Watch CBSN Live

'The Last Gangster'

With the popularity of "The Sopranos" and "The Godfather" movies, there is no question that people are fascinated with the Italian mafia. But according to veteran mob journalist George Anastasia the reality is far less glamorous and less honorable than the picture Hollywood paints.

His latest book is called "The Last Gangster" and tells the story of Ron Previte, a real life mobster and a self-admitted crook, who also shared his story with 60 Minutes.

Previte, Anastasia tells The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm, is the quintessential mob figure. "He is who he is and he's not afraid to admit it. I think that's one of the reasons there is a certain charm about him even though he is a crook, a gangster and, in other words, a thug."

Previte is the centerpiece of "The Last Gangster" and is used to portray the rise and, more importantly, the fall of the Philadelphia mob.

Trending News

Anastasia notes, "The Philadelphia mob is prototypical of what's happened to the mob around the country. You can get your arms around Philadelphia because it's a relatively small crime family. What you've seen the past 15, 20 years is a generational divide, a lack of sophistication, Rico prosecutions and one informant after another testifying, bringing down bosses, bringing down made members of the organization and living to tell the story. That's I think indicative of the mob all over the country."

Philadelphia and Boston mafia are the most dysfunctional mob families, Anastasia says. "I think, in my estimation, in order to survive in the underworld today, you have to be a mercenary," he says. "You have to look out for No. 1. At the end of the day, these other guys are either dead or in jail."

He considers Previte as the last gangster because "he walks away with $1 million to live his life the way he wants to live it. As a gangster, I think that's what it all comes down to."

Previte started off as a crooked Philly cop, who says he learned about crime in the police force. He went on to many scams, and then became part of the crime family in Philly.

Anastasia says, "He became a made member and it was something he always aspired to, and when he got there, he realized he was 20 years too late. He was old-style and he was answering to a veteran mob boss, who had spent 15 years in jail, who didn't quite know what was going on and an-up-and- coming mob boss named Joey Merlino, who was the John Gotti of Philadelphia. If Gotti was GQ, Merlino was Details or Maxim. He was young, hip, handsome, charismatic. And this is the best line that I ever got from Previte is: Joey Merlino's agenda on Monday was to get to Tuesday."

So Previte decided to become an FBI informant wearing a wire for 2 and-a-half years, bringing down approximately 50 made men in exchange for $1 million.

Anastasia estimates Previte brought down 50 gansters, about two dozen of them in the years he was wearing the wire. "He recorded over 400 conversations and testified at several trials," the author says. "And when you've got a wise guy on tape admitting to his crimes, it's almost impossible to defend against that, so the cases are fairly strong."

If there were ever so-called values of family and honor and loyalty in the mafia, they no longer exist today. "At the end of the day, Ron Previte is a survivor," Anastasia says.

In a way, the HBO TV show "The Sopranos" actually captures what is going on in the mafia today, Anastasia notes. "The mafia has moved to suburbia and can't survive in suburbia. It needs the ethnicity; it needs the tight-knit inner city communities out of which it sprung in the '20s and '30s. You can make the argument the more Americanized these guys became, the less effective they were as gangsters. The best and the brightest in the Italian American comunity are doctors, lawyers, and educators."

That does not mean that the state of organized crime is disappearing, Anastasia says, "I think it will always exist but it is no longer monolithic. It is no longer dominant. The question is, does any other ethnic group fill that vacuum or are we left with disorganized organized crime. "

Paying informants has proved effective. The author says, "The only way to break a conspiracy is to get a conspirator to tell you what's going on. You get a guy to cooperate and make a wire and get taped conversations. It is a very effective way to bring these guys down."

Read an excerpt:

Chapter One

On the day he was shot, Joe Ciancaglini arrived for work at 5:54:46 A.M.
We know this down to the second because the FBI surveillance camera that was mounted on the telephone pole across the street from Ciancaglini's business establishment -- a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop called the Warfield Breakfast & Luncheon Express -- was taping that morning.

Dark-haired and handsome, the thirty-four-year-old Ciancaglini had been in the FBI's sights for several months, ever since he was named underboss of the Philadelphia mob. It was a move that John Stanfa, the city's mob boss, hoped would bridge a growing gap between the established organization and a younger faction that had been balking at Stanfa's rule.

