The Mob Boss Who Sued Life Magazine and Lost

Just curious if anyone would be interested in learning about what happened to the late mob boss of San Jose, California, who sued Life magazine in 1968, and likely regretted his actions for the next 10 years, until he died in 1978.

Joseph Cerrito hit his stride as a Mafia chieftain by the 1960s. The obscure mob boss attended the Apalachin conference in 1957, although it is unclear if he'd officially been named boss of his borgata yet.

Cerrito, largely a footnote in books on mob history, also played an important role within the mob by updating Cosa Nostra bosses in Sicily regarding Joseph Bonanno's failed attempt to overthrow three Commission bosses and assume control of New York, a scheme that ended in a rather humiliating way for the proud Sicilian Man of Honor, who was forced out out of town with his tail between his legs.

He could've easily been executed for his insurrection. But it's been reported that since he was a founding member of the American Mafia, he was sentenced to exile.

Cerrito sued Life magazine for $7 million (about $48 million today) on libel charges regarding a two-part story that the magazine ran in 1968. Cerrito's name was on a map that appeared in one of the articles. "Cerrito-San Jose" was about the extent of his inclusion in the large story.

Some are probably too young to recall Life magazine, or at least how popular and widely read it once was back in the glory days of photojournalism; it was primarily a news magazine chock full of photographs that were considered journalism as much as the stories positioned around them.

Life was founded in 1883 as a humor and general interest magazine. Magazine magnate Henry Luce bought the publication in 1936 because he wanted the name, which he used to christen a new weekly news magazine that featured a strong emphasis on photojournalism.
Photograph of a Sicilian Cosa Nostra
boss included in the Life article
by Smith. See who he's walking with in
the next article.

Luce (April 3, 1898 – February 28, 1967) was the genius behind Time, Fortune and Sports Illustrated, all of which still publish. Life was published weekly until 1972; on special occasions until 1978, and as a monthly from 1978 to the present.

In 1968, faced with a lawsuit by a Cosa Nostra Don, Life knew there was only one thing to do.

Ace crime reporter Sandy Smith was set loose on Cerrito. Smith wrote a longish piece devoted solely to Cerrito and his crimes and links to organized crime. Using a team of FBI agents as his sources, Smith outlined in some detail a failed extortion attempt by Cerrito, among other things.

In a happy coincidence, I recently obtained a copy of that issue of Life magazine and am planning to write a longer follow-up article to this one about Cerrito, including additional source material, to present a clear depiction of the Mafia godfather who ruled San Jose, California from about 1960 until his death.

Journalist Smith ended the story with an interesting line that should reverberate among the many of you who have viewed Goodfellas.

"Genial Joe Cerrito, shoeshine and all, is a gangster."


  1. nice article, ed. never heard of him! keep it coming!

  2. Definitively want to read more!

  3. He was very well known in San Jose' back in the day. He lived in Los Gatos.


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