Luchese Boss Matty Madonna's Longtime Criminal Career

Powerful Luchese mobster Matthew "Matty" Madonna, 80, ordered the 2013 Michael Meldish murder, one of the only "sanctioned" mob hits in recent years (that we know of).

For Madonna, drawing law enforcement's scrutiny is among the numerous occupational hazards of wiseguy life. He certainly knows that. Madonna's mob ties run back to 1970s Harlem. While New York's Purple Gang was murdering and dismembering anyone that got in its way, Madonna was Nicky Barnes' drug courier. A low-level gangster charged with making a dangerous drive to Harlem with a mega-load of dope stuffed in the rocker panel (or wherever, anyone see French Connection?)

Matty Madonna's roots go back to 1970s Harlem-based drug kingpin  Nicky Barnes.
Matty Madonna's roots go back to 1970s Harlem-based
drug kingpin  Nicky Barnes.

The alleged murderers of Meldish have been arrested. Madonna copped to 2010's Operation Heat case involving a gambling ring and prison-smuggling operation, then to another case, and is slated to serve five years.

Meldish was offed with one shot to the head in November 2013. His body was found in his car, slumped over in the driver's seat, head back and mouth open.

Meldish was not an innocent victim. He is believed to have committed as many as 10 mob-related hits, and was never prosecuted for a single one of them, to Joseph Coffey's lament.

His brother and longtime street partner Joseph Meldish has been serving a 25-to-life sentence for a 1999 slaying. Joseph is believed to have committed as many as 70 contract killings.

Both Michael and Joseph were leaders of the notorious Purple Gang, which back in the 1970s and 1980s dealt heroin in the Bronx and Harlem and whacked people for the Bonanno, Luchese, and Genovese crime families. The gang appropriated its named from the Prohibition-era Detroit gang. The "new" Purple Gang had a distinction, however, for dismembering victims' bodies. The Purple Gang also may have had ties to Latin American terrorists in a firearms for narcotics trade agreement. By the late 1980s, members increasingly were apprehended in drug busts. Some of the remaining members then joined the 116th Street Crew, with a few of them landing buttons in three crime families.

Meldish was a Luchese associate at the time of his death.

His brother Joseph, 60, is serving his sentence at Shawangunk Correctional Facility for murder in the 2nd degree for the 1999 mistaken identity execution of Joe Brown inside Frenchy’s Bar, formerly located in Throggs Neck.

According to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, Meldish will be eligible for parole on September 22, 2032.

Mob associate Christopher Londonio and Terrence Caldwell were arrested and indicted for committing the actual murder. Londonio and Caldwell have had a longstanding criminal relationship, the NYPD reported.

In November of 2013, Meldish, who had 18 prior arrests dating back to 1971, pulled to a stop at a crosswalk and was exiting his vehicle when he was fired on. The shooter had either ambushed Meldish at this location or was his passenger. He was shot in the right side of his head from a short distance (gunpowder residue was lacking).

Investigators eventually focused on Matty Madonna and a Bonanno boss, though Madonna would seem to have had more reasons -- as well as the requisite power -- to order Meldish's death. According to published reports, Madonna was angry at "Meldish and his ways" in the 15 months before he was shot to death.

It is likely that Madonna and Meldish also had a longstanding relationship, going back decades to 1970s Harlem -- when the Purple Gang was murdering and dismembering and Matty Madonna was driving a car loaded with heroin meant for a drug kingpin.

Harlem dealer Nicky Barnes had a notoriously high profile
Nicky Barnes, one of Harlem's biggest drug traffickers in the 1970s.

Nicky Barnes' Drug Supplier

In 1975, Barnes was a legend in Harlem, "a cancer that law enforcement officials couldn't eradicate," as the New York Daily News reported. In that same article it detailed Barnes' and Madonna's relationship. His front-page photo in a New York newspaper so angered then-President Jimmy Carter, he ordered law enforcement to target the drug dealer.

Barnes got his drugs from the mob -- specifically from Matty Madonna.

"He and his Mafia heroin suppliers had a system for exchanging cash for the drug imported from Asia. Barnes would meet Matthew Madonna, a smuggler he befriended in an upstate prison [Green Haven Correctional Facility in Upstate New York] in 1959, to get the location of a car parked in a municipal lot in Manhattan and the keys to the car. Heroin would be in the trunk. One night in February 1975, a 20-kilogram load of heroin from Bangkok was in a car that Madonna had parked in a 24-hour lot in Manhattan. After eluding the cops, Barnes picked up the car and drove to one of several apartments he kept, where underlings cut and packaged the heroin for sale on the streets. Two days later, Barnes returned the car, its trunk full of cash, to another lot, met Madonna on another street corner and gave him back the keys. The feds nailed Madonna that year, but Barnes found another supplier and kept going for two more years beating another case in the Bronx."

