FBI, Italian Police Launch Coordinated Raids Against Sicilian Inzerillo, New York Gambino Crime Families

Sicilian and American wiseguys were busted Wednesday as part of coordinated takedown efforts by Italian police and the FBI, which served 19 arrest warrants in Palermo and in the United States, specifically in Staten Island and Philadelphia.

The operation, dubbed "New Connection," was an attempt to disrupt efforts by a Sicilian Mafia faction (specifically, Inzerillo family members in Sicily and their New York allies in the Gambino crime family) to take over the leadership of organized crime in Italy. The Inzerillo and Gambino crime families, which have historical ties, were in the process of rebuilding their powerbase in Sicily.

Members of slain Gambino crime boss Frank Cali's family were arrested in the takedown Wednesday, as per officials in Anthony DeStefano's Newsday story. Also arrested were Thomas Gambino, 47, of Staten Island; Salvatore Gambino, the mayor of a village outside Palermo; and Tommaso and Francesco Inzerillo, relatives of Salvatore Inzerillo, who was killed in the bloody Mafia purge in the 1980s.

“It is a significant operation with real [Mafia] people,” one former FBI supervisor was quoted saying. Italian news detailed charges that included extortion, fraud, “unfair competition," and Mafia association, which is a crime under Italian law.

We'd lay odds that drug trafficking was among the key criminal activities here. The two families minted fortunes decades back via the Inzerillo-Gambino heroin pipeline -- a large scale drug trafficking effort that stretched across the Atlantic between Palermo and New York. The Fed's tore it down in the mid-1980s as part of the Pizza Connection Case.

This op will go down in history for involving the covert filming of a secret meeting held last summer between Gambino wiseguys and the Inzerillo boss: in an attempt to prevent surveillance, the mobsters took the trouble to meet on a rubber dingy in the ocean off the Palermo coast. Despite their precautions, the meeting was found out anyway.

The one Gambino wiseguy whose name should be all over this case was whacked in March.

Gambino underboss Frank Cali, who was related by marriage to the Inzerillos, was on the three-man ruling panel overseeing the Gambino crime family and had played a key role in the relationship between the Gambinos and the Sicilian crime families.

Cali was gunned down in March by his niece's deranged, lovesick suitor.

For decades, the Inzerillo crime family, once one of the major powers on the Sicilian Mafia's Cupola, or Commission, had been unable to assert itself in any significant way. That finally changed in 2017 with the death of Corleonesi "boss of bosses"  Salvatore (Toto) Riina. Riina's Mafia war in the 1980s was an effort to annihilate the Inzerillo family whom Riina despised for not sharing the wealth they earned from their heroin pipeline. The Inzerillos fled to the United States to seek the Gambino crime family's protection out of very real concerns that Riina was poised to exterminate the clan.

They returned many years after Riina was arrested, as the power he still wielded behind bars continued to pose a significant threat to members of the clan.

Riina's 2017 death created a power vacuum that the Inzerillo family was attempting to fill by reclaiming its historical leadership position with the help of its New York allies.

"Those Riina wanted dead were creating a special link between Palermo and New York," said an Italian prosecutor of members of the Inzerillo clan.

"They (the Inzerillos) were the losers who ran away so they wouldn't be killed by the Corleonesi (under Riina)," the Palermo police commissioner said.

Carlo Gambino, the crime family's founder, was always close with certain Sicilian mobsters.

A distant cousin of Carl's -- as he was called -- was former capo John Gambino (now deceased) and his brothers, Joseph and Rosario, who 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. Then 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 literally hundreds of pizzerias that brought in about $240 million annually -- and that also facilitated the selling of drugs and had been used to laundry drug profits.

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.

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.

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. Before shooting him in the head, however, his captors, including the much feared Pino Greco, cut off his arm. The boy had threatened to shoot Riina, so Greco sliced off the arm of the hand that would’ve held the gun.
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 between his testicles. (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.

The repatriation had 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.”

Frank Cali 

Francesco (Frank) Cali was the kind of mobster who wasn’t supposed to exist anymore: Old school, shunning even the telephone; not prone to violence, meaning he wasn’t buffered by the fear factor created by bosses like John Gotti.

