The East Harlem Mafia-Linked Purple Gang (And Who Named Them?)

In November 2013, a low-profile Luchese associate was murdered in the Bronx -- and many stories in the media blitz that followed referenced the Purple Gang, an obscure 1970s street gang with reputed Mafia links.
Investigating murder of Luchese associate Michael Meldish
Police probe Meldish shooting in the Bronx in 2013.

The Purple Gang roamed the South Bronx and Harlem where members were involved in the large‐scale distribution of heroin. They also whacked people -- and in many cases, dismembered their victims, of which there reportedly were 17 by December 1977. (Many of the 17 had been active informants for law enforcement when slain.)

Purple Gang members essentially cut their teeth as glorified coffee boys in decade-long apprenticeships.  They stepped up their game when the competition was wiped out -- meaning, they filled a huge niche after law enforcement cleared away many local narcotics trafficking rings, including the one known as the French Connection. The Purple Gang  entered the contract killing business after it got into drug trafficking.

Remember the "young Henry" part of Goodfellas?

A 1977 DEA report asserted that: “The younger (Purple Gang) group, impressed by the antics, violence and wealth of the older traffickers began to emulate them and after a while became . . . uncontrollable . . .”

(While we're on the topic, one of the last remaining drug kingpins attached to the French Connection case, Herbert Sperling -- who was accused of ordering the execution of Vincent Papa, the mobster who masterminded the theft of 400 pounds of French Connection heroin and cocaine from a police vault -- died this past summer, on July 3, at Federal Medical Center-Devens, a long-term care facility about 40 miles west of Boston. He was 79 and had been among the first to be given a federal life sentence for drug trafficking.)

According to a 1977 New York Times report: "In 1973, when a major law enforcement push against wholesale heroin distribution resulted in the convictions of Louis Inglese, the former drug boss of the Pleasant Avenue area, John Campopiano, and Carmine Tramunti, a highranking member of the Luchese crime family, the young members of the Purple Gang—according to the D.E.A.—moved to fill the vacancies in their local narcotics distribution network.

"Narcotics traffic in New York is controlled by both Italian and black organized crime groups. According to one intelligence report, members of the Purple Gang were supplying the black heroin network of the recently convicted drug dealer Leroy (Nicky) Barnes with heroin for $75,000 a kilogram.”

Most Purple Gang members were raised on Pleasant Avenue between 110th and 117th streets and were related to known Mafia figures or had been allied with local drug traffickers. (Did law enforcement sources in the 1970s see a difference? "Local drug traffickers" may refer to black kingpins, i.e., Nicky Barnes.)

The gang is still mentioned occasionally -- usually when former members kill someone, are elevated in a Mafia family's hierarchy, or are themselves killed.

The murdered Luchese associate, Michael Meldish -- who was shot in the head in November 2013 -- was referred to in stories about the killing as the former boss of the Purple Gang.

Adding "color" to early stories about the Meldish murder was NYPD Detective Sgt. Joseph Coffey, who died in September 2015. "Publicity Joe" -- as "The Westies," the Westside Irish mob once allied with the Gambinos, supposedly dubbed Coffey -- recalled Michael Meldish's past affiliation with the gang.

Coffey was among the 1970s-era investigators who originally probed the gang. He was quoted in a 1979 story about how the Purple Gang was suspected of involvement in a wave of unsolved .22 caliber killings -- many of which were allegedly carried out with the same weapon. The killings were spread out geographically in the Northeast, Midwest, and elsewhere. (The murder of Outfit Don Sam Giancana was reportedly among the murders involved in that investigation.) The small .22 was perfect for hits, as stories noted, for many reasons (among them: the pistol can be easily muffled with a silencer).

Joe Coffey investigated the Purple Gang in the 1970s.

The story of the Purple Gang exploded on the front page in 1977 with the Times story, which was based on “confidential police and Federal agency intelligence reports,” one of which was a December 1976 report by the DEA that spoke “of the Purple Gang’s ‘enormous capacity for’ violence” and “lack of respect for other members of organized crime. "

Law enforcement -- all law enforcement, the "big three" of FBI, DEA, and NYPD --  was issuing a blood curdling warning about an emerging "sixth family" (one of three or four "emerging sixth families" we're aware of, historically speaking) that was poised to clash with all five New York families. It looked like bodies were going to start piling up any day.

