John Riggi, Mafia's "Last Legitimate Boss"

Giovanni Riggi (February 1, 1925 – August 3, 2015), aka John the Eagle, died on Monday of natural causes. He was 90 and outlived what law enforcement officials no doubt considered a life sentence.

A member of the New Jersey-based crime family since the 1940s (before it was given its historic name, the DeCavalcante crime family), Riggi served as the Elizabeth crew's captain and was named acting boss in the 1970s.

Giovanni "John the Eagle" Riggi (February 1, 1925 – August 3, 2015) died of natural causes.
John Riggi, at the height of power.

Riggi's rise was slow and deliberate. Simone "Sam the Plumber" DeCavalcante named Riggi as his successor in 1980. Riggi in fact held the official boss title up until his death a week ago.  He's been described as well-spoken, extremely polite and extremely ruthless.

Toward the end of his life he'd been incarcerated at the Federal Medical Center (FMC) in Devens, Massachusetts. He was released on November 27, 2012.

The funeral at the Corsentino Home for Funerals in Elizabeth, N.J., held on Friday, Aug. 7, was well-attended, with mourners going around the block. Riggi was entombed at Rosedale Cemetery in Linden, N.J.

"He was the last legitimate boss and there will never be another guy like him," said a source who'd been close to Riggi for many years. "If you met him, he had almost like a presidential bearing."

John Alite, the subject of George Anastasia's Gotti's Rules: The Story of John Alite, Junior Gotti, and the Demise of the American Mafia, told us: "John Riggi had a sense of honor. The difference between him and John Gotti was that he would take the fall for his guys."

"I'm the father of my family," was something Riggi said. He indeed viewed himself as a father, versus as a boss. This was something he had in common with "Sam the Plumber," who was known to tell his men to "shake hands" after he ordered them to reconcile after arguing.

Riggi was more than willing to go to prison to take the heat off his guys, the rank-and-file members who served in his crime family. This doesn't mean that Riggi tolerated informants. Quite the opposite, the DeCavalcantes was known for ruthlessly killing their fair share of informants/suspected informants, among other threats to the family.

"Sam the Plumber" DeCavalcante (who preferred "The Count" moniker based on claims of Italian royal lineage) had a tight relationship with Riggi. Early during Simone's reign, he picked Riggi from the choir.

At the time, "John had had a beef with someone in the family. John told [DeCavalcante], 'If I'm lying, kill me. If he's lying I'm gonna kill him right now....'

"It didn't come to that, but [DeCavalcante] saw what John was made of."

According to the source, Riggi was hesitant about getting involved with Cosa Nostra but that his father, Manny, "an old-school Sicilian" soldier in the New Jersey crime family, had pressured him into joining.

"He pushed John into the crime family."

Riggi graduated from Linden High School in 1942 as its class president. He then enlisted in the United States Army in 1943, serving as an aircraft and engine mechanic. His obit described him as an "Army Air Corps veteran."

After he returned from World War II, he drifted toward the Mafia.

In 1969, DeCavalcante was convicted of extortion-conspiracy and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was released in 1976, when he named Riggi acting boss of the family. DeCavalcante then moved to Florida to begin the process of pulling away from the day-to-day affairs of the Mafia.

In 1980 after serving his final prison stint (five years), DeCavalcante officially retired to a high-rise condo in Florida and passed control to Riggi.

"The Count" largely stayed out of Mafia business, though the FBI alleged he continued to assist Riggi into the early 1990s, dispensing advice through Simone Junior, his son.

According to our source, when Simone passed Riggi the torch he made one request in particular.  "'Promise me you'll keep these guys working.' That's what this was all about," the source told us.

Riggi reaped the enormous rewards of large labor and construction racketeering, as well as the mob's historic standbys of loansharking, illegal gambling and extortion.

He reinstated some of the crime family's old traditions, which DeCavalcante had deemed unnecessary. (Years later, Joseph "Big Joey" Massino followed the precedent set by "Sam the Plumber," doing away with conceits like having a gun and knife on the table during induction ceremonies in case of a law enforcement raid amid the ceremony.)