A 2007 New York magazine article titled Lords of Dopetown, an interview with Barnes and Frank Lucas, both retired by then, mentions Madonna. He's also included in the must-read book Gangsters of Harlem: The Gritty Underworld of New York City's Most Famous Neighborhood by Ron Chepesiuk.of Strategic Media Books.

Madonna was given heavy time following his arrest. On December 21, 1976, he was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison. In December 1981, while still doing time, he was summoned to testify before a grand jury about New York-area narcotics activity. Madonna twice refused to testify, even after he was granted immunity. The judge held Madonna in contempt of court. Madonna received an extra 528 days added to his sentence.

In 1995, Madonna was released from Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. Around 1998, Madonna was inducted into the Luchese crime family and was soon thereafter elevated to a capo. Madonna was sent back to prison and was released on September 22, 2003.

While Steven Crea, known to operate several construction companies, was serving three years in prison, Madonna was part of the Luchese family's ruling panel that also consisted of Aniello Migliore (who'd been a close associate of two Luchese bosses, Gaetano "Tommy" Lucchese and Anthony "Tony Ducks" Corallo) and Joseph DiNapoli (who has two brothers in the Genovese family).

Some reports name Madonna as the head of the panel, but Jerry Capeci reported otherwise.

Migliore... “is the biggest influence on the street,” says one law-enforcement official. “He’s more equal than the others,” says another investigator.

After Crea's release from prison, he formally took control of the family, disbanding the panel.

In December, 2007, New Jersey law enforcement arrested Madonna and over 30 other members and associates of the Luchese family, a result of "Operation Heat." (View indictment, PDF).

There were two parts to the case. One was a prison-smuggling racket that New Jersey's Attorney General described as consisting of an “alarming alliance” between the Luchese crime family and the Bloods street gang to supply drugs and cellphones to gang members inside a New Jersey prison.

There was also a $2.2 billion gambling ring that was run mainly via a Costa Rican website.

Overall 34 were nabbed -- the majority from New Jersey and five from New York. Michael A. Cetta, one of the indicted, is a Bonnano crime family associate linked to the Luchese crime family through marriage.

Charges ranged from racketeering and money laundering to conspiracy to distribute heroin and conspiracy to commit aggravated assault.

New York’s crime families have long built alliances with other organized crime groups, including Russians, Cubans and Asians. Also, prison-smuggling rings have gone on for decades.

But as the New York Times noted, the Luchese alliance was unique:

"... [L]aw enforcement officials said, the prison scheme provided the first evidence of an organized crime family from New York working with the Bloods street gang, one of the state’s largest. Moreover.... the potential for more cooperation was great, given their shared interests in “violence, illegal drugs and quick profits.”

“What we have here in this case is the realization of what we feared: connecting old-school organized crime, the Mafia, with new-school organized crime, gangs,” a New Jersey law enforcement official said. “We’ve heard anecdotes about overlap, but this is the first time we’ve had a direct link between the two organizations.”

As part of Heat, investigators seized two shotguns, one handgun, one hand grenade, 2,000 OxyContin-grade pills and $200,000 in cash.

State officials also obtained court orders to take possession of 7 homes and 13 luxury cars.

According to law enforcement officials, the prison scheme revolved around prisoner Edwin B. Spears who has served time for a variety of offenses since 2002.

Spears, a reputed “five-star general” in the Nine Trey Gangsters faction of the Bloods, cooperated with two Luchese members — Joseph M. Perna and Michael A. Cetta — to smuggle heroin, cocaine, marijuana and prepaid cellphones into East Jersey State Prison in Woodbridge.

They enlisted the help of Michael T. Bruinton, a senior prison guard, by offering him $500 each time he allowed smuggled goods to pass through. Bruinton started a career in corrections in 1987.

Ralph Perna, was named top capo for the Luchese family's New Jersey faction. Three of his sons, including Joseph, and his daughter-in-law, were also charged in the investigation.

Reports indicate that the Nine Trey gangsters may have been involved with the gambling ring as well, though this hasn't been proven.

Gangsters and Gangstas

According to New Jersey's former head of the gang unit in the United States attorney’s office, the cultural differences between the two groups would appear to be too great to allow for a long-term alliance. Mafia crews shun the spotlight, while gangs like the Bloods and Crips are proud to show their gang affiliations, taunting law enforcement and the public with raw displays of power and wealth.

“No self-respecting mobster would want anything to do with the Bloods or Crips because those gangs are the antithesis of the Mafia,” he said. “The mob is concerned with making money over the long haul, trying to appear respectable. But the Bloods are concerned with projecting their status, so they’re all, ‘I’m going to shoot up the block and wear a red bandanna.’”

Yet Marc Agnifilo, the former head of the gang unit, added that while prosecuting organized crime and street gang cases between 1998 and 2003, "he frequently heard members of the Bloods speak of Mafia members and customs with admiration."

“The Blood guys love mobsters because they’re the old-school gangsters,” he said. “A lot of my Mafia informants in prison would complain that they couldn’t get away from the Bloods’ always following them and fawning over them.”