Frank Costello and the Mob
By John William Tuohy
First published January 2002
No one impressed Frank Costello as much as Costello impressed himself. He regaled his own greatness and delighted in his brilliance.
And now he was the Boss. The ultimate Boss. When Luciano went to prison in 1936 on a trumped up prostitution charge, Costello took over Luciano's enormous crime family with its five hundred soldiers and thirty caporegimes.
Several years before, his underboss, Vito Genovese, fearing arrest in connection with the murder of a gangster named Ferdinand Boccia, received Luciano's approval to flee to Italy. As a result, everyone in the organization moved up a notch, expanded their holdings and got richer than they ever dreamed they could be.
While other men, wiser men, would have understood that the Fools of Chance were at work, Costello saw his accession to power as the handwork of God.
Costello liked...no...he loved the role of Emperor.
He called his Capos to his suite at the Plaza and sent them in every direction across New York to conquer the city in his name. He gave the principality of Greenwich Village to his favorite Capo, Tony Bender. To "Trigger Mike" Coppola, he doled out Harlem, the old Dutch Schultz kingdom. Coppola was insane and he grew more insane as the years went by. In 1948, his wife Doris was indicted for perjury. Before she could testify, Doris entered the hospital on March 17, 1948, and gave birth to a baby daughter. The next day, she died suddenly. Coppola had the body cremated.
Costello gave Joe Adonis and Willie Moretti New Jersey; Anthony Carfano got the Bronx; and Michelle Miranada was given the entire East Side.
As a result of Costello's imperial expansionism, money poured in, tens of millions of dollars that allowed Emperor Frank to buy more soldiers, and with more muscle than any other family in the country, he controlled the unions that controlled the piers and docks of New York and New Jersey, in effect making Costello the governor over the movement of virtually all freight in and out of the Americas.
His family owned the garment industry, the construction business, trash collection, catering industry and restaurants, bars, night clubs and theaters. They placed a tax on almost everything that was made, sold, or traded anywhere in Manhattan, the Bronx, Harlem or New Jersey. They raked in hundreds of millions of dollars from numbers, extortion, loan sharking, hijacking and the control of prostitution and the movement of narcotics.
And unlike the psychotic Luciano or that idiot Capone, during Costello's rule, there was relative peace, a feat that earned him the title of the "The Prime Minister of the underworld."
On June 11, 1946, Vito Genovese, officially the Underboss to Frank Costello, came back to America, handcuffed to a federal agent. From that humble start, the history of organized crime in America would be changed forever.
Vito Genovese came to America from Naples in 1912, at the age of sixteen, with his family. They settled in Queens, both parents worked hard and prospered into the middle class. The possibilities were endless.
But Genovese had no intentions of leading the straight life. His first arrest came in 1917, for carrying a gun. That got him 60 days in jail. During the years of Prohibition, he was arrested twice, but was released each time for lack of evidence when the witnesses failed to appear in court. By 1926, Vito was a full- fledged gangster and running partner with the ultimate bad boy, Lucky Luciano. They grew close, mostly because Genovese would kill on Luciano's orders without question. However, Luciano let it be known to one and all, that he never trusted Genovese because, like Luciano, he was cunning, sly and devious. He was also stone cold. Joseph Valachi, the mob's informant, said: "If you went to him and told him about some guy doing wrong he would have the guy killed, and then he would have you killed for telling on the guy."
During the early 1930s, Genovese took over New York's massive Italian lottery, and grew rich from it, using his wealth to buy into gay bars in the Greenwich Village area, which struck police as an odd choice of investments until 1954 when they learned from a cashier at one of the clubs that Genovese's wife, Anna Petillo Vernotico, who was also his distant cousin, was a regular at these clubs and for many years, was involved in a lesbian relationship which Genovese knew of, and approved. It had always been an oddball union anyway. Genovese had married Anna a year after the death of his first wife in 1931. When he met her, Anna was locked in a loveless marriage and couldn't get a divorce. On March 16, 1932, Genovese had her husband murdered and twelve days later they were married.
