John Gambino Helped Save Sicilian Inzerillo Family From Annihilation

"When I was in New York for a mission, I got to know, personally, John and Joseph Gambino, both of them as initiates of the American Cosa Nostra. So, I came to know their secret joints, their way of thinking and the slang communication of the Sicilian Mafia. Usually, they communicate with just a look, something that is the norm for us in Palermo who grew up with the warning of “muto devi stare”–you need to shut up. In fact, using this system of communication we could hold a meeting even in silence–using just a look and body language passed down by our ancestors. This preferred way of communication by mafiosi, made it possible for me to figure out their messages ahead of time on occasion, some even intercepted from New York."

John Gambino
John Gambino flew to Sicily and met Toto Riina face to face in 1983.

After John Gotti became the boss of the Gambino crime family in 1986 after the murder of Paul Castellano, one of his first formal acts was to promote John Gambino to captain and boss of the family's Sicilian faction in New York.

John Gambino and his brothers, Joseph and Rosario, were distant cousins of the family's founder. They arrived in the US in the mid-1960s as part of a new wave of Sicilian immigrants settling in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. In 1966, the Gambino brothers ran The Cafe Valentino on 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. (Not far was another cafe owned by another Sicilian immigrant: Salvatore Catalano, who would rise in the Bonanno family, had opened the Cafe Viale. The Gambino brothers and Catalano were friends and often visited one another.)

In 1972, they started Father and Son Pizza; they also ran pizza shops in Philadelphia and Camden, and, with a cousin, pizzerias as far south as Dover, Del. (It later emerged that John Gambino had owned 240 pizzerias that brought in about $240 million annually. The pizzerias facilitated the selling of drugs and were used to launder money.)

In 1978, Rosario used his wife’s maiden name to lease a property at Second and Walnut streets in Old City, which he turned into a restaurant/nightclub. Joe ran Valentino’s Supper Club in Cherry Hill.

The Gambino brothers moved to Cherry Hill, a city near Philadelphia, in the 1970s (they may have settled there because of the proximity to Atlantic City at a time when gambling was about to be made legal there). The "Cherry Hill" Gambinos, as they became known, were close friends with Philadelphia Cosa Nostra boss Angelo Bruno. It wasn't long before local law enforcement formed the Cherry Hill Township Police Department's Special Investigations Unit.

As per a 1985 interview with an investigator in the unit, it had been formed primarily in response to the arrival of the Gambino brothers to investigate organized crime.

The Gambino brothers didn't make the bulk of their money running pizzerias and nightclubs. 

In the late 1970s, Palermo's Inzerillo crime family partnered with the Gambino family to export heroin from Sicily to the United States. John and Joseph had been the "face," or point men, of a massive ring that smuggled heroin into the United States via the Sicilian Mafia from Italy and South America. A key member of the drug trafficking ring in Sicily was boss of the Mafia in Passo di Rigano, Salvatore Inzerillo, who was related to the Gambinos.

At the 1985 Pizza Connection trial, prosecutors contended that the ring had smuggled more than $1.6 billion of heroin from Sicilian laboratories around Palermo into the United States between 1975 and 1984. The drugs were distributed through a network of pizza parlors in the Northeast and Midwest, and the money laundered through banks and stockbrokers in New York, the Bahamas and Switzerland.

Salvatore (Totò) Riina, boss of the rival Corleone faction, viewed the Inzerillo family and its alliance with the Gambinos as an obstacle to his seizure of total control of the Sicilian Mafia. He also watched with green eyes the fortunes the Inzerillos and allied families were making from their American drug business, which they weren't sharing with any of the Corleonesi.

One of Italy’s most feared mobsters, Riina inflicted a reign of terror in Italy for decades as the “boss of bosses” of the Sicilian mafia. Before Riina died in 2017, he was caught on wiretap saying he regretted nothing: “They’ll never break me, even if they give me 3,000 years,” he said. Nicknamed “the Beast” because of his cruelty, Riina was an unrepentant criminal who assassinated criminal rivals on an unprecedented scale in the 1980s and 1990s. He also targeted prosecutors, journalists, and judges who he thought stood in his way.

Riina was so low profile, the police reportedly had only a 30-year-old mugshot of the boss of bosses from Corleone during the many years they were investigating him.

Riina was finally arrested in 1993. He refused to cede his position as boss of bosses and sought to lead the Mafia from his prison cell. He was unsuccessful, and now the crime syndicate is a shadow of what it was.

