NEW YORK DAILY NEWS:
THE BONANNO CRIME FAMILY'S BOSS, JOSEPH MASSINO, HIGEST RANKING NON INCARCERATED MOBSTER IN NEW YORK
Reputed Bonanno leader Keeps Low Profile
By MICHELE McPHEE
Daily News Staff Writer
September 17, 2000
It’s lunchtime at the Casablanca Restaurant in Maspeth, Queens, and reputed Bonanno crime family boss Joseph Massino occupies a table near the door, enjoying a meal of homemade linguine and sauteed roasted peppers with his pals.
After a waiter in a tuxedo serves him from a gleaming brass cart, Massino, 57, banters lightly with his sidekicks, trading jokes and picking ponies.
When not running the Bonanno crime family, Massino enjoys dining at the three-star restaurant he owns in Queens.
From the outside, the Casablanca appears to be a nondescript storefront pizzeria. But its regulars know the restaurant serves some of the best Italian cuisine in the city. The Daily News reviewed Casablanca in 1998 and gave it three stars.
Its walls are festooned with framed pictures of celebrities who have dined there — Johnny Depp, Hugh Grant, Elizabeth Hurley — alongside posters of Humphrey Bogart. There is also a life-size statue of the tough-guy film icon.
Massino is part-owner of the restaurant, and on this day he is the only New York Mafia boss free to savor the rewards of hard work, authorities say.
With the Sept. 6 arrest of acting Luchese crime boss Steven Crea in a massive construction scam roundup, four of the five organized crime leadersare behind bars.
Massino, tall and robustly built, is known as an electronics whiz with a penchant for secrecy and discretion. He lives modestly with his wife in Howard Beach, Queens, a few blocks from the home of his friend, the imprisoned-for-life Gambino crime boss John Gotti.
Former mafioso Joseph Bonanno now lives in Arizona. "He’s careful. He’s a very smart guy," said one NYPD organized crime detective. "He’s wise to surveillance, and he lives by the old-school rules. He believes in keeping La Cosa Nostra secret."
Another co-owner of Casablanca, who declined to be identified, characterized his partner as "just one of the owners of the restaurant who comes in for lunch once in a while."
Massino has denied any involvement in La Cosa Nostra and has accused the federal government of bias against Italian Americans. He did not return phone calls for this story.
His principal source of legitimate income, authorities say, is King Caterers, a Farmingdale, L.I., business that provides food to street vendors.
But according to law enforcement sources, he began his underworld career as a truck hijacker and quietly rose in rank.
He became the Bonanno boss in 1993, months after he was released from federal prison, sources said, just as the crime family was near extinction.
Its members, considered mob "outlaws," did not have a seat on the Mafia’s fabled Commission, the governing group that oversees the city’s five crime families. An internal war left several members dead. And rampant drug dealing in the family brought intense pressure from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
For six years in the early ’80s, FBI agent Joseph Pistone immersed himself in the workings of the Bonanno family by posing as jewel thief Donnie Brasco. During that undercover assignment, he got to know many gangsters, including Massino.
Johnny Depp, whose image now graces Massino’s restaurant, played Pistone in the movie "Donnie Brasco."
Pistone’s work was a factor in Massino’s 1986 conviction on charges stemming from the Bonannos’ control of Teamsters Local 814, the union that represents furniture movers.
During his trial, when Pistone walked past Massino on his way to the witness stand to testify against him, the adversaries eyed each other. "Hey, Donnie," Massino reportedly said. "Who’d you get to play me in the movie?"
While Massino was in prison, Manhattan prosecutors accused him and his brother-in-law Salvatore Vitale of racketeering and murder.
The two were leaders in a bloody interfamily war that erupted after the 1979 murder of Bonanno boss Carmine Galante, according to testimony. Massino was allied with the winning faction headed by Philip (Rusty) Rastelli, prosecutors said.
The losers were Alphonse (Sonny Red) Indelicato, Philip Giaccone and Dominick Trinchera, three Bonanno captains who were slain in 1981. Both Massino and Vitale were acquitted on charges of murdering the three men during their 1987 trial.
