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Queens Chronicle

41ST ANNIVERSARY EDITION Remembering the Mafia’s heyday in Queens

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Posted: Thursday, November 14, 2019 10:30 am

It was a time of defining change in Queens.

The early post-war years saw the borough develop into what it is today. Thousands of houses went up in the large swathes of the borough that hadn’t been developed already. Idlewild Airport, having begun operations in 1948, was becoming a major job hub. And the Long Island Expressway opened in 1958, with bumper-to-bumper traffic quickly following.

During the 20th century’s first half, Costa Nostra activity in New York City had mainly taken place in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan. Queens would catch up, though.

Some mobsters, like John Gotti — who grew up poor in East New York, one of the neighborhoods undergoing white flight in the 1950s — moved to Howard Beach.

But the lure of the suburbs wasn’t South Queens’ only draw for someone like Gotti. Idlewild — later known as JFK — was ripe for plunder.

“The airport was a major, major, major boon to all five organized crime families,” said Philip Messing, a longtime crime reporter for the New York Post.

To the Mafia, the Southeast Queens airport — bigger and busier than LaGuardia — meant no-show jobs, shakedowns, hijackings, cargo to steal and unions to corrupt. And while the Bonnano and Gambino families were more influential there, the Lucchese family pulled off the notorious 1978 Lufthansa heist portrayed in “Goodfellas.”

But Idlewild was one of countless cash cows the Cosa Nostra would milk in the borough as its economy expanded after World War II, notes Selwyn Raab, author of “Five Families: The Rise, Decline and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires” and a longtime investigative reporter for The New York Times.

“The Mafia is a carbon copy of American capitalism,” he told the Chronicle. “Whenever there’s something lucrative, they will exploit it. Queens became a good area to exploit.”

And exploit is exactly what mafiosi in Queens did, profiting big time from a carting industry cartel, union infiltration and other illegal activities.

“Their bread and butter has always been bookmaking and loansharking,” Raab noted.

No gangster here quite gained Gotti’s level of notoriety, though.

As a young man, the Brooklyn native hijacked trucks at Idlewild with his friends and did favors for high-ranking Gambino men. He rose in the family’s ranks to become a capo, using the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club in Ozone Park as his command center. And every year on the Fourth of July, massive crowds would come out to the club’s fireworks display and barbecue.

In March 1980, Gotti’s 12-year-old son, Frank, was riding his minibike near his parents’ 85th Street home in Howard Beach when neighbor John Favara fatally struck him with his car. Police ruled the incident an accident, but the driver disappeared months later. According to Brooklyn federal court papers filed in 2009, Favara’s body was dissolved in a vat of acid after his murder.

In 1985, Gotti staged a bloody coup to take control of the family from don Paul Castellano, who was famously gunned down by three assassins outside Sparks Steak House in Midtown Manhattan.

Known as the “Dapper Don” for his sharp looks, Gotti embraced publicity in a way gangsters normally shunned, schmoozing with reporters. And he earned another nickname, the “Teflon Don,” for beating three criminal trials in the 1980s. In reality, his men used bribes, intimidation and tampering to secure the acquittals.

Then, Gotti underboss Sammy “The Bull” Gravano having turned on him the year before, federal prosecutors convicted Gotti in 1992 on five counts of murder and other charges. Sentenced to life without parole, he died of throat cancer in 2002 at a Missouri hospital for federal prisoners.

The prosecutions against John Gotti were part of federal law enforcement’s large-scale campaign to destroy the mob in New York City and the rest of the country. A key weapon in the government’s fight was the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which led to more and significantly longer sentences for wiseguys.

It wasn’t until 2004, though, that the government convicted the Bonnano family boss known as the “Last Don”: Joseph Massino of Howard Beach.

Massino loved food and had the gut to show it, weighing 300 pounds. A Maspeth native who dropped out of Grover Cleveland High School in 10th grade, he took to crime from an early age. He met Gotti when both were young hijackers, and they remained friends as each man’s underworld clout grew.

In key ways, though, their personalities were very different. Compared to the flamboyant and colorful Gotti, Massino was a ghost.

“Most people didn’t even know he existed,” Raab added. “FBI agents always were mystified by him.”

He was “old-fashioned, very secluded,” the historian explained.

Massino didn’t want his men to bring cell phones to meetings. And unlike Gotti, he didn’t like to have meetings at social clubs. He also urged his men to frequently check their car mirrors to see if they were being followed, Raab said.

The Bonnano family was on its deathbed when Massino took it over in 1993. It was kicked out of the Commission — the Mafia’s governing body, made up of the Five Family’s bosses — because of FBI agent Joseph Pistone’s infiltration of the organization, made famous in the film “Donnie Brasco.” Massino got it back on the Commission and grew the Bonnanos to have more than 100 members.

“He was a smooth operator,” Raab said. “He wasn’t a dumb guy. And he might’ve been violent but he was not like Gotti. He wasn’t a brutal killer.”

Massino based his operations from the well-regarded CasaBlanca restaurant at 62-15 60 Lane in Maspeth, which he partly owned. Along with the traditional mob activities like loansharking, the historian noted, his family used online gambling and pump-and-dump stock schemes to make money.

Indicted in 2003 and convicted in 2004 for eight murders, Massino was facing the death penalty when he turned state’s evidence. That had never been done before by one of the heads of the Five Families. In 2013, he was released from prison into the witness protection program.

Thanks to the prosecution of men like Gotti and Massino, the Mafia in Queens may only have a small fraction of its old power. But it’s far from dead. Recent years have seen wiseguys from Howard Beach, Oakland Gardens, Whitestone and other parts of the borough go down.

“They have gotten more covert, for sure,” said Joseph Giacalone, a former NYPD detective sergeant. He is a professor at the CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he teaches a course about organized crime.

One of the 21st century’s major trajectories in law enforcement also has been advantageous to the Mafia, he pointed out.

“After 9/11, a lot of the attention was taken away from them and brought to bear on terrorism,” Giacalone said. “Rightly so.

“I’m not saying that nobody’s watching the store, but there’s a good possibility that you’ll see a resurgence from them with much less violence and less flashiness.”

While the former NYPD officer says the days of mass union racketeering are probably over in Queens and other parts of the city, he says the Mafia is very much alive here.

“They’re innovators, they know how to play the system,” he said. “They know the game and they know what people want.”

Welcome to the discussion.