In 1937, Vito Genovese, under suspicion of murder of a mob soldier named Ferdinand "The Shadow" Boccia, fled the US, taking a suitcase containing $750,000. The Boccia murder was a study in Genovese true nature. Boccia had introduced Genovese to a rich Italian merchant whom Genovese and others conned out of a small fortune in a rigged card game. Then they sold him a machine that they said would print money. In all, they had rooked the man of some $150,000. Boccia demanded $35,000 as his share for introducing Genovese to the merchant, and rather than pay, Genovese, already a millionaire, decided to have Boccia killed.
Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey got the case and was closing in fast on Genovese when he fled to Naples and opened a narcotics export business.
He lived and prospered there for almost nine years, and when the Allies invaded Italy in 1944, Genovese helped the cause as a translator and facilitator while running the enormous black market. But on August 22, 1944, Military Police cracked down on the ring and arrested Genovese. An investigation into Genovese's background by Agent Orange C. Dickey of the Criminal Investigation Division of the US Army, discovered that Genovese was a major criminal and wanted on murder charges back in New York. The problem was, nobody in the Army or the federal government was interested.
After months of frustration, Dickey finally arranged to ship Genovese back to New York to face trial and that's when the pressure began. Dickey, who made less than $210 per month, turned down a bribe of $250,000 to let Genovese go. When that didn't work, pressure was brought down from high above to drop the case but Dicky refused. Genovese returned to New York in 1945, handcuffed to Agent Orange, and was immediately handed over to Brooklyn DA. But, by that time, the case was dropped because the state's witness, a hood named Pete LaTempa, was dead, killed while in protective custody at the Raymond Street jail in Manhattan. Someone learned that LaTempa suffered from stomach ulcers, and on January 14, 1945, he was supplied with his usual dose of painkiller medicine before going to sleep. The next morning he was found dead. A New York toxicologist analyzed his internal organs and reported that he had been given enough poison "to kill eight horses."
With the LaTempa problem behind him, by the fall of 1951, Vito Genovese was ready to begin his assault on Frank Costello and realize his dream of becoming the capo di tutti capi, the boss of all bosses. But a direct assault on Costello would be suicidal. It was better to begin his campaign by eliminating one of Frank Costello's closest friends and allies and provoking Costello into a war for control of the family. He would start by having Willie Moretti murdered. Willie Moretti, and his brother Solly went back to the old days with Costello.
Morretti kept a low profile, mostly staying up north in Newark, where he ran a small, but effective gang of hoods out of Duke's Restaurant in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, a town they owned because they were paying the local police chief five times his annual income from the city.
Genovese's choice in picking Morretti as the first to go, was perfect. Morretti and Frank Costello were close. Very, very close. Costello had been Willie's best man at his wedding and was godfather to one of his children. Costello also shared in the two million dollar gambling business Willie had built up, making him rich beyond his dreams and a loyal, and powerful, defender of the Costello regime.
Aside from Morretti, Costello could count on the other Capos: Trigger Mike Copolla, Augie Carfano, Dominick DeQuatro, Jimmy Angelina, Tommy Greco, Richie Boiardi and Jimmy Blue Eyes Alo and the financial and management genius of Meyer Lansky.
For his part, Genovese could count on only three capos to support him a war: Jerry Catena, Mike Miranda, and Tony Bender. Bender and Genovese were close. They married their wives in a joint ceremony in 1932, with Genovese acting as Bender's best man and vice versa. Yet, years later, while Genovese was in Atlanta Penitentiary, he told his cellmate Joe Valachi that Tony had "disappeared," that is, was murdered on Genovese's orders because Bender was sick and would never make his prison sentence and rather than risk his turning informant, Don Vito had him killed.
What Genovese needed to switch the Capos over to his side would be something to show that Costello wasn't acting in the best interest of the family, and Willie Morretti gave him the opening he needed to sow the seeds of doubt, and, as his luck should have it, the Kefauver committee arrived just in time to serve his needs.