"Joey Massino was aligned with Rusty Rastelli during the Bonanno War. Rusty won, and when he died in 1991, Massino was the obvious choice for boss," said a law enforcement source.
Massino was seen as the levelheaded leader who could stem the erosion of the family power. He promptly shut the Bonanno social clubs and avoided other situations that might invite surveillance.
"He’s a very low-key guy," said a law-enforcement source. "He only surrounds himself with close allies."
Though Massino’s allegiance to Gotti solidified his power, law enforcement sources say the Gambino boss played no part in his neighbor’s ascension to family don.
Massino's contact with the Gotti family (including John Jr, pictured above) helped make him the successful crime lord he is today. "The Bonannos picked Massino because he was friends with Gotti and the family was obsessed with getting a seat back on the Commission," a law enforcement source said. "But like everything the Bonannos do, it backfired.
"Gotti was [angry] that he was not consulted before Massino was bumped up to boss."
Despite that initial tension, Massino’s reign has been a successful one, run with tight fists and tight lips. The Bonanno family has regained its seat on the Commission and its crews have beefed up longtime interests in narcotics, unions, loansharking, gambling and Joker Poker machines, sources said.
And even as "made" members of the other four families have taken the witness stand against their bosses, not one Bonanno mobster has broken omerta — the vow of silence all gangsters take when they are inducted into the Mafia.
But high-profile drug trafficking by Bonanno crews still brings heat. Last week, two Bonanno soldiers, Fabritzio DeFrancisci, 30, and Joseph Benanti, 66, along with an associate, Tommy Reynolds, 30, pleaded guilty in federal court to murder and drug dealing conspiracies stemming from charges they ran a crack cocaine ring in South Brooklyn.
In a related case, the family’s elder statesman, capo Anthony Spero, 73, has been indicted with South Beach club baron Chris Paciello, a Miami celebrity and alleged mob associate who dated supermodel Niki Taylor and counts Madonna as a friend.
Spero will go on trial in February on murder and obstruction of justice charges. Paciello’s trial on charges of murder, racketeering and burglary will begin Oct. 17.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Walden, who is prosecuting Spero and Paciello, refused to comment on whether Massino is under investigation.
"Our policy is to not confirm or deny any ongoing investigations," Walden said.
The Bonanno organization, however, has shown remarkable resiliency and staying power, perhaps best demonstrated by the family’s namesake, 95-year-old Joseph Bonanno, long retired and living in Arizona.
"When a crime boss runs a tight ship and keeps himself out of the limelight, it becomes much harder for law enforcement to penetrate and obtain damning evidence," said Prof. Robert Castelli, an organized crime expert at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
"In the case of the Bonanno crime family, it has regrouped since the late 1970s. The boss is well insulated, his second in-command is reputedly his brother-in-law and there are no known cooperating witnesses. It’s a much tougher nut to crack."
Less than 120 members
Acting Boss: Steven Crea, facing state charges of enterprise corruption in Manhattan after he was arrested this month in a construction rigging scam.
Jailed in Rikers pending bail hearing. Presides over a family in increasing disarray.
About 120 members
Boss: Carmine Persico, serving 139 for murder and racketeering.
Acting Boss: Alphonse “Allie Boy” Persico, serving an 18 month sentence for illegal gun posession in Miami. His hold on his father’s organization is said to be tenuous.
Less than 200 members
Boss: John “Dapper Don” Gotti, serving life sentence jail for murder and racketeering. His son, John “Junior” Gotti, was a short-lived acting boss before he pleaded guilty and was imprisoned for six years on extortion conspiracy last year.
Acting Boss: Peter Gotti, the boss’ brother.
About 250 members
Boss: He once wandered Greenwich Village in a bathrobe, now Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, 72, is serving a 12-year sentence for racketeering and extortion conspiracy in a Fort Worth, Tex., prison hospital. He has delegated many duties but still controls a large and influential organization.
Bonanno Crime Family
About 130 members
Boss: Joseph Massino, 57, lives in Howard Beach, Queens.
Underboss: Salvatore A. Vitale, of Dix Hills, Long Island — Massino’s brother-in-law.