Italian mobsters in widespread decline

NEW YORK – In early 2004, mob veteran Vincent Basciano took over as head of the Bonanno crime family. The reign of the preening, pompadoured Mafioso known as Vinny Gorgeous lasted only slightly longer than a coloring dye job from his Bronx hair salon.

Within a year, the ex-beauty shop owner with the hair-trigger temper was behind bars — betrayed by his predecessor, a stand-up guy now sitting down with the FBI.

It was a huge blow to Basciano and the once-mighty Bonannos, and similar scenarios are playing out from coast to coast. The Mafia, memorably described as “bigger than U.S. Steel” by mob financier Meyer Lansky, is more of an illicit mom-and-pop operation in the new millennium.

The mob’s frailties were evident in recent months in Chicago, where three senior-citizen mobsters were locked up for murders committed a generation ago; in Florida, where a 97-year-old Mafioso with a rap sheet dating to the days of Lucky Luciano was imprisoned for racketeering; and in New York, where 80-something boss Matty “The Horse” Ianniello pleaded to charges linked to the garbage industry and union corruption.

Things are so bad that mob scion John A. “Junior” Gotti chose to quit the mob while serving five years in prison rather than return to his spot atop the Gambino family.

At the mob’s peak in the late 1950s, more than two dozen families operated nationwide. Disputes were settled by the Commission, a sort of gangland Supreme Court. Corporate change came in a spray of gunfire. This was the mob of “The Godfather” celebrated in pop culture.

Today, Mafia families in former strongholds like Cleveland, Los Angeles and Tampa are gone. La Cosa Nostra — our thing, as its initiates called the mob — is in serious decline everywhere but New York City. And even there, things aren’t so great: Two of New York’s five crime families are run in absentia by bosses behind bars.

Mob executions are also a blast from the past. The last boss whacked was the Gambinos’ “Big Paul” Castellano in 1985. New York’s last mob shooting war occurred in 1991. And in Chicago, home to the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre, the last hit linked to the “Outfit” went down in the mid-1990s.

The Mafia’s ruling Commission has not met in years. Membership in key cities is dwindling, while the number of mob turncoats is soaring.

“You arrest 10 people,” says one New York FBI agent, “and you have eight of them almost immediately knocking on your door: `OK, I wanna cut a deal.'”

The oath of omerta — silence — has become a joke. Ditto for the old world “Family” values — honor, loyalty, integrity — that served as cornerstones for an organization brought to America by Italian immigrants during the era of Prohibition.

“It’s been several generations since they left Sicily,” says Dave Shafer, head of the FBI organized crime division in New York. “It’s all about money.”

Which doesn’t mean the Mafia is dead. But organized crime experts say the Italian mob is seriously wounded: shot in the foot by its own loudmouth members, bloodied by scores of convictions, and crippled by a loss of veteran leaders and a dearth of capable replacements.

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The Bonannos, along with New York’s four other borgatas (or families), emerged from a bloody mob war that ended in 1931. The Mafia then became one of the nation’s biggest growth industries, extending its reach into legitimate businesses like concrete and garbage carting and illegal pursuits like gambling and loan-sharking. The mob always operated in the black.

Things began to change in the mid-1980s, when the Mafia was caught in a crossfire of RICO, rats and recorded conversations. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act handed mob prosecutors an unprecedented tool, making even minor crimes eligible for stiff prison terms.

The 20-year sentences gave authorities new leverage, and mobsters who once served four-year terms without flinching were soon helping prosecutors.

“A good RICO is virtually impossible to defend,” insists Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey, who drafted the law while serving as counsel to Sen. John McClellan in 1970. The results proved him right.

The first major RICO indictment came in 1985, with the heads of three New York families and five other top level Mafiosi eventually convicted. It took nearly two decades, but the heads of all five New York families were jailed simultaneously in 2003.

Authorities around the country were soon using Blakey’s statute and informants against Italian organized crime in their cities.

• In Philadelphia, where the mob was so widespread that Bruce Springsteen immortalized the 1981 killing of Philip “Chicken Man” Testa in his song “Atlantic City,” one mob expert estimates the Mafia presence is down to about a dozen hardcore “made” men. Their number was once about 80.

• The New England mob claims barely two dozen remaining made members — about half the number involved 25 years ago. The Boston underboss awaits trial.

• In Chicago, home of Al Capone, the head of the local FBI office believes fewer than 30 made men remain. That figure stood at more than 100 in 1990. The city’s biggest mob trial in decades ended recently with the convictions of three old-timers for murders from the 1970s and ’80s.

