THE GAMBINO FAMILY
A Squirrel of a Man
Carlo Gambino was a diminutive man with small eyes and a large nose. Joseph Bonanno, who was the boss of his own family, characterized Gambino "a squirrel of a man." Unassuming in appearance, he hardly looked the part of a major-league crime boss, but in his case looks were indeed misleading. Though he eschewed ostentatious mansions, flashy cars, and sharp suits, he was perhaps the most intelligent and most powerful of any mob boss of any era. With the cunning of a fox and the stealthy bite of a viper, Carlo Gambino was in spirit a descendent of the cutthroat Borgias of the Renaissance.
With Albert Anastasia out of the way, Gambino ascended to the boss's chair and named Aniello Dellacroce, another stone-cold killer who had been closely aligned to Anastasia, as his underboss. With Dellacroce in a position of power, Gambino was able to keep Anastasia's loyal supporters in line.
Gambino had the rare ability to see two moves ahead and act without hesitation when he saw an advantage. When it became evident to him that the ambitious Vito Genovese was not content with control of just his own family, Gambino laid a trap for him. Genovese, who longed to be Boss of All Bosses, knew that Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, and Lucky Luciano were his enemies, but he never suspected that Gambino, who had helped him eliminate Anastasia, was secretly in league with the others. Many of the Mafia bosses staunchly opposed getting into the narcotics trade, but Genovese saw the huge profits that could be reaped from drug dealing, and he allowed it in his family. His enemies recognized an opportunity. They put together a lucrative drug deal that was too good for Genovese to pass up, then paid a Puerto Rican drug dealer $100,000 to rat on Genovese. The government chose to ignore the fact that in all probability a small-fish drug pusher wouldn't have had access to a big-fish Mafia boss and that whatever testimony he gave would be hearsay, but they wanted Genovese so badly, they took the little fish's testimony as gospel truth and won a conviction against Genovese that earned him a 15-year sentence.
Despite all the treachery and double-dealing Gambino used to seize power, he also knew when to make peace and forge alliances. In 1962 his son Thomas married Frances Lucchese, daughter of Tommy "Three-Finger Brown" Lucchese, who was the boss of the powerful New York family that bore his name. Like a Machiavellian prince, Gambino gave the young couple his blessing as he anticipated the benefits he would gain from a familial bond between two major crime families.
Under Gambino's leadership, family rackets spread into new areas. Starting in the late '50s, they engaged in large-scale drug trafficking. The Gambino and Lucchese families put a stranglehold on illegal activities at JFK International Airport, effectively boxing out all competition. Gambino bought into all kinds of legitimate businesses such as pizza parlors, meat markets, restaurants, construction companies, trucking firms, dress factories, and nightclubs, and used them as fronts to facilitate illegal operations.
Gambino increased his family's presence in the Teamster's Union, in Manhattan's garment center, and in the trash disposal business in all five boroughs. He solidified the family's control of the Brooklyn waterfront when one of his capos, Anthony Scotto, rose to power in the AFL-CIO International Longshoreman's Association, which in the late '70s had 100,000 members working ports from Maine to Texas. Scotto also became president of the union's Local 1814 in Brooklyn. Many people found it hard to believe that the well-spoken, college-educated Scotto was a member of the Mafia, and his close ties with elected officials helped him maintain his respectable image. He raised money for New York Gov. Hugh L. Carey's reelection bid in 1978 and for Lt. Gov. Mario Cuomo's unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City in 1977. When Scotto was brought to trial for taking cash payoffs from waterfront businesses, no less than Gov. Carey and two former New York mayors, John Lindsay and Robert Wagner, testified on his behalf. Scotto was ultimately convicted, but the judge imposed a light sentence after receiving pleas for leniency from a number of prominent people in labor, business, and politics.
Carlo Gambino also had a gift for making lemonade out of bitter lemons. In the early '60s, Joe Bonanno and Joe Mogliocco, the newly appointed boss of the Profaci Family, felt that they were being pushed around by the more powerful bosses, so they hatched a plot to level the underworld playing field by secretly putting out contracts on the lives of Gambino and Tommy Lucchese as well as the bosses of Buffalo and Los Angeles. The contract was given to Profaci Family hitman Joe Colombo, who suddenly saw an opportunity to better his own situation. Colombo informed the intended victims of the plot, and they in turn went to the Mafia commission for justice. The commission ruled that the elderly Mogliocco could live if he retired. Bonanno defied the commission and as a result was kidnapped and held captive until he agreed to give up complete control of his family and retire to Arizona. The commission rewarded hitman Colombo with Mogliocco's former position as head of the family that would eventually take Colombo's name. But Colombo was widely regarded as unfit for the job and overly dependent on Gambino's advice.
In 1967, when an ailing Tommy Lucchese stepped aside and appointed Carmine Tramunti to take over as boss of his family, Gambino supported the new boss who was really no more than a figurehead and once again pulled the strings from behind the curtain. As the war in Vietnam was raging and student protesters rioted on campuses across America, Carlo Gambino had firm and comfortable hold in his own family and considerable influence over two other families.
Gambino's health began to fail in the 1970s, and as time passed, he was seen in public less and less. He nevertheless maintained tight control over his family, running his rackets from his retreat in Massapequa, Long Island. In his final years he anointed his own successor, his cousin and brother-in-law Paul Castellano, which angered the traditionalists in the family who felt that underboss Aniello Dellacroce was the obvious choice.
As Joseph Coffey and Jerry Schmetterer write in The Coffey Files: One Cop's War Against the Mob, "the general opinion of Castellano was the he was selfish, greedy, and not as smart as he liked people to believe. Dellacroce," they argued, "was the real brains of the family." But Dellacroce was a traditionalist, and he wouldn't challenge a boss's decision. Dellacroce's supporters simmered, unhappy with Gambino's choice.
A man who was staunchly loyal to Dellacroce was part of an incident in 1972 that would have major repercussions years later. Carlo Gambino's nephew, Manny Gambino, was kidnapped and held for a $350,000 ransom, which the boss paid in part. The kidnappers reneged on the deal and killed Manny, burying his body in a New Jersey landfill. The boss wanted revenge, and the family assembled a list of likely suspects, one of them was James McBratney, who had a history of kidnapping wiseguys for profit. In truth, McBratney had nothing to do with the incident. Nevertheless three Gambino soldiers cornered him in a Staten Island bar and killed him for the crime. One of the three executioners was John Gotti, who was convicted for the crime. Upon his release from prison he was made a capo for his good deed. Gotti would go on to become one of Dellacroce's most powerful supporters, and after Dellacroce's death, he would become boss of the family. But not before the reign of "Big Paul" Castellano.