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When Mobsters Refuse to Retire

Once you're in the mob, you're in for life — just ask America's population of aging gangsters

Oldfellas - A look at the aging of organized crime, through contemporary elderly, often ailing (or faking) alleged mob bosses either under indictment, on trial, serving sentences or otherwise involved.

Photo illustration by Justin Metz

The feds are cracking down. The rival crews are moving in. And the arthritis is acting up. It's not easy getting old in the mob. Just ask these aging wise guys (illustrated from left): Thomas "Tommy Shots" Gioeli, Vincent "Vinny" Asaro, "Tommy D" DiFiore, Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and Joseph "Scoops" Licata.

THEY SHARED A LONG LUNCH of filet mignon, yellowfin tuna, and chicken with broccoli rabe, washing it down with four bottles of expensive Tuscan red. Ten wiseguys sat at an Italian restaurant in New Jersey, laughing and joking and talking. It could have been a scene from TV's The Sopranos. The men, from New York, Philadelphia and Newark, dressed the part — open-collared shirts, pinkie rings and Rolexes. Outside on that May afternoon in 2010, the FBI had set up surveillance cameras. Inside, at the table, a federal informant wore a body wire.

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The conversation roamed, which would be expected during a five-hour meal among old friends. Sometimes so many guys were talking at once, it was hard to understand the point of the get-together.

But when nostalgia overtook the table, the words and meanings were clear.

"If we don't know them a lifetime or somebody good recommends them, there ain't nothing he can do," said Joseph "Scoops" Licata, discussing membership criteria for what was once perhaps the most exclusive men's club in America. "That's it. Don't bring no garbage around. Forget about it."

"Only way to survive," said John Gambino, then the 69-year-old boss of the venerable New York crime family that bears his surname. "You only need the quality, not quantity."

"That's the only way to keep it nice and straight," replied Licata, 68, a capo from Newark who served in the Philadelphia mob. "You know? You mix with garbage, it hits you in the face."

"Guys made it about money," piped up a voice. "It's not about money. It's about brotherhood."

"It's about friends," said another.

The FBI, on the other hand, said it was about business. It called the luncheon a meeting of "the board of directors" of two organized-crime families and used it as the basis for racketeering charges against several of the participants. But defense attorneys offered another explanation.

"It was just a bunch of geriatric gangsters waxing nostalgically about things that happened long ago," said Christopher Warren, Licata's lawyer.

The graying of the American Mafia has coincided with law-enforcement advances that have hobbled a once-mighty underworld colossus. The federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) has been around for 45 years, less time than many of the mobsters it's used against. A bookmaker who might have faced two or three years in prison for gambling back in the old days now might face 10 to 20 if charged with the same crime, thanks to RICO.

The Witness Security Program offers a safe haven for gangsters who turn informant and take the witness stand. But picking up and starting over again isn't always an appealing idea for lifetime mafiosi, who tend to be set in their ways.

What's a wiseguy to do?

That question is being asked more frequently. Organized-crime careers are notoriously unpredictable, but gangsters are enjoying the same longevity benefits as the rest of us, and many don't go legit when they qualify for Medicare. They do what they have always done — commit crimes.

But when they get caught, they're using advanced age as a defense strategy. Or at least trying to. Call it the geriatric defense.

"Being old doesn't give anyone a pass against committing crimes."

Recent sentencing hearings for New York mobsters have sounded like medical seminars, with defendants pleading for minimal jail time — or no time at all — because of poor health. The New York Times cited the trend several months ago: Goodfellas have become "oldfellas," the paper reported, describing courtroom scenes in which mobsters with fierce reputations "can be found displaying catheter bags or discussing the state of their kidneys in hopes that a judge will agree to a short sentence."

That's something that would never have happened two generations ago: Poor-me defenses were simply not the way of the wiseguy. Members of the American Mafia may be living longer, but the ancient code of conduct that once defined what it meant to be a man of honor is dying fast.

"This is supposed to be a secret society," says Michael "Mikey Scars" DiLeonardo, 60, a third-generation wiseguy. His grandfather Vincenzo came to the U.S. from Sicily and was a mob soldier in the early 1900s; as a child, the younger DiLeonardo met legendary boss Carlo Gambino at his grandfather's house. DiLeonardo was brought up by tough guys who would never complain. That, he says, was the true mark of a mafioso.

"Omertà," the term for the mobster's code of silence, literally means "to be a man." And a man always took care of his own problems. A man never went to the authorities for help (or anything, for that matter). A man never begged for mercy, admitted to weakness or pleaded guilty to any crime.