On March 13, 1951, Frank Costello began his testimony before the committee in Manhattan. He had been forced to appear by subpoena and his attorney insisted that TV cameras present in the room did not focus directly on his client. Instead, he insisted, they were to be trained onto Costello's hands. The committee agreed and an estimated 30 million Americans watched in fascination, as Costello's hands danced across the screen, hour after hour.
There is no evidence that Vito Genovese provided information to the committee on Frank Costello, but the fact is, Kefauver seemed to have an awful lot of inside information about the Prime Minister of the Underworld. Costello was grilled on his name change, on his arrest background, on his naturalization proceedings, his bootlegging years. The Godfather more or less answered everything, but when asked for a complete financial statement of his assets, he invoked the Fifth.
The committee's grilling of Costello went on until March 15, when Costello, complaining of a bad throat and laryngitis, walked out of the courtroom. When the hearings resumed on the March 19, the committee dug into Costello's considerable political connections, and his close friendship with former New York Mayor O'Dwyer who was then the US Ambassador to Mexico.
At one point in the hearings, Kefauver asked Costello, "How can we curb gambling in this country?"
"Senator," Costello answered, "if you want to cut out gambling there's just two things you need to do. Burn the stables and shoot the horses."
When asked how he raised the money to finance the purchase of his three office buildings on Wall Street, he explained he had borrowed it from gamblers.
The final day that he appeared, March 21, Senator Halley asked about Costello meeting with Lucky Luciano in Havana. The Godfather didn't deny he was there, and explained he had been in Miami on business and had gone to Cuba for a brief vacation and bumped into Charlie Lucky by accident. Halley tried desperately to connect Costello to Meyer Lansky and Jimmy Blue Eyes but Costello avoided any direct connection to them.
Although an enormous number of mobsters appeared before the committee, it was Frank Costello who emerged as the best-known gangster in the nation and as a result he became a major target of the Justice Department and Vito Genovese couldn't be happier.
Willie Moretti also appeared before the committee. As Genovese knew, Willie was also a womanizer who had a thing for low-cost hookers, the darker the skin, the better. Eventually, he developed syphilis which went untreated and began to advance to the gangster mind and into his nervous system. He began to act strangely, doing and saying things that troubled the boys, but not too much because in a world where mental illness is almost an asset, no one discussed Willie's odd behavior, or at least they didn't until the hood was called before the Kefauver committee.
Under oath, Willie admitted that he was a gambler, that he knew Costello, Genovese and Adonis and every other big name gangster in the country and that he was proud of it. He finished his testimony by inviting the committee to visit him at his home down on the Jersey shore. After that, Willie became something of a media celebrity, holding spur of the moment press conferences, inviting reporters to make the round with him and giving his opinion about the state of the world and how to curb the growing power of the mob. Willie was becoming an embarrassment to Costello and a minor danger to what would become the Genovese family, but nothing to worry about. That very thinking gave Vito Genovese the opening he was looking for.
Genovese quietly and cunningly began to spread rumors within the family and the ever-paranoid mob as a whole, that Willie Moretti was a security risk for everyone and said that Frank Costello was wrong to protect Moretti just because he liked him. But the real reason Genovese wanted Moretti dead, aside from ruining Costello's position within the family, was to take control of his lucrative gambling assets, a move he had readied for by positioning one of his best men, Jerry Catena, to take over as soon as Moretti was killed. With control of the gambling rackets, Genovese would have enough money to fight Costello for control of the family.
Costello fought it, but the National Commission approved Willie Moretti's execution. At nine a.m. on October 4, 1951, Albert Anastasia, who lived in Fort Lee, New Jersey, telephoned Willie at his home and said that he had back troubles, and needed to go for x-rays but his chauffeur wasn't available. He asked if he could use Harry Shepherd, Willie's driver and ever faithful bodyguard, and Moretti agreed.
