How Big John Got Brooklyn Crew, Why Bonannos Crashed Luchese Clubhouse, Other Secrets From An Ex-Wiseguy, Including About Skinny Joey

In April 2013, in a house on Staten Island, acting Luchese boss Matty Madonna inducted John Pennisi and two other Italian American men into the Luchese crime family. Pennisi -- a member of Big John Castellucci's "Brooklyn" crew, which is now based on Staten Island -- was a loyal wiseguy and a hardcore believer in The Life.

Matty Madonna and Joe DeNapoli
Luchese bust: Madonna, left, DeNapoli

But after a few years as a wiseguy, Pennisi realized that being a member of Big John's crew wasn't all that it was cracked up to be. By 2017, Big John and others started to wrongly suspect him of being a rat.

After Pennisi spotted two men sitting in a car suspiciously parked outside his home on Long Island, he knew that the rift between him and his crime family had become insurmountable. Pennisi armed himself and after a couple of close encounters grew increasingly concerned about innocents getting caught in the cross fire.

He tried to resolve the "problem" in less lethal ways, including by driving far away from New York to America's Deep South. But in time, he realized that his old pals had no intention of letting him walk away from the Luchese family with his life. Entrenched in a no-win situation, Pennisi, unable to exit stage left, went another way -- to the FBI, which was not in the process of building a single case against him.

John Pennisi has been widely covered at Gang Land News and major New York and New Jersey metropolitan newspapers. And in 2020, John Pennisi contacted Cosa Nostra News to correct what he said we had flubbed in previous stories about him. The following is the fourth installment in the series of stories that tell John Pennisi's side of the story about what happened between him and Big John and others in the Luchese crime family. 

Cosa Nostra News invites anyone who can speak for the wiseguys and others mentioned in this series to contact us.

The way former Luchese mobster John Pennisi tells it, he'd still be a true-blue wiseguy today if weren't for Big John.

John Pennisi is getting on with his life as best he can, and Big John Castellucci is probably doing the same from a cell at Fort Dix FCI (where he is slated to be until May 15, 2022). His release date could have been 2040, instead of 2022. But prosecutors gave Castelucci a deal that called for a recommended prison term of between 30 and 37 months, significantly less than the 20-year maximum for racketeering he could’ve been hit with.

Big John is a capo now, but earlier in life he was an associate in the Luchese family’s Bensonhurst, Brooklyn crew (which is the original version of the crew Big John runs now on Staten Island). The Luchese family's Brooklyn crew—which engaged in a broad spectrum of criminal activities, including extortion, cocaine trafficking, loansharking, gambling, and arson for-profit schemes—was so massive, some believed it was overseen by two capos, Joseph (Joey Flowers) Tangorra and Eugene (Boopsie) Castelle.

However Pennisi says "Boopsie most likely was an acting captain, along with Joey Flowers, who was the captain of that crew. There are no two captains of a crew." (Boopsie is Big John’s older brother, even though the two have different surnames.)

Big John is currently serving prison for his fifth felony conviction, which is his third federal conviction—the second under the racketeering statute.

According to Pennisi, a massive stroke of life-changing good luck while he was serving one of his previous prison sentences directly caused Big John to become a made member, and then a capo.

While serving federal time, Big John was in the same unit as Luchese consiglieri Joe DiNapoli, who happened to have a heart attack. Big John promptly got help -- and saved DiNapoli’s life. A grateful DiNapoli got Big John inducted into the Luchese crime family and then made him capo of what was left of that massive Brooklyn crew, which by then had partly relocated to Staten Island.

Some wiseguys who were around when Big John was an associate were still around after Big John got a button and was bumped to capo. These wiseguys know the reason for the Luchese family’s largess toward Big John: He saved the consigliere’s life.

John Pennisi
John Pennisi is on Instagram openly as himself.

The problem for these wiseguys is that Big John didn't exactly show he had any particularly useful talents, as Pennisi tells it. Big John didn't show an ability to make tons of money; he didn't know how to kill people and make them quickly disappear. To many, he didn't seem to be either a gangster or a racketeer, in other words. Big John had been the recipient of luck. He had successfully alerted a prison guard, "Hey, this guy needs help!" and Joe DiNapoli was spared a premature death in jail. 

As John Pennisi explains: “John saved somebody – Joe DiNapoli. His claim to fame, so he gets straightened out and bumped up to skipper because that was Joe’s payback. Joe gave him the Brooklyn crew, the remainder of what was left of it in Staten Island.”

“Guys from the old Brooklyn crew, including Frankie Bones (aka Frank Papagni) and Georgie Neck (aka George Zappola, both Luchese soldiers in Brooklyn who refused Big John as capo) were away while all this transpired, they knew Big John as an associate. They get out and he is a skipper they are expected to report to – imagine that?” 

Bonanno Incident

Big John also earned a serious strike against his name in the minds of many Luchese wiseguys, John said, who believed his response--or rather lack of response -- to an incident involving the Bonanno family should've disqualified him from the life. 

"Guys felt Big John did not belong in his position after the Bonanno incident," Pennisi said.

