Federal and state agents began arresting nearly 130 reputed mafia members from seven East Coast organized crime families Thursday, the largest coordinated arrest in the FBI’s quarter-century crackdown on La Cosa Nostra, the Justice Department said.
More than 800 law enforcement officers participated in the predawn raids in New York City, New Jersey, New England and Italy, arresting more than 110 people charged with crimes that included murder, loansharking, extortion and labor racketeering. A total of 127 people have been charged, including alleged high-ranking members from some of the five New York City-based families, officials said.
Federal officials said the scope and severity of the charges — which covered several alleged mob hits from the 1980s and 1990s and a 2002 murder in Queens, N.Y. — showed that the mafia, also called La Cosa Nostra, is to some extent unbowed by a continuing crackdown.
“The notion that today’s mob families are more genteel and less violent than in the past is put to lie by the charges contained in the indictments unsealed today,” said Janice Fedarcyk, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York field office. “Even more of a myth is the notion that the mob is a thing of the past, that La Cosa Nostra is a shadow of its former self.”
But experts on the mafia said the FBI’s own success has severely weakened the traditional organized crime families, whose members have been paraded off to prison in large numbers since the mid-1980s. Thursday’s raids were the latest in a series of mass arrests, a tactic that experts said has become increasingly popular in recent years.
“A lot of these people have already been out of business for a very, very long time,” said Jay Albanese, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who studies organized crime. He said roughly 7,000 to 8,000 organized crime figures have been convicted nationwide since the first major racketeering indictments against the mob in the mid-1980s.
Albanese said federal authorities like to announce numerous charges on the same day partly because “it’s a much bigger news event.” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. traveled to New York to announce Thursday’s arrests at a Brooklyn news conference.
But Albanese said the mass arrests also help reinforce what has been one of the FBI’s most successful tactics: recruiting mob turncoats. “You lock them up in different places, and everyone is much more willing to cut a deal because their best buddies have been arrested as well,” Albanese said.
It was unclear whether attorneys had been appointed for the defendants, who were to appear in federal courts in four judicial districts.
With the increasing focus in recent years on Russian and other international organized crime, which is also the subject of a Justice Department crackdown, Thursday’s indictments had a certain historical familiarity. Some of those charged — such as Andrew Russo, 76, alleged street boss of the Colombo family, and Richard Fusco, 74, reputed consigliere of the Colombo family — had job titles familiar to viewers of “The Godfather” and other mafia movies stretching back to the 1970s.
The indictments listed colorful nicknames — “Bobby Glasses,” “Vinny Carwash,” “Jack the Whack,” “Johnny Cash,” “Junior Lollipops” — and catalogued murders, extortion, arson and other crimes dating back 30 years, according to The Associated Press.
One of the indictments charges a reputed Gambino boss, Bartolomeo Vernace, in a double murder in the Shamrock Bar in Queens in a dispute over a spilled drink. Another charges Russo in the 1993 hit on an underboss during the family’s bloody civil war.
Some of the 85 defendants charged in federal court in Brooklyn are accused of being members of the New Jersey-based Decavalcante family, widely viewed as an inspiration for the television show “The Sopranos.”
Among other alleged high-ranking mob defendants charged are Luigi Manocchio, 83, former boss of the New England La Cosa Nostra; Benjamin Castellazzo, 73, acting underboss of the Colombo family; and Joseph Corozzo, 69, consigliere of the Gambino family. In all, officials said, more than 30 official members of La Cosa Nostra, or “made men,” face charges.
The crimes covered in the indictments include the 1993 murder of Colombo family underboss Joseph Scopo, who was shot in the passenger seat of a car outside of his residence in Queens. Other counts involve the Colombo crime family’s alleged long-standing control of a cement and concrete workers union in New York City.
The charges are based in part on hundreds of hours of recorded conversations of members and associates of the Colombo family, authorities said, another common FBI tactic against organized crime.