Was Russell Bufalino Ever Interim Boss of the Genovese Crime Family?

Was Russell Bufalino ever the boss of the Genovese family in a temporary fashion, we were recently asked via email. The following is our answer ...

Russell Bufalino
Russell Bufalino

By 1975, Russell Bufalino—the soft-spoken, eight-fingered Sicilian with the lazy eye who was called “McGee” by his closest associates —was at the height of his power in the American Cosa Nostra.

According to law enforcement and journalist sources, at around this time he was at the helm of no less than three crime families: In addition to his own crime family in Pittston, Pennsylvania, he had assumed control of (as well as absorbed) the Buffalo crime family after the July 1974 death of longtime boss Stefano Magaddino. Bufalino also reportedly had assumed temporary control of New York’s Genovese family, sometime after the July 1972 murder of front boss Thomas (Tommy Ryan Eboli) and before Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno took over.

Bufalino may have been arguably one of the most powerful mobsters in the nation in the 1970s, but he was never the boss of the Genovese family. He wasn't even a sitting member of the Commission, the Mafia's board of directors that essentially served as the Supreme Court of American organized crime, with "final say" on all decisions brought to it.

Bufalino's status within the Mafia was enormous; he was widely respected and wielded significant clout. But the perception that he was ever an interim boss of the Genovese crime family is erroneous. We trace the claim to a 1980 report (PDF)  by the Pennsylvania Organized Crime Commission (defunct now for decades), which also noted: “There are no more Magaddino ... or Genovese crime family -- the members of these crime families are now under the control of Russell Bufalino."

Bolstering and spreading these assertions about Bufalino supposedly being in charge of (something like) half the Mafia was none other than Charles Brandt, who coauthored several books on the American Mafia: I Heard You Paint Houses, the basis for Netflix's The Irishman—which was billed as offering the final solution to the mysterious July 30, 1975 disappearance of former Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa—as well as We're Going to Win This Thing and Donnie Brasco Unfinished Business. Bufalino is featured in all of Brandt's mob books. But on page 234 of I Heard You Paint Houses, Brandt claims that: “In 1975, at the time of Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance Fat Tony (Salerno) was the boss of the very crime family (Genovese) for which Russell Bufalino had been acting head prior to Fat Tony.”

What could be at the root of this faulty perception: during Prohibition days and for decades actually Bufalino's crime family and the Genovese crime family were closely affiliated (which we will review in more detail further down). Also, a key detail directly related to this matter was hidden from law enforcement (and most of the membership of the American Mafia). What we mean by a hidden key detail: no one, most likely not even Russell Bufalino himself, knew that Philip (Benny Squint) Lombardo was the true official boss of the Genovese family. He became boss after the February 1969 death of Vito Genovese, and remained boss until his own death in 1981.

The Genovese family kept the identity of its real boss after Vito Genovese -- the man who single-handedly caused Joe (Joe Cago) Valachi to flip -- a strict secret. Even the leaders and members of the other crime families in New York didn't know who the real boss of the Genovese family was.

Benny Squint Lombardo.
Benny Squint Lombardo.

Benny Squint used a series of front bosses to take the heat for him. Front bosses Thomas (Tommy Ryan) Eboli, Frank (Funzi) Tieri, and Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno dealt with the other families and were identified in FBI files as bosses of the Genovese family during their respective stints as front bosses.

Then Vincent (Chin) Gigante took over as official boss shortly after Lombardo's death. Though Fat Tony took a big (enormous) fall for him with the Commission trial, Gigante still was later found guilty of running the crime family and died in prison. (He wasn't as lucky as Benny Squint, who was only truly identified after he was already dead of natural causes.)

Vincent (Fish) Cafaro, the "second" Genovese family turncoat (after Valachi) who flipped in 1988 after Fat Tony swatted him with his cane, was the first to detail for the Feds who the real bosses of the family were after Vito Genovese died.

In 1981, Tieri (who was really a capo) was the first gangster ever to be convicted of being a Mafia boss under RICO statutes. Then in 1986, Fat Tony bit the bullet at the Commission Trial. Both indictments were somewhat flawed from a legal standpoint because each boss was merely a titular "up front" boss whose role was created to hide and insulate the family's elected chief from prosecution.  Still, what Jerry Capeci reported is worth noting here: "Essentially, the identity of the "real" boss is academic. All of the named mobsters played leading roles in the family. They controlled the Fulton Fish Market, the San Gennaro Festival, the Javits Convention Center, the New Jersey and Miami docks, had large gambling and loansharking operations, and a major portion of the construction industry and other labor racketeering activities in Manhattan and parts of New Jersey, along with a host of other illegal enterprises."

Funzi Tieri
Funzi Tieri

Bufalino grew to become boss of the Mafia family that sprang up in the northeast Pennsylvania coal mining communities of Pittston, Scranton, and Wilkes-Barre. According to Thomas Hunt's Mafia History website: "The organization has been closely linked since the Prohibition Era to what is now known as the Genovese Crime Family of New York City." It wasn't until the 1960s that the Pittston crime family "began to emerge from under the Genovese family shadow.... The Scranton organization began to engage in rackets in the Buffalo, NY, region and in Canada. Bufalino invested in a number of businesses in New York City and spent much of his time in the city." 

