Wilfred "Willie Boy" Johnson
For 15 years "Willie Boy" Johnson ratted out his mentor John Gotti and other major New York crime family figures to save his own skin and got away with it. And then an assistant U.S. attorney, in a turf battle with the FBI, deliberately blew his cover – and his chances for staying alive.
by Allan May
Wilfred "Willie Boy" Johnson was a mob guy that other wise guys loved to have around. He was a "gofer" who would do anything he was told in order to curry favor with the men he idolized. By the time he was in his mid-40s, his allegiance had already cost him 18 years in prison for assault, robbery, and murder. A long-time friend of John Gotti, Johnson served the Dapper Don in many capacities including driver, bodyguard, and gunman.
Willie Boy would come to have another moniker that Gotti didn't know about. To the FBI he was "Wahoo," a star mob informant with impeccable information.
Johnson's mother was Italian, but his father was part Cherokee Indian thus preventing him from ever becoming a made member of the mob. Nevertheless, with people like Gambino Family underboss Neil Dellacroce appreciating his talents, he became a trusted and valued family associate.
Retired Lt. Remo Franceschini of the Queens District Attorney's Squad in his book, A Matter of Honor, gives this description of Johnson:
"He was real stocky, about five-feet-nine inches and well over two-hundred pounds, looked like a professional wrestler. Size twenty-one neck, gravel voice. You didn't want to meet Willie Boy on the street, and if you met him you'd better have backup ammunition in your pocket because six bullets were not going to stop this guy. He was the type of guy who, if he got shot, he would almost try to rip the bullets out of his own chest and then get really pissed off. 'You shot me? Now you're in f—kin' trouble.'"
When Gotti joined the Gambino crew headed by Carmine Fatico in the mid-1960s, he brought Johnson with him. Willie Boy was used as an errand boy and to collect overdue loans. In the book Underboss, by Peter Maas, Sammy Gravano comments on the relationship between Gotti and Johnson:
"Although, on the surface, Willie Boy played the obedient Tonto to Gotti's Lone Ranger, he seemed to take special pleasure in reporting what Gotti was up to. Gotti's idea of humor left plenty to be desired. And Johnson seethed with resentment as Gotti delivered derisive asides about 'redskins' and 'half-breeds' and often treated him as a second-class citizen."
In the mid-1960s, Johnson was convicted of robbery and jailed. Mob protocol decrees when a crewmember is sent away to prison that the capo makes sure the wife and children are provided for. Apparently Johnson believed this myth and when Fatico failed in his duty, Willie Boy decided he would get even by becoming a paid government informant.
To the FBI, Wilfred Johnson became BQ 5558-TE. The "TE" stood for "Top Echelon," and the "BQ" meant "Brooklyn-Queens." Johnson's code name was "Wahoo."
In May 1973, John Gotti, Angelo Ruggiero, and Ralph Galione were involved in the murder of James McBratney in a Staten Island bar. A waitress from the bar soon identified Ruggiero and Galione as two of the killers, but the identity of the third man was still unknown. It was until Johnson heard Gotti bragging about the killing and notified the FBI, who then notified the New York City Police Department. When Gotti realized the police were looking for him he went into hiding.
Thanks to Johnson, The FBI arrested Gotti on June 3, 1974, over a year after the murder. A note placed in Johnson's FBI file stated that he "was the sole basis for the apprehension" of Gotti. For turning in his boss, Johnson was paid $600.
After Gotti pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of attempted manslaughter for the McBratney murder, he spent most of his prison time at the Green Haven Correctional Facility. There, ironically, he would share time with his good friend Willie Boy Johnson, who was serving time for armed robbery.
Johnson's FBI handler, Special Agent Martin J. Boland, let his superiors know how valuable an informant Johnson was. In addition to supplying information that resulted in Gotti's arrest, he helped solve several burglaries and provided information that led to the arrest of Gambino Family associate Salvatore Polisi. But, as Jerry Capeci points out in Mob Star, informants "whose value depends on maintaining criminal credibility can be troublesome. They test the patience and resourcefulness of agents." FBI Agent Boland noted:
"Case agent had handled this informant single-handedly; has to contend with the informant being arrested [for] counterfeiting,…receiving stolen property…and armed robbery… the above arrests and informant's activity within the underworld has presented problems which Agent Boland has handled efficiently without recourse to higher bureau authority. It is noted Agent Boland received a letter of commendation in [a fraud case] for handling liaison with the Brooklyn District Attorney."
