Thoughts On The Cosmic Chess Game Between The FBI And The Mafia

"There’s nothing new under the sun.” 

Agent Harris and Tony sit down at Satriale's.

The late-blooming alliance (dare we say friendship?) between FBI Special Agent Dwight Harris and New Jersey gangster Tony Soprano was one of our favorite parts of The Sopranos.

In that now-extinct parallel world, Harris (Matt Servitto) was a member of the FBI's Newark Organized Crime Division Task Force who probed DiMeo crime family boss Tony Soprano. A minor character in the first five seasons, Harris played a pivotal role in the final season as, wonder of wonders, a full ally to Tony in his half-ass war with New York boss Phil Leotardo.

What were they fighting over, even? Our favorite character, Paulie Gaultieri, once cautioned, "there's not a bigger c--ks--ker than Phil Leotardo," which was enough of an explanation for us.  Those wanting to rehash the details can  check out The Chase Lounge, where folks left weighty discussions of such matters ... We will venture a stab at explaining why the war ended: Phil Leotardo had lost perspective -- the families are there  foremost to earn, not to rid the world of "scraps from (their) scrapbook." Whatever benefits they affixed on initially, even Leotardo loyalists Butch DeConcini and Albert (Albie) Cianflone realized you don't start killing people because your name is not Leonardo.

Harris was partly based on real-life former FBI supervisor Lindley DeVecchio. We know this because when told that Leotardo had been rubbed out (in a most gruesome manner), Harris jubilantly cried, "We're gonna win this thing!" – actual words attributed to DeVecchio, who supposedly said them on May 20, 1992, when told that Lorenzo Lampasi, a 66-year-old rival to Colombo capo/FBI snitch Grego Scarpa, had been whacked: shot nine times in front of his Brooklyn home. Specifically, Special Agent Christopher Favo, who ran the FBI’s Colombo crime-family squad, testified that his boss had reacted strangely that day in 1992 when Favo had briefed him on Lampasi plus a separate attack that wounded a mob associate. “He said, ‘We’re gonna win this thing!’ ” Favo testified about DeVecchio. “He slapped his hand on the desk . . . He was chuckling, not laughing out loud, but laughing a little.”

Favo said he instantly confronted his boss about the comment. “I said, ‘We’re the FBI,’ ” he recalled. ” ‘We’re not on either side.’

“(Lin) said, ‘That’s what I meant. "

This was during the Colombo war between the faction loyal to alleged jailed boss Carmine Persico and the one supporting Victor Orena. Lampasi and the wounded associate were both Orena loyalists.
Much like Harris gave Tony that heads up about his “Brooklyn problem” and intel on Phil’s location, DeVecchio supposedly gave inside info to Scarpa that led to four murders, including Lampasi, for which DeVecchio was later indicted.

DeVecchio went on trial in Brooklyn Supreme Court. The charges were dropped dramatically in midtrial when Jerry Capeci and former Village Voice reporter Tom Robbins unveiled tape recordings of a witness contradicting herself. (DeVeccio still used the phrase as the title of a memoir.)

A Federal judge has since opined that DeVecchio got people killed and got away with it. Judge Edward Korman’s words were uncovered in a 2012 transcript of a court case related to Gregory Scarpa Jr. The judge was referring to murders that were part of the early 1990s Colombo crime family war.

“It was my view and remains my view that Lin DeVecchio provided information to Scarpa that got people killed,” Korman said, according to the transcript.

“I found it pretty outrageous and the bottom line was, of course, nothing happened to Lin DeVecchio. He was permitted to retire and in his retirement was actually doing background checks for the (FBI),” the judge said.

In fairness to the fictional Agent Harris, he seems to have had a more personal motive for slipping information to Soprano. He wasn't in it for accolades or cash. (Perhaps his own midday indiscretions with a female agent convinced the former by-the-book square that, hey, nobody's perfect.) But earlier in the season, Harris also admitted to Tony that he never cared for Phil Leotardo, because he had connived to set up a female agent "for rape and beating." Echoes of what happened to mob buster Angela Clemente? The forensic analyst who was profiled in the Times has waged an independent campaign to prove that the government turned a blind eye to 39 murders committed in New York by turncoat gangsters. In 2006, she nearly quit her campaign out of fear for her life: Clemente had been beaten senseless during a clandestine meeting with a phony tipster in Brooklyn.

