FBI Mafia Hunter Who Helped Bring Down The Chin Died Last Week

FBI Mafia hunter, Mount Vernon Police Commissioner (who reduced the crime rate by 20 percent), and investigator of corruption in Westchester County, John S. Pritchard III -- the kind of man the world sorely lacks today, a goddamn good man -- died last Thursday.

John Pritchard III

Pritchard, who was 75, led the FBI team that helped  bring down Vincent The Chin Gigante.

The New York Times described Pritchard as a "tenacious investigator whose law enforcement career spanned more than three decades and six agencies in New York..."

Pritchard began as a beat cop who "eventually broke ground for black people in the top ranks of the New York City Police Department." And in addition to his role as an FBI chief, he was inspector general of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and of Westchester County. He was the acting chief of the Transit Police before it was absorbed into the New York City Police Department. He was also the police commissioner of Mount Vernon, N.Y., the Westchester city where he was raised.

"He was an amazing man,” said his wife, Anne.

His efforts as an organized crime investigator also were nothing less than amazing. Pritchard, through relentless guile, “unmasked” Gigante for what he was: an unusually adept mobster who conned boatloads of law enforcement personnel, including mental health specialists, into believing he was a deranged, mentally ill vagabond rather than the prototypical well-polished gangster wearing the fitted sharkskin suit.

"John Pritchard, as head of the FBI Genovese squad, knew Chin Gigante's crazy act was just that -- an act, " Larry McShane, Daily News journalist and author of Chin: The Life and Crimes of a Mafia Boss and other books, told us in an exclusive interview this morning. 

"He led the Feds in their pursuit of the Chin, whose ruse was so good that John had left the FBI by the time Gigante was convicted in 1997. But he was an integral player in the FBI's ultimately successful chase of Gigante."

Pritchard was the FBI power who never fell for the act. He matched wits with Gigante in a years long rough-and-tumble investigation that unspooled on the streets in the dead of night. In its darkest hour,  a cold January evening in 1986, NYPD detectives Anthony Venditti and Kathy Burke were both shot -- it's impossible to believe the shooter(s) weren't linked to the Genovese crime family, specifically Genovese capo Fritzy Giovanelli.  Venditti died from his wounds.

The night after, Pritchard was the one who yanked Gigante out of his Triangle Social Club and got right in his face  on Sullivan Street....

In the 1980s the New York Mafia began announcing its presence in the form of wide-scale involvement in drug trafficking and unprecedented violence, with the Carmine Galante assassination a centerpiece. The FBI, which had implemented its five-squad investigative approach to the Five Families,  and Federal prosecutors, finally armed with the proper equipment, plus the inspiration and determination, responded by eventually putting away a large component of the collective American Mafia’s braintrust in the form of the Commission Case, then locking up a key segment of heroin traffickers in the Pizza Connection Trial.

Gigante with son Vincent Esposito.

It was as the investigation into the Mafia Commission Case was winding down, with the indictment of Genovese crime family powerhouse Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno -- who would later be convicted during the trial and effectively shut down -- that some in the FBI  had reason to wonder  about potential missteps. The literature holds that the FBI considered Gigante a looming successor to Salerno. But then again, Colombo capo/top echelon informant Gregory Scarpa had already told them that Gigante was the true power, not Fat Tony.

Whatever the rationale, a new Genovese Squad supervisor was named — John S. Pritchard III. (He ran the Genovese Squad from 1983 to 1988.) He made up for any lost time, ordering increased surveillance and a larger focus on The Chin and his Triangle Social Club in downtown Manhattan.

Next, Pritchard had a concealed observation post erected atop a shed on the roof of a New York University building. It was equipped with zoom-lens cameras to capture anyone entering the club or happening to stand in front of it.

Pritchard confirmed his belief that the Chin was acting through firsthand observation. One night The Chin was clad in his bathrobe and doing his shuffle down the sidewalk toward a parked car where waited Baldy Dom Canterino. Gigante ducked into the vehicle, handed the robe to Canterino, and in that split second window, Pritchard glimpsed the well-tailored gray sharkskin suit and necktie that he was wearing.

"He is probably the most clever organized-crime figure I have seen," Pritchard later said of Gigante.

