Dishonorable Man? Joe Bonanno Was Devious, Rivals Claimed (And Bill Bonanno's Dark Secret)

Joseph Bonanno, a founding father of the modern American Mafia, would spend months living in almost complete seclusion in Tucson, telling those close to him that he wanted no contact with anyone.

Joseph Bonanno, his son Bill, and Gaspar DiGregorio.
Joseph Bonanno, his son Bill, and Gaspar DiGregorio.

By August 1964, Bonanno had been ousted for "overreaching" with his plotting to kill Carlo Gambino and Tommy Luchese, the two bosses who, in alliance with Buffalo boss Stefano Magaddino, dominated the Commission after Joseph Profaci died. Other sitting Commission bosses were New Jersey-based Gerardo Catena (sitting in for Vito Genovese, who was in prison), Angelo Bruno from Philadelphia, Sam Giancana from Chicago, and Detroit boss Joseph Zerilli. Former Profaci capo Joe Colombo was given a seat on the Commission when Gambino elevated him to boss of the Profaci family (which became the Colombo family.) Simone (Sam The Plumber) DeCavalcante wasn’t on the Commission but served a key mediatory role for the Commission in its dispute with Bonanno.

DeCavalcante can be heard on the wiretaps expressing bitterness about his lack of standing with the other bosses.

“[Colombo] sits like a baby next to Carl [Gambino] all the time,” DeCavalcante said. “He’ll do anything Carl wants him to do.” (Which was the whole point, Sam.)

“Sometimes, Frank (Majuri, one of his longtime underbosses), the more things you see, the more disillusioned you become. You know, honesty and honorability, those things.”

Colombo was rewarded with the Profaci family and his own Commission seat after Joe Magliocco assigned the hits to him and he gave the plotters up.

But is that how it happened? Could it be possible that Magliocco alone had plotted to kill the two bosses? (We've seen this opinion expressed multiple times in online forums over the years.) Magliocco, who died of a heart attack in December 1963, stood to gain the leadership post of the Profaci family with Bonanno behind him after Gambino and Luchese were out of the way. Did Magliocco grab Bonanno by the lapels and drag him into a mess to save himself? Did he point the finger of blame at Bonanno to mitigate the fury that otherwise would have been unleashed completely at him? Surely Bonanno was too smart to get involved in such a crass power play. If Don Peppino had plotted to kill Carlo Gambino and Tommy Three Finger Brown, then both would have been dead before they knew what happened....

This view is inconsistent with available evidence. Bonanno's rival Commission bosses had numerous complaints about him; the alleged plotting wasn't an isolated problem. They were very certain that Bonanno made members even when the Commission exercised its right to close the books. They also believed Bonanno had murdered his co-plotter, Magliocco. Bonanno was even "noted" for such deviousness, DeCavalcante would tell his underboss.

When the FBI heard that Bonanno was suspected by his rivals of poisoning Magliocco before he could tell them more about Bonanno's plotting, there were ramifications in August 1969, when the District Attorney of Suffolk County ordered the exhumation of Magliocco’s body (pic below). Turns out, Magliocco hadn't been poisoned; he died of a heart attack in December 1963. But what's interesting here is that, based on recorded conversations, his rivals thought Bonanno wasn't above using poison to kill someone he viewed as standing in his way. Despite all the "manly" posturing in his later autobiography, Bonanno's erstwhile colleagues viewed him as a sneak who played dirty.

Before the Commission removed Bonanno from his crime family, the bosses claimed they only wanted to meet so Bonanno could explain certain actions. Bonanno kept putting them off by claiming they were violating certain norms of their tradition by failing to send the proper ambassadors; Bonanno also argued that talks had to take place at certain times on certain days. He was using archaic rules to stymie them. Toward the end, the Commission gave Bonanno a deadline to appear; he didn't and that was that.

When DeCavalcante continued to discuss setting up meetings with Bonanno, he was advised to "divorce himself from it," by Jerry Catena, who told Sam The Plumber that it was too late: Bonanno was out, end of story. Or rather, the Commission withdrew its support of Joe and Bill Bonanno (and Johnny Morales) and no longer recognized their legitimacy in Cosa Nostra. The final deal involved the three Bonanno members exiting Cosa Nostra with guarantees that no violence would follow.

