Volkman's 'Gangbusters': fading Mafia

July 05, 1998|By David W. Marston | David W. Marston,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Gangbusters: The Destruction of America's Last Mafia Dynasty," by Ernest Volkman. Faber and Faber. 256 pages. $24.95.

Former Gambino family crime boss John Gotti, a.k.a. the "TefloDon," is doing life without possibility of parole at hard-time Marion Federal Penitentiary, which sums up how far the godfathers have fallen. But justice was a long time coming. For decades, the FBI's war on organized crime ("OC") consisted of rounding up the usual suspects (mainly gamblers and numbers writers) and chalking up stats. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's annual OC arrest statistics always went up. OC was not inconvenienced.

Then three things happened: Hoover died. Congress passed RICO. And a new generation of heretical, street-savvy agents, led by Detroit SAC (Special Agent in Charge) Neil J. Welch, became convinced they could use the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization statute, together with state-of-the-art surveillance techniques, to decimate the major mob families. Barely a decade later, they had.

By now, this success story is well known, and aspects of Ernest Volkman's new book, "Gangbusters," have been previously reported. Most notably, Jules Bonovolonta's 1996 book ("The Good Guys: How We Turned the FBI 'Round-and Finally Broke the Mob") sketched the Mafia-busting RICO revolution from an agent's perspective, with gritty authenticity.

But if Volkman's central thesis is not new, "Gangbusters" nevertheless succeeds, first by detailing exactly how crime got organized in America, and then by providing the most incisive description yet of the real-world reach of Mafia-funded official corruption.

The Americanization of successive waves of Italian immigrants, Volkman contends, ultimately resulted in a criminal organization more reminiscent of General Motors than of its Sicilian "black hand" predecessor. "Ford salesmen don't shoot Chevrolet salesmen," Meyer Lansky counseled his fellow crime bosses at a summit in Atlantic City in the wake of Al Capone's disastrous St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Lansky's message: efficiently organized, La Cosa Nostra would provide plenty of loot for everyone.

Once organized, the crime families gushed forth enough cash to corrupt everything they touched, and Volkman, a former

prize-winning national correspondent for Newsday, details the impact:

* $20,000 per week in cash payoffs to Tammany Hall bagmen.

* Corrupt alliances with union leaders, which allowed the Mafia to control New York's garbage, concrete and construction industries.

* Payoffs to narcotics squad cops so systematic that New York firemen once sought a union contract pay hike to keep parity.

With corruption rampant, any breach of omerta was doubly dangerous. Volkman recounts how Abraham "Kid Twist" Reles, star killer for Murder Incorporated, tried to avoid the death sentence by cooperating with prosecutors. He needn't have bothered. Under police guard at a Coney Island hotel, Reles was thrown from his window to his death, after the police received a $100,000 bribe from Frank Costello. Reles entered Mafia legend, Volkman notes, as "the canary who could sing, but couldn't fly."

Mixing irresistible cases with well-researched historical narrative, "Gangbusters" delivers. General readers will be interested in Volkman's dynamic picture of organized crime in America. And for anyone who doubts the book's subtitle, consider: today, while the "Teflon Don" languishes forever in Marion, the man who put him there, mob hitter Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, was last seen promoting his biography. If "The Bull" (who sidestepped his own complicity in 19 murders) can sing and fly, the mob must indeed be dead.

At least for now.

David W. Marston is author of "Malice Aforethought," an analysi of abuses in law practice. U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania from 1976 to 1978, he is now a Philadelphia civil lawyer.

Pub Date: 7/05/98

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