In the Sopranos final season, Harris and Special Agent Ron Goddard, members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, approached Tony Soprano to give him a heads up and to request his assistance in the event he ever came across any terrorism-related information, a distinct possibility given his line of work.

Tony rejects (at least initially) their overture to inform, and later has a change of heart – either because he truly wanted to help after realizing that two former Bada Bing patrons might have been engaging in terrorist activity (the two entered Tony’s world when they began paying his nephew, Christopher Moltisanti, for stolen credit card numbers), or did Tony perhaps sense the potential high value of a longterm con? By giving the FBI info on non-mob related stuff, he could mitigate his own possible legal problems down the road.

So Tony gave the two agents names and cellphone numbers, and Agent Harris promised to write a letter detailing Tony's assistance to be placed in Tony's FBI file for a judge to consider in sentencing should Tony ever be convicted. Harris and Soprano seemed to establish a mutual respect; Tony views – or at least pretends to view-- anti-terrorism as an important issue -- and Harris appreciates that. And perhaps because of his extreme revulsion to Leotardo, he finds a newfound loyalty to Tony. One or the other, or maybe a little of both? That we wonder about such things is testament to Sopranos creator David Chase’s genius.

So deeply ingrained was the notion of the FBI's mob cutbacks, the ubiquitous bureaucratic maneuver actually was used as a major plot point on one of the most-revered television shows in history.

Apparently the FBI doesn’t formally announce such investigative tweaks. Or at least we couldn’t find any official FBI announcements on the cutbacks. We know they happened because of media reports in 2013 that noted that, two years prior, following what some of us call “Mafia Takedown Day,” when 120 wiseguys were cuffed and brought to jail, the FBI began dedicating fewer agents to mob squads.
Up until around then, for decades, the FBI had a separate squad of 10 to 20 agents devoted to each crime family. In wake of the big bust, however, the Bureau decided it only needed two New York City-based squads to monitor, investigate, and make cases against the 700 or so members and estimated 7,000 associates of the Five Families. (Buried in one report was the longer term trend: The FBI had actually begun the reduction in 2008, and it would ultimately result in a "mob force" that was 60 percent smaller in size.)
2013 New York Times story noted that the head of the New York FBI office, assistant director George Venizelos, didn’t offer specific numbers but acknowledged the cuts, which he attributed to terrorism and "other priorities," the FBI’s budget, and “what he called the mob’s changing footprint.”
The changes were not set in stone either, which is  key. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to increase (the focus on OC) in six months” if circumstances warrant, he said. “That’s where the challenge is — you want to stay on top of the L.C.N., and you don’t want it to be back where it used to be,” he said. “Would I like another 100 agents or so? Of course we would, but we have to deal with what we have.”
Other FBI offices in cities where crime families historically exerted influence also saw  cutbacks. The Chicago FBI office, for example, which had two squads of 12 agents devoted exclusively to investigating the Outfit, was cut in half.  As of 2013, only one squad of 12 agents still probe what's left of the Capone Gang.
It would seem obvious that the FBI would periodically change its priorities. Crime does evolve, requiring investigators to cultivate new skill sets, etc. Why all the public hand wringing?
We wonder if such a chorus arose back in the 1980s when the FBI did the same thing, cut its mob squads. The growing menace at the time was, ironically, illegal narcotics. The FBI chose to beef up its anti-drug efforts the same year that the Mafia Pizza Connection traffickers were convicted. As noted in Last Days of the Sicilians, all the way back in 1987 the Bureau reduced its focus -- in New York, anyway -- on Cosa Nostra by at least as much as it did in 2011.
On the one hand, January of 1987 seemed to prove that the FBI had won a massive, stunning victory: Eight of the New York Mafia's "top men" got hit with prison sentences ranging from 40 to 100 years, including Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno, of the Genovese family, Anthony (Tony Ducks) Corallo, of the Luccheses, and Carmine (Junior) Persico, of the Colombos.
But, looking back, we know the mob was nowhere near slowing down. Quite the opposite. Wiseguys blasted each other to pieces all over Brooklyn, Queens-- New York City would remain a vast mob killing field for years, with bodies turning up in car trunks, etc. Mobsters simply vanished, for years or their remains still haven't turned up.
Former Gambino capo Michael (Mikie Scars) DiLeonardo once commented on this seemingly inexplicable stretch of murderous violence. "Something was in the air. Not only in New York, but in Philadelphia, Chicago -- every family in the country was killing everyone. Everyone was killing everyone."
And consider all the "serious" wiseguys still  at liberty. John Gotti ran the Gambinos from the Ravenite on Mulberry Street... The extremely deadly duo of Anthony (Gaspipe) Casso (pronounced CASE-o) and Vittorio Amuso were in the first year of their blood-soaked reign over  the Lucheses. They were years away from going on the lam.