In August 1969, the District Attorney of Suffolk County ordered the exhumation of Joe Magliocco
The District Attorney of Suffolk County ordered the exhumation of Joe Magliocco.

On February 2, 1965, DeCavalcante was recorded having a heart to heart about various matters related to the Bonanno incident with long-time Connecticut wiseguy Joseph (Joe Buff) LaSelva, who had been elevated to oversee the DeCavalcante crew in Connecticut. He was one of two underbosses under Sam the Plumber; Majuri was the other.

DeCavalcante: Bonanno put Magliocco up to a lot of things, like to kill Carl Gambino.

LaSelva: Well Magliocco that was his son's father-in-law.

DeCavalcante: Bonanno put Magliocco up to hit Carl Gambino and Tommy Brown.

LaSelva: Well that must have had something to do with Profaci's outfit?

DeCavalcante: Yeah, now they feel that Bonanno poisoned Magliocco. Magliocco didn't die a natural death. Because the only one who could accuse him (Bonanno) of plotting against Gambino and Luchese was Magliocco. See Magliocco confessed to it. But Joe Bonanno did not know how far he went. Understand? So, they suspect he used a pill on him, that Bonanno's noted for. So, he knows the truth of all the damage he has done. But they feel he don't know how much the other people know. He'd come in and deny everything, but he knows he could not deny he made people when the books were closed.

LaSelva: Out on the coast there was some friction, wasn't there?

DeCavalcante: Well he tried to take California over, when they were having trouble. He sent the kid out there with 40 guys. The Commission stopped him and that's where the trouble started. If he had listened to me, that time I went to him, this thing would have been straightened out. They would have just bawled him out.

LaSelva: It's a shame. What was he, 58 or 59 years old, and the prestige that he had? What was he looking for? Anyway, it's really bad for the morale of Our Thing, you know? When they make the rules and then break them themselves. He's been in 20 years.

DeCavalcante: Thirty-three years he's been in...

Simone (Sam The Plumber) DeCavalcante
"Divorce yourself from it," Catena told Sam The Plumber, above.

By 1968 Bonanno was living full time in Tucson, Arizona. Back in the New York Bonanno family, Paul Sciacca, who had been consiglieri under Gaspar DiGregorio, was named boss with the approval of the Commission. "However, there has been no information received to indicate that Sciacca holds a position on the Commission." (The Bonannos wouldn't get their Commission seat back until Joe Massino.)

Bonanno couldn't issue a press release to inform every one of his status. Except for one interview in 1978 with Parade magazine, Bonanno remained aloof from publicity. (Until his memoir.) But aloofness doesn't protect one from law enforcement. The FBI, among others, weren't giving up in their quest to nail one of the country's most notorious underworld bosses who had successfully eluded their clutches for decades.

The FBI believed there was no living way to get out of the mob, so Joe Bonanno must have voluntarily retired following his feud with rivals. The FBI and other local law enforcement agencies like the Arizona Narcotics Strike Force continued to view him as a boss, albeit one more geographically removed than other New York bosses.

While Bonanno was living in almost complete seclusion in Tucson, he had "considerable trepidation concerning his personal safety, especially following an explosion that occurred in the backyard of his residence on July 22, 1968, which blew out a portion of a brick wall."

The FBI noted that, at that time, Bonanno was seen under "constant" guard by Peter J. Magaddino. Also in Tucson with Bonanno at the time was Peter J. Notaro, Don Peppino's loyal soldier and lifelong gofer. Charles Joseph Battaglia Jr., who previously served as "Bonanno's titular representative in Arizona," was in prison in 1968, serving a 10-year sentence in the federal prison at Leavenworth Kansas. The FBI was advised on August 8 and 20, 1968, that Battaglia was a former LCN member of the Los Angeles family who had transferred to the Bonanno family because "he didn't get along with Frank DeSimone, the Los Angeles boss." It's not difficult to see why Bonanno had moved to depose DeSimone: In November 1963, NY T-1 told the FBI that the Los Angeles "brugad, under the direction of DeSimone, is relatively inactive, and the membership at the present time would probably be less than 20."

