He's looking to settle scores.

His brother's murder almost 20 years ago has remained an obsession. We learned that on visits to Philadelpha, Veasey has made threats against those he thinks were responsible. Kathy Ciancaglini says she's been a target for years.

Kathy Ciancaglini: It's frightening, it's aggravating, its intimidating.

Byron Pitts: Why would John Veasey threaten you?

Kathy Ciancaglini: He believes that my husband has killed his brother.

Her husband, John Ciancaglini, and others were tried in 2001 for the murder of Billy Veasey and found not guilty. But John Veasey maintains Ciancaglini did murder Billy, as payback for his first hit -- when he killed Ciancaglini's brother, Michael. Kathy says Veasey has posted menacing pictures on Facebook and left her voicemails that she's saved like this one from 2011.

[Voicemail: I don't give a f*** if I get caught, I will get you, John. How's your wife feel about that? Maybe I'll hit her in the a**, too, you f****** punk.]

Kathy Ciancaglini: He's the punk. He threatens me, calls my husband a punk. He's the punk. He threatens women. It's what he does.

John Veasey lives under an alias and few in his new community are aware of his past. But over the last five years, his name has appeared in at least four police reports. In 2008, an argument in a restaurant led to a fight.

John Veasey: I waited for him to take his drink and I sized him up and hit him with a straight good, good punch and the glass went through his face.

Veasey was arrested and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery. His victim required 25 stitches and plastic surgery.

John Veasey: The only reason it's big for me because I'm a killer. You think about how many of your friends had a barroom fight grown' up.

Byron Pitts: John, I gotta tell you. In talking to you, sometimes I wonder if you're still just a tough guy or if you're still - part of you - a bad guy.

John Veasey: That's something you'll have to wonder, I guess. I mean, I don't know. I will say that if-- that's open for debate.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.