For decades, they were plastered across the front pages of the tabloids. There was the photo of Joseph Colombo, shot and paralyzed while speaking at his Italian-American Unity Day ceremony in New York City in 1971. There was the snapshot of Carmine Galante, the boss of the Bonanno crime family, shot in the face—possibly set up by his own men—slung over a fallen chair at an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn in 1979. There were the images, too, of all those Gambinos: the corpse of Paul Castellano, then the head of the family in 1985, covered with a sheet on a New York sidewalk, alongside the corpse of an underboss, Thomas Bilotti. Then, a year later, the one of the blown-up car, the aftermath of a bomb that ended the life of Frank DeCicco, another underboss.
Those pictures, however, seemed largely like a relic from the past—the slayings, the wars, the body counts of a different time and place. Until Wednesday, at least.
That was when Francesco (Frank) Cali, 53, now the assumed leader of the Gambino crime family with deep ties to the Sicilian Mafia, was shot at least six times and killed near his home, in the Todt Hill section of Staten Island. In what felt like a nod to the mob mostly existing on films and in TV in this era, according to the New York Times, a nearby home was used as the set for the Corleone family compound in The Godfather.
According to the Daily Beast, an autopsy showed that Cali sustained as many as 16 gunshot wounds from a killer or killers who approached his house in a blue pickup truck. (For good measure, they also reportedly ran him over.) A neighbor, who identified himself only as "Salvatore" to the Times, confirmed the sounds of gunfire, but when he looked out the window, he didn't see anything. Other witnesses corroborated his account—and, according to the Daily News, "distraught family members" came racing out after hearing the shots. ("Papa! Papa!" one apparently yelled, crying.)
Details remained murky; police were still reportedly searching for the vehicle, and no suspects or motive had been revealed as of Thursday morning. The mobster was pronounced dead at Staten Island University Hospital after 9 PM on Wednesday night.
Cali was not a household name. As the once heavily influential and dangerous Gambino family lost sway in America, he generally avoided the headlines, seemingly taking the opposite approach of the Dapper Don John Gotti, his larger-than-life predecessor famous for his outfits, gregarious personality, and media attention. That made Cali's killing—if, in fact, it was related to organized crime—all the more remarkable.
"Cali was the wise-guy antithesis of the Gotti type," Christian Cipollini, who has written numerous books on the mob and runs the website Gangland Legends, wrote me on Thursday. "He was deemed by law enforcement, domestic and in Italy, as 'the man' when it came to his crucial liaison between the mob here and the Mafia in Europe, particularly in narcotics and other globally lucrative black market business."
He mostly stayed out of trouble, too: It was only in 2008, according to the Staten Island Advance, that Cali pleaded guilty to an extortion conspiracy that involved a bid to build a NASCAR track on Staten island. (He served 16 months in prison.)
This week has been jam-packed with mob-related news after a stretch of relative calm. Cali's death occurred, according to the Times, on the same day that Joseph Cammarano Jr., who has been believed to be the acting boss of the Bonanno crime family, was acquitted at trial of racketeering and conspiracy to commit extortion charges, after making a defense that he was ethnically profiled in a post-Mafia era. (His alleged consigliere was also acquitted.) And the Cali hit came about six days after the peaceful passing away of Carmine J. Persico, the notorious leader of the Colombo crime family, in prison.
It would be foolhardy to speculate about the implications of Cali's murder for the state of organized crime in America, which has been in a state of decline for many years. Still, even if police had yet to officially point any fingers, some Mafia observers couldn't help asserting what might seem obvious.
"This certainly wasn't a stick-up gone bad," Cipollini told me.
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