ITALIANS ONLY: When Colombo Wiseguys Took Over Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center

In late 1993 through September 1994, the Feds conducted an experiment that involved putting 21 members of the Colombo crime family close together in one section of the dormitory-like Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn to enable the accused to "more easily get legal homework done" for upcoming trials, which had to do with crimes allegedly committed during the Colombo war.  

The experiment failed miserably. 

William Wild Bill Cutolo and members of his Colombo crew
William (Wild Bill) Cutolo and members of his Colombo crime family crew.

The wiseguys took over a wing of MDC in Brooklyn, terrorizing inmates and guards alike, and stealing and hoarding so much food that prisoners elsewhere in the MDC went hungry. The Colombos even turned the TV room into their own private club, replete with Italians Only sign. (Gang Land News and some of the New York dailies reported on the Colombo clubhouse inside the MDC.)

The charismatic William (Wild Bill or Billy Fingers) Cutolo--then a capo in the Colombo crime family -- and six members of his crew, following their arrests in late 1993 for crimes related to the third Colombo crime family war, played the lead role in the effort to usurp control of the prison.

Prior to that bust, Wild Bill and his crew had joined the insurgents, having spied more potential opportunity for advancement if the Colombo family were run by rebel acting boss Victor (Little Vic) Orena. Wild Bill and his crew are in the history books for firing the first shots in the third Colombo war, which ran its course from 1991 to 1993 and led to 12 deaths and assorted mayhem. The Orena insurgents battled it out with bullets against members who were loyal to Carmine (Junior) Persico, the longtime official boss of the Colombo crime family who died last year at age 85 while serving life for his conviction in the historic Mafia Commission Case.

As for what happened in the MDC, "officials were losing control of the prison and the people who were running the prison block were the inmates,"  as Assistant U.S. Attorney Pam Davis recalled in court after the Feds took back the prison. 

Associate Warden Nancy Bailey testified that the Feds began housing the Colombo family defendants with good intentions, noting that the effort was an attempt  to more efficiently serve the cause of justice by allowing the defendants to "more easily get legal homework done."

The wiseguys shared locker and bunk space, and stuck firmly together, as prison officials recalled.

Guards doing routine locker searches would lose interest in their formal duties after a half-dozen Colombo inmates encircled them.

On some days, Davis said, Colombo defendants squirreled away so much food that "some of the other inmates in the prison weren't able to get any food whatsoever."

Then they hung the "Italians Only" sign outside the TV room. After that, said Davis, "no one else was seen in that TV room during this time when that sign was up."

Prison officials acknowledge the offenses one by one are minor. But in prison, where small victories signify power, little things become a big thing.

Said Bailey, "When taken as a whole it exhibited to us that we were not controlling that housing unit."

The worry, Davis said, was that it would escalate. "When you keep groups together, they form these factions and start taking over the prison," she said. Well, duh... And the people involved were not to be taken lightly, she added, pointing out that the group included Wild Bill Cutolo, a former acting underboss who allegedly avoided getting whacked at least a half-dozen times during the Colombo war. He also was credited by mob informants for being the force behind at least two war-related hits. 

Also in the group were Cutolo tier mates Frank (Frankie Notch) Ianacci, Paul (Paulie Guns) Bevacqua, Vincent (Chickie) DeMartino, Michael (Spat) Spataro, and Frank (Campy) Campanella.

After about six months, the Feds chopped apart the Colombo crew running the MDC housing unit and sent the wiseguys and associates to various floors throughout the facility. Bailey revealed in a court hearing that things were once again under control. (Presumably, the "Italians Only" sign was destroyed. Or is it hanging on someone's wall somewhere out there even to this day? We wonder if one of those MDC officials snagged it. )

Larry Mazza book on Colombo crime family
The Life, Larry Mazza's book on Colombo crime family


Wild Bill was a tremendous earner who, at one point, sent Vic Orena the sum of $30,000 a week, according to Greg Scarpa's former protégé, Larry Mazza, who wrote that figure in his book The Life: A True Story About A Brooklyn Boy Seduced Into The Dark World Of The Mafia.

Cutolo "never travelled with less than a 12-man entourage. And those men were expected to open the door for him, kiss him hello and goodbye, clean the chair for him and much more. One time, he even smacked a close member of his crew in the mouth. It was Jo Jo Russo’s job that night to help the boss off with his coat. He cracked him right in Brooklyn’s hottest disco, Pastels."

About 30-40 guys could be seen hanging outside Billy's club on 11th Avenue in Brooklyn back in the good old days. He held court on Thursday nights. Wild Bill's crew once included Vinny (Venus) Fusaro, Vinny (Chin) DeFalco, Franky and Joey (Campy) Campanella, Dominic (Black Dom) Dionisio, Joseph (Little Jo Jo) Russo, Franky (Notch) Ianocci, Gabe Scianna, Vinny Muscles, Mike (Spats) Spatoro, Vincent (Chicky) DiMartino, and Wild Bill's son, Bill Junior.

The Life includes a description of a meeting  that took place shortly before the war got going. One night Scarpa and crew took a ride to Billy's club, where Scarpa wanted to have a word with Cutolo. (Remember, Larry Mazza--who, as we reported, had a small part in The Irishman playing one of the gunman who pulled off the off-screen execution of Albert Anastasia-- was a member of the Persico loyalist faction and wasn't exactly a fan of Wild Bill)....

... A good part of their strength (meaning the Orena rebel faction's strength) came from Billy’s crew. That particular Thursday was different. There were close to 100 men hanging out from the door to the corner. I’ll never know for sure, but I’d bet that someone told Billy we were coming that night. ...