Ciancaglini had the background, and the bloodlines, for the job. His father, Joseph "Chickie" Ciancaglini Sr., was doing heavy time on a racketeering conviction. His older brother, John, was serving seven years in an extortion case. His younger brother, Michael, was one of the leaders of the faction that was giving Stanfa trouble.

The prosecutions, convictions, and factionalization that had split the Ciancaglini family reflected the broader turmoil that was roiling throughout the Philadelphia underworld at the time. On this particular morning, March 2, 1993, what was about to happen to Joey Chang would add substantially to the chaos.

It was still dark when he arrived for work.

The luncheonette was located on Warfield Street, just off the corner of Wharton, in a mixed residential and industrial neighborhood in the Grays Ferry section of South Philadelphia. During the day, the area is heavily trafficked. But before dawn it is desolate.

The surveillance camera picks up the story.

Two people get out of the car: Ciancaglini and Susan Lucibello, a waitress who usually rode to work each morning with her boss.

At 5:56:15 they approach the front entrance on foot. They are little more than shadows on the FBI monitoring screen that is picking up the feed from the pole camera. But the routine is similar to what happens each morning. Ciancaglini reaches down and unlocks the security grate that covers the front of the squat, narrow cinderblock building. Then he opens the front door and flicks on a light that will provide an eerie backdrop for what is to follow. He and Lucibello walk into the restaurant and begin the business of preparing for the breakfast customers -- construction workers and warehouse attendants, gas station operators and office workers -- who will soon be arriving for coffee, toast, muffins, and, occasionally, a platter of eggs, scrambled or over easy. Most of the trade is take-out, but there are those who grab something to eat at the counter before heading off to work.

At 5:58:18 a station wagon drives past the restaurant, traveling from right to left on the television screen. In the dim predawn light, it is impossible to determine the make or the color of the vehicle. Inside it are the men who are coming that morning to kill Joe Ciancaglini. A sedan, with a lone driver, follows the station wagon. Both disappear to the left, off the screen.

At 5:58:40, three or four shadowy figures -- it's difficult to tell -- come running from the direction of the station wagon and burst through the front door. The FBI bug that has been planted in the restaurant picks up the next five seconds.

Now there is audio to accompany the video. Susan Lucibello screams; there is the sound of rapid footfalls; then at least two of the shadowy figures disappear into the back storage room where Joey Chang is getting ready for what he had assumed would be just another workday. There is the staccato sound of gunfire, six or seven shots. More screams from Lucibello. The rapid shuffling of feet as the shadowy figures head out the door. A man's voice yelling "Move, move!" as the gunmen exit and disappear offscreen to the left, toward the station wagon.

The tape is stunning. It may be the only time in the FBI's long and storied history of battling organized crime that it was able to record a mob hit in progress. That it happened in Philadelphia makes it even better. Because anyone interested in understanding what has happened to the American Mafia over the past twenty years, anyone who tries to discern how and why this once highly secretive and criminally efficient organization has come undone, must look hard at the City of Brotherly Love.

The demise of the American mob starts here.

The attempted assassination of Joseph Ciancaglini Jr. -- miraculously, he survived the hit -- comes in the middle of the story, but it is the perfect jumping-off point.

Jack Newfield, the highly regarded New York writer and investigative reporter, had a piece in Parade magazine not long ago that asked, in bold headlines, "Who Whacked the Mob?" With all due respect to the federal prosecutors and FBI agents who have developed tremendous cases against La Cosa Nostra, the real answer is simple: the death of the American Mafia is the result of self-inflicted wounds. Call it suicide by arrogance, incompetence, greed, and stupidity.

And don't underestimate the impact of assimilation.

There are many Italian-American groups in the country today who get their noses out of joint because of the popularity of HBO's contemporary mob series "The Sopranos." The highly acclaimed show, they contend, "marginalizes" Italian-Americans and reinforces the stereotype that they're all gangsters.

The fact of the matter is, the best and the brightest in the Italian-American community are doctors and lawyers, professors and artists, actors and athletes. From Giuliani to Giambi, from Scalia to Scorcese, Italian-Americans are found at the top of almost any field of endeavor.

The mob is another matter. A couple of generations ago, the guys who ran the rackets had smarts. Take Carlo Gambino in New York or Angelo Bruno in Philadelphia: given the opportunity, they could have run a Fortune 500 company. Not so with the guys who came after them. And the guys running the families today? Fuhgeddaboudit.

The foregoing is excerpted from The Last Gangster by George Anastasia. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

View CBS News In