In the late 1970s Johnson reported on the murders of several Gambino associates, including Tommy DeSimone, a minor mob figure made famous by Joe Pesci's fictionalized portrayal of him in the movie Goodfellas.
One of the cases Johnson came up empty on was the disappearance and presumed murder of John Favara, Gotti's ill-fated neighbor who was responsible for the accidental death of Gotti's young son Frank. Up until this time the FBI files had indicated how accurate Johnson's information was, but on this incident he crapped out. One would think that with his close friendship to Gotti, and the fact that he couldn't provide any information in this matter, that he had some involvement in it.
There was no doubt Willie Boy had been involved in the murder of Anthony Plate in Florida in 1979. Plate worked for Neil Dellacroce in a loan-sharking operation in Miami. Plate once jumped on the desk of a debtor, spit in his face, and threatened to bite chunks out of his flesh. Plate had been indicted with Neil Dellacroce in the death of another loan shark. Dellacroce was afraid that the mere presence of the sinister looking Plate by his side at the defense table would hinder his chances. Plate walked out of a Miami Beach hotel one August morning and was never seen again. Shortly after this Gotti, Ruggiero and Johnson appeared at the Bergin Hunt & Fish Social Club sporting deep suntans. Plate's murder helped Dellacroce win an acquittal in his case.
After Johnson's release from Green Haven, his FBI control agent, Martin Boland, was transferred. Although not sure of his new handler, James M. Abbott, Johnson agreed to continue with the same stipulation that "he never be compromised or told to testify." In fact, a memo placed in his file stated: "He will not testify under any circumstances and would deny he ever cooperated in the event he was ever surfaced. Source is very sensitive as to his confidential relationship and was given assurances by agents Boland and Abbott."
In December 1981, New York police detectives watched as Johnson handed a package to a drug dealer in exchange for a paper bag that he threw into the trunk of his car. Detectives followed Johnson to his home in Brooklyn. When Willie Boy opened the trunk to get the bag the detectives approached him. The bag contained $50,000 which Johnson quickly claimed came from his gambling operation. Still on probation after having served less than four years of a 10-year sentence for armed robbery, Johnson got scared. He told the officers to take the money because if his parole officer found out about it he would be sent back to prison.
The detectives arrested him for attempted bribery and Johnson was soon indicted. To avoid having to return to prison, Johnson agreed to become an informant for the New York City Police Department. Johnson did not tell the district attorney, who arranged for Johnson's indictment to be sealed, that he was already an informer for the FBI, nor did he tell the FBI about his new position with New York's finest.
With the $50,000 donated to the police pension fund, Johnson began work for the New York Police Department. One of his first tips was where they could find the body of Bonanno capo Alphonse "Sonny Red" Indelicato, a murder in which Johnson may have been involved. He also reported on Gotti and his brothers, and in June 1981 gave up a dice game in Little Italy where Frank DeCicco and Anthony Rampino were arrested, and $100,000 confiscated.
Most of Johnson's information, however, continued to go to FBI Agent Abbott. Johnson helped draw a layout of Angelo Ruggiero's home so agents could plant listening devices in the area where he held his meetings. They also tapped his daughter's telephone after Angelo blabbed to Johnson how he used it to make telephone calls. Johnson kept the agents abreast of Ruggiero's narcotics involvement, especially after his brother, Salvatore Ruggiero, was killed in a private plane crash. It was Johnson who let the FBI know that Angelo believed he was a "dead man" when he realized Paul Castellano and Neil Dellacroce, his uncle, were going to find out about his role in dealing narcotics from the FBI recordings.