"Today it's a me generation," says DiLeonardo, who served under celebrity mob boss John Gotti before DiLeonardo turned on the family, becoming a government witness. Gotti, who enjoyed the media spotlight, "turned 'this thing of ours' into 'this thing of mine.' "

And modern mobsters who manage to reach an advanced age don't seem inclined to retire and play boccie. Consider these recent cases out of Providence, Chicago and Las Vegas.

See also: James 'Whitey' Bulger uncovered
 

In 2012, New England mob boss Luigi "Baby Shacks" Manocchio was sentenced to five and a half years in prison after being convicted of shaking down a string of Providence strip clubs. He was 84. That same year, Windy City mob leader Jerry "The Monk" Scalise and two codefendants, all in their 70s, were convicted of conspiracy to commit armed robbery. The Medicare Mob, as a TV news report dubbed them, was plotting to hold up an armored truck and break into the home of a deceased mob boss. All three pleaded guilty and were sentenced to eight and a half years of prison time. A federal prosecutor told reporters, "They expected to get away with these crimes because of their age, because no one would suspect them," adding that "being old doesn't give anyone a pass against committing crimes."

It's a lesson that 71-year-old Charles "Beeps" Stango, a veteran New Jersey organized-crime figure who had "retired" to Nevada, is now learning the hard way. In 2014, Stango allegedly ordered a hit on a fellow gangster who failed to show proper respect. The man "had to meet death," Stango told an associate, "or you gotta maim him, or you just gotta put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, or somebody's gotta get a f---in' jar of acid and throw it in his f---in' face."

Unfortunately for Stango, he was talking to an undercover FBI agent wearing a wire. Stango and nine others were arrested in March 2015. All were members or associates of the DeCavalcante organization, the New Jersey gang on which The Sopranos was based. Among Stango's codefendants in the plot: 72-year-old Frank Nigro and 68-year-old Paul Colella.

Then there is John "Sonny" Franzese Sr., 98, perhaps the oldest active mobster in America. He once boasted of taking a role in 60 killings, according to federal authorities. In 2011, he was sentenced to eight years in federal prison following a conviction for extorting strip clubs in Manhattan. His release date is in 2017. He'd be 100, but who's to say that will slow him down?

Oldfellas - A look at the aging of organized crime, through contemporary elderly, often ailing (or faking) alleged mob bosses either under indictment, on trial, serving sentences or otherwise involved.

Photo illustration by Justin Metz

When old mobsters gather for lunch are they simply schmoozing about old times or do they still mean business? Illustrated from left to right, Luigi "Baby Shacks" Manocchio, Charles "Beeps" Stango, John "Sonny" Franzese, Ronald "Big Ron" Previte and Michael "Mickey Scars" DiLeonardo

IN THE OLD DAYS, aging was one worry most gangsters didn't have. Al Capone died of a heart attack at 48, though his career had been over for years. "Lucky" Luciano lived to 64, but his last 16 years were spent in Italy and Cuba after he was deported in 1946. Albert Anastasia (no relation to this author), the fearsome boss of Murder Incorporated, died in a hail of bullets while awaiting a shave in a Manhattan barber's chair, at 55.

Retirement options in organized crime are limited. Mobsters don't get a pension; 401(k)s and IRAs are rare. Lavish spending habits and big legal bills burn through even the most impressive scores. Most mobsters need to keep earning.

"Guys get older, they don't stop what they're doing," says Ron "Big Ron" Previte, 72, a Philadelphia wiseguy now in retirement after testifying for the government. "You do what you know."

Previte, a former Philadelphia cop before turning to crime, was an "earner," or a "general practitioner of crime," he says. He knew how to make money. Violence was part of the life, but he pulled up short of murder. "If a guy owes me and I kill him, how am I gonna get my money?" he asks.

That practical approach served him well. By the time he got involved with La Cosa Nostra in the mid-1980s, "men of honor" was an expression without real meaning, Previte says. "Loyalty? Not today. These guys are thugs, not really gangsters. It's every man for himself."

He figured he would wind up dead or in jail, so he weighed his options and turned informant, wearing a body wire for more than two years to help the government snare former colleagues. He declined to go into the Witness Security Program and resides now, under a new name, not far from where he once practiced his various criminal enterprises.

"He had them wheel him into court on a gurney."

He lives well, thanks to the $750,000 the government gave him plus the reported million or so in ill-gotten gains he had stashed away and was permitted to keep. He enjoys being close to his two daughters and four grandchildren, but he hasn't been spared the complaints of age — arthritic knees, a cranky shoulder, hearing loss.

"It's all catching up to me," he says.