The 1987 Cutbacks
Specifically, the FBI had 1,100 agents assigned to organized crime in the same year that three Bonanno capos -- Sonny Red, Phil Giaccone, and Big Trin -- were blasted in a basement (1981) – and by 1987, there were 617 agents assigned to OC. Many of the subtracted agents were moved into antidrug squads.

The thinking at the time was that, thanks to its ability to finally effectively use RICO, the FBI had convicted more than 1,000 mobsters – made guys of every rank, plus associates -- and so the threat posed by "La Cosa Nostra" had been reduced considerably.

Responding to news about the more recent cuts, the doomsayers were out in force. “It’s devastating,” one veteran organized crime prosecutor said then. “When you had five squads doing five families, it was hard, covering all the different crews in the different neighborhoods all over the city; now you want to have two squads covering five families? The cutbacks are just devastating.”

Turns out, the cuts weren’t so devastating, at least based on what we know about current times.

Of course the FBI still has informants, and having the right informant can go a long way toward alleviating the devastation of cutbacks. And the FBI continues to surpass its own historical victories with audio surveillance of the mob’s most secret ceremony: the induction of new members.

A couple of years ago Time magazine ran a story titled 'Everyone Is a Rat These Days': What the American Mob Looks Like in 2017.

The story details how, in October 1989, the FBI won one of its biggest victories against the mob. And most people probably aren’t even aware of it. It was the first FBI recording of a Mafia induction ceremony, the secret ritual brought over from Sicily that had never been witnessed by anyone who wasn’t a Mafia member.

The dubious distinction went to Raymond (Junior) Patriarca, ostensibly boss of the New England Cosa Nostra family, for presiding over the only recorded ceremony (until the next one, that is).

The event (the making of new members) was slated to occur in a private home in a Boston suburb—and Junior was clueless to the fact that his every word had been recorded for posterity by the wily FBI, which had bugged the house. Junior had taken extreme measures to prevent exactly that from happening too. He had the four capos and 10 soldiers park in a nearby mall and get rides to the home (which belonged to the sister of Vincent “The Animal” Ferrara). He also had his men investigate any utility trucks nearby for snooping law enforcement agents. He also had the four inductees frisked prior to beginning.

But the boss never could've known that Angelo (Sonny) Mercurio had already made the monumental decision to help the Feds break in prior to the ceremony to plant bugs.

One of the four inducted that day was Bobby (The Cigar) DeLuca.

Lo voglio entrare in questa organizzazione, per proteggere la mia familia,” DeLuca had recited then—“I want to enter into this organization, to protect this family.” He then swore to never become a rat, to live with “di omerta,” honor. DeLuca then said, “Entro vivo…e dove uscire morto,” declaring that he was inducted into his new family alive and that, if he ever broke Mafia code, he would get out in a body bag.

DeLuca would eventually rise to become a capo. And in 2017, about 27 years after the initiation, he used that same trigger finger – the one pricked during that ceremony—to point out where the body was buried and who buried it. (DeLuca led investigators to an old gravesite behind a Providence nightclub where resided the remains of Steven DiSarro after Salemme and Stephen (The Rifleman) Flemmi strangled him to death.)

Organized crime is not what it once was,” retired Massachusetts State Police Lt. Det. Bob Long, who was running a private investigative agency, said in a 2017 interview on the status of the American mob. “DeLuca is doing what so many other mobsters have done, even bosses: cooperate to save his own ass. Everyone is a rat these days. DeLuca is going to testify against another boss from his own family who became an informant. Trial of 2018: Snitch versus Snitch.”