When the arrests from the Ruggiero drug operation came down, they included, in addition to Angelo, John and Gene Gotti, John Carneglia and several others. Johnson reported to his FBI handlers that "John Gotti is on the carpet with Big Paul Castellano over the drug bust. Paul feels John was either involved himself and if he was not, then he should have known his crew was involved and therefore he cannot control his crew."
Shortly after the arrests the FBI picked up rumors that two FBI agents were to be hit. When an agent brought this to Gotti's attention he became annoyed and claimed, "That's just Angelo, shootin' off his mouth, blowin' off steam."
Johnson reported that "no personal recrimination will be made on any FBI agent as they would have to be approved by Big Paul and at this time Gotti and Ruggiero are lucky they have not been clipped themselves."
In late 1984 Assistant U. S. Attorney Diane Giacalone was preparing her RICO case against John Gotti and others. Giacalone was said to be a Lily Tomlin look-alike; she was portrayed by Lorraine Bracco in a made-for-television Gotti movie. (Bracco gained fame playing Karen Hill, the wife of wise guy Henry Hill in the movie Goodfellas, and Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Tony Soprano's psychiatrist in the HBO's hit series "The Sopranos.") Giacalone grew up in Ozone Park and claimed that she often walked past the Bergin clubhouse and its assortment of mobsters and mobster wannabes.
Giacalone asked the grand jury to indict Johnson. She then planned to expose him as an informant thereby forcing him into the Witness Protection Program. The FBI's Gambino Squad headed by Bruce Mouw was less than thrilled about Giacalone's case. They were working on their own "fool proof' case and were upset when they learned that Giacalone was threatening to reveal Johnson's informant status. They backed out of the case citing "administrative and procedural differences." Top FBI officials, fearful of losing one of their top informants and destroying the confidence of other informants about the FBI's ability to keep a bargain, fought back. However, efforts by FBI agents Thomas Sheer and James Kossler were turned back by the decision of Eastern District U. S. Attorney Raymond J. Dearie to support Giacalone.
Johnson's handler, Agent Abbott, informed Willie Boy about what was about to happen.
"I will be killed," Johnson said. "My family will be slaughtered."
Abbott advised Johnson that his best bet was to take a plea, testify, and go into the Witness Protection Program.
"I will never testify," Johnson stated.
On March 18, 1985, Abbott and his boss met with Giacalone to turn over the "Source Wahoo" files. Giacalone told the agents that she planned on giving them to the defense lawyers, stating that they were entitled to them as discovery material. The agents were confused as to why she was doing this voluntarily. Why not at least wait until they were requested?
"Sorry, boys," she replied.
On March 25, 1985, Johnson's name appeared on an indictment along with John and Gene Gotti, Neil Dellacroce and his son Armond, Charles and John Carneglia, Anthony Rampino, Nicholas Corozzo, and Leonard DiMaria. The 10 men were charged with two RICO counts - racketeering and conspiracy – and faced sentences as severe as 40 years in prison and fines of $50,000.
Seven of the 10 indicted were soon rounded up and arraigned. On March 28, New York City police detectives and DEA agents arrested Johnson, John Gotti and his brother Gene just after 4 a.m. as they played cards at the Bergin Hunt & Fish Social Club. Neil Dellacroce was hospitalized and receiving chemotherapy, while his son and Charles Carneglia had not yet been located.
Johnson was the last to be arraigned. Giacalone told Judge Eugene Nickerson that Willie Boy, now the lone defendant in the courtroom, should be jailed because "no conditions of bail would secure his appearance."
The startled judge asked for an explanation.
Giacalone replied, "The reason is that Mr. Johnson has been an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a period of over 15 years, including a period up through the present time."
Johnson stood before the judge with his fists clenched so tight that his white knuckles clearly showed the words "true" and "love" that were tattooed on them. He adamantly denied Giacalone's statements.
"Not true, your honor," protested Johnson.
Giacalone repeated to the judge Johnson's statement to Agent Abbott that he and his family would be slaughtered. Nickerson bought Giacalone's argument and Willie Boy was carted off to the Metropolitan Correctional Center where he would spend the next two years. In Mob Star, Jerry Capeci describes Johnson's existence:
"Willie Boy was confined in his cell 23 ½ hours a day. His access to showers and recreation was restricted. A glass door to the pen enabled other inmates to taunt him. In a few days, he complained he found blood in his urine and needed medication. On Easter Sunday, his wife, who had sent messages from Wahoo to the FBI many times, was denied visitation. When his lawyers visited, he was led to them in leg shackles.