Toto Riina

In April 1981, Riina ordered the assassination of Stefano Bontate, head of the Santa Maria di Gesù family, followed one month later by the murder of Salvatore Inzerillo. The murders of the two bosses started what would become known as the Second Mafia War. (Scholars say it wasn't a war so much as an annihilation.) Totò Riina and the Corleonesi had simply started a systematic killing spree that extended throughout Sicily, to Europe, to the United States and into South America.

 The Second Mafia War would see 21 members of Salvatore Inzerillo’s clan slain. Inzerillo’s 15-year-old son, Giuseppe, was abducted and killed.

Then one of Salvatore’s brothers, Pietro, turned up in the trunk of a Cadillac in Mount Laurel Township, New Jersey: his lifeless body, hands bound behind his back, was wrapped in a plastic bag. Five one-dollar bills were stuffed into his mouth. (Another New Jersey-based Inzerillo, Antonio, disappeared prior, and has never been found.)

The Second Mafia War lasted for years and saw upwards of a thousand Mafiosi killed. The Corleonesi lost very few soldiers. 

The Inzerillo mob family of Palermo earned the wistful moniker of: gli Scappati, the Runaways.

In 1983 Riina was on his way to exterminating the rival Inzerillo  clan when their American relatives and associates — including members of the Gambino family — intervened on their behalf.

John Gambino "bravely" flew to Palermo from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to meet face to face with Toto Riina. According to John Dickie in Mafia Republic, Riina agreed to allow the Inzerillos to continue to live, but he had conditions. They could never return to Italy. It also seems likely that Pietro, the brother of the murdered Sicilian boss Salvatore Inzerillo,  had been killed by or on the orders of his own relatives, other Inzerillo family members, as if he were sacrificed to appease Riina. The dollar bills symbolized the overwhelming greed that Riina had assigned to the Inzerillos, who didn't share any of the profits from their drug trafficking network with the Corleonesi. Antonio's disappearance also likely could be attributed to the Inzerillos.

In 2003, the runaways began to return. Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, his successor and lifelong Corleone paesano, were both serving life terms in Italy.

Among the Inzerillo who returned to Sicily in 2003:

Francesco Inzerillo (u' truttaturi, Sicilian for "the trotter"), the son of Pietro Inzerillo of Nino's Restaurant, he also was Franky Boy's brother-in-law.

Tommaso, cousin of boss Salvatore Totuccio Inzerillo, who was killed on May 10, 1981, in Via Brunelleschi. Tommaso was also the brother-in-law of John Gambino and nephew of the old boss of bosses Charles.

Totuccio's brothers, Francesco and Rosario

Giovanni, Totuccio's surviving son who was born in New York in 1972 and is an American citizen.

The repatriation opened up a major debate within Cosa Nostra. Salvatore Lo Piccolo voiced his support for the family, sensing the potential for an alliance that would make him even more powerful. On the other end of the scale was Antonio Rotolo, a Totò Riina loyalist who forbid the return, fearing vendetta. Bernardo Provenzano was somewhat inexplicably both for and against the return of the Inzerillo. It seems that the Inzerillos simply returned and nothing happened, no obvious resumption of hostilities.

At the same time, some anti-mafia officials and press reports suggested that the Corleone faction had likely agreed to allow the Inzerillo family to return in exchange for a share of the new business opportunities between Palermo mafia factions and the American Gambino family. According to these sources, such an agreement would act as a unifying force to strengthen the mafia and would most likely prevent a new mafia war. La Repubblica asserted that the return of the Inzerillo family could indicate an agreement between their enemy, the Corleone faction, and their allies, the Gambino and Lo Piccolo families, in exchange for access to the United States. As evidence of this, La Repubblica cited numerous visits over the next few years between Sicilian criminals and a member of the Gambino crime family known to be close to the Inzerillo family.

In an interview in 2007, Anti-Mafia Commission member Carlo Vizzini said that the return of the Inzerillo family indicated a rapprochement between the Gambino family of New York and mafia families in Palermo, with the strongest relationship being that between the Gambino and Lo Piccolo families.

One thing is clear: ally or enemy, Sicilian mobsters eventually grasped the massive potential financial coup that would result from business prospects between the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and their American cousins, the New York Mafia.

The Sicilian Cosa Nostra, at the time, was "undergoing a liquidity crisis and had lost their leadership position on the International crime scene." But then the Sicilians rediscovered America "so they sent their most trusted members to the USA.

"They sent them to the court of Francesco Paolo Augusto Cali, son of the shopkeeper in Ballarò."

Part two coming soon. ..