In fact, Cali reached capo at such a relatively young age (in his 30s) that it rankled some Gambino wiseguys, and caused at least one to refer to him derisively during a wiretapped phone call. On another wiretapped call, however, a gangster speaking in Italian seemed to pay Cali the ultimate complement by referring to him as “tutto quanto” or “everything.”

The New York mobster with Sicilian blood had been arrested and convicted only once. Amazingly, he wasn’t brought down after mistakenly allowing a confidential informant into his inner circle.

Cali, a reputed leader of the Gambino crime family, was shot to death outside his house in Staten Island in a killing that echoed Mafia murders of the 1980s, but that seems to be shaking out as nothing of the sort.

Cali was a savvy earner who allegedly extorted, ran phone cards, and operated Joker Poker video gambling machines, among other things.

He was possibly part of a massive Italian-American drug trafficking pipeline constructed via an alliance with the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Ndrangheta.

While Cali was low profile, he didn’t duck to avoid public events. It was as if he had learned from the mistakes of former Gambino boss Paul Castellano, who signed his own death warrant by not showing up at the funeral of his underboss, Aniello (Neil) Dellacroce. Law enforcement spotted Cali at Gambino family functions going as far back as the 1990s. He hosted at least one Christmas party (in 2007) for his criminal cohorts.

Franky Boy married Pietro Inzerillo’s sister, Rosaria (called “Roseanne”), who is related to the Inzerillo crime family based in Passo di Rigano. Roseanne and her brother, Tall Pete, were both born in New York City, however.

Cali was made in January 1997, according to “a very reliable FBI source” we spoke to who added that Cali was placed in Jackie “Nose” D’Amico’s crew.

FBI documents name Cali as a major Mafia figure in an investigation of “the continuing strengthening of ties in US territory - in particular with members of the Inzerillo-Gambino American mafia family. These ties are likely to be related to illicit trafficking across the Atlantic between the new generations of the American and Sicilian Cosa Nostra.”

A November 2007 report by Palermo’s Antimafia District Attorney’s Office, which referenced and included extracts from FBI documents, noted: “The gathering of evidence in police operations code-named ‘Grande Mandamento’ (Big District) and ‘Gothà’ have underlined connections between the American Mafia and the Sicilian Mafia.”

The key families under the spotlight were both the Gambino crime family and the Sicilian Inzerillo Mafia clan, which was nearly exterminated in a Mafia war sparked by the Corleonesi. In 2003-2004. the Inzerillo and Gambino families formed an alliance that involved a “complex dispute” regarding the return of Inzerillo Cosa Nostra family members to Palermo from the U.S. Law enforcement also believed narcotics trafficking was on the agenda.

The report documents “trips to the USA carried out by numerous mafia members from Palermo between the end of 2003 and the beginning of 2004...”

The CI detailed for the feds some of Cali’s moves in and out of Palermo.

Cali rose to prominence, as did many others, following the flipping of Sammy the Bull Gravano, who put away around 100 gangsters, many from the Gambino family, creating a huge vacuum on the street.

In September of 1992, capo John Gambino faced heroin smuggling charges and then-Gambino boss John Gotti needed a new overseer on 18th Avenue, a Gambino stronghold in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Former Gambino capo Michael DiLeonardo and D’Amico were put in charge of 18th Avenue.

Eighteenth Avenue, specifically from 75th Street on down, was rife with Sicilians, some of whom were made members of the Gambino family. An assortment of them, however, belonged to the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, mainly the Inzerillo family who’d fled the murderous Toto Riina and his Corleonesi. Dual memberships were not allowed. Those seeking to be made in America needed to be “released” from their Sicilian crime family.

DiLeonardo found himself dealing with the issues of the Sicilian mobsters on 18th Avenue. He used Cali as his go-between.

The new generation of mobsters, which included Cali (then an associate), went into the cafe business as well as import/export. They also owned the pizzerias and bakeries.

The Gambinos also were able to take effective control of a huge revenue generator as well: Brooklyn’s feast of Santa Rosalia, Palermo’s patron saint. The September feast, beginning in August, brings large numbers of visitors annually to Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst section.