Historically, while the DeCavalcante crime family engaged in traditional Mafia rackets, its strength (and perhaps ability to maintain its independence from New York's Five Families, as well as the Philadelphia criminal organization) stemmed from its immense influence over unions – specifically, Local 394 of the International Brotherhood of Laborers and Hod Carriers in Elizabeth and Laborers International Union District Council 30 in Millburn.

"Sam the Plumber" told Riggi to keep the guys working.....

Riggi was an expert in labor racketeering and wielded immense power for years over New Jersey's construction trade due to his involvement with labor unions. Riggi served as a business agent for Local 394 from 1965 to 1986, and was then named president of District Council 30 in 1986. He supposedly retired shortly thereafter, though he continued to serve as a consultant to the local.

Today, New Jersey's only homegrown crime family (despite the mob's relentless exploitation of the Garden State) operates closely with New York's Gambino crime family, according to the FBI. Both crime families are run by Sicilians, according to a recorded conversation between a member and an undercover agent.

It was a very different story in Riggi's day.

"The Eagle" had been virtually untouchable. Riggi and his associates were known to be an extremely tight-knit group that held important meetings in or near Elizabeth's Peterstown section at the Ribera Club and the Cafe Italia. The Holiday Inn in East Orange and Sheraton Newark Airport Hotel at Newark International Airport also were key meeting places for the group.

Although Riggi, like his predecessor, was known not to have a lust for violence, he didn't hesitate to issue the ultimate order when he deemed it necessary.

Riggi sanctioned the 1978 murder of John Suarato, the uncle of a made member. A low-level street hustler, Suarato engaged in an ongoing dispute with his sister over an inheritance. Riggi's approval of the hit, while he was still officially capo, raised his profile and popularity level with the rank and file.

Other key murders attributed to Riggi include the 1980s hit on Vincenzo Sorce, a local construction company owner whose body was found under the Goethal's Bridge between Elizabeth and Staten Island. His murder followed an altercation between himself and member at the Ribera Club. It also happened a few weeks following an FBI/local law enforcement Local 394's Elizabeth headquarters. Some 14 other business locations were searched in connection with a federal investigation of the mob's influence in the construction industry in New Jersey.

In January of 1988, Vincent "Jimmy" Rotondo, once underboss of the DeCavalcante family, was found dead inside his Lincoln Continental, which has been parked in front of Rotondo's Brooklyn home. Inside the vehicle with his bullet riddled body was a jar of rotting fish. It's alleged that Riggi approved the hit owing to Rotundo having brought into the family a criminal associate later identified as an informant who testified against Riggi. John Gotti also allegedly approved the hit. (Years later, Anthony Rotondo, Vincent's son, who'd been promoted to capo, turned informant.)

The problem for law enforcement was that, though recordings were made extensively during meetings when Riggi was in the room, the man never said a single incriminating word.

He also took extensive measures to avoid incriminating himself and anyone else. "John would drive for two hours to have a one-minute conversation with someone" via a payphone, the source told us.

Even during meetings held in public, with the FBI and other law enforcement officials watching, Riggi never said or did anything incriminating.

(Riggi once wrote a letter to a Union County, N.J., businessman advising the well-respected gentleman to take up vegetarianism.)

A local contractor once called the New Jersey Organized Crime Task Force to tell them Riggi had summoned him to a lunch meeting at the Sheraton Hotel in Linden. The OCTF, which had been watching Riggi for months by then, leaped at what they thought would be a huge opportunity.

They bugged the table where Riggi and the contractor would sit and set up full surveillance.

They were surprised when the restaurant started filling up with more patrons than was usual.

Riggi showed up, and the receptionist sat him and the contractor at the bugged table, where she'd been instructed to by the OCTF.

The task force expected Riggi to demand an envelope. They thought he'd threaten the contractor with labor disruption or even violence.

They were in for a shock.

"I am John Riggi," the mob boss said as he took his seat in the restaurant across the table from the contractor. "I just want to tell you that New Jersey is a very pro-union state."

Then, union leader after union leader rose from other tables in the restaurant and walked over to Riggi's table. One by one, they shook Riggi's hand, told the contractor what a great guy Riggi was, then returned to their respective seats. These men were the bosses of nearly every single union local in North Jersey.

