The Pre-Valachi Informer: The Mafioso the Feds Aided for Decades

From, an excerpt from "Deal with the Devil."

Gregory Scarpa Sr. was a study in complication. A peacock dresser, he carried a wad of $5,000 in cash at all times. He wore a seven-carat pinky ring and a diamond-studded watch. He made millions from drug dealing, hijackings, loan sharking, high-end jewelry scores, bank heists, and stolen securities. He owned homes in Las Vegas, Brooklyn, Florida, and Staten Island, and a co-op apartment on Manhattan’s exclusive Sutton Place. He was the biggest trafficker in stolen credit cards in New York and ran an international auto theft ring. A single bank robbery by his notorious Bypass Gang on the July 4 weekend in 1974 netted $15 million in thirteen duffel bags full of cash and jewels. His sports betting operation made $2.5 million a year. His crew grossed $70,000 weekly in drug sales. And yet, fifteen years after becoming a “made” member of the Colombo crime family, while he was a senior capo, Scarpa was arrested for “pilfering” coins from a pay phone. He simply couldn’t resist a chance to steal—even a handful of change from the phone company.

Five foot ten, two hundred and twenty pounds, Scarpa was described by one of his FBI contacting agents as “an ox of a man; like a short piano mover [with a] thick neck and huge biceps.” For more than forty-two years, as capo of the Colombo family (or borgata), he roamed the streets of Brooklyn like a feudal lord, earning the nicknames “the Grim Reaper,” “the Mad Hatter,” “Hannibal Lecter,” and “the Killing Machine.” He even signed personal letters with the initials “KM.”

But Scarpa was also a homebody with three separate families. In 1949 he married Connie Forrest. They had four children, including Gregory Jr., who started doing crimes for his father at the age of sixteen. Then, while still married to Connie, whom he shipped off to New Jersey, Scarpa moved in with Linda Diana, a gorgeous brunette nineteen years younger, who had been dating wiseguys since her mid-teens. Scarpa had two children with Linda, but in an effort to hide the fact that they were Greg’s, she married a man named Schiro, who believed the kids were his own. Then, in 1975, while still married to Forrest and living as Linda’s common-law husband, Scarpa ran off to Las Vegas and married Lili Dajani, a thirty-five-year-old former Miss Israel. Years later, Dajani’s lover, an ex-abortion doctor named Eli Shkolnik, was murdered on Scarpa’s orders. Yet in 1979 Scarpa agreed to let Linda carry on a torrid sexual relationship with Larry Mazza, a handsome eighteen-year-old delivery boy—and later made Mazza his protégé, schooling him in the crimes of loan sharking, bank robbery, and homicide.

“I started out one way and ended up with the devil,” Mazza later said. The former grocery worker expressed shock when Scarpa once suggested to him that they kill the mother of a mob turncoat in order to demonstrate “what happens to rats.”

Still, Scarpa, who bragged that he “loved the smell of gunpowder,” had no compunctions about killing women. When he heard that Mary Bari, the beautiful mistress of the family underboss, might talk to authorities, he had her lured to a club, then shot her in the head point-blank and dumped her body in a rolled-up canvas two miles away. Later, when the dog of one of his crew members’ wives found a piece of the dead woman’s ear, Scarpa joked about it over dinner. “He was just a vicious, violent animal,” said Mazza. “Unscrupulous and treacherous . . . just a horrible human being.”

And yet Scarpa’s daughter, “Little Linda” Schiro, described him as “incredibly loving—the kind of dad who was there for us every night for dinner at five o’clock. Whatever he was on the outside, he was really gentle at home.” Like a true sociopath, Scarpa was apparently capable of shifting at will from brutal murderer to loyal dad. After one bloody rubout, when Mazza and Scarpa shot a rival in the head, they went home to play with Greg’s infant grandson, drink wine, and watch Seinfeld on TV.

“He could transform himself,” says Little Linda. “He could go kill someone and five minutes later he’d be home watching Wheel of Fortune with my brother and me.”

The Grim Reaper ruled Thirteenth Avenue in Bensonhurst with an iron fist. He was responsible for more than twenty-five separate homicides between 1980 and 1992. With Mazza’s help, Scarpa killed three people in one four-week period. He shot one of his victims with a rifle while he was stringing Christmas lights with his wife. He killed a seventy-eight-year-old member of the Genovese family because the old man happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then, a few weeks later, after FBI and NYPD surveillance had been pulled away from a Mafia social club, he rolled up next to Colombo capo Nicholas Grancio, and when his own rifle jammed, he ordered him shot. Grancio’s nose was blown off and one of his teeth was later found in a nearby building At another point, tipped that Cosmo Catanzano, one of his crew members, might talk to the Feds, Scarpa ordered his grave dug in advance of the murder, but Catanzano escaped when DEA agents arrested him before the execution could take place.

“The man was the master of the unpredictable and he knew absolutely no bounds of fear,” said Joseph Benfante, one of Scarpa’s former lawyers. “If he’d lived four hundred years ago, he would have been a pirate.” The brazen Scarpa even gave himself a reason to wear an eye patch. In 1992, after being diagnosed with HIV and given only months to live, he broke house arrest and went after a pair of local drug dealers who had threatened his younger son. In the ensuing gun battle, Scarpa got his right eye shot out, but he walked home and downed a glass of scotch before Larry Mazza was summoned and drove him to the hospital.

“Scarpa had an action jones,” one former assistant district attorney recalled. Another investigator described the killer’s need to stay on the edge: “Capos ain’t supposed to be out on the street hijacking trucks, doing drug deals,” he said. “I mean, that’s why you have a crew. But Greg was there. He always had to walk point.”

And yet, even as he openly disparaged “rats,” Scarpa devoted more than three decades off and on to betraying his larger “family,” the Colombos.