Eventually, Jackie brought Frank Cali into phone cards, where Cali made a name for himself as an earner. Around that time, the phone-card industry had mushroomed into a $2 billion annual business.

Cali was “swiftly” promoted to acting capo less than a decade later, according to a prosecutor’s verbiage during a 2008 detention hearing involving Cali, who’d been arrested for extortion.

Not everyone was a fan of Cali’s swift rise to prominence within the Gambinos.

Gambino soldier Joey Orlando was overheard complaining about Cali on a wiretapped call disclosed at the hearing.

Calling him “Jackie’s guy,” Orlando complained, “Jackie made him a skipper. Some snot-nosed, 30-year-old kid.”

By 2014, the “kid” rose to become the family’s underboss under Domenico Cefalu.

Then, a year later, he was named acting boss, when Cefalu stepped down. (Or not. According to Gang Land News Cali was underboss when he was killed.) About the only thing we are half certain about is that Peter Gotti was official boss up until it was revealed that he was renouncing Mafia life in an attempt to spring himself from prison so he could die peacefully at home. Gotti is 79 and his slated release date is May 5, 2032. He’s currently at Butner Low FCI.

Prosecutors said Cali used his connections in Italy to import members and associates into his crew. He also held “influence and power” in Sicily.

In one wiretapped call, two mobsters speaking in Italian were overheard discussing Cali, and one of them said to the other: “He’s a friend of ours. He is everything over there.”

Law enforcement spotted Cali at Gambino family events as early as 1990, when he was in his 20s. He was seen attending the wake of John Gotti, who died of cancer in 2002 after a decade in prison, and at several other Gambino wakes over the years. Cali also was seen throwing a Christmas party in 2007 that included among its guests Jackie D’Amico.

Cali was nabbed in 2008 for extortion in what was described as “a small part of a much broader indictment” that charged dozens of Gambino family members, associates, and others with a range of crimes. The larger federal indictment charged 62 defendants, including the three highest-ranking members of the Gambino family. A separate state investigation resulted in charges against 26 others accused of operating a gambling ring in Queens that took in nearly $10 million in bets on professional and college sports.

Those indicted in the larger case were charged with crimes spanning three decades. Cali’s extortion case involved a failed attempt to build a NASCAR track in Staten Island. The Gambino family controlled the trucking operation that would have hauled the dirt to fill the track’s foundation.

The case coincided with multiple raids in Italy that targeted alleged members of Mafia families who controlled drug trafficking between Italy and the U.S. The investigations were not connected, though they were part of an international effort to disrupt Gambino-Sicilian drug trafficking operations.

The federal indictment included gangland killings from when Paul Castellano was still boss. He was assassinated in 1985.

As for Cali, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 16 months in prison.

Prosecutors in that case said Cali — then a captain— committed other crimes for which he was never charged. These included the installation of Joker Poker video machines in a cafe in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn; Cali split the profits with the cafe’s owners, minus a 10 percent cut for the Gambino family, according to the memo from the 2008 detention hearing.

Cali also pocketed a percentage of the proceeds from the feast of Santa Rosalia. Also, as we detailed, in the mid-1990s, he was involved in a racket that involved selling phone cards.

In 2014, federal prosecutors named Cali as an associate of Franco Lupoi, a Brooklyn baker suspected of playing a role in a heroin pipeline from Italy to the United States. The case attracted significant attention because it suggest that the ’Ndrangheta (pronounced n-DRANG-gay-tah), one of the world’s most powerful drug trafficking cartels, was seeking to expand to New York.

Cali had substantial real estate holdings in the Dominican Republic, where he sometimes vacationed.

He owned a business that imported tomato sauce, olive oil and mineral water, and opened a large fruit store in Brooklyn, and later an Italian supermarket.

Cali largely avoided detection by installing buffers around himself, as per law enforcement. Captains were not allowed to speak to him directly, and he never spoke business on the phone; Cali preferred meeting face to face.

Cali was a Mafia anomaly: he rose to the top without fashioning a violent reputation.

Nevertheless, he still managed to meet his fate in the most violent way: He was shot in the back in his own driveway by a deranged, lovesick suitor who thought he was in love with Cali's niece.