1981: A Most Violent Year for New York's Mafia

After finishing The Stone Killer (1973), Charles Bronson and Michael Winner wanted to make another film together. They discussed further projects.

"What do we do next?" asked Bronson.

"The best script I've got is 'Death Wish'. It's about a man whose wife and daughter are mugged and he goes out and shoots muggers," said Winner.

"I'd like to do that," Bronson said.

"The film?" asked Winner.

"No . . . shoot muggers," Bronson replied,

A Most Violent Year: "A crime drama set in New York City during the winter of 1981, statistically one of the most violent years in the city's history, and centered on the lives of an immigrant and his family trying to expand their business and capitalize on opportunities as the rampant violence, decay, and corruption of the day drag them in and threaten to destroy all they have built."

The above statistic is true. The film is fiction, but the backdrop against which it was set, New York City in 1981, is a fact as unyielding as rebar.

The violence included mob violence but touched on a broad spectrum of crimes, as one recent report noted.

"The 365 days between January 1st and December 31st were filled with news reports of mob violence spilling out into the street, rape, robbery and other seeds of crime that had the city’s citizens fearing what their city was becoming...."

 A 1981 Time cover story summed up the situation:

"Day by day, America's all too familiar crime clock ticks faster and faster. Every 24 minutes, a murder is committed somewhere in the U.S. Every ten seconds a house is burgled, every seven minutes a woman is raped. ...."

"The curse of violent crime is rampant not just in the ghettos of depressed cities, where it always has been a malignant force to contend with, but everywhere in urban areas, in suburbs and peaceful countrysides. More significant, the crimes are becoming more brutal, more irrational, more random —and therefore all the more frightening."

Death Wish captured the flavor of the times.
Charles Bronson's Paul Kersey goes vigilante
after muggers rape his wife and daughter.

The story quoted Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, who warned of a "reign of terror in American cities," and asked: "Are we not hostages within the borders of our own selfstyled, enlightened, civilized country?"

The Figgie Report, a privately funded study of crime in the U.S., noted: "The fear of crime is slowly paralyzing American society."

Then-Houston Police Chief B.K. Johnson said: "We have allowed ourselves to degenerate to the point where we're living like animals. We live behind burglar bars and throw a collection of door locks at night and set an alarm and lay down with a loaded shotgun beside the bed and then try to get some rest. It's ridiculous."

The chief himself, the story acknowledged, stored several loaded guns in his bedroom.

Attorney General William French Smith declared that the Justice Department will place a new and high priority on fighting violent crime.

He appointed a new task force, headed by former Attorney General Griffin Bell and Illinois Governor James Thompson, to decipher how the Federal Government could assist local and state law enforcement agencies.

A Justice Department study revealed the widespread impact of the growing national crime wave: roughly one out of every three U.S. household was impacted directly by serious crime as of 1980.

Americans, seeking to take a degree of control over the problem, began "arming themselves with guns as though they still lived in frontier days," Time noted.

"It's the Matt Dillon syndrome," says Jack Wright Jr., a Loyola University criminologist.

"People believe the police can't protect them."

They are buying guard dogs and supplies of Mace. Locksmiths and burglar-alarm businesses are flourishing, as are classes in karate and target shooting. Banks have long waiting lists for vacated safety-deposit boxes. Many city sidewalks are a muggers' mecca at night; the elderly dread walking anywhere, even in broadest daylight. The fear of street crime is changing the way America lives.
The 1970s saw a strong uptick in violent crime, showing no signs of abating when the 1980s commenced.

The marked upswing in street violence really gained momentum in 1980. The public shooting of John Lennon outside the Dakota served as a sort of herald of the frightening trend seemingly ever-gaining momentum.

According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, based on 1980's first six months, "New York City probably had its worst year in history. Serious crimes ran some 60% above the national average... New York topped the nation in its robbery rate and in 1980 had a record number of murders: 1,814."

The record high murder rate grew significantly in 1981. There were 2,166 murders that year versus the 648 said to take place in 2013. (2015, as you'll see, was the year things changed for the worse, however).

Life was cheaper back then. Across America, one's zipcode no longer afforded protection.

Terms like "thrill kill" entered the vocabulary.

Perhaps owing to the doomsday sentiment of the day, possibly fueled by Ronald Reagan's inflammatory Evil Empire rhetoric (which years later successfully led to the Berlin Wall's collapse), there was a vague anarchist flavor seemingly on tap for anyone who wanted a taste...

Criminologists seemed to agree that drugs contributed heavily to those years of violent crime, with many claiming drugs were factor in nearly half of all street crime.

Williamsburg today is dominated by millennial hipsters who live in high-rise condominiums, dine in pricey restaurants and shop in tony retail boutiques. This neighborhood was once very different. It was literally "a hotbed of street gang and mob activity."

The consummate 1970s gangster flick, The Warriors, based in Coney Island.

And somehow, I don't think those 1980s-era gangs were anything like the ones from which mob bosses Vito Genovese and Carlo Gambino once enlisted their soldiers back in the 1950s. Back then New York City was home to street gangs such as Williamburg's Jacksons Gents. Many high-profile mobsters -- including Gaspipe, Sammy the Bull, Gerard Pappa, Carmine Persico and Frank Lino -- acquired important criminal skills in street gangs.

But things changed in the 1980s.

Street Gangs
Known for their unparalleled brutality (some carried swords, see picture below), The Dirty Ones, the Savage Nomads, and the Black Stabbers were among the street gangs then engaged in a bloody war, prompting the Williamsburg area to be nicknamed Brooklyn’s “killing fields” due to the vast number of teenagers "senselessly killed" there.