It was a very impressive fleet of cars that turned the corner to Bill’s club. I was pretty impressed too as we turned the corner. But what impressed me most was the alarming number of what I knew to be soldiers, lining the street. I wasn’t sure if I should pull over or floor it. 

I ignored my better judgment and Joe Fish telling me, “Keep going.”

 I stopped right in front of the club. The other two cars stopped right behind me. Billy’s guys were scurrying around like ants protecting their queen. Four of them ran toward my car with their guns drawn. 

Chicky, who led the four, asked repeatedly, “Where’s Greg? Where’s Greg?” 

I slowly got out of the car and told them, “He’s here to talk to Billy. Calm down.” 

Just then, the brand new Goodfella, Chicky, told me to put my hands on the car. “Am I under arrest?” I asked. 

Getting the message, he put on a sheepish smile and backed off a bit. But he acted more like a cop than a Wiseguy. All our men were out of the cars by then and Greg was spotted. Franky Campy and Vinny Chin then escorted him to the club’s entrance. As I watched Greg go in and the activity around me, Jimmy came walking toward me. 

As he passed Franky Notch, the crackhead, Jimmy said to him, “Next time ya’ should have all ya’ guys here.” 

We laughed, but in all honesty, we were very nervous. There were only seven of us standing there. If anything erupted, we didn’t stand a chance. 

They had two men on the roof with rifles. Black Dom and Little Jo Jo Russo were pacing back and forth with Uzis. Notch, The Chin and Chicky were walking up and down with their pistols out, while giving the army instructions. 

The Campy brothers and Vinny Muscles also had pistols drawn and stood guard in front of the door. Someone I didn’t recognize was resting a huge machine gun on top of Wild Bill’s Lincoln and it was pointed right at us. 

The seven of us were huddled just across the street. We were on one side and they were on the other. Most of the guys were looking to me for instructions. I was the senior man around Greg and they followed my actions. I tried to act calm and joked a lot to relieve the tension. And believe me, you could have cut it with a knife. I hid my nerves well and gave our men confidence. ...

Although it had been dark for over an hour, we all still had our sunglasses on. Greg had only been inside for a few minutes but I feared for him already. I knew what would happen if someone had come to his club this way. We all had guns, but we were obviously up against long odds should any shots ring out. And I was just waiting for one from inside. 

The Orena faction could end the war right then, before it had even started. After about 20 minutes, I made the men spread out. I realized the tight circle that we had been in made us all too much of an easy target. Dean, who was an ex-cop, was our best shooter. I told him to aim at the guy with the machine gun. He had a 16-shot, 9 mm. The rest of us had .38 or .32 revolvers. Greg was proud of giving us these old relics, but what was he thinking? It must have been a long time since his last war. 

Vic and Billy made sure that all their men had the most up-to-date and deadliest weapons. We had shit that Dillinger must have used and bulletproof vests that were probably second-hand. “The rest of ya’, just take cover and find a place to run,” I said for lack of something better to say. Jimmy and I would take our chances in the driveway that was right behind us. At the time, I was surprised that I couldn’t spot any surveillance by law enforcement on the street. It was funny to me how these young men would just take orders. They would just nod and follow the instructions. They just needed someone to tell them what to do....

In December 1994 Cutolo and six of his crew went on trial before Judge Eugene Nickerson. The government’s case was strong and targeted Wild Bill and his crew for basically driving around Brooklyn in armed caravans looking for rivals to kill. "Cutolo raised the Scarpa Defense," as former Assistant United States Attorney John Kroger noted in his 2009 book Convictions: A Prosecutor's Battles Against Mafia Killers, Drug Kingpins, and Enron Thieves

"The defendants conceded that they had been armed but claimed they were acting in self-defense, trying to protect themselves from the murderous Scarpa Senior and his bloodthirsty federal handler, who were trying to murder everyone who suspected Senior was a rat. When the smoke cleared, every single defendant was acquitted."

Back on the streets, Cutolo was knocked down to soldier as part of a peace compromise between the former Orena and Persico factions. But Cutolo never lost his swagger and eventually regained his capo title -- and was elevated once again to underboss. Then, on May 26, 1999 Cutolo was summoned to a meeting with Colombo boss Alphonse (Allie Boy) Persico and was never seen again.

Before he vanished, the heat was most definitely on for Wild Bill. The Feds had raided his club shortly before he vanished, and made no bones about the fact that Cutolo and his crew were the focus of a federal grand jury in Brooklyn probing extortion allegations. Manhattan federal prosecutors had also targeted Cutolo, and his name appeared in at least one state probe that had to do with financial irregularities at a city municipal workers union. (A former NYPD detective who knew Cutolo personally and had a grudging respect for him told us that if Bill hadn't vanished, he most likely would've been indicted and sent away on a life sentence. Today, he'd most likely be in a prison cell.)

In October 2008, Cutolo's body was found wrapped in a tarp by F.B.I agents who had been digging in Farmingdale (based on an informant's tip). Cutolo was identified by his dental records as well as the distinctive physical feature that fueled one of his nicknames: He was missing the tip of his right middle finger.

One year before, on December 29, 2007 Alphonse Persico and John DeRoss were both found guilty of organizing the murder.

In her closing argument prosecutor Deborah Mayer said: "Cutolo was coming on like a freight train, acting like he had his own mob. Alphonse Persico had to act." (Certain members of Cutolo's family would disagree with that assessment, saying Wild Bill had no intentions of mounting another attempt for control of the Colombo family.)