Longtime Bonanno Santora Faces Trial of His Life

Nicholas Santora and three Bonanno gangsters are on trial for enterprise corruption.
Nicky Mouth's 2012 arrest by federal agents.

What is most amazing about reputed capo/former underboss Nicholas "Nicky Mouth" Santora -- whose criminal roots go back to the 1960s and whose mob career included years in Greenpoint's Motion Lounge social club during the FBI's 1970s Donnie Brasco infiltration of the Bonanno crime family -- is the fact that he's still alive and a power in gangland.

At least he was a power on the street until his 2012 arrest by federal agents in an unrelated case. In 2013, he copped to a federal extortion charge in Brooklyn and was sentenced to 20 (or 30, reports disagree) months in prison. He was serving that sentence in the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Pa., when he was indicted in 2013 along with his alleged crew, which consisted of associates and soldiers, by Manhattan's DA, Cyrus Vance. (See actual indictment, which is 158-pages long and can be saved as a PDF.)

Santora didn't bite when he was offered a plea agreement in the Manhattan case. Reputed Bonanno associates Dominick Siano, Nicholas Bernhard, Scott O'Neil, Anthony Urban and Richard Sinde, originally part of this case, signed plea agreements; interestingly they also were permitted bail following their 2013 arrests in a sweep.

The three mobsters now on trial with Santora were not granted bail. Prosecutors described Santora's fellow defendants as Bonanno family soldiers. Their names: Ernest Aiello, 36; Vito Badamo, 53; and Anthony Santoro, 52.

And despite his has-been brokester reputation Santora was something of a mob innovator (or at least he was smart or fortunate enough to have an innovative guy or two under him), according to prosecutors.Santora and members of his Bonanno crime family crew reportedly developed some novel tweaks to the mob's old-school systemic rackets. For example, prosecutors highlighted how Nicky Mouth's crew had formulated new methods for earning that relied less on violence.
Violence, or the lack thereof, could be a key hurdle for Manhattan prosecutors in the courtroom in this case, as the indictment doesn't include a single murder. Prosecutors will recall Vincent Asaro's fresh acquittal on racketeering and other charges, including an alleged vicious murder committed with a dog chain used as a garrote.

Asaro and Nicky Mouth also are somewhat close to the same age, 80 and 73, respectively, and some pundits believe age was a likely key factor contributing to Asaro's getting off.

The Santora case also is somewhat reminiscent of the one Philly acting boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi faced. On May 23, 2011, Ligambi and others were arrested by the FBI and held without bail on racketeering, loan sharking and gambling-related charges. Nearly three years later, on January 28, 2014, Ligambi was released from prison after two mistrials.

A unanimous verdict against Ligambi proved elusive for two different juries. That case was viewed by many as a steroid-infused nickel-and-dime gambling charge. It also had no murders attached to it, which may have been an important factor among the jurors in deciding (or failing to decide) that case.

Defendants "Skinny" Santoro, Vito Badamo, and Ernest Aiello in Manhattan Criminal Court on July 9, 2013.

Asaro and Ligambi also benefited from jurors failing to believe government turncoat witnesses. Asaro's included a parade of government witnesses, including the prosecutors' most important turncoat in the Asaro trial, Gaspare Valenti. An Asaro relation, he was ultimately viewed as flawed and was probably a liability. There was an especially strong sense that Valenti was seeking a nice payday from the government rather than justice against the Mafia.

As for Uncle Joe's case, jurors from one of the trials had problems with at least one witness. In fact jurors reportedly were quoted saying that they found Louis "Bent Finger Lou" Monacello especially troubling to believe because while testifying he evidenced clear bitterness towards his cohorts in crime from the witness stand.

Truth is, many mob cases in recent years have not been the clear cut unparalleled successes that prosecutors such as New York's Rudolph Giuliani achieved against the Mafia in the huge RICO victories of the 1980s and 1990s.

"When I leave, you're going to take over this neighborhood — you got to know how, what the f--k you're doing...
"Acting like a clown — those days are over. You gotta act like you're supposed to act. You understand?"

In some instances, particularly the trials of Joel "Joe Waverly" Cacace and Thomas "Tommy Shots" Gioeli (both longtime Colombo members who'd held top slots in the hierarchy for years), the mobsters were acquitted by jurors of top-count murder charges, but were found guilty on conspiracy and / or lesser charges, allowing federal judges to impose draconian sentences anyway. Since many of these wiseguys are also oldfellas, chances are strong that they will die in prison.

Manhattan DA Showing up Fed's?
Santora and others were charged only two weeks after the New York FBI office had, for the third time, reduced its number of agents working organized crime, the New York Times reported, noting that the decision to implement the LCN cutbacks was due to heightened threats posed by cybercrimes and global terrorism

The total remaining FBI agents investigating the Mob adds up to roughly three dozen, according to the Times sources, who are facing the entire New York Mafia "some 700 so-called made members and 7,000 associates." Back in 2008, there was — and had been for decades — a separate squad of 10 to 20 agents devoted to each crime family.

When announcing his indictment, New York County District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. noted that "Today’s indictment is the absolute heartland of what organized crime prosecutions are about – prosecuting in one fell swoop the diversified rackets of organized crime families.

“The charges against this Bonanno crew and their captain, Nicholas Santora, make clear that traditional organized crime refuses to go away. ...."

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said: “The organized crime activity described in the indictment is as old as the Bonnano crime family, and as relatively new as on-line betting and trafficking in highly addictive Oxycodone. Either way, it’s corrosive to society and lines the pockets of those who use or sanction violence to enrich themselves....."