While it was later learned that the explosions in Bonanno's backyard and elsewhere in Tucson were part of a rogue FBI agent's crazed effort to foment an internal mob war, Bonanno likely initially believed his past was catching up with him and that the bombings had been orchestrated either by Bonanno members opposed to Bill's leadership or members of other crime families opposed to Bonanno himself. (The bombings were one more thing that seemed to be connected to the Bonanno feud that had been going on for years in the streets of New York City. The bombings were related, but not the way many believed.)

Probing Tucson for mob ties to Bonanno, the FBI reported that "There is no formal organization as such of the LCN in Arizona. Informants further advise that the LCN members in Arizona continue to be concentrated in the Tucson, Arizona area and are considered to be members of the Joseph Bonanno family of LCN."

In April 1968, FBI sources noted that others joining Bonanno in Arizona included his son, Salvatore, aka Bill, who was still caught up in the role of trying to play mobster. But as per the FBI, Bill wasn't having an easy time. "Bill has been spending most of his time in Tucson and is obviously serving as his father's spokesman. Informants have advised that Bill is definitely not viewed with respect by the local LCN members and therefore, various instances of dissension have arisen resulting from members either ignoring Bill or refusing to accept any orders from him."

Mafia History, Tom Hunt's website, published a story that makes it pretty clear that, whatever else Bill was, he was an FBI informant probably throughout the "Banana War" and up until the move to Tucson in 1968.

On Mafia History, Edmond Valin writes: "The FBI was surprisingly well-informed through much of the Banana War, which lasted on-and-off between 1964 and 1968. Federal agents received a regular flow of Intel from listening devices planted in mob hangouts and from a Bonanno Crime Family member close to the situation." That member was Bill. Valin writes, "Evidence suggests Bill Bonanno may have continued to talk right up to the time he and his father worked out a deal to retire to Arizona in 1968 and give up all claims on the Bonanno Crime Family."

As for why Bill cooperated, it was because of his father's kidnapping, which itself raises other questions about the kidnapping of Joe Bonanno. Bonanno blamed his cousin, Buffalo boss Stefano Magaddino, but most informed sources believe Bonanno was perpetuating a hoax and that he had faked the kidnapping as an excuse to dodge a subpoena and rival bosses. However, if it were hoax, it would be assumed that Bill was in on it. The bottom line, as Valin notes, "would tend to suggest Bonanno (Jr.) was in the dark about the kidnapping, at least initially (even if it was staged by his father). It also raises the question: why would Bill Bonanno continue to cooperate after his father emerged from hiding in 1966 and returned to his side."

With the beginning of the 1970s, Tusconian Joe Bonanno, in many ways, started to blend into the surroundings. He was just another transplanted Easterner living out retirement in the Arizona desert. There were thousands of transplanted Easterners at the time. Outwardly, the old man's days seemed to pass in uneventful routine. Joe Bonanno's weekly activities included driving his frail wife to the doctor's office and the grocery store. Friends arrived on Saturday nights and the group went out to enjoy red wine and pasta at Scordato's, Bonanno's favorite restaurant.

Bonanno also was a compulsive writer who committed to paper (including pilfered hotel stationery) his most-private thoughts -- thoughts he'd share with no one.

"He was lying and trying to cover up," Bonanno noted about one talking head journalist he saw on television. Bonanno vowed on paper to show him up by going on television himself and "stating the truth." The truth was that: Politicians and the FBI were "together against me."

At Christmas, Bonanno made his holiday gift list. "Get $1000 from savings bank," he wrote to himself in December 1978. He was a compulsive scribbler of such personal reminders. The list included Christmas cognac for "Lorenzo." For Victor, the accountant who kept the Arizona and Montreal books: $100. The list also included Pete Notaro, the barber, lawyer Albert Krieger, his wife Faye, and others.

Details about Bonanno's scribblings were obtained by the Arizona Narcotics Strike Force, which seized his trash from December 1975 to March 1979.

The Bonanno household trash was delivered to the curbside garbage cans stuffed into Safeway shopping bags. The garbage was picked up twice a week at dawn by members of the Arizona Narcotics Strike Force, who preceded the municipal garbage collectors. Arriving in a van that halted briefly in front of Bonanno's stucco ranch at 255 Sierra Vista, agents grabbed the Bonanno trash and replaced it with substitute refuse stuffed into identical Safeway shopping bags. A few blocks away, in a shopping center parking lot, investigators wearing smocks and rubber gloves picked through the mess and ended up saving some 6,000 secret notes