Dec. 30, 2013
An excerpt from The Rough Guide To True Crime by Cathy Scott, featuring Pablo Escobar, the Lucchese Family, and the hunt for Jimmy Hoffa’s body.
by Cathy Scott
Drugs, extortion, gambling, black economy of organized crime.
The Mafia has a clan structure: hierarchical, with a boss at the top, then underbosses, then lieutenants, then soldiers. In this it resembles other traditional outfits – notably the Japanese yakuza and the Chinese Triads. All three organizations are bound by strict codes of loyalty and silence, of “honor among thieves.” Members see themselves as outsiders and outlaws. They get their sense of belonging from the surrogate family that is the mob. Many such men tattoo themselves to proclaim their affiliations, or use other signs and marks to signal to those in the know that they are gangsters.
Though its exact origins are obscure, many think that the Sicilian Mafia – the Cosa Nostra (“our thing”) – began as a resistance movement, a band of fighters rebelling against the island’s foreign invaders. But it soon enough became a criminal conspiracy, which today makes annual profits estimated to be well over $100 billion. From the small Mediterranean island off the “toe” of Italy, the web of the underworld extends across the globe. In the 19th century, the Mafia found a foothold in the United States, where it would soon become entrenched, an integral factor in the country’s pursuit of wealth. From Chicago mobster Al Capone in the 1920s to New York’s “Dapper Don” John Gotti in the 1990s, the Mafia constitutes a significant chapter in the American story, mythologized in the Godfather films, in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (about the Mafia in Las Vegas) and Goodfellas (set in New York) – and, of course, in the hit HBO show about the New Jersey Mafia, “The Sopranos.”
The profits made in the black economy are staggering. Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel’s 1980s narcotics operation boosted the entire economy of Colombia before the cartel was smashed. Today, the Russian Mafia is thought to be the most powerful and ferocious organized-crime group, with tentacles stretching across the world.
There are of course smaller players in the underworld too, especially in the multicultural United States. Here, it’s not so much about money but about belonging – gangs that spring up on city streets and in prisons such as the Bloods and Crips, the Black Spades and Latin Kings, the Mongols MC and Aryan Brotherhood.
Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel
The notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria was one of the most brutally ruthless, ambitious, and powerful criminals in history. Escobar was so wealthy from his profits in the drug trade that in 1989 Forbes magazine listed him as the seventh-richest man in the world. The drug lord had become one of the narcotic trade’s first billionaires. One law enforcement agent interviewed for a PBS documentary, The Godfather of Cocaine, simply said of him: “Escobar was to cocaine what Ford was to automobiles.”
He was born in 1949 on the outskirts of Medellín, in central Colombia. His background was comfortable, although not wealthy. As a teenager he developed a lifelong taste for marijuana and rebelliousness. He dropped out of education at 16 and gravitated towards the petty street crime that was endemic in the area. The Escobar legend has it that he made a start by stealing headstones which he then cleaned up for sale, but his activities were probably more mundane: street cons, selling smuggled cigarettes and fake lottery tickets. He then moved into car theft, then kidnapping, proving himself capable of staying calm under pressure and meting out violence without hesitation. He was always ambitious, and his career received a boost when he became known for the kidnapping and killing of an unpopular, exploitative factory-owner in 1971.
Escobar was always able to portray himself as a kind of Robin Hood and he nursed that reputation later with calculated acts of charity for Medellín slum-dwellers. In the 1980s, he founded his own newspaper, the Medellín Civico, which from time to time ran admiring profiles that stressed Escobar’s social conscience. In one such article, quoted by author Mark Bowden, an interviewee spoke of the emotional pain that injustice caused Escobar: “I know him, his eyes weeping because there is not enough bread for all the nation’s dinner tables. I have watched his tortured feelings when he sees street children – angels without toys, without a present, without a future.” Escobar was the founder of Medellín Without Slums, a housing charity with a mission to improve slum conditions.
By the mid-1970s, he had moved into the cocaine business that would bring him almost unimaginable wealth. A decade later he would own fleets of boats, property around the world and 18 residences in Medellín alone. He had so much money that sometimes it was impossible for him to know what to do with it and it was simply buried. His lifestyle was self-indulgent and unlimited. He would play amateur soccer games on professional pitches with top announcers paid to commentate, as if it was a professional tournament. He hosted huge parties at his country estate east of Medellín, where he indulged his taste for the bizarre, encouraging friends to climb naked up trees or eat insects. Built in 1979, the complex on the Magdalena River reflected his lavish and exotic tastes: hundreds of zoo animals, artificial lakes and, in pride of place, a bullet-ridden 1930s sedan car that the drug kingpin claimed had belonged to Bonnie and Clyde.