Prosecutors said Santora's crew ran a multimillion-dollar Costa Rican-based online sports betting operation. Some were recorded planning to sell hundreds of thousands of pills (at $5 a pop) to treat pain (oxycodone) and erectile dysfunction (Viagra). Other charges include running a loan-sharking business.

Santora in court looking his age.

In a 2014 courtroom proceeding, recordings were played. In one, Santora told Vito Badamo, who he allegedly was grooming to take over his crew, to quit "acting like a clown."

"You gotta start conducting yourself in a certain way, you understand?" Santora added.

"When I leave, you're going to take over this neighborhood — you got to know how, what the f--k you're doing," the then-capo added.

"Acting like a clown — those days are over. You gotta act like you're supposed to act. You understand?"

Santora's dressing down is interesting and even somewhat comical. All this talk of acting appropriately, etc., comes from a mobster who showed up at a sitdown clutching a pillow.

Sitdown recorded by turncoat 
The sitdown was held at Tony's Pizzeria in Corona, Queens, the same neighborhood where Ndrangheta member Gregorio Gigliotti, along with his wife and their son, owned several businesses tied to a Calabrian Mafia drug trafficking operation, including the restaurant Cucino a modo Mio on 108th St. in Corona, according to the criminal complaint.

Genovese capo Anthony "Tough Tony" Federici owns the nearby Park Side Restaurant, and supposedly runs the neighborhood. Members associated with Federici may have faced Santora across the table, but that's speculation. It sounds more likely that it was an interfamily affair.

Santora represented mob associate Joseph Galante, Jr. at that sitdown over a $30,000 debt. Galante owed that amount to a mortgage broker. The associate had flipped and was secretly recording the sitdown.

Santora, who admitted his presence was intended to enforce the threat of violence to support whatever was decided at the meeting, had undergone heart bypass surgery shortly before the sitdown. Holding the pillow tightly to his chest helped relieve his pain. Or so he said.

The longtime gangster was also caught on a wire saying ostensibly incriminating statements to Bernhard, the president of Local 917 in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Santora had said he'd "put two holes in the head" of a crime family enemy. (Wonder who that could be....)

Santora's roughly two-dozen arrests, a rap sheet that dates back to 1966, and his most recent federal conviction in which he's serving 24 months in prison for extortion also were spotlighted.
Santora's attorney, Michael Alber, at the time expressed his intent to argue that "double jeopardy" applied in the DA's case — since Santora was already charged in federal court for the alleged crimes. He also said Santora was in prison during the time when some of the newer alleged mob activity occurred.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announcing indictment.

Low-key enterprise corruption case
Specifically, Santora, sometimes called "Nicky Cigars," and the others are on trial for enterprise corruption, the state's version of the RICO act.

Prosecutors said the evidence included recordings (of telephone calls as well as 10 months' worth of discussions inside Santora’s car) and testimony from at least two former members of the Bonanno family. One reportedly is James Tartaglione. As noted, Joseph Massino is likely the other. 

Still, press reports haven't named the second witness. In fact this trial hasn't generated a fraction of the attention the Asaro case did. This could mean the media, including wire services, overall, are less fascinated by a mob figure whose only claim to fame was his association with Donnie Brasco. Another potential contributing factor to this lack of coverage: Manhattan prosecutors are perhaps not leaking as much information to reporters. Perhaps, still stung by Asaro, they are looking for this to play out as a low-key trial. However, Asaro was on federal trial. While Nicky Mouth was arrested by federal agents, including the DEA, his trial is playing out in Manhattan.

Other points prosecutors say they will prove:
  • Santora ran a tight ship, collecting a portion of all the proceeds from criminal activities in which his underlings were involved. (Which is exactly how Cosa Nostra is supposed to work.) 
  • Santora was proactive, stepping in to settle disputes. 

Santora also seems to have engendered an extremely loyal crew. According to the DA, his crew is protecting him as much as possible.

“One of the most important rules of the enterprise was to protect the members at the top from criminal liability,”one prosecutor said. This seems to hold true more for Santora than it did for Joseph "Big Joey" Massino, whose own brother-in-law flipped on him, as well as a legion of turncoats. One of them told me he believes that, during the end of Massino's reign, he'd been calling in his guys a lot more often than was usual. My source thought Massino may have been preparing for a sort of housecleaning. Now he says he believes Massino may have foreseen the possibility of losing at trial and was looking to accumulate intel he could use as bargaining chips.

Defense lawyers said their clients had been unfairly targeted by aggressive law enforcement agencies desperate for a major bust.

They described the case as an amalgamation of several small crimes committed by separate individuals that had been deliberately linked to Santora, including an Internet gambling site in the Bronx and a loan-sharking business run by two officials at Long Island's Teamsters Local 917, which represents beer truck drivers.

“The cops got it in their heads the Bonanno organized crime family was involved,” Adam Konta, Santoro's lawyer said. “They were like children who couldn’t accept a puzzle piece not fitting, so they smashed it until it was close enough.”

Santora’s lawyer, Michael Alber, said the evidence the police had amassed through months of wiretaps and recorded conversations amounted to “snippets, distorted and out of context."

The recordings, he added, failed to even prove that Santora was associated with the loan-sharking and gambling operations.

“It will be crystal clear at the end of the trial that you will have every reason to doubt Mr. Santora’s involvement in this case,” Alber said

One witness against Santora will be James Tartaglione, a onetime Bonanno family captain who flipped in 2003. He was supposedly made into the Mafia with Santora in the same ceremony. During one of Vincent "Vinny Gorgeous" Basciano's trial he posed an alternative theory regarding why New York Post supervisor and Bonanno associate Robert Perrino was slain.

Joseph "Big Joey" Massino is likely also testifying. The scant coverage hasn't identified him specifically, but Nicky Mouth's fate likely will be decided by the formerly venerated mob boss.