Reputed Colombo Underboss Benjamin (The Claw) Castellazzo Released On $1.6M Bond

During a closed hearing in Brooklyn Federal Court on March 9, a Federal judge approved the release (on $1.6 million bond) of ailing reputed Colombo underboss Benjamin (The Claw) Castellazzo, 84, who has been accused of helping lead the Colombo crime family’s efforts to loot a Queens-based labor union.

Benjamin (The Claw) Castellazzo,
Alleged underboss Castellazzo, 84, was released from MDC.

Castellazzo, who  joins other Colombo crime family wiseguys so far released on bail, got a bargain rate compared to reputed Colombo boss Andrew (Mush) Russo, 87, who has been free on a $10 million bond since October.

Castellazzo and the rest of the administration of the Colombo crime family—the youngest and most violent Cosa Nostra clan in the country—were arrested last September for allegedly masterminding a 20-year effort to loot the union, which Gang Land News identified as Local 621 of the United Construction Trades and Industrial Employees Union in Flushing. The 19-count indictment unsealed in Brooklyn Federal court charges 14 defendants, including 10 members and associates of the Colombo crime family—and one member of the Bonanno crime family—with various offenses, including labor racketeering, extortion, and money laundering conspiracy. The crime family's efforts included devising a scheme to divert more than $10,000 per month to the Colombo crime family administration, which included Castellazzo.

The number of Colombos indicted in the case is poised to rise, according to recent Gang Land reporting, which says "the feds are planning to scoop up several new – and presumably younger and heartier – mob-connected defendants and add them to the racketeering and extortion indictment."

U.S. Magistrate Judge James R. Cho granted The Claw's release—to home detention with electronic monitoring and various additional restrictions. 

Castellazzo had been held at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn since September. Castellazzo, of Manahawkin, faces numerous charges related to his role as the borgata's “number two,” including racketeering, extortion and money laundering conspiracies, conspiracy to steal and embezzle health benefit funds, and conspiracy to commit health care fraud.

The motion for his release noted that Castellazzo suffers from chronic health issues and described his living conditions during confinement as "inhumane.” The defense further noted that Castellazzo wasn’t receiving proper medical care and had been subjected to 23-hour lockdowns.

Federal prosecutors opposed his efforts to get out on bail in October, alleging that Castellazzo was a sharp, old school wiseguy, rather than a doddering old geezer. They cited his lengthy criminal history and longtime leadership role in the crime family in opposing his release. It was only after they learned of the extent of Castellazzo's deteriorating health that they changed their tune and ceased contesting his release in a filing shortly before the hearing earlier this month.

Reputed Colombo consigliere Ralph DiMatteo.
Reputed Colombo consigliere Ralph DiMatteo. 

Previously, one of Castellazo's lawyers told NJ Advance Media that the evidence against him “is not just weak, it is non-existent" and noted that prosecutors had offered Castellazzo a plea deal, though whether the Claw would accept it (or give the Feds his big, fat middle finger) remains unclear.

In the indictment, prosecutors charged that, based on wiretap recordings, Castellazzo ran the Colombo family’s takeover of the union (as well as the looting of its health fund). But while investigators claim they surveilled him meeting with associates to discuss the effort on two separate occasions in Brooklyn, Castellazzo's attorneys claim that the government “does not have a single recording of Mr. Castellazzo’s voice.”

Besides Castellazzo and Mush of Glen Head, New York, also indicted in this case is the crime family's reputed consigliere, Ralph DiMatteo, 66, of Merrick, New York. (The Colombo family's number three, DiMatteo initially evaded the Fed's dragnet by being on vacation in Florida with his family at the time of the predawn raids. He parlayed the vacation into becoming a lamister to evade the law for several days, and the Feds even declared him a fugitive. DiMatteo ultimately surrendered to the FBI in Manhattan and pleaded not guilty to all charges. He was or­dered held at the MDC in Sun­set Park, Brook­lyn.)

The indictment also charges alleged Colombo captains Theodore Persico, Jr., Richard Ferrara, and Vincent Ricciardo with racketeering, as well as soldier Michael Uvino and associates Thomas Costa and Domenick Ricciardo. In addition, alleged Bonanno soldier John Ragano is charged with loansharking, fraud and drug trafficking offenses.