In 2012 Bonanno members and associates “forced” their way into a Luchese family clubhouse in the Bronx (John Pennisi referred to it as a sanctuary). 

Specifically, the Feds alleged that in 2012, "armed members and associates of the Bonanno Family of La Cosa Nostra forced their way into a Bronx social club controlled by the Luchese Family." During the ensuing confrontation, Bonanno associate Carl Ulzheimer "acted in a manner that a leader of the Luchese Family, Steven L. Crea perceived as a personal affront. To avenge this supposed offense, Crea Sr. ordered his son, Steven D. Crea to have the Associate killed," (which added another murder conspiracy charge to the other charges Crea and 18 members and associates of the Luchese crime would face in the big Luchese bust of 2017).

The Bonanno family made such a seemingly crazy move against another one of the five families for a specific reason, John Pennisi said.

The Bonannos went in there because Matty (Madonna, former acting boss) had told one of their guys, ‘we do not recognize a boss that is in prison’ while Mikey Nose was away.” 

Of course, Vic Amuso was also in prison, so Matty clearly had not thought that one through. 

“That was a bad statement from Matty, being our own boss was away as well. But the Bonannos were way out of order. You do not do something like that.” 

Joe DiNapoli and Big John also were in the clubhouse at the time.

“Big John was the youngest guy there. (Young in the sense that he was the only Luchese soldier there under the age of 70.) And he never lifted his hands once while these guys from another borgata (or Family) disrespected our administration." 

“A lot of our guys felt that Big John should have acted that day at the club. You never let anyone disrespect you as a made member, or worse, your bosses. Some of those (Bonanno) guys had pistols in their waistbands. You don’t let another family force their way into your club and disrespect your administration. In La Cosa Nostra you kill and die for your family but maybe John didn’t feel like dying that day.” 

Things like that are not quickly overlooked or forgotten, even by objective wiseguys who want to like a guy.

“Big John was not respected because of that. I remember a conversation with Mikey (DeSantis, alleged current acting boss) one day. He said, we are not going to straighten guys out that made coffee for a wiseguy in prison or saved them from a heart attack.' That was aimed at Big John.” 

“Big John tried to talk and act like a tough guy, but was the furthest thing. One night a guy disrespected John and then me in front of the cigar shop. I hit the guy and then kicked him in the face, and he was out cold on the ground. John thought the guy was dead. I told him to open the guy’s trunk – and he turned white as a ghost and panicked. He asked me why did I have to kick the guy? I could not believe how he acted that night and did not forget it.” 

“John did not follow any of our rules, he only broke them.” 

Skinny Joey Merlino
Luchese wiseguys were ordered not to recognize Merlino.

Then there was the time when John Pennisi and  John (Johny Sideburns) Cerrella were invited to a meeting and dinner at Joe Perna’s house in Wyckoff NJ to meet with Skinny Joey Merlino (Boss of the Philadelphia crime family). Big John learned about the dinner and ordered Pennisi and Sideburns not to go, saying the Luchese family does not recognize Merlino.

Big John took a legitimate stand there, or rather he seemed to. Vic Amuso ordered members of the Luchese family to refuse to recognize Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino as the boss of the Cosa Nostra family in Philadelphia.

One of Merlino’s predecessors was Nicodemo (Little Nicky) Scarfo, the Philadelphia mob boss known for his 1980’s reign of violence and murder, who died in a federal prison medical facilty in Butler, NC, in January 2017 at the age of 87. Scarfo had tried like hell to outlive the 55-year prison sentence imposed on him in 1988 for racketeering and murder charges. Scarfo supposedly wanted to live long enough to be free again and gain revenge against the man who he believed wronged him: his nephew, Phil Leonetti, who had testified against him at trial.

Little Nicky Scarfo had sons still on the street after his imprisonment, including the youngest (and supposedly quietest) Nicky Scarfo Jr. Scarfo Sr wasn’t happy when someone tried to kill Nicky Jr on Halloween 1989. Little Nicky’s little Nicky had been eating at a South Philadelphia Italian restaurant when a masked shooter walked up and blasted away. The gun was later found with a silencer still attached out front. Many believe Skinny Joey Merlino was the shooter –and that he purposefully dropped the “murder” weapon on the street in a secret homage to a famous scene in the Godfather film.

Subsequently, Scarfo Jr became a member of the New York Luchese crime family (not the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra family) courtesy of his father, who at the time shared a cell with Luchese boss Amuso.

“After the shooting of Scarfo’s kid Vic sent word to straighten the kid out with our borgata. He did Nicky a favor to protect his son from further attempts. Vic made it known we were not to recognize Merlino. So Big John tells me – ‘I understand you and Sideburns were supposed to go to Perna’s house to meet the kid Joey Merlino from Philly. You guys can’t go, we don’t recognize him and that comes from the top.’

“Meanwhile, I find out the motherfucker goes to Perna’s house and takes his brother Boopsie, They both meet Joey Merlino and John is kissing his ass all night long, according to Perna. Typical Big John.”