Later that morning, Willie, alone and unarmed, drove to Cliffside to Joe's Elbow Room Restaurant where three men were waiting for him. Moretti joined them at their table and the group spoke in Italian. Suddenly one of the men drew a revolver and shot Willie Moretti twice in the forehead, leaving his body sprawled on the patterned linoleum, between two tables.
After the success of the Moretti power play, Vito Genovese decided that the time had come to go after Frank Costello himself. Following his appearance at the Kefauver hearings, the Federal Government went after Costello with a vengeance and charged him with a contempt of the Senate charge following his walk-out in the Kefauver hearings.
Costello eventually went before two juries; the first ending in a hung jury, but the second resulting in an eighteen-month sentence that he began in August of 1952 and finished in October of 1953.
While Costello was in prison, in the summer of 1952, the IRS mounted a full-scale investigation against him. Agents checked every bank he and his wife went to, they interviewed his tailor, his barbershop, the restaurants he used. They traveled the country from Miami to New Orleans looking for leads but came up empty handed, unable to find a trace of any substantial undeclared income.
Then, following one of his wife's checks, the agents found a shop that had supplied flowers to St. Michael's Cemetery in Astoria, Queens. There, on a plot purchased for $4,888, they found a marble mausoleum owned by Costello and built for his family for a total of $23,503, paid in cash through a friend named Amilicare Festa. The IRS was able to prove, eventually, that the money for the plot and the mausoleum came from Costello and in April of 1954, Costello went on trial for tax evasion. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison and fined $30,000, the maximum penalty the law allowed. Costello fought the sentence all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction and Costello was returned to prison on May 14, 1956. But, the following year, he hired the brilliant Edward Bennett Williams, and in April 1957, Williams secured Costello's release on parole. However, the Immigration department moved in and started denaturalization proceedings against him, which he fought for years.
All of this, Costello's jail time and endless legal problems, gave Genovese all the time he needed to plot and plan Costello's overthrow on May 2, 1957, when the Godfather's world crashed down around him. That evening, as Costello returned to his apartment, a young thug named Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, who was working for Vito Genovese, walked up behind the Godfather, standing less than ten feet away, pointed a pistol at him and said: "This is for you Frank," and then fired one shot at Costello's skull.
But remarkably, he missed. The bullet tore into the skin behind Costello's right ear, ricocheted around the nape of his neck and slammed into the wall behind him. Gigante was long gone by the time Costello fell on the floor. He had run through the lobby and leaped into a waiting black Cadillac and disappeared into the night.
Costello knew who ordered the hit and why. It was Vito Genovese, Costello's underboss. He had finally decided to make his move. To justify the hit, a week before the hit, Genovese called in his Capos, Tony Bender and Vincent Mauro and told them that Costello was an informer, and that was why he had been released early from prison.
The family got ready for war. However, nothing happened and then one by one Costello's lieutenants marched into Genovese’s office and one by one said that they recognized him as the boss. Finally Costello sent out the message that he didn't want to fight. He was leaving the rackets. He had more money than he could ever spend and he wanted to spend the rest of his life in peace and quiet.
Genovese agreed to let Costello leave the racket and to keep his life as well, but first he had to prove something to the boys. He reduced Costello to the rank of a street soldier, stripped him of his gambling interests in Las Vegas, Florida and the Caribbean and made him turn over his points in The Copacabana nightclub.
There was only one last thing in the way of Vito Genovese and that was Albert Anastasia, the Mad Hatter.
No one ever doubted that Albert Anastasia was insane. Just how insane he was, was made clear one night in 1952, when Anastasia was at home listening to the news on the radio, when he heard that bank robber Willie Sutton had been recognized and turned in by one of his neighbors in Brooklyn, a young man named Arnold Schuster. Anastasia got up from his chair and called one of his boys, an escaped con named Frederick Tenuto, told him about the news story and said, "I hate squealers, find this fucking Schuster and kill him."
On March 8, Tenuto walked up behind Schuster on a New York Street and shot him to death. When sanity, of sorts, returned to Anastasia, and he realized what he had done, he ordered the boys to murder Tenuto and make the body disappear. After that, the press dubbed the boss of the waterfront, "The Mad Hatter."