DeLuca took the stand against Patriarca boss Francis (Cadillac Frank) Salemme, who ultimately got a life sentence for the 1993 slaying of the Southie nightclub owner. (Salemme was recently moved from a Brooklyn prison to the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo. His lawyer, Steven C. Boozang, told the Boston Globe that he had requested the transfer for his client “so his health could be monitored in his advanced age.”)
In 2015, the FBI taped another ceremony – one that was directly linked to one of the Five Families. Acting Bonanno captain Damiano Zummo welcomed a new man into the family, only the new man was an undercover police informant who wore a wire during during his induction ceremony in Canada. That was the first recording of a Mob initiation ceremony since the 1989 ceremony.

“You’re now a member of the Bonanno Crime family,” Zummo told the wired informant during the ceremony. “Congratulations.”

Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District Bridget Rohde celebrated the infiltration of the Bonanno family in a press release: “The recording of a secret induction ceremony is an extraordinary achievement for law enforcement and deals a significant blow to La Cosa Nostra.”

“The Mafia is breathing its last breaths,” Long quipped in that Time interview. “They are so desperate for new talent they are even making undercover cops soldiers in the Mob. They might need to hire people like me to do background checks on their new recruits so they don’t turn out to be police.”

Cadillac Frank was formerly an aide to notorious Boston mobster James (Whitey) Bulger, the murderous gang leader/rat who built a criminal empire with the help of FBI handlers. Bulger used his status as an FBI informant to get rid of his rivals, which helped fuel the careers of his FBI handlers thanks to the headlines and accolades. In 1994, one of those FBI handlers, John Connolly, tipped Bulger off that he was going to be indicted; Bulger split with his old lady and was on the lam until his 2011 capture. (Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham, who then-Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh had enlisted to nail Bulger, gave a rare,  candid speech about his role in the Bulger case last year at a West Hartford graduation ceremony.)

Connolly is serving life, as was Bulger -- until he was beaten to death. Something unthinkable happened (or unthinkable up until the  moment it happened), and we still don't have all the details. Bulger, 89, was beaten to death by three men -- at least two  allegedly were Mafia associates serving  lengthy prison stretches --who apparently viciously murdered the high-profile rat in prison, right under the BOP's watchful eyes. The dirty deed happened last October at a West Virginia prison facility. The trio apparently took their time so as to wring as much vengeance out of the act as they could. as

Bulger had been transferred to United States Penitentiary, Hazelton, in West Virginia on October 29, where, the same day, he was found unresponsive, with both of his eyes nearly gouged out and his tongue almost cut off.

Former Massachusetts-based Genovese Springfield crew-affiliated mobster Fotios (Freddy) Geas was the prime suspect in orchestrating the killing. Geas and his brother had been sentenced to life in prison in 2011 for their roles in several violent crimes, including the 2003 hit on former Genovese big shot Adolfo (Big Al) Bruno, who was shot in a Springfield, Massachusetts, parking lot.

A second suspect then emerged -- Paul J. DeCologero, a member of a violent closer-to-home Patriarca crime family crew in Boston that robbed and kidnapped rivals, and murdered and dismembered a teenage girl. Bulger supposedly once threatened the crew's former capo.

Murdering Bulger was an audacious act that almost calls to mind how Murder Inc. operated back in the 1930s and 1940s, when skilled assassins stealthily made scores of witnesses disappear, including some thought to be "safely" ensconced in jail cells or safehouses. 

 Will informants think twice before talking, knowing what happened to Bulger? Who knows? We can speculate that the Bulger torture-murder certainly won’t help them sleep better at night.

What other surprise moves will mobsters make to amass new power and wealth? The hallmark of organized crime is the ability of the more imaginative members to find creative ways to penetrate, corrupt, and control industries, and earn their sizable cut. Over the years, the mob has found its way into more and more sophisticated schemes, including the stock market, the Internet, telecom, and health care -- all the while remaining entrenched in its historical mainstays of gambling, loansharking, and extortion.

The mob causes society a rich tapestry of problems that, like a cancer, eat away at John Q Public’s bank account. Rackets cause the cost of goods and services to inflate, chiefly.

And then there's the mob's inherent ability to perpetuate itself.

“Just because you put a guy away,” a senior FBI supervisor once said, “they replace him. They make new guys. Unless you stay on top of it, you won’t know who those guys are. And if you don’t know who they are, he said, you can’t keep up with what they are doing.”

Another question: Will there ever be another show as good as The Sopranos? If pending films like The Irishman and the Sopranos prequel are major box office successes, we believe such a scenario would be much more likely ….