Still, he sounds happier than Nicholas "Nicky Crow" Caramandi, another Philadelphia mobster-informant. Caramandi turned 80 in April and has lived more than 20 years in hiding. In the late 1980s, he testified against his boss, Nicodemo Scarfo, and more than a dozen other members of the Philadelphia mob. All went to prison. Scarfo, 86, has a release date of 2033. He'd be 104. But many of Caramandi's former partners in crime are back on the street. If Caramandi had it to do over again, he says, he would not have ended his career as a turncoat.

"I never should have did it," he says by telephone from somewhere in Middle America, where he lives in a trailer park. Once, he had a wad of hundreds in his pocket and a guarantee of good tables at restaurants in Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Now nightlife is dollar beers at the American Legion hall. "You lose something about yourself," the ex–hit man says about switching sides. "You become a different person. You don't know who you are. You wind up with nothing." 

"SOME OF THESE OLD-TIME GUYS really believed in this as a way of life," says Joaquin "Jack" Garcia, a retired FBI agent who infiltrated the Gambino family in the early 2000s. "But for younger guys, it was a business. They get jammed up and make a business decision." They betray old friends, violate their code of honor and testify for the prosecution.

For gangsters who won't squeal, crying old age is an option. If a jury thinks an alleged mobster is just a codger who talks a tough game, maybe he can escape punishment. Or perhaps his health troubles will get him a light sentence at a minimum-security prison or federal medical facility.

Garcia spent more than two years undercover, posing as an associate of Gregory DePalma, then a 71-year-old Gambino family capo. DePalma, Garcia says, used whatever means necessary to get one over on the government; he first pleaded poor health in 1999, when he was sentenced for shaking down a Manhattan "gentleman's club."

"DePalma told me when he showed up for sentencing that he hadn't shaved for a week," Garcia says. "He had them wheel him into court on a gurney. He had an oxygen tank and those tubes in his nose. Don't get me wrong — he had medical problems. But this was all an act."

After his release, DePalma went back into business. Unfortunately for him, Garcia, posing as a Miami gangster named Jack Falcone, infiltrated DePalma's crew and helped the feds build a case.

At his trial in 2006, DePalma played the poor-health card again. His heart was failing, his lawyers said, and he had lung cancer. He showed up in court in a wheelchair, with two EMTs by his side. DePalma, Garcia wrote in his 2008 book, Making Jack Falcone, "acted as if he were ready to die, leaning to one side, looking deathly ill, doing what he did best — manipulating, trying to get his way."

This time, a judge sentenced him to 12 years in prison. He died in a federal medical facility in 2009. He was 77.

"I have no teeth," Thomas "Tommy Shots" Gioeli, another New York mob figure, told a judge at a 2014 sentencing hearing, complaining about broken dentures and poor medical care in the federal prison system. Gioeli, who had been convicted of racketeering conspiracy charges tied to gangland murders, was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

See also: How to keep your teeth and gums healthy

Acting Bonanno family boss Thomas "Tommy D" Di-Fiore, 72, had better luck: He pleaded guilty to an extortion charge and begged the court to allow him to go home to spend time with his grandchildren. His legal team showed he was being treated for high blood sugar and lung and kidney problems. "I really don't want to miss another summer," he said at a sentencing hearing in March 2015. Prosecutors argued in a presentencing memo that DiFiore and codefendant Vincent "Vinny" Asaro, 80, a Bonanno family capo, showed a "dedication to a life of crime." But DiFiore's strategy worked. He got a 21-month sentence and was sprung from prison last August. Asaro, denied bail, was put on trial for an assortment of charges, including murder and his involvement in the 1978 Lufthansa heist, in which the mob stole about $6 million. (The robbery was a story line in the film Goodfellas.) Asaro was found not guilty of all charges.

AS THAT NOW-INFAMOUS LUNCH at the New Jersey restaurant was winding down, Joe Licata rose and offered a toast. Speaking in Italian and English, the capo said, "To everybody's health — all the good guys. Anywhere — the good guys!"

Two years later, Licata and tablemate Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi, the reputed Philadelphia boss, were reunited in a federal courthouse, facing trial in a case built largely around the restaurant tapes. Edwin Jacobs Jr., Ligambi's lawyer, argued to the jury that his client hadn't done anything except reminisce about old times with former colleagues. Their table talk was no different, Jacobs contended, than what goes on in a VFW hall or Sons of Italy meeting.

In the end, juries agreed: Licata and Ligambi escaped convictions. Licata was found not guilty, and the government dropped its case against Ligambi after two mistrials. Christopher Warren, Licata's attorney, says the government had it all wrong and everyone in the courtroom knew it.

"I think the jury saw Licata as a grandfather who drank too much wine and talked too much," Warren says. "You don't put him in jail. You put him to bed."

Veteran Philadelphia Inquirer crime reporter George Anastasia is the author of Blood and Honor and The Last Gangster.

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