Medellín became a boomtown on the back of the surge in the cocaine trade prompted by the soaring popularity of the drug in the United States. Employment was up, and construction thrived. In 1978, he was elected as a substitute city council member in Medellín, and in 1982, he was elected to Congress. As a congressman, Escobar had automatic judicial immunity and could no longer be prosecuted under Colombian law for crimes. He was also entitled to a diplomatic visa, which he used to take trips with his family to the United States. Escobar was a key player in Colombia and his business hugely benefited the national economy. The government recognized this surreptitiously by, for example, making it possible for banks to convert unlimited amounts of U.S. dollars into Colombian pesos.
During his reign, Escobar bribed countless government officials, judges and other local politicians. He was known to personally execute subordinates who didn’t cooperate, and he assassinated anyone he viewed as a threat. Corruption and intimidation characterized the Colombian system during Escobar’s heyday. He had an effective strategy that was known as “plata o plomo,” which translated into English means “silver or lead.” In other words, if you didn’t accept a bribe you’d be facing a bullet. Escobar was believed to be personally responsible for the killing of three Colombian presidential candidates, all competing in the same election. He was also believed to be the mastermind of the 1989 bombing of Avianca airlines Flight 203 that killed 100 and the truck bombing that killed 52 and injured 1,000 outside a security building in Bogotá, Colombia. Some analysts have said Escobar was behind the 1985 attack on the Colombian Supreme Court by left-wing guerillas, which resulted in the murder of half the judges in the court.
Near the end of his second term in office, the U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 221, which declared the drug trade a threat to national security – and therefore a military problem, not just a matter for law enforcement. In 1988, with the election of George Bush as U.S. president, the tide started to turn against Escobar. The Bush administration made the drug war a priority. Crack had started to appear in American inner cities and cocaine was taken increasingly seriously, rather than seen as simply a yuppie party drug.
At the end of the decade, after more than one anti-trafficking candidate had been assassinated, Colombia had a reforming government at odds with Escobar. Led by Colonel Hugo Martinez, the police Search Bloc was formed to break his power. Many of its members were killed by Escobar loyalists, but Menendez was dedicated and unbending – and he refused the $6 million pay-off Escobar offered him if he would only back away.
Gradually the net tightened. In 1992, Escobar went into hiding. Then, on December 2, 1993, the day after his birthday, a joint U.S.-Colombian task force located him, hiding out in a middle-class Medellín neighborhood. Escobar attempted to escape by climbing up on the roof of the house. He was spotted by Colombian National Police, and then shot after an exchange of gunshots. Escobar died at age 44, having suffered gunshot wounds to his legs, back and a fatal one to his head, behind his ear. For the officers’ safety, their identities were never made public.
After Escobar’s death, the Medellín Cartel fragmented and the cocaine market was taken over by the rival Cali Cartel until the mid-1990s, when its leaders, too, were either killed or captured.
Long Island Mafia – The Lucchese Family
Gaetano “Tom” Reina was, in the 1930s, the first boss to run the Long Island Mafia in New York. But the Lucchese mob syndicate took its name from loyal underboss Gaetano “Tommy Gunn” Lucchese, who finally became boss in 1953, after the death of Reina’s successors Joseph “Fat Joe” Pinzolo and Gaetano “Tommy” Gagliano. The Luccheses were one of the “Five Families” that for two decades had a stranglehold on organized crime activities in New York.
In their heyday, the Luccheses ran most of the street rackets (loan-sharking, gambling, restaurant extortion, construction payoffs, and construction bid rigging) on Long Island and in New Jersey. Another sideline money-spinner was the family’s fleet of hotdog wagons and coffee trucks that doubled as bookmakers. Lucchese himself kept a low profile, gaining respect from fellow bosses for never being convicted of a crime. He was deft at infiltrating trucker unions, workers’ co-ops and trade associations, and his organization successfully ran rackets out of Idlewild Airport. The Lucchese family became one of the most profitable of the East Coast mobs.