In 1985, the Genovese Squad made serious headway in its probe of The Chin; they learned he was living two lives, replete with two separate families. Gigante and his wife, Olympia, lived with their two sons and three daughters in a New Jersey home in Old Tappan. But Chin also hung his hat in a tony Upper East Side townhouse, where lived his other Olympia.(Selwyn Raab put it best in Five Families, noting: "In affairs of the heart and voicing names in romantic moments, Chin was a prudent man.") With Olympia (Mitzi) Esposito, Chin had two daughters and a son (this is the townhouse, and the son, in so much trouble currently.).

Old Tappan, Upper East Side townhouse, Triangle Social Club on Sullivan Street (now an organic tea-and-spice store) where Chin conducted his daytime business affairs -- these were the key destinations in the geography of The Chin's world. ....

Since it no longer exists, let's give the Triangle Social Club some due here... The longtime defacto headquarters of the Genovese crime family was a six-story storefront tenement located at 208 Sullivan Street.

Crude but effective anti-surveillance solution: blacked-out windows

Those unsightly blacked-out windows (see em, above?) shielded Gigante and his cohorts from both passers-by and law enforcement. The social club may be gone now, but visitors still can allegedly admire some historical leftovers such as the tin ceiling, beautiful mosaic-tile floor, even an original mural on one wall.

The wiseguys hung out in the Triangle. They played cards (guess who cheated), they joked around, they plotted murders. And they did it there back into the 1960s when Genovese crime family titans like Vito himself, Thomas Eboli, and Anthony Strollo frequented the place. Consequently, the Triangle had been a longtime focal point for law enforcement surveillance. In fact, as per The Smoking Gun, "(t)he first electronic surveillance targeting the Triangle, records show, came in October 1966, when a New York State Supreme Court judge approved the bugging of the club’s telephone (GR 5-9665). The number was listed to the Joseph Schippini Restaurant, which apparently was a prior tenant at 208 Sullivan Street. Investigators wanted to monitor the Triangle in connection with an investigation of “narcotics, gambling, usury, extortion, coercion, and assault offenses” committed by Gigante and three of his brothers. The 1966 wiretap, though, yielded nothing of value during the 60 days detectives monitored calls."

Future attempts -- by both the NYPD and FBI--also gave up nothing useful. The basic intractable problem was that wiseguys like Gigante and his cohorts assumed their storefront was always bugged, and acted accordingly.

FBI drawn floor plan of the Triangle.

FBI agents once  sketched a floor plan of the Triangle that illustrated where the table “used primarily” by Gigante was located. But then even behind the blacked-out windows, Chin took precautions. Peter Savino, a Genovese associate who became an FBI informant, once arrived at the club to discuss a labor racketeering scheme with Gigante. But instead of talking in the storefront’s main room, he accompanied Gigante into the club’s bathroom where the Genovese boss “turned on all the water faucets,” according to an FBI report. Gigante then whispered into Savino’s ear.

FBI agents monitoring Federico “Fritzy” Giovanelli's home phone frequently heard the Genovese soldier joking with Frank “Frankie California” Condo about the dingy Triangle. 

Condo would often gripe about having to stay in the chilly Triangle until nearly dawn because Gigante wanted company. He also complained that Gigante wanted to open the Triangle at 7  a.m. each morning. 

"Wants to keep the fuckin’ joint night and day, night and day,” Condo said of Chin, who, as was also noted, was a notorious cheat during Triangle card games.

In one wiretapped conversation, Giovanelli laughed about a prank he had pulled at the Triangle. The mobster had gone to the club with a can of “fart spray,” which he released in the club. Giovanelli recalled how Genovese soldier Ciro Perrotta, a Triangle regular, was so repulsed by the odor, he demanded  to know "who the fck shit?"

Chin spent, quite literally, all his time in New Jersey and New York, never getting away for so much as a weekend getaway. He typically navigated from place to place in a Cadillac driven by Genovese soldier/chauffeur extraordinaire Vito Palmieri, who allegedly had the driving skills of a four-time Formula One Drivers' Champion. FBI agent Charles Beaudoin and other agents spent white-knuckle moments attempting to tail Gigante when Palmieri was behind the wheel. “He was hard to trail,” Beaudoin has said, noting how capably Palmieri defied any and all potential obstacles to losing guys like Charlie Beaudoin, including speed limits, red lights, one-way street signs, etc.

In the end, the FBI uncovered the East 77th Street townhouse between Park and Madison Avenues, and it was the townhouse that Pritchard decided to make the priority surveillance objective. He obtained a court-authorized Title III tap on the house’s telephone lines that ran 60 days in the fall of 1985. The telephone tap provided substantial evidence that The Chin's crazy act was a con job. In his recorded discussions, Gigante chatted mainly with his children and Olympia Mitzi Esposito about the most mundane kind of household crap: groceries, medical appointments, the weather. Chin was his true, unguarded self during these calls, a lucid, intelligent man (While a sane man can act certifiably crazy, the obverse is pretty much impossible)

But other than proving Gigante was sane, nothing criminally incriminating was learned via telephone tap.