“So we meet with Merlino the following night at the Belmont Tavern, in Belleville NJ. Sideburns and me were pissed at that hypocrite bastard John.”

"Me and Sideburns were fuming about that one."

Big John even managed to insinuate himself into places he didn't belong, Pennisi said.

One winter's day a fetching young woman visited the strip mall on Page Avenue on Staten Island near Big John's Cigar Vault. It had been icy and slushy out, with lots of salt dumped in the street and on the sidewalks, and she got some salt smeared down the leg of the black pair of pants she was wearing. Big John brushed her leg to help get the stuff off of her.

Another time, the same young woman went into the AT&T storefront in the strip mall, near the cigar lounge. John had a thing for her, as you may have gathered. So when she walked out of the store with tears in her eyes because she didn't have the $700 to pay her bill, and get her phone turned back on, John gallantly rushed to her side to offer the money she needed.

What's wrong with John brushing her leg and then offering her money? Lots, considering the woman was dating John Pennisi at the time this happened.

"Joe Perna and Johnny Sideburns were standing there, and Perna later told me that I went overboard with what I did."

What did John do? He smacked Big John on the shoulder to thank him for the thoughtful assistance he had provided his girlfriend.

Later, when Big John wasn't around, Perna told John, "Pal, I think you hit him too hard."

But Perna must've known where Pennisi was coming from. Perna himself had experienced the same thing firsthand. He had an attractive wife, and Big John told Perna, "hey, your wife is hot."

"This showed Big John's character," Pennisi told us. "Guys don't talk that way about a guy's wife, especially to his face. You keep that to yourself."

He added, ”A friend (a made guy) never puts his hand on another friend’s wife or girl. That shows Big John's character," Pennisi said. "He's not meant for this life."

Big John Castellucci
Big John

Christmas is an Evergreen Day in the Mob
Christmas is for parties and when vast sums of money change hands. Soldiers and associates kick up to their captain, and the captain kicks up to the administration.

According to John Pennisi, every Christmas, Luchese boss Vic Amuso expects at least $10,000 from each capo. The capos put the package together for Amuso using their own money and money collected from the guys in their crew.

Wealthy Luchese capos who are savvy and interested in earning their crew's loyalty, respect, and admiration will accept less from their men and pay the boss using their own money.

Luchese capo Dom Truscello ran a huge crew that operated in Manhattan and was such a successful wiseguy, he paid Amuso the entire tribute amount himself without taking anything from his men, according to John Pennisi.

"Dom told me that he doesn't take money from his guys. Skippers who made enough money put in for their guys. Some crews only took $1,000 from each guy because the capo made enough to give the $10,000 to the administration," he noted.

Big John, however, wanted to spend as little of his own money as possible. He required each member of his crew to kick up $2,500. Then as time went on, he increased that amount to $6,000 per man. (He also required crew members to chip in and pay for the Christmas party each year. Capos pay for the Christmas party, Pennisi said.)

John said he never gave Big John the full $6,000. "He complained and cried but I never gave it to him."

Luchese soldier Joe Perna was facing a 10-year stretch in prison (it was New Jersey time, however, which isn't like New York time; Perna, with good behavior, was actually facing about two years). Before he went in, he sent Big John $4,000 for Christmas.

"John is supposed to take the $4,000 and give it back to Joe and tell him to keep it for his family because he is going away."

Big John, instead, sent word back to Perna that his package was $2,000 light, Pennisi said.

John directed us to a Gang Land News column from October 2019 titled Big Bad John: A Greedy Capo Who Helped Turn Button Man Into A Stool Pigeon that details how he once borrowed 10 grand from Big John to loan to a customer, only the customer decided against taking the loan. Rather than return the full amount, Pennisi paid the weekly vig to Big John as if the loan had gone through.

Replying to Assistant U.S. attorney Hagan Scotten about why he didn't just give the money back, he explained: "If I had done that, then he would be complaining and he would never lend me money again. So I just figured it was better to just hold on to it and pay him his hundred dollars every week," he said, adding that he "kept it for almost a year."

John (Johny Sideburns) Cerrella
John (Johny Sideburns) Cerrella

Gang Land has written several articles about Pennisi. The Big Bad John story also relates how, after he received a meager $2,000 from a $20,000 shakedown of the owner of a Long Island construction company, John took some advice from John (Johny Sideburns) Cerrella when he got an additional $1,000 as his end. (It wasn't good advice.)

As Gang Land related:

Q. What did you do with that money that you got?

A. The $2,000 I kept, and then the last thousand, Johnny Sideburns told me to offer it to Big John, and that he wouldn't take it from me, (but) that he would respect that I was offering it. He knows that I didn't have money.

Q. Did you offer it?

A. I did.

Q. And did Castellucci let you keep it?

A. He took the whole thing.

Q. In the future, did you turn over your money to Castellucci?

A. I did not.

Participate in an upcoming Q&A!
Have a question for John Pennisi about the Luchese family or the mob? Let us know via email and we'll publish it, with John's answer, in a future Q&A .... reach us at