Tommy Lucchese died in 1967. By the 1970s, the gang was heavily involved in heroin trafficking and was implicated in the so-called “French Connection” – a Corsican-run smuggling ring based in Marseilles that smuggled drugs to the United States in partnership with the Mafia. The Lucchese family also conspired with corrupt NYPD cops to get at heroin seized by the authorities. This tangled web of corruption and criminality was the source material not only for the French Connection films, but also for Serpico, the Al Pacino movie that deals with the crooked New York cops’ drug dealings.
This period also saw the rise of Anthony “Tony Ducks” Corallo, head of the Lucchese family from 1973 to 1986. With great ingenuity, the FBI managed to bug Corallo’s car (where he conducted most of his business). The recorded material was dynamite and led to the Mafia Commission Trial in which all the heads of the Five Families were prosecuted, Corallo being sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in jail in 2000.
Under subsequent Lucchese bosses, notably Vittorio “Vic” Amuso, violence and rivalry increased – there was particular animosity towards Gambino boss John Gotti. Amuso was imprisoned in 1992, but he is reputed to have remained nominally in command – albeit of a much-weakened organization.
On July 1, 2004, Louis “Louie Bagels” Daidone, the acting boss of the Lucchese crime family since 2001, was sentenced to life in prison on loan-sharking and racketeering charges. The charges were in connection with conspiracy to murder two men – Thomas Gilmore and Bruno Facciolo – one of whom was found with a dead canary stuffed in his mouth, which was meant as a warning to government informants that if they talked, they too would die. Testimony during Daidone’s trial detailed him lying in wait for Facciolo, ambushing him, fatally stabbing and shooting him, then leaving the body in the trunk of Facciolo’s own car.
But it was not only Daidone’s imprisonment that damaged the family. The year before, the crime family was seriously shaken by a massive three-year investigation into the Luccheses’ involvement in the construction industry in New York City. The result was crippling. In September 2000, 38 people were indicted by the state of New York for racketeering. Named in the indictment were Steven “Wonderboy” Crea, the acting Lucchese boss at the time who was inducted into the family in the 1980s, and two Lucchese capos, Dominic Truscello and Joseph Tangorra. Also named were five Lucchese soldiers and three associates. Among the indicted were union officials and contractors suspected of benefiting from criminal enterprise. Based on the scope of the investigation and resulting indictment, the district attorney’s office called it the decade’s most significant case involving organized crime in the construction industry.
In a joint news conference, Manhattan district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau and New York City police commissioner Bernard B. Kerik laid out the specifics of the case against the alleged mobsters. The suspects were accused, the authorities said, of engaging in a criminal enterprise through “the Lucchese Construction Group” to commit “labor bribery, bid rigging,” and other schemes to systematically siphon “millions of dollars from both public and private construction projects”. The case involved eight different construction projects, including the renovation of the Park Central Hotel, the construction of the Doral Arrowwood Conference Center and the addition of five floors of apartments to a building on Broadway in Manhattan. The projects each enabled siphoning of $6 million directly to the Lucchese family.
In December 2007, among those arrested for promoting gambling, money laundering, and racketeering were alleged capo Ralph V. Perna and his three sons, and Joseph DiNapoli and Matthew Madonna. The authorities touted the arrests as the “breaking up” of the crime family, but the parole of Wonderboy Crea, who made a plea bargain in 2006, ended in 2009. It is thought that he might again take over the day-to-day running of the family.
Jimmy Hoffa’s Disappearance
When James Riddle “Jimmy” Hoffa, 62, disappeared on 30 July 1975, speculation about his fate was feverish. He was due to meet two Mafia bosses and had made many enemies in the course of a tumultuous union career, and it did not take long for him to be presumed dead. However, no body has ever been found.
Hoffa began organizing workers and challenging management while working in an Indiana food warehouse. After he was fired in 1932, he took a job as a full-time official of the truck drivers’ union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 299 (Detroit, Michigan). As the union president from 1957 to the mid-1960s, the labor leader wielded considerable influence and power. Hoffa maintained links with organized crime (when he was president, Teamster money was used to build several Las Vegas casinos) from early on. Union organizing was a dirty business then.