Then, after a 1979 boost related to the .22 caliber killings, the Purple Gang story seemed to fizzle and die, without resolution.

One source, a former Bronx resident, told us he had heard of the Purple Gang and knew some of its alleged members. (He was later involved in a plot to murder a one-time Purple Gang member who is today a reputed boss of one of the Five Families.) The source wasn't knowledgeable about much else about the Purple Gang.

But in comments to previous stories, we've also heard that there was never a "Purple Gang" in East Harlem.

The Color Purple 
One of the earliest East Harlem Purple Gang references (the first, as per our research) was the story New York Gang Reported to Sell Death and Drugs.

Written by Howard Blum, it appeared on page one of the December 16, 1977, New York Times.

“A Manhattan gang, whose members worked just a decade ago as teen‐age errand boys for major narcotics traffickers, has now emerged as a new and violent force of its own in organized crime in New York,” the story begins.

“The police say the group may attempt to become this region’s sixth organized‐crime family. That effort, the police say, could result in a mob war.”

Police intelligence authorities theorized that the group was trying to expand its “lucrative heroin distribution network” by moving in on the “Galante family. "

Sources also noted that the Purple Gang seemed to be a kind of broken off faction of Cosa Nostra. The Purple Gang was said to be like the Gallo crew. (That crew twice went to war with the Colombo crime family, the first time when it was still the Profaci family.) The flamboyant Crazy Joe Gallo had been killed five years prior, in April 1972.

Law enforcement had lots of speculation to consider, and it wasn't looking pretty...

We recently contacted Howard Blum, the journalist  who wrote that Times story, to ask him about how he happened upon the Purple Gang and its nefarious doings. Initially, he couldn't recall. (He replied with: "1977? That was 14 books and a million articles ago! I'd be eager to help, but for the life of me I have no memories about the Purple Gang!")

Then, a short while later, after we begged pressed him, he responded again with: "I went back to my NYT story and it jogged my memory -- a small bit. As best I can remember, someone in the NYPD OC Taskforce handed me the report. And two days later I got it into the paper. I don't recall doing any independent research or speaking with OC sources."

So law enforcement may have handed over to the press the story about the violent mob-affiliated crew. It's not difficult to consider possible reasons why they'd seek out the media. The FBI, DEA, and local police intelligence units had been investigating the gang for at least the previous two years, but, as of December 1977, the probes “ha(d) not resulted in large‐scale arrests.” There were some arrests, for assault and narcotics charges. (Specifically, we are told that members were arrested in Monroe, New York, for assaulting private sanitation employees. They had been hired by Genovese capo Joseph Pagano, who had a record of narcotics arrests and was attempting to control refuse carting in Rockland and Orange counties.)

Michael Meldish

As for the gang's name: "The group... calls itself the Purple Gang, after the band of criminals that terrorized Detroit during the Prohibition era..."

Did they actually name themselves? While it sounds absurd to us here and now, we couldn't presume to know with certainty. It also seems like by using a name, they'd only be hurting themselves by giving law enforcement a "handle" with which to approach them. And such a name would almost guarantee media interest -- face it, the Purple Gang beats a story about a bunch of unknown nobodies up in Harlem doing some really bad stuff....

Because so much time has passed, we doubt anyone will ever reveal anything definitive about where the Purple Gang name truly came from, if not from the members themselves, as law enforcement alleged. (We wish Joe Coffey were still here...)

Nevertheless, Jerry Capeci and major news organizations continue to report on the Purple Gang. So will we...

One source, an insider with extensive knowledge about law enforcement and organized crime activity over the decades, may have put it best when he told us: "I don’t think there were ever people who called themselves the Purple Gang, but perhaps law enforcement coined that nickname for real people they were investigating." (Furthermore, he recalled that there was also a purple gang on TV. We don't recall a purple gang television show, but we're curious about something and are looking into it.)

In closing, it seems that law enforcement (with visions of recent gangland mayhem in their brain -- a la Joe Gallo in Umberto's in Little Italy; if only they knew what was coming in '79 and '81) went to the Times for help with what they viewed as a growing threat. Unlike today,  the mob was not only highly active, it was, with its deep pockets of bribe money, definitively winning its ongoing war with law enforcement. Ultimately, law enforcement may have exaggerated the Purple Gang threat. But at the time, they had no way of knowing that.