• In Los Angeles, there’s still a Mafia problem — “La Eme,” the Mexican Mafia. An aging leadership in the Italian mob, along with successful prosecutions, left most of the local “gangsters” hanging out on movie sets.

• The Florida family dominated by Santos Trafficante, the powerful boss linked to assassination plots targeting President John F. Kennedy and Cuban leader Fidel Castro, is gone. The beachfront Mafia of the 21st century is mostly transplanted New Yorkers, and money generated by the local rackets isn’t kicked up the chain of command as in the past.

“You have guys running around doing their own thing,” says Joe Cicini, supervisor of the FBI‘s South Florida mob investigations. “They don’t have the work ethic or the discipline that the older generation had.”

The decline of “Family values” is nothing new. Back in January 1990, a government bug caught no less an expert than Gambino boss John Gotti wondering if the next generation of mobsters was equal to their forebears.

“Where are we gonna find them, these kind of guys?” Gotti asked. “I’m not being a pessimist. It’s getting tougher, not easier!”

During the same conversation, Gotti questioned the resumes of a half-dozen candidates for made man: “I want guys that done more than killing.”

Even harder, it would turn out, was finding guys who could keep their mouths shut.

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“Mob informant” was once an oxymoron, but today the number of rats is enormous — and growing with each indictment. And the mob’s storied ability to exact retribution on informants is virtually nonexistent.

“There is no more secret society,” says Matthew Heron, the FBI’s Organized Crime Section Chief in Washington.

“In the past, you’d start out with the lowest level and try to work your way up,” Heron continues. Now “it’s like playing leapfrog. You go right over everybody else to the promised land.”

Basciano, 48, the one-time owner of the “Hello Gorgeous” beauty parlor, faces an upcoming trial for plotting to kill a federal prosecutor. The case was brought after his old boss, “Big Joey” Massino, wore a wire into a jailhouse meeting where the alleged hit was discussed.

By the time Massino went public with his plea deal in June 2005, another 50 Bonanno associates had been convicted in three years. The number of colleagues who testified against them, going right up to Massino, was in double digits. Basciano now faces the rest of his life in prison.

The Bonanno family is now led by the inexperienced “Sal The Ironworker” Montagna, just 35 years old, according to the FBI. Montagna shares one trait with his family’s founder: He, too, is a Sicilian immigrant.

The mob of the 21st century still makes money the old-fashioned way: gambling, loan-sharking, shakedowns. Three Genovese family associates were busted this month for extorting or robbing businessmen in New York and New Jersey, making off with $1 million.

There are other, more modern scams: The Gambino family collected $230 million in fraudulent credit card fees linked to pornographic Web sites. Another crooked plan grossed more than $420 million when calls made to “free” phone services triggered unauthorized monthly fees on victims’ phone bills.

After getting busted, mobsters are quick to offer advice to the FBI about allocating the agency’s investigative resources.

“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gone to arrest people, and the first thing a wiseguy says is, `You should be going after the terrorists,” said Seamus McElearney, head of the FBI’s Colombo crime family squad in New York. “They say it all the time: `You should be doing that.’

“And leaving them alone.”

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Fire evacuees seek return to normal

SAN DIEGO – The NFL stadium where thousands of displaced residents sought refuge is closing as an evacuation center, a symbolic show of progress against wildfires still menacing Southern California.

Once sheltering more than 10,000 people, Qualcomm Stadium was home to just 350 on Friday morning. It was to close later in the day.

Across San Diego County, the region hardest hit by the firestorms that began last weekend, thousands of evacuees have been trickling back to neighborhoods stripped bare of houses, trees and the familiar signs of suburbia.

The lucky ones will find their homes still standing amid a blackened landscape. Others, like Robert Sanders, are not so fortunate.

The 56-year-old photographer returned to a smoldering mound that once was his rented house in the San Diego neighborhood of Rancho Bernardo.

Among the possessions he lost to the flames and withering heat were his transparencies, melted inside a fire-resistant box, and a photograph of his father.

“I’ve lost my history,” Sanders said. “All the work I’ve done for the past 30 years, it’s all destroyed.”

Thousands of people lost their homes this week to the wildfires that left an arc of destruction from Ventura County to the Mexican border.

In all, fires raced across 490,000 acres — or 765 square miles, an area half the size of Rhode Island. They were fanned early in the week by Santa Ana winds that produced gusts topping 100 mph.

Of the 1,800 homes lost so far, 80 percent were in San Diego County. The property damage there alone has surpassed $1 billion.

