Almost as soon as a powerful mob boss was shot and killed—seemingly assassinated—in front of his Staten Island home last week, the temptation to label it a mob hit was compelling.
That Wednesday evening, police have said, a driver slammed a pickup truck into a parked car outside the house of Francesco "Frank" Cali, the reputed leader of the Gambino crime family. That driver then apparently rang the doorbell, prompting Cali to exit the front door of his house and venture out onto the street, where, following a brief discussion, the gunman unloaded a torrent of bullets before fleeing into the night.
Cali was pronounced dead shortly after at Staten Island University Hospital.
It was a scene not much witnessed in recent decades in New York City—the last time a Mafia boss was slain here was in 1985. It captured the tabloids', and the country's, fervent interest. There were reports of Cali's family members running onto the front lawn in tears. There were the quotes from his neighbors, who reiterated that everybody around that (relatively wealthy) area of Staten Island seemed to just keep to themselves. There were the discussions about the motive: Was it some sort of internal power struggle that involved John Gotti's brother? (The infamous Gotti had ruled the family in some form or other until his death in prison in 2002.) Was Cali actually run over with the vehicle, to further underscore some kind of message sent by rivals? Was this just ding dong ditch gone incredibly wrong?
Over the weekend, the saga started to come into sharper focus—but it also got considerably stranger.
As the New York Times reported, a 24-year-old Staten Island native named Anthony Comello was arrested in New Jersey Saturday, having apparently holed up at a family shore house in Brick. (He was reportedly slated to appear in an Ocean County court as early as Monday.)
Maybe this wasn't an old-fashioned whacking, after all: Though law-enforcement officials cautioned that the investigation was ongoing, some told the Times the killing could have been spurred by romantic longing gone wrong: Comello—who lived at home and did some construction gigs—may have had an interest in one of Cali's relatives, specifically a niece, according to the New York Post.
"I was shocked, initially, that it's alleged to be a private vendetta, or a private agenda," David Shapiro, a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former FBI agent, told me over the phone, cautioning the motive wasn't yet certain. "That does surprise me."
The general idea seems to be that Cali nixed any potential relationship between Comello and his unnamed relative.
"The investigation is far from over. We do not believe this is a random act," the NYPD chief of detectives, Dermot Shea, stated on Saturday, according to Rolling Stone. "We are well aware of Mr. Cali's past. That will be a part of this investigation as we determine what was the motive for the incident on Wednesday evening."
Comello's fingerprints were reportedly lifted from a license plate that he had handed Cali prior to the shooting (it had fallen off a car at the gangster's home during the crash), seemingly gifting the world a piece of evidence that could link him to the crime. The beat-up truck was discovered around the time of his arrest in Jersey. According to the Daily News, Comello inched toward some kind of self-defense claim, and indicated he may have smoked weed prior to the shooting.
But Comello had no serious criminal background, according to a previous Times report summarizing the arrest, even if he was briefly investigated over "his strange behavior in a federal courthouse," and if, consequently, he had "any history of terroristic threats."
On Sunday, Comello's lawyer, Robert Gottlieb, told the Post his client would waive extradition from New Jersey to New York City, in order to confront the allegations—charges were expected to include murder—head on.
It's yet another bizarre turn in case already filled with them. Last week, there was already some initial suspicion this wasn't a mob hit, as it was once said to be considered poor taste to whack a mobster in front of his home, near his family. But the Mafia, obviously, isn't quite what it used to be. It has simultaneously become more embedded in American pop culture—we compare Donald Trump's diction to that of a mob boss; we celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the premiere of The Sopranos and the developing prequel film; we watch mob-related reality television shows—as its actual sway has dwindled. It was once famously taboo, for instance, to "rat" on your associates; now, John Gotti's daughter appears on VH-1 with the daughter of Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, who flipped on the "Dapper Don" and helped hand him to the authorities.
Cali's death led to an onrush of articles about the quiet evolution of the Mafia in America—how its direct influence declined, and how it's been keeping quieter in recent years. It also invited pieces on Todt Hill, the lavish and lush-green Staten Island neighborhood known for its long history of mob denizens, where the slain mobster lived.
The folklore around the killing, it would seem, has just begun. And some in the Mafia may not be happy about that.
"I do think the days where the mob would be willing to tolerate allegations of family wars across the headlines of the New York Times are over," Shapiro said. "Those are bad for business. Notoriety and infamy do not work toward their benefit. It's better, now, to be under the radar."
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Alex Norcia on Twitter.