Even if informants are running rampant in mob circles like never before, the Code of Omertà more pop-culture catchphrase than criminal fact, the American Mafia is still alive and kicking. Or at least so suggests the sprawling indictment filed by federal prosecutors against 46 alleged members in a massive East Coast bust last week. Charging the men with a smorgasbord of crimes like gambling, loansharking, extortion, arson, gun- and cigarette-running, and conspiracy to commit assault, the feds are also alleging white-collar offenses like healthcare fraud, credit-card fraud and extortionate extensions of credit.
Members of the Gambino, Bonanno, Lucchese, and Genovese crime families from New York, along with a crew allegedly led by Joseph "Joey" Merlino in Philadelphia, were collectively labeled the "East Coast LCN [La Cosa Nostra] Enterprise." Merlino and two Genovese caps—Pasquale "Patsy" Parrello and Eugene "Rooster" O'Nofrio—effectively called the shots, according to the feds. From Mulberry Street in Little Italy to Springfield, Massachusetts, to southern Florida to Pennsylvania, the multi-family operation allegedly worked together by reverting to time-honored mob practices like running illegal-gambling ventures, strong-arming businesses, and (at least talking about) busting kneecaps.
"Today's charges against 46 men, including powerful leaders, members and associates of five different La Cosa Nostra families, demonstrate that the mob remains a scourge on this city and around the country," Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara said Thursday.
For some perspective on the bust, we reached out to mob sage Scott Burnstein, co-author of Mafia Prince: Inside America's Most Violent Crime Family and the Bloody Fall of La Cosa Nostra and the man behind Gangster Report, a true-crime site. He offered some context on the ideology of the modern mobster, the Joey Merlino–led Philly faction allegedly working with their New York counterparts, and how the game keeps changing—and staying the same.
VICE: At this point, in 2016, why do these guys think they can keep getting away with organized crime in big American cities?
Scott Burnstein: This is all most of these guys know—it's who they are. It's in their DNA. They literally don't know how to live their lives on the straight and narrow and away from crime. Most aren't embarrassed by this fact. They say to themselves,"Hey, I'm a criminal. I'm a bookie. I'm a thief. I'm a hit man. That's what I do. That's my identity." And in some circles that holds weight, so they don't have a negative stigma attached to their behavior in their social strata.
If you are raised in that kind of twisted environment, it's sometimes very hard to break away from it, go in the other direction. A lot literally don't want to.
It's one thing for the feds to make splashy arrests, but is the mob still a threat to public safety? Edward McDonald, who used to prosecute the mob in Brooklyn, told the New York Times, "The Mafia is just not engaging in the significant criminal activities they were involved in the past. I'm not saying the war has been won, but it's pretty close."
The mob in America might no longer be what it used to be in terms of overall power and reach, but it's hardly a thing of the past and still quite formidable in many areas of the country.
The new indictment includes what most of us might think of as "normal" mafia crimes like assault, gun trafficking, and loansharking, but also a few that surprised me, like healthcare fraud and credit card skimming. When did the mob get into these white-collar crimes ?
Many of the Italian mafia families across the nation have sought to diversify their interests into more high-tech, white-collar crimes for a while now, dating back, really, to the 1980s. Smart mobsters in this day and age no longer just line their pockets with traditional rackets (gambling, loansharking, extortion)—and some try to stay away all together. When you compare prison sentences, it makes the most sense.
One name that caught my eye in the indictment was Philadelphia Mafia Don Joey Merlino, who tends to be romanticized as an old-school mobster like John Gotii or Lucky Luciano.
For Joey, it's was only a matter of time before he was back in handcuffs. He doesn't know the meaning of keeping a low profile. Why be a gangster if you can't act like a gangster? He's been living like that since his 20s—now he's in his 50s. It hasn't changed. He turns the old underworld adage, "Make money, not headlines," completely on its ear. He wants to make money and headlines and give the finger to anyone who gets in his way. His entire last five years since his release from more than a decade in prison has been documented on his and his friend's social-media accounts. That's why I call him the "Instagram Don."
What else can you tell us about him?
Very slick, very intriguing, very confident, very vain, very hungry, very dangerous, very lucky. He's always lived life like he's playing with house money and puts a ton of stock in "cool," considerably more than any of his mob-don peers. You could put him on a poster as the picture of the New Millennium mobster, which isn't a good thing for the future of the Mafia in this country.
Since Joey got out of prison the last time, what's he been doing? Didn't he say he was retired?
Joey got out in 2011 from a racketeering conviction in Philly and moved to Florida, opening a restaurant and, if you believe the FBI, kept running his mob family from afar through a group of intermediaries. Just like he did in the 1990s when he first made his name on the nation's mafia landscape, he fancied the finest threads, expensive cars and jewelry, frequent high-end steak and cigar dinners and trips to trendy nightclubs and bars with his ever-expanding entourage—all with no visible means of legitimate income.
Genovese crime family mobsters are peppered throughout the indictment. What's the story with this alleged honcho Pasquale Parrello?
"Patsy" is a major player in the Genovese Family, the Cadillac of mob regimes in New York City for years. He runs the Family's Bronx faction and headquarters out of his restaurant, Pasquale's Rigoletto, on Arthur Avenue.
There's also been a lot in the papers since the bust about the East Coast La Cosa Nostra, like it's all one group, instead of separate families working together. Is that the right way to think about it?
Crime families, especially ones on the East Coast and New York City specifically, have always worked together and partnered in mob rackets. In this case, four of the five "Five Families" were allegedly teaming with Joey Merlino's Philly crime syndicate on a series of illegal-business ventures. Now, remember, these connections and ties between all these families could be incredibly loose—except in a conspiracy it doesn't matter. If they're in for a penny, they're in for a pound.
And what about the fifth New York family, the Colombos? How'd they stay out of this sweep?
Rumors are rampant that a superseding indictment is imminent, maybe multiple indictments. I wouldn't be shocked if members of the Columbo Family make into one of those. If not, they're lucky, because make no mistake about it, the Colombos are still around and very active in the New York and New Jersey area.
What makes this criminal subculture so enduring despite bust after bust and prediction after prediction that the party is over?
As I call them, the "Three Pillars" of organized crime are gambling, loan sharking, and extortion—they're the lifeblood of any crime family. They've always existed and always will exist. And that's why, in one form or another, organized crime will always hold a place in our society.
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