Still unsettled is whether the San Diego Chargers will play their home game against the Houston Texans at Qualcomm on Sunday. Mayor Jerry Sanders said the stadium should be ready but indicated the decision will be made by the NFL and the team.

Officials have opened assistance centers in the hardest-hit communities, where displaced residents can get help with insurance, rebuilding and even mental health counseling.

“The challenge now is starting to rebuild and getting them the resources they need to do that,” San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said Friday. “The county and city of San Diego are very committed to helping these people.”

A show of the federal government’s support came Thursday when President Bush toured the fire-ravaged area with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bush pledged the government’s cooperation.

“We want the people to know there’s a better day ahead — that today your life may look dismal, but tomorrow life’s going to be better,” he said.

As the governor and president witnessed the devastation, the state came under criticism for failing to deploy sufficient aerial support in the wildfires’ crucial first hours.

An Associated Press investigation revealed that nearly two dozen water-dropping helicopters and two cargo planes sat idle as flames spread, grounded by government rules and bureaucracy.

The Navy, Marine and California National Guard helicopters were grounded for a day partly because state rules require all firefighting choppers to be accompanied by state forestry “fire spotters” who coordinate water or retardant drops. By the time those spotters arrived, the high winds made it too dangerous to fly.

Additionally, the National Guard‘s C-130 cargo planes were not part of the firefighting arsenal because long-standing retrofits have yet to be completed. The tanks they need to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant were promised four years ago.

“When you look at what’s happened, it’s disgusting, inexcusable foot-dragging that’s put tens of thousands of people in danger,” Republican U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said.

The wildfires are directly blamed for killing three people, a 52-year-old man in Tecate along the Mexican border and a couple in Escondido. Their bodies were discovered in the charred remains of their hillside home.

Border Patrol agents also found four charred bodies in what was believed to be a migrant camp east of San Diego, near the Mexican border. Medical examiners were trying to determine their identities and whether they had died in a fire that destroyed almost 100 homes.

In Orange County, local authorities, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were investigating a fire that destroyed 14 homes. It was believed to be started by an arsonist.

Even as evacuees returned home and fire crews began mop-up duties in some areas, the wildfires continued to threaten homes in others.

An aerial assault was helping firefighters corral two blazes in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, a thickly wooded resort area where 313 homes have been lost.

Sean Clevenger’s home was a rare sight — part of an oasis of seven unburned houses in a neighborhood that was largely destroyed by fire in the mountain community of Running Springs.

“I still can’t believe this is my neighborhood,” he said, staring across the street at a plume of flames rising from a broken gas main amid rubble.

“Right there was a red house and everything was green around it,” he said. “Now I look out and I see a lot of sky through the trees.”

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Testimony: Mob discussed Giuliani hit

 

NEW YORK – The bosses of New York’s five Mafia families discussed killing Rudy Giuliani in 1986 when he was a mob-busting federal prosecutor, according to testimony Wednesday in the murder trial of a former FBI agent.The details about the plot — which never took shape — were given to ex-FBI agent Roy Lindley DeVecchio by the late Gregory Scarpa Sr., a capo-turned-informant, according to the testimony of FBI agent William Bolinder.DeVecchio is accused of forming an illicit alliance with Scarpa that lead to at least four slayings. He has denied the allegations.Before Giuliani became New York mayor, he had a track record of high-profile mob prosecutions. In 1986, Giuliani indicted the heads of the five families. That same year, the mobsters purportedly discussed the hit.Giuliani, a Republican, is now running for president. A telephone message seeking comment from a Giuliani’s campaign spokeswoman was not immediately returned Thursday.In testimony Wednesday, Bolinder said that DeVecchio’s 1987 debriefing report stated Scarpa told him the late Gambino crime boss John Gotti was for ordering the hit, and had the support of the leader of the Colombo crime family.However, Bolinder said, the heads of the Bonanno, Lucchese and Genovese groups were against the idea, and it never materialized.Scarpa had a colorful history, and it wouldn’t be the first time that outlandish stories followed him: He purportedly helped the FBI solve the 1964 murders of three civil-rights workers in Mississippi by strong-arming a Ku Klux Klan member.DeVecchio, 66, has pleaded not guilty in state Supreme Court in Brooklyn to four counts of murder in what prosecutors have billed as one of the worst law enforcement corruption cases in U.S. history.At his request, the trial is being heard by a judge and not a jury.Prosecutors say Scarpa showered DeVecchio with cash, stolen jewelry, liquor — and even prostitutes — in exchange for confidential information, according to an indictment.Scarpa used the inside tips about the identities and whereabouts of suspected informants and rivals to rub out at least four victims in the late 1980s and early 1990s, authorities said.