During and after World War II, Bufalino had common financial interests in the garment industry with former Genovese boss Frank Costello and Albert Anastasia, when he was boss of what became the Gambino family. (Anastasia became boss in 1951, after his predecessor, Vincent Mangano, disappeared.) These interests included ownership of nonunion manufacturing shops in Pennsylvania. Reportedly the mob lords reaped their garment industry profits in relative peace from the law and other interests thanks chiefly to Bufalino. Costello and Anastasia established strong alliances with Bufalino, who himself had varied interests in New York City.

Some believe that Bufalino had a role in organizing the Apalachin meeting at the behest of Vito Genovese, after a young, overweight Vincent Gigante creased Frank Costello's skull with a bullet and Anastasia was killed by hitmen while getting his hair cut at a barbershop in midtown Manhattan. (Interestingly, when Bufalino attempted to flee the Apalachin summit meeting in his car, his passengers included Vito Genovese and members of the New Jersey contingent of the Genovese family, among others).

By the 1970s, Bufalino was regarded as one of the most influential crime bosses in the Northeast. He is believed to have had a part in the disappearance and murder of former Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa, who was known to have a relationship with Frank (the Irishman) Sheeran, a Bufalino lieutenant. When Hoffa was released from prison and attempted to retake control of the Teamsters' union, Bufalino is believed to have ordered Hoffa eliminated.

In the 1970s Bufalino spent a lot of time in New York, arriving in Manhattan on Mondays and spending most of his work week in the city. He kept hotel suites in midtown and would conduct business at a restaurant he owned, the Vesuvio, on West 48th Street. Bufalino also owned or was a part owner of several dress shops in the garment industry and jewelry shops along Manhattan’s Diamond District on West Forty-Seventh Street.

Russell Bufalino
Russell Bufalino in 1982.

At one point, Bufalino had a suite at the Hotel Consulate and would meet Frank Sheeran in Manhattan every Thursday, according to Lindley DeVecchio, the FBI agent who fell under a dark cloud for his relationship with former Colombo capo Greg Scarpa. In We're Going to Win This Thing (coauthored with Charles Brandt) DeVecchio noted that Bufalino’s Hotel Consulate suite was bugged and his phone was tapped, but Bufalino never talked business in his suite or on the phone.

Former undercover FBI Agent Joe Pistone, in Donnie Brasco: Unfinished Business (also coauthored with Charles Brandt), wrote that he hung around at the Vesuvio bar on Thursday nights posing as jewel thief Donnie Brasco in an ongoing attempt to overhear intelligence, but that Bufalino kept to himself to such an extent, Pistone never heard anything —even though Bufalino was known to have extensive dealings with jewel thieves. In fact, Bufalino always kept a magnifying glass on him and would pull it out whenever he needed to examine stolen diamonds or other precious stones that had been brought to him to fence.

Bufalino was vicious. He was once caught on wiretap threatening a man's life at a meeting at Vesuvio restaurant. This was the case that sent Bufalino to federal prison for the first time in 1978 at the age of 74. Jack Napoli arrived for the meeting with Bufalino, and Bufalino grew so enraged with him, he couldn’t control himself.

Napoli stood six foot six and weighed around 240 pounds, yet Bufalino threatened to kill him with his bare hands unless he returned some diamonds immediately.

“I’m going to kill you, cocksucker, and I’m going to do it myself and I’m going to jail just for you.”

Napoli had used Bufalino’s name to secure $25,000 worth of diamonds from a New York jeweler, paying for the gems with a worthless check. Napoli knew he was in deep trouble and had gone to the FBI before the meeting and was wearing the wire when Bufalino vowed to kill him.

Billy D’Elia
Billy D’Elia

Following his indictment, Bufalino’s solution to beat the rap was to kill Napoli before he could testify. For help, Bufalino reached out to Jimmy (the Weasel) Fratianno, who described the incident in detail in The Last Mafioso..... Then "Fratianno," DeVecchio (who was part of the FBI team that wired up Napoli) notes in We're Going to Win This Thing, "had gotten into a jackpot in L.A., and he rolled and taped Bufalino. Now they had Bufalino for a conspiracy to murder with his own words. Bufalino went down on that, suffered a stroke in jail, and was released to die at home—which he did in his early nineties."

Specifically, Bufalino was convicted of extortion and got four years. He was sent to Danbury CT Federal Prison in 1978, leaving his longtime driver, William (Big Billy) D'Elia, and Edward Sciandra to run the Pittston Crime Family while he was away. Bufalino was released in 1981 but was almost immediately convicted of conspiracy for the attempted murder of a  government witness. He was sent back to prison in 1982 and served six years and eight months of a 10-year sentence.

Bufalino died Feb. 25, 1994, at Nesbitt Memorial Hospital in Kingston, Pennsylvania. he was 90.

His successor as boss of the Pittston Crime Family was D'Elia. Edward Sciandra reportedly remained involved but kept his distance from the action in Pennsylvania by living on Long Island in Bellmore, New York. Sciandra later retired to Florida, where he died in July of 2003. In 2006, Billy D’Elia was arrested for money laundering and witness tampering. He won a reduction in his original nine-year sentence by cooperating with investigators. D'Elia was held at a federal facility in Tucson, Ariz. HE was supposed to be released on Feb. 2, 2013.