Law enforcement officials had to admit they were impressed. Riggi was able to let the contractor know exactly how powerful he was without saying or doing anything. He simply introduced himself and allowed the contractor to see the extent of his influence via simple handshakes.

The contractor who'd called the OCTF ultimately did business with Riggi.

Still, Riggi was a mob boss, and he never forgot it. No Paul Castellano, he knew what tended to happen to mob bosses and other powerful mobsters, so he began readying himself for prison about five years before he went in, according to our source.

"He sat in a room alone for hours every day. He also started to get into shape. He wanted to live."

Riggi also sought to help his own family in the event that he was imprisoned.

"I once drove him to meet with a butcher he knew from East Orange," the source said. "He'd saved this guy's life once and had never taken anything from him in return."

"When I go away," Riggi told the butcher, "feed my family." (The butcher did, sending his best cuts of meat to the Riggi household on a weekly basis while Riggi was in prison.)

Law enforcement finally nailed Riggi and his two sons on October 16, 1989, when they were indicted along with two top Riggi associates: capo Girolamo Palermo and soldier Salvatore Timpani. 

All faced federal racketeering charges related to their control of the construction industry through Local 394. Riggi was convicted on July 20, 1990, of extortion and labor law violations, and Timpani of extortion. The other defendants were acquitted.

When they came to arrest Riggi early one morning as part of a larger sweep, the mob boss asked politely if he could shower and dress in a suit.

"All the others we took in that morning put on the arrest suit—sweats and sneakers. But when we brought him into the holding cell and he walked in, they all stood up," said Robert Boccino, a veteran New Jersey organized crime expert and former deputy chief of the State Organized Crime Bureau. Boccino considered Riggi a gentleman.

While at the federal penitentiary in Butner, N.C., Riggi was sentenced in September 2003 to an additional 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to ordering the Sept. 11, 1989, murder of a Staten Island man believed to be cooperating with authorities.

"We agreed that he should be murdered," Riggi said matter-of-factly at his plea hearing. "Pursuant to the agreement, Fred Weiss was murdered. That's it."

NEW MATERIAL: As for why Riggi copped to the Weiss murder, another source not previously included in this story told us:

"The only reason he plead guilty was because they took the other murder counts off the indictment, he had gotten a great plea offer before with coverage for all the murders. The problem was the murder of his lifelong friend, who was also his son's father-in-law and his grandchildren's grandfather.

"The children had stopped talking to his son and John was going to go to trial so his grandchildren would learn the truth, that he had nothing to do with their grandfather's murder.

"In actuality, [this person] had been murdered to slap John in the face."

Riggi was not perfect, and he made mistakes.He had a knack for picking the wrong street bosses while he was away, for example.

But his larger mistake, some say, was becoming too close to Gambino boss John Gotti. Historically under "Sam the Plumber" the Genovese family had been most closely associated with the New Jersey family.

According to intelligence reports, Riggi and Gotti meet regularly to discuss construction projects in New Jersey. Gotti had an interest in a New York City-based steel erecting company, which was involved in a large construction project in Central New Jersey. Gotti and his associates needed Riggi's laborers but also sought Riggi's advice.

Riggi cooperated with Gotti and approved the hits that Gotti requested of him. Still, in the end, Riggi supposedly harbored some anger at Gotti.

When told Gotti was suffering from a particular ailment that later caused the Dapper Don's death, Riggi allegedly said: "That's because he talked too much."

Riggi was his own man, to the end. He helped build Little League baseball fields in Linden and gave generously to charity, Boccino said.

"The people in Elizabeth loved him. Nobody would cooperate—that was the problem. He was respected."

Another source we spoke with had this to say of Riggi: "Pal, I have nothing to add that's has not already been said. I knew him as a child because he knew my family, then years later I ended up spending a couple of years in a cell with him, which was a great Life lesson. ...

"He was a good man in a world of scumbags."

Also we can now reveal Riggi's role in a previous story we posted about Frank Sinatra, who was once proposed to get an honorary button, as a source told us.

"Very few people know he was purposed to be made," the source said of Sinatra.

However, "a few of the bosses on the Commission shot it down. I got that story right from the mouth of a boss who sat on the Commission."

That boss, we can now say, was Riggi, who hated Sinatra and was one of the bosses who thumbed-down the honorary button request.