Pritchard next set up an observation post at night in the Ramaz Yeshiva, a Jewish parochial school on East 78th Street, whose rear windows and terrace overlooked the back windows of The Chin's townhouse. The Genovese Squad took school officials into its confidence, but the complicated agreement unraveled before bearing any fruit -- which Pritchard blamed on an overzealous agent who had violated the agreement with the school.

Larry McShane spoke with Pritchard and got the inside story about the time when the FBI boss got very up close and personal with the boss of the Genovese crime family. The confrontation probably represents Pritchard's crowning achievement in that he let the Chin know that he, John Pritchard III, knew the truth. If nothing else, a clock probably started ticking in the back of Gigante's mind: he must've known that, from then on, his days were numbered. The FBI knew, they absolutely knew that he was playing them. They didn't have the proof, not yet. That came later. But they had a bead on him....

On the evening of January 21, 1986, Pritchard ran into two NYPD detectives assigned to his squad: Anthony Venditti and Kathy Burke.

“We went down in the elevator together,” Pritchard recalled in McShane's Chin: The Life and Crimes of a Mafia Boss. “I never said, ‘Be careful,’ because I thought whatever the hell happens out there, he will survive. Tony was a helluva detective. Kathy too.”

Both detectives were longtime law enforcement veterans. Venditti had 12 years on the force and worked gambling and Mob cases. Burke joined the department in 1968, and had worked on the NYPD’s Major Case Squad.

That night, the duo was surveilling Giovanelli in a 1977 brown Lincoln Town Car.  Eventually, when they followed his BMW around one of  Giovanelli's known Queens hangouts, a realization dawned on both detectives that the crafty Genovese mobster had made them.

So they decided to call it a night.

They stopped at Castillo’s Diner to grab coffee. Burke then noticed the BMW was now tailing them with its lights off. She grew alarmed. Venditti, who wasn’t alarmed, went inside the diner while Burke parked. She then spotted another car behind her, and got out of the car and bolted toward the diner to warn her partner. Venditti, holding a paper bag, exited the diner and was quickly surrounded by three men as Burke reached them.

When one of the men ordered Burke to stand alongside Venditti, she reached for her gun—and was shot in the chest. Venditti, his gun hopelessly out of his reach — it resided in an ankle holster — was shot four times and killed.

McShane noted in Chin:

“The night after the Venditti murder, New York law enforcement turned out en masse in every organized crime hangout across the city as they hunted the killers. Pritchard was dispatched to the Triangle to grill the Chin.”

Pritchard walked inside and right into Gigante.

"We dragged Chin outside of the Triangle, right onto Sullivan Street,” Pritchard recounted. “We talked to Chin separately, away from his minions. We took him outside, and we talked to him like you and I are talking right now. There was no crazy act. He was clear as a bell.

John S. Pritchard III in 1990, when he was the MTA inspector general 

“He apologized for what happened, but he took no responsibility. He said nothing off-color, no wiseass remarks. He communicated like any other human being. This was just one more indication that he was crazy like a fox. I knew he was sane, and he knew I knew that he was sane.”

“I do believe,” Pritchard added, “that he was concerned on some level that a cop was shot.”

Days later it was Baldy Dom Canterino 's turn to get yanked in by the FBI for questioning. He used the opportunity to express his deep outrage at how the FBI had treated his boss.

"If he was there, Baldy Dom declared, he would have stopped the agents from entering the Triangle. Gigante was a sick old man, and Canterino offered to produce “medical records going back ten years” to prove that the Chin was “mentally unstable,” an FBI summary of the chat reported, as detailed by McShane.

Law enforcement made life itself hot for Fritzy after the shooting. Fritzy, who died this past January at age 84, ultimately faced four trials, all of which ended in hung juries, except for one federal trial, which convicted him, but for racketeering only.

And that verdict was overturned on appeal.

We'd like to think that right about now, somewhere, way past all human comprehension and matters of morality and consequences, Pritchard, Chin, Fritzy, and Detective Venditti -- and what the hell, why not Vito too? -- are together having a good chuckle about this stuff...What are the chances? Who knows, but it's nice to think.... And what's wrong with that?