“The underbelly of the crime families in New York City is alive and well,” said Michael Driscoll, the assistant director-in-charge of New York’s FBI field office, after the arrests last September.

Authorities claim the scheme to shake down the union and its health care fund began in 2001, and escalated in 2019 when the defendants expanded their attempts to compel the senior union official and others to make decisions that benefited the Colombo crime family such as forcing the union to select Colombo-affiliated vendors for lucrative contracts.

The crime family's efforts stalled last spring, which fueled the administrative decision to activate Castellazzo, who was allegedly then put in charge of the crime family's overall effort, according to court documents.

Reputed Colombo capo Vincent (Vinny Unions) Ricciardo, 75, was recorded in April saying that Castellazzo was in charge of the Colombo family’s takeover of the union and its health fund. Ricciardo, of Franklin Square, on Long Island in New York (not far from where your fearless blogger sits writing these words) had long been pocketing part of the senior union official’s salary by threatening to harm the man and his family.

Vincent (Vinny Unions) Ricciardo
Vinny Unions Ricciardo at September 2021 arrest.

Castellazzo, along with other top Colombo wiseguys, was allegedly involved in directly overseeing Ricciardo’s handling of that, as well as the crime family's multi-pronged takeover efforts.

In June, Ricciardo was recorded threatening to kill the union official if he did not start showing compliance.

“I’ll put him in the ground right in front of his wife and kids, right in front of his f------ house. You laugh all you want pal, I’m not afraid to go to jail, let me tell you something, to prove a point?,” Ricciardo was recorded saying.

“I would f------ shoot him right in front of his wife and kids, call the police, f--- it, let me go, how long you think I’m gonna last anyway?”

Castellazzo is a longtime player in Cosa Nostra who was an inducted member during the early 1990s Colombo war (during which he opposed loyalists to then alleged official boss, the seemingly forever-imprisoned Carmine Persico, who died in 2019).

The octogenarian underboss conducted mob business even after he was arrested, prosecutors alleged. And while his lawyers contend he wasn't caught on wiretap during the investigation into the shakedown of the labor union, he was caught on tape in the MDC following his arrest, prosecutors alleged.

The Feds initially opposed bail for Castellazzo after learning of three phone calls he made last October while quarantined and unable to meet with his lawyers due to COVID-19 protocols at the MDC. Federal authorities highlighted the calls in a detention memo, noting that each had been recorded. One call was an attempt to pass a message to other members of the Colombo family at a Brooklyn garage, which was allegedly where Castellazzo often did business with other members of the Colombo crime family while conspiring to loot the union. (The contents of that message weren't further detailed.) In another call, he sought money from Colombo associates. And the final call involved directing a Castellazzo family member to remove items from his apartment as well as dispose of his cellphone.

Andrew (Mush) Russo
Andrew (Mush) Russo, 87, has been free on $10 million bond.

According to prosecutors, The Claw knew he dodged a bullet when the Feds didn’t seize said cellphone upon his arrest.

Prosecutors James McDonald and Devon Lash cited as evidence The Claw's recorded call with the unidentified family member on September 20, six days after his arrest, during which Castellazzo had the power to direct “others to carry out nefarious" doings.

Lash noted that if The Claw wasn’t worried about the phone’s contents, he would have ordered his relative to just “turn it off.”

Telling his family member to throw it away was “evidence of a guilty conscience, trying to keep this evidence away from the government,” she said.

The Claw was most recently convicted in 2013 (of racketeering) and was sentenced to five-plus years in Federal prison, though he was released in 2015.

Before he was sentenced, Castellazzo claimed he and his wife lived in a trailer park and survived on food stamps. At the time, the Claw noted in court papers: "I have reflected ... during the past two years… I am not proud of the life I have led." His one wish, he wrote, was to live out his days with his wife, children and grandchildren, the only family he cares about.

Castellazzo's mobile home reportedly included an eat-in kitchen and a small garden outside. At the time, two-bedroom mobile homes like Castellazzo's reportedly sold for about $40,000.

Castellazzo was among the 127 suspects from New York's five Mafia families who were arrested on January 2011, Mafia Takedown Day, in a series of FBI raids said to be the largest such crackdown on organized crime in U.S. history.