Hoffa’s predecessor Dave Beck went to prison for bribery and in 1964 Hoffa was sentenced to 15 years for attempting to pay off a grand juror. However, after serving a decade in prison, in December 1971, President Richard Nixon commuted Hoffa’s sentence to time served. He was released on the condition that he not participate in union activities for 10 years. Three and a half years later, Hoffa disappeared from a car park at the Machus Red Fox Restaurant in Bloomfield Hills, a suburb of Detroit. He was there for a meeting with Mafia capos Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone, from Detroit, and Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, from Union City, New Jersey, and New York City.
The latest theory about the disappearance is to be found in a book by Charlie Brandt, a former prosecutor and chief deputy attorney general of Delaware. It tells the story of Wilmington Teamsters official and Mafia hit man Frank Sheeran – nicknamed “the Irishman” – and his connection with the presumed death. Sheeran learned to kill as a soldier in Europe during World War II, where he waded ashore in three amphibious invasions and marched from Sicily to Dachau, serving 411 days of active combat in what has been called General Patton’s “killer division.”
His combat duty prepared him for his future life of crime. After being released from the service and returning home, he married, became a truck driver, and met mob boss Russell Bufalino in 1955 in a chance meeting at a truck stop. To earn pocket change, Sheeran began running errands and doing odd jobs for Bufalino. That beginning led to a prominent position in the Teamsters and the Bufalino family. In a U.S. federal suit using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani named him as one of only two non-Italians on a list of 26 top Mafia figures. When Bufalino ordered Sheeran to kill his friend and mentor, Jimmy Hoffa, Sheeran, in his confession (taped by Brandt), said he followed the order.
In the late 1990s, Brandt had represented Sheeran in an unrelated case. That’s when he initially came close to confessing to killing Hoffa, according to Brandt: “He called me and we sat down. His soul wanted to tell the truth. [But] his body didn’t want to go to jail.” Both the FBI and Detroit police had already named Sheeran as one of a handful of suspects in Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance. The media, as a result, pursued Sheeran for years. “Frank said to me, ‘I’m tired of being written about,” Brandt said. “I want to tell my side of it, and I want you to tell it for me.” Finally, in 2003, the wise guy made a deathbed confession to Brandt that he was the assassin.
Brandt’s book is called I Heard You Paint Houses. “To paint a house is to kill a man,” Brandt explained during a book signing in Las Vegas. “The paint is the blood that splatters on the walls and floors.” In the interview with Brandt, Sheeran described a professional hit: “Jimmy Hoffa got shot twice at decent range – not too close or the paint splatters back at you – in the back of the head, behind his right ear.” He immediately dropped the gun and left the scene to “cleaners” (Mafia men who rid crime scenes of evidence) who put Hoffa’s body in a bag. The corpse, Sheeran said to Brandt, was taken within minutes to a nearby mortuary and cremated – though what happened to the cremated remains was not explained.
Sheeran identified the cleaners as two brothers from the Joe Gallo gang, whose names were listed by the FBI as suspects along with Sheeran. The two brothers, who were only identified as Cisco and Benny, have, however, never been charged in connection and always denied any involvement in Hoffa’s disappearance. Sheeran was in and out of prison until his death in 2004, but was never charged with Hoffa’s disappearance or murder.
On May 17, 2006, acting on a tip supplied by Donovan Wells (or so the Detroit Free-Press reported – there was no official confirmation), a 75-year-old prisoner at the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky, the FBI began digging for Hoffa’s remains outside a barn on what is now the Hidden Dreams Farm in Milford Township, Michigan, where they surveyed the land and dug up sections of the 85-acre property. More than 40 agents sectioned off a piece of the horse farm where they believed Hoffa’s bones might be. The investigation team included forensic experts from the bureau’s Washington laboratory and anthropologists, archaeologists, engineers and architects. A week later, on May 24, FBI agents removed a large barn on the property to look under it for Hoffa’s remains. Six days after that, on May 30, agents ended their search for Hoffa’s body without any remains being found at the Hidden Dreams Farm.
Officially, the Jimmy Hoffa mystery remains unsolved. And while the authorities have not closed the case, Dr. Michael Baden, former chief medical examiner for the City of New York, has said that Charlie Brandt’s book “is supported by the forensic evidence, is entirely credible, and solves the Hoffa mystery.” Jimmy’s son, James Phillip Hoffa, became a Teamsters’ president. His daughter, Barbara Ann Crancer, is an associate circuit court judge in St Louis County, Missouri.