"LCN," The Five Families
The New York Mafia, the Cosa Nostra, the Five Families ruled the New York boroughs' underworld with an iron fist, but was supposedly at its strongest in Brooklyn and Queens.

In 1981 FBI agent Joseph Pistone — aka Donnie Brasco — was wrapping up his undercover investigation of the Bonanno crime family, which began with him meeting Colombo associates in 1975. (Wonder how the story would've played out if Pistone had stayed with the Colombo crime family.)

One month following Pistone's outing as a federal agent, in August of 1981, Bonanno capo Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano was murdered in a Brooklyn basement.

Although he supposedly gave his money and jewelry to a bartender, Napolitano actually thought he'd be able to talk his way out of the meeting. "We all screwed up," he'd been told, or words along that line. He was told Pistone was the family's problem, and not his alone.

Basically, Sonny Black was told what he wanted to hear.

Napolitano also was a key player in a triple homicide the Bonanno family pulled off that same violent, bloody year. Sonny Red and his guys were lined up directly against the official boss, Philip "Rusty" Rastelli, backed by Joe Massino and other capos, including Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano, and the Zips—once Sonny Red stiffed them for a consignment of heroin they'd fronted him.

The Gambinos were aligned with the Bonannos. Some speculate John Gotti's ties to Joe Massino were a key dynamic behind the strike. The triple-capo whacking was not Commission sanctioned.

Double Homicide at the Shamrock Bar
Two men drinking away an evening at the Shamrock Bar on Jamaica Ave. in Richmond Hill, Queens, were gunned down by mobsters -- right in the middle of the crowded drinking establishment. Richard Godkin and business partner John D'Agnese were shot to death in 1981, supposedly over an accidentally spilled drink that landed on the dress of Gambino mobster Frank Riccardi’s girlfriend.

Three mobsters beat the rap due to "bungling prosecutors and reluctant witnesses," as the New York Daily News reported in March of 2013. The story's thrust seemed to be that, finally, the key shooter, "Bobby Glasses" Vernace, responsible for the "senseless" 1981 shooting on "Western Night" at the Shamrock Bar was going to be held accountable. A year later he was.....

What changed, the Daily News reported, was that two key witnesses were finally ready to testify after years of fearing the mob.

FBI agents have convinced Linda Gotti, niece of deceased crime boss John Gotti (and daughter to John Gotti brother Peter Gotti, who is apparently still the official Gambino boss and is serving a prison sentence not slated to end until 2032), to identify the men who killed D'Agnese, who was her boyfriend at the time. Bartender Patrick Sullivan, who previously backed out, will also testify.

Richard, a decorated Vietnam veteran, had fathered four children with his wife by the time of his death.

Catherine Godkin at her Brooklyn home with daughters (from l. to r.) Susan, Jacqueline, Christine.

Charges were dropped against alleged killer Ronald "Ronnie the Jew" Barlin because Linda Gotti recanted her identification.

Bartolomeo "Bobby Glasses" Vernace beat a state murder rap in 1998 for killing Godkin and D'Agnese. Riccardi was tried separately in state court and was also acquitted. He died in 2007. 

With decades having passed -- and the mob not the same fearful entity it had been in 1981, Linda Gotti and bartender Joseph Patrick Sullivan were ready to tell the jury what they knew.

In the end, only Sullivan took the stand.

One report noted of Sullivan:

During testimony in the federal trial in 2013, an eyewitness to the murders, Shamrock bartender Joseph Patrick Sullivan, testified that he had lied during the state trial about Vernace’s role in the murders out of fear of retribution. According to a press release from the FBI, the eyewitness testified in the federal case that he recognized all three assailants but that he had been afraid to testify against them because, in his words, “two men were dead over a spilled drink. I think that was reason enough to be afraid.”

Vernace, who launched his long career in the mafia in the early 1970s and ended up serving on the three-member ruling panel overseeing the Gambino family, was arrested on Jan. 20, 2011 as part of the FBI’s national sweep of almost 100 members and associates of organized crime.

After the double slayings, Vernace went into hiding. He returned years later to Queens and became an active member of the Gambino crime family.

Over the next two decades,his power grew. Law enforcement officials said he was known to have a “large and profitable crew” that was based in a Cooper Avenue cafe located in Glendale. 

Vernace was eventually sentenced to life in prison last year for the killing. In fact, he was found guilty on all of the nine racketeering acts he faced, which in addition to the two murders, included heroin trafficking, robbery, loansharking, and illegal gambling. He had rejected a plea deal that would have sent him away for only 12 years. (He tried to reconsider on the eve of the trial, but the Fed's said the agreement was no longer an option.)

Vernace allegedly just shrugged after the verdict was read. Godkin's widow and two daughters wept.

Bartolomeo Vernace was found guilty of two 1981 murders. 

As for Linda Gotti, she had eagerly wanted to testify in Vernace's federal trial. But lLawyers representing Vernace didn't want the "Mafia princess" in the racketeering and murder trial.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld Vernace's conviction for murdering the two men in the Shamrock bar, ruling that "the cold-blooded killings may have been over a spilled drink, but the violence burnished the mobster's reputation in the street and later rise to power."

Vernace had argued that he was wrongly convicted of murder in aid of racketeering -- the slayings were part of a personal dispute and not Gambino business, he argued.

The three-judge panel, however found, that “a reasonable jury could have concluded Vernace went so far as to commit murder in a crowded bar because such a public display related to preserving (and even enhancing) the reputation of the Gambino crime family and its members.”

Crime scene photos from the 1981 shooting, which took place right in the middle of a crowded bar
on a cowboy-themed dance party night.