NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The murder of Frank Cali is the first assassination of a Gambino crime boss since “Big Paul” Castellano was gunned down outside Sparks Steakhouse in 1985.
The pair of sensational shootings highlight a storied history between the mob and New York City.
The American mafia has long been glorified in movies and pop culture, but in the Big Apple the mob’s Five Families helped shaped the city while casting a shadow over it like a Manhattan skyscraper.
Organized crime firmly established its New York roots in the 1920s during prohibition, when Italian families were aggressively waging war over territories and absolute control over their lucrative bootlegging operations.
It was a violent period, with Jewish and Irish gangs also vying for power, but it was ultimately the Italian families, known as the mafia, which prevailed.
Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano were the early crime bosses who divided up New York territories and set up the infamous “family structure.” It’s said to have been Maranzano who proclaimed himself “the boss of bosses” and instituted the “code of conduct” to have all families pay tribute to him.
Maranzano was murdered within roughly six months of that order, reportedly on the orders of Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
Over the next several decades, the dominant five families — Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese — expanded into other business ventures such as unions, construction, and drug trafficking which provided robust revenue streams allowing for a strong and steady growth of the families and their spheres of influence.
In the 70s, their growing public profile in other businesses such as restaurants and nightclubs, along with their increasing influence on public officials, eventually led Congress to pass the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, to allow prosecutors to go after crime families and their sources.
A decade later, then-United States Attorney Rudolph Giuliani announced his top priority was to defeat organized crime in New York. It was estimated that nearly 6,000 mob associates and so-called “made men” were living in the area at the time. As part of his federal investigation, Giuliani ordered wiretaps that captured conversations about drug sales and the 1979 murder of Bonanno leader Carmine Galante.
The city is infamous for other high profile murders in recent history. In 1972, Joe Gallo was shot outside Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy and of course, Castellano was whacked outside Sparks Steakhouse in 1985.
“Those murders took place in the 1970s, which was a very fractious time in the mob,” organized crime expert Tony DeStefano said. “There was a lot of anger against Joe Colombo because of his visible touting of the Italian-American cause.”
Another flamboyant crime figure was John Gotti, famously known as the “Teflon Don” as he successfully dodged conviction after conviction in a series of showstopping trials. In 1992, he was eventually convicted of murder and racketeering, among other charges, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Gotti’s high visibility let, in part, to increased scrutiny of other mafia figures. In recent years, that’s changed to a more low-key presence to avoid attention from police and the FBI. While there’s been less reported violence of late, sources indicate there’s still a strong mafia presence in the trafficking of heroin and Oxycontin, with gambling and construction still a large source of revenue.
“The mob today isn’t like it was, particularly with the Gambino crime family, the Sicilian faction, keeping things close to the vest and tampered down,” DeStefano said. “It remains to be seen, I don’t think we’re on the cusp of any mob war.”
The term “mafia” was actually coined by the media and law enforcement to describe criminal groups in Sicily. The groups and families themselves generally used the term “Cosa Nostra,” which is Italian for “Our Thing,” when referring to themselves.