Boss In Exile: Ambition Brought Joe Bonanno Down

We post here the first part of a story, which we dedicate to a great man who we can't name but will refer to as a personal benefactor (because he is).... 

Joseph Bonanno
How Joe Bonanno survived his alleged Machiavellian plotting is a mystery.

In March 1983, the Feds hid an electronic eavesdropping device in Gambino boss Paul Castellano's kitchen alcove, kicking into high gear a massive probe that resulted in 600 hours of recordings that fueled eight Mafia-related trials.

Castellano didn't live to see one of those trials, of course, but he was in the process of facing another jury (for the massive car-theft operation formerly overseen by Murder Machine Roy DeMeo) when he and underboss Thomas Bilotti were gunned down in December 1985 in front of Sparks Steakhouse on East 46th Street near Third Avenue shortly before 5:30 pm. 

Because of the FBI's penetration of Big Paul's Todt Hill White House on Staten Island, we have transcripts of some of  his private discussions with associates. (Boss of Bosses by two agents involved in the probe makes for interesting reading, though some of the story was fictionalized. New York magazine ran an excerpt from the book.) So we are privy to Castellano's thinking.

The man was a junior high dropout but in his later years, he read the Wall Street Journal and pictured himself as an equivalent to the CEO of a corporation. He also fancied himself as a kind of armchair philosopher.

After taking over as Carlo Gambino's handpicked successor, Castellano built a 17-room mansion atop a wooded crest of a hill in the ritzy multi-million-dollar Todt Hill section of Staten Island. Castellano’s neo-Federal mansion was the largest home on Benedict Road. Within the mansion were paneled walls and floors laid with Carrara marble, and there were four master suites, eight baths, guest apartments, a wine cellar, staff quarters, and a solarium. On the property was an Olympic-sized swimming pool, an English garden, and a manicured bocci court. A long circular driveway led to its white-colonnaded portico entrance. Castellano had designed the exterior to resemble what became its nickname: the White House in Washington, DC. Completed in 1981, the stately mansion was valued at $3 million.

Shortly thereafter, besieged by law enforcement, Castellano retreated to the White House's safety and comfort to spend his days holding court before a coterie of confidants in an alcove near the kitchen. Dressed in a regal robe (made of satin and silk, with velvet slippers on his feet), he'd sip espresso and ruminate on a variety of topics in the company of a handful of capos (usually Daniel Marino, Thomas Gambino, and James Failla) and consiglieri Joe Gallo.

"I'm always sayin, Just to take a guy out, that ain't the point. Anytime I can remember that we knocked guys out, it cost us. Somebody gets arrested. Or there's a (mistake), which means we gotta clip another guy, maybe a guy we don't wanna lose."

Nevertheless, "If a guy is (cheating) us, he's dead. But let's be honest. Of all the people we do business with, how many of them are so stupid that they would knowingly try to (cheat) us? . . . Usually, it's just sad-a-- guys who make mistakes. They can't stop gambling. They think they got a brilliant business idea that turns out to be a dog."

"You have power, you can do what the hell you want to do, and that's the end of it. . . . You don't want trouble, you can sit tight. You don't say nothin', you don't do nothin'. But ya can't live in this world doin' nothin'. Am I right?"

"You only live once, am I right? You don't get to do everything. No one does. Me, I got no regrets. The only thing I wish, I wish I had more education. . . . But I say that now. At the time, what I wanted was the streets, so I took 'em. I always felt, if there's something you want to do, do it now. Am I right?"

Castellano also talked about a then recently published book written by a former acquaintance. Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno, founder of the crime family that to this day carries his name, was published shortly after the FBI's penetration of Castellano's inner sanctum. Castellano had eagerly purchased the book and had high hopes. He was disappointed, and the FBI recorded his review.

"I tried to take 10 minutes of that book. I thought it would be interesting, what with knowing a lot of the people. But, I can't read that (book)! . . . The memory, that's what gets me. The guy acts like he remembers every word ever said to him since 1927."

"That's the remarkable thing about these (guys)," Gallo replied. "Maybe they can't read and write, but they remember. . . . There's a word for that, when a guy is a moron about almost everything and a genius at one thing. I can't think of it."

Idiot savant...Gallo was attempting to call Joe Bonanno an idiot savant...

Joe (Bananas) Bonanno Sr. died of heart failure at the age of 97 in May 2002 in a hospital in Tucson, Arizona. He had lived for decades beyond his expulsion from the Mafia, an outcast from the only world he knew.