"The lawyers demanded a hearing to protest the 'cruel and inhumane' treatment, which they said was Giacalone's attempt to force Willie Boy to become a witness, and to reapply for bail because 'his life is not in danger.'"
Johnson spent 16 months in the special section until the pretrial moves were completed.
A year after the arrests Giacalone won headlines by getting Gotti jailed on a RICO indictment. She also persuaded the judge to revoke his bail. Gotti was placed in the Metropolitan Correctional Center that housed Johnson. Sammy Gravano discussed a meeting that took place between the two there:
"It was up on the ninth floor," Sammy said. "John told Willie Boy, 'You did a bad thing for all them years. But I'll forgive you. It's not the first time it happened. You can never be with us after this case. But nothing will happen to you.' Willie Boy asked John to swear on his dead son's head, and John did. And Willie Boy never did testify.
"John totally conned Willie Boy. I don't know how he fell for this, but he did. Lock, stock and barrel."
During the trial Gotti went back and forth daily to the courtroom for months with Johnson. Willie Boy, represented by lawyer Richard Rehbock, sat near John at the defense table as Gotti's attorneys, Bruce Cutler and Barry Slotnik, ripped apart the prosecution's turncoat witnesses – James Cardinali, Salvatore Polisi, and Matthew Traynor, who had been associates of Gotti. The trial ended on March 13, 1987. Gotti, Johnson and the others were found not guilty. This verdict would seal Gotti's famed nickname of "The Teflon Don." Later, it was discovered that one of the jurors had been bribed.
While in protective custody, Johnson was caught trying to set up a heroin deal over the phone with his son. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year, but since he had already served more than that much time awaiting the RICO trial, he was set free.
Based on Gotti's commitment to him, Johnson felt he was out of harm's way. Although banned from the Bergin, Johnson was back living in the old neighborhood with his wife and children and working at a construction job. Johnson was also rumored to be dealing in drugs again.
After the trial, the "Source Wahoo" FBI files became a ticking time bomb. The information confirmed that it was Johnson who led the authorities to Gotti when he was hiding after the McBratney murder. The information also revealed that Willie Boy had provided information that allowed the FBI's Gambino Squad to build its narcotics case against Gene Gotti, Angelo Ruggiero, and the others.
Gotti bided his time in reacting to the disclosed information. If Gotti had a soft spot for his old friend it hardened during the summer of 1988. Apparently Johnson had also passed on information to the authorities about the son of imprisoned Colombo boss Carmine Persico. Reportedly Alphonse Persico challenged the Gambino family by questioning, "What are you waiting for?"
In discussing the murder plans with Gravano, Gotti was concerned about the hit team failing and forcing Johnson into government protection where he could give up even more incriminating information. The contract was given to Eddie Lino, an ex-Bonanno associate and one of the shooters in the Castellano killing. Lino reportedly "sublet the contract" to a cousin in the Bonanno Family. The cousin in turn gave the assignment to three Bonanno gunmen to carry out.
On Aug. 29, 1988 the killers struck. At 6:05 a.m., as Johnson walked from his Flatland's home in Brooklyn to his car, the gunmen fired 19 rounds at him. Johnson was hit once in each thigh, twice in the back, and at least six times in the head. The hit team then dropped jack-like spikes on the street to prevent the possibility of pursuit.
Hearing the shooting, Johnson's wife ran out screaming. She cradled his head in her lap, but Willie Boy was dead.
In 1992, Bonanno capo Thomas "Tommy Karate" Pitera and Vincent "Kojak" Giattino were indicted and tried for the murder of Willie Boy Johnson. Giattino was found guilty. Pitera, suspected in as many as 30 killings, was acquitted, but was later convicted of six other murders.
Allan May's e-mail address is: AllanMay@worldnet.att.net