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California fires may be at turning point

SAN DIEGO – A massive aerial assault and a break in harsh winds helped firefighters make their first major progress against Southern California’s firestorm, raising evacuees’ hopes of returning home for good. But flames were still drawing perilously toward thousands of homes.

The hot, dry Santa Ana winds that have whipped the blazes into a destructive, indiscriminate fury since the weekend were expected to all but disappear Thursday.

“That will certainly aid in firefighting efforts,” National Weather Service meteorologist Jamie Meier said.

The record high temperatures of recent days began succumbing to cooling sea breezes, and two fires that burned 21 homes in northern Los Angeles County were fully contained.

President Bush, who has declared a major disaster in a seven-county region, was scheduled to arrive in California Thursday and to take an aerial tour of the burn areas, accompanied by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Losses total at least $1 billion in San Diego County alone, and include a third of the state’s avocado crop. The losses are half as high as those in Southern California’s 2003 fires, but are certain to rise.

The more hopeful news on the fire lines came a day after residents in some hard-hit San Diego County neighborhoods were allowed back to their streets, many lined with the wreckage of melted cars.

In upscale Rancho Bernardo, house after house had been reduced to a smoldering heap. Cheryl Monticello, 38 and eight months pregnant, knew what she would find when she came back Wednesday because a city official warned her the house was lost. But she had to see it for herself.

“You really need to see it to know for sure,” Monticello said.

Only the white brick chimney and her daughter’s backyard slide had survived the inferno that bore down on her neighborhood Monday morning.

Running Springs resident Ricky Garcia returned to his house in the San Bernardino Mountains on Wednesday, panicked that his street had been wiped out and his cats, Jeff and Viper, were lost.

But his house, a new home built on a cleared lot, was unscathed, unlike those of his neighbors. Hiding underneath a porch and mewing loudly was Jeff, his long, black hair gray with ash. Viper, however, was nowhere in sight.

“I’m excited to see my cat and my house, but absolutely devastated for my neighbors,” he said, after loading Jeff into a carrier and preparing to evacuate again. “I’ve been through fires before, but this one hit a lot closer to home.”

As nature’s blitzkrieg starts to recede, many of the other refugees will be allowed back to their neighborhoods. More than 500,000 people were evacuated in San Diego County alone, part of the largest mass evacuation in California history.

Even with the slackening winds, the county remains a tinderbox. Firefighters cut fire lines around the major blazes in San Diego County, but none of the four fires was more than 40 percent contained. More than 8,500 homes were still threatened.

Towns scattered throughout the county remained on the edge of disaster, including the apple-picking region around Julian, where dozens of homes burned in 2003.

To the northeast, in the San Bernardino County mountain resort of Lake Arrowhead, fire officials said 6,000 homes remained in the path of two wildfires that had destroyed more than 300 homes.

Both fires remained out of control, but were being bombarded by aerial tankers and helicopters that dumped more than 30 loads of water.

So far, at least 15 fires have destroyed about 1,500 homes since they began late Saturday.

The burn area of nearly 460,000 acres — about 719 square miles — stretches in a broad arc from Ventura County north of Los Angeles east to the San Bernardino National Forest and south to the U.S.-Mexico border.

In the middle of that arc, the Santiago Fire in Orange County had burned nearly 20,000 acres and destroyed nine homes. Only 50 percent contained, it is a suspected arson fire.

Agents from the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were sent to help investigate. Authorities said a smaller, more recent fire in Riverside County also is linked to arson.

Despite the widespread destruction, the fires have directly claimed just one life, 52-year-old Thomas Varshock of Tecate. The San Diego medical examiner’s office listed five other deaths as connected to the blazes because all who died were evacuees.

The number of victims could rise as authorities return to neighborhoods where homes burned. In 2003, 22 people lost their lives in a series of fires that lasted nearly two weeks.

Terry Dooley, who was ordered out of his San Bernardino home with his wife and three sons Monday, said authorities learned important lessons from Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 fires.

Unlike many of the poor neighborhoods flooded by Hurricane Katrina, some of California‘s hardest-hit areas were filled with upscale homes, with easy access and wide streets. Authorities used reverse 911 calls to warn residents to get out.

“They learned how to get things done more quickly,” Dooley said as he waited at a roadblock to return home to San Diego‘s Rancho Bernardo area.

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