In many ways, as brutal as he was, Albert Anastasia was an American success story. The Anastasia (Anastasio) brothers, Albert and Tony, were born in Italy at the turn of the century and arrived in America, illegally, at age 15, by sneaking off a freighter that had stopped over in Brooklyn, New York, shortly before World War I, in or about 1917. They arrived, literally, shoeless and without a penny in their pockets.
Albert Anastasia found a job on the docks as a longshoreman by age sixteen. Albert, who was noted for his maniacal temper tantrums, started out in bootlegging and graduated to bodyguard for Joe "The Boss" Masseria and ended up under Vincent Mangano after the Castellmarese Wars and was assigned to the Docks where his ruthless brutality made him a legend on the docks. He was once arrested for the stabbing/strangulation murder of a longshoreman named Joe Torino in a dispute over unloading cargoes. There were several witnesses to the killing and Anastasia was convicted and sentenced to death, spending 18 months in the death house of Sing Sing. However, just before he was to be executed, he won a new trial when several witnesses reversed their statements and he walked out of jail a free man.
When Lucky Luciano approached Anastasia about his plot to kill Joe the Boss Masseria and take over the mob, Anastasia, desperate for power, pushed Luciano to launch the plan. When it was successful, Luciano rewarded Anastasia for his loyalty by naming him underboss to the Mangano family under Vincent Mangano. However, in 1951, Anastasia grew tired of Mangano, and with Frank Costello's support, he had Mangano and his brother Phil shot to death and took over the family.
So while Frank Costello might have accepted his fate at Genovese's hands, Anastasia didn't accept it at all. Anastasia went to the Commission members and openly accused Genovese of an illegal hit on Costello, and he began to talk about going to war with Genovese, a war to reinstate Costello to power, a war that he would probably win.
Then Genovese learned that Costello and Anastasia were meeting secretly, and he panicked. He would have to kill Anastasia, before Anastasia killed him, but he would need the permission of the national commission before he did that, the shot taken at Costello had taught him that much.
Getting the commission's permission wasn't difficult. For them, Anastasia had grown too ambitious and was talking about ruling over all of New York and Las Vegas, which is exactly what all the other bosses wanted but feared to try to do. Anastasia had no such fears. In fact, he had already made a grab at the narcotics and gambling cash that was flowing out of Havana's from Lansky's racket and into the pockets of various Mafia and syndicate bosses across the globe.
Anastasia's mistake was inviting Cuba's other king pin boss, Santos Trafficante, to join him in his efforts to take over the underworld. Trafficante could hand Cuba over to Anastasia, without his having to go through Lansky and Alo, who may have already entered an agreement with Genovese. Trafficante heard Anastasia out and told he needed to think about his offer. Instead, to protect his own assets in Cuba, Trafficante went straight to Genovese and cut his own deal.
Genovese, with Trafficante behind him, took Anastasia’s plan to the national commission who sanctioned the hit.
Genovese contacted Carlo Gambino, the cunning and ambitious capo under Anastasia, and convinced him that they would both benefit by murdering Anastasia. Gambino agreed and set up the hit.
On October 25, 1957, the Gallo brothers killed Anastasia as he sat in the barbershop's chair at the Sheraton Hotel, a hot towel wrapped around his face. There were eleven people in the tiny shop, five barbers, a manicurist, three shoe shine boys and two customers who watched the two young hoods quickly enter the shop and put at least ten bullets into his head and neck.
Now, in almost complete control of half of New York's underworld, all that Genovese needed was official recognition by the national commission as head of his family, and for Carlo Gambino as head of the Anastasia family.
Frank Costello would have his revenge on Don Vito Genovese. But in doing so, he would be largely responsible for the start of the demise of the American Mafia.
Like virtually everyone else in the mob, Meyer Lansky and Jimmy Blue Eyes Alo detested and feared Vito Genovese, a man they had both known for almost forty years, and once Frank Costello was gone, they had no intention of serving under him.