During his time in power, he ran a notoriously tight ship for around 30 years. Many early members of the Bonanno family all came from the same small Sicilian town. Consequently, the crime family was highly stable and free of the internecine strife common in other crime families.

Joe Bonanno was known for creativity and innovation. One story that made the rounds had to do with a  supposed Bonanno invention that solved an historic Mafia problem (the fear of being nabbed by the cops with the body of someone you killed). Bonanno had acquired a funeral home in Brooklyn and shortly thereafter invented the "split-level coffin," a coffin with a secret lower compartment where unwanted corpses could be placed so that no one, not even the family of the legal decedent in the top compartment, would be none the wiser

For the funeral procession, Bonanno sent some well-muscled caretakers to carry the coffin around as required. They were strong enough to not show signs of extra exertion caused by the supplemental weight of the corpse that had been stuffed inside the hidden lower compartment.

Then, when the coffin was lowered into the ground, the hidden passenger would vanish too -- usually before the police even knew that the guy was missing.

As a "Father," Bonanno eagerly followed an aggressive expansionism strategy. He had a wandering eye that was forever sizing up new territory.

The institution he belonged to (The Mafia) had rules that stymied him, but that also offered Bonanno a solution. The Commission had the power to declare certain territories as "open," like the American Southwest. Bonanno eagerly exploited these opportunities.

"He's planting flags all over the world!" Buffalo boss Stefano Magaddino once fumed when Bonanno made some attempts to infiltrate his Toronto territory.

A "rift" between Bonanno and the Mafia Commission surfaced in 1961, when Bonanno was accused of plotting the murder of Los Angeles boss Frank DeSimone. (He possibly had additional targets in mind too.)

Bonanno had put together a scheme to take over organized crime in California and put his son Bill Bonanno at the top. Some sources noted that Bonanno planned to send 40 soldiers to the West Coast to shoot it out.

 According to the American Mafia website, "the plot fell apart after someone got cold feet and spilled the beans."

It worked out in the end to Bonanno's benefit because he was "somehow able to mend fences with the other LCN bosses, and the plot was “forgotten.”

But possibly not by Bonanno himself, who may have still been scheming in the 1970s to seize the West Coast.

Such a scenario was highlighted in 1980 during one of the trials that featured the testimony of former West Coast wiseguy Aladena James (Jimmy the Weasel) Fratianno, who for a time was the government's star witness regarding murder and extortion of bookies, gamblers and pornographers in Nevada and Southern California.

During the trial of five West Coast mobsters (Louis Dragna, Dominic Brooklier, Samuel Sciortino, Michael Rizzitello, and Jack LoCicero,all of whom were free on bail at the time), the jury heard evidence that Fratianno had once boasted in a taped conversation about hiring the Mexican Mafia to kill Cosa Nostra members before they killed him.

Jurors heard a recorded conversation in which Fratianno told author Ovid Demaris that three years prior, he believed three of the defendants had marked him for murder.

"I wasn't scared of them guys," Fratianno said to Demaris, who was then writing his biography. "I'd tear their eyeballs out. Every one of them. In fact, that's what I was going to do, you know ... I was going to kill all three of them."

Fratianno was especially scared that his wife would get killed.

"I got some of the Mexican Mafia with me, see," Fratianno said. "I had three or four of them, you know. I figured, well, later on, I couldn't trust ... nobody." Fratianno explained that he had met the Mexican Mafia prison gang while serving time in prison.

On his second day of cross-examination, Fratianno denied knowing Joseph Bonanno Sr. or his sons, though he admitted to meeting Bonanno associate Jimmy Styles in San Francisco the night before the gangland execution of San Diego mobster Frank (The Bomp) Bompensiero in February 1977.

Defense attorneys were "trying to implicate Bonanno in the Bompensiero murder, based on a scrap of paper found in Bonanno's garbage that contained the number of the telephone booth where Bompensiero was shot," as a UPI report noted.

Fratianno had admitted he frequently called Bompensiero at the phone booth.

"You got him at the phone booth so that you and Mr. Bonanno and his sons could execute Mr. Bompensiero as he walked away from the phone booth," a defense attorney charged.

"That's a lie, sir," Fratianno replied.

"Mr. Fratianno, do you know what perjury is?"

"I believe I do,’” Fratianno answered.