A few months after Genovese's public humiliation of Frank Costello, there was a secret meeting between Costello, Meyer and Jimmy Alo. A general plan was mapped out to send Genovese away to federal prison on the toughest rap of all, narcotics. To set up the fall, they used a low-level Puerto Rican drug dealer named Nelson Cantellops, who was already doing five years at Sing on a drug charge. Cantellops was perfect for the role because the Feds had already tied him in to Sam Giancana in Chicago, and Giuseppe "Big Johnny" Ormerto, a Genovese family Capo. They also had information that Cantellops acted as a courier for Meyer.
Jimmy Alo sent a representative up to Sing Sing to offer Cantellops the deal of a lifetime, all he had to do was to contact the Narcotics Bureau, Lansky supplied a name of an agent in the Bureau who was ready to take the complaint, and tell them that he had evidence to implicate Genovese in a major drug deal. If Cantellops went along, he would get $100,000 in cash, the money put up by Lansky, and Costello's lawyer would arrange to have his sentence annulled.
Cantellops took the offer of course, and in July of 1958,a grand jury was called in Manhattan, and Vito Genovese and 23 others were indicted for conspiracy to traffic in drugs. It was one of the weakest cases that the government ever presented before a court, but, on April 17, 1959, Genovese was convicted, fined $20,000 and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
The Godfather had his revenge. But at what cost to the overall organization?
What Costello, Lansky and Jimmy Blue Eyes hadn't counted on was Joe Valachi. The Bureau of Narcotics had nailed Joe Valachi on dope peddling charges and locked him away in Atlanta for fifteen years with his boss Vito Genovese, where the two men shared a cell. Valachi had been with the Genovese family since its beginning, having joined the mob back in 1926 when he went to work for Joe the Boss Masseria.
Four years later, in November of 1930, Valachi was driven 90 miles into New York State to a colonial-style house where he and 40 others were inducted into the Mafia by Salvatore Maranzano who assigned Valachi Joseph Bonanno's crew and eventually moved him over Charlie Luciano's crew, where he served as a driver and assassin, being linked to over 30 murders.
By 1940, Valachi was married and had one son and was operating a loan sharking and numbers business, using a clothing factory as his front. He was also dealing in narcotics in a big way and, never the smartest crook in the outfit, he quickly came to the attention of the Bureau of Narcotics and in 1959, they nabbed Valachi on a major drug charge and sent him off to Atlanta with Don Vito Genovese and about 90 other made guys already serving out sentences. Once there, Valachi became convinced that he had been marked as a mob informant and that he was marked for death by his boss Vito Genovese, who was sure that Valachi was a government informant. At 7:30 a.m. on 22 June, 1962, Valachi, aged 58, was positive that he was being followed around the prison yard by an inmate sent by the Genovese to kill him.
Valachi struck first, with an iron crow bar, and killed the convict, who turned out to have no mob connections whatsoever. To buy his way out of the murder and to save his own skin, Valachi turned informant. When Attorney General Bobby Kennedy heard that the FBI had flipped Valachi, he crossed over federal lines and took the hood under his control. Kennedy needed Valachi because his testimony could confirm evidence, gathered illegally by Kennedy's wiretaps, on the mob.
In turn, Valachi's testimony would persuade Congress to pass a series of laws that would allow legal wiretapping on a massive scale and grant immunity to witnesses against the outfit. In fact Congress did pass these laws, however they wouldn't be enacted until one year after his murder in 1968.
On September 9, 1963, Valachi appeared before the McClellan Committee, investigating organized crime. There was riveting coverage live on television. In his testimony, Valachi confirmed 289 suspected made Mob members, outlined the five major mob families and their inner workings and used the word "Mafia" for the first time on network airtime to explain the mob's hierarchy.
Luciano and Costello were the last great leaders of the family that would come to bear the Genovese name. As for Don Vito Genovese, he got his power, but it was bittersweet. He died in prison in 1969.