Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Dying of the Light: The Joseph Valachi Story

There is Not a Mafia

Mafia? Whats the Mafia? There is not a Mafia.
Joe Colombo. Head of the Colombo Crime Family. 1964-1971.

To most Americans interested in their history, Rochester, New York, is the site of the famous Underground Railway movement that in the decade prior to the Civil War helped more than 70,000 fugitive slaves to freedom into Canada. To those interested in the development of organized crime, this city on Lake Ontario across the waters from Toronto is famous for a murder that occurred there. That started a chain of events that led to the most famous disclosure about the criminal syndicate, which was referred to until then as the Mafia.

On November 23, 1961, a body was found in a cornfield near Rochester. It was eventually identified as that of Alberto G. Agueci, 38, who was also known as the Baker of 21 Armitage Drive in Scarsborough, Canada. His death had not been easy.

While still alive, over thirty pounds of flesh had been cut from his body, his jaw broken, and half his teeth kicked or knocked out. A blowtorch had been applied to his face, blinding him, and he had been tied to a tree with barbed wire before his genitals had been hacked off and stuffed into his mouth. According to the coroners report, his fatal torture had been spread over a number of days and his body was so badly mutilated it was identifiable only from his fingerprints.

Stefano Magaddino
Stefano Magaddino
He died the way he did because he had the temerity to threaten Stefano Magaddino, the boss of the Buffalo family of the Mafia.

Along with his brother Vito, Agueci had been arrested on July 20th, 1961, on a narcotics conspiracy charge and imprisoned in New York. Magaddino had allowed the brothers to operate their drug business in his domain for a cut in their profits. In return, he had promised them protection and help if they were ever arrested. However he reneged on his side of the deal and Aguecis wife had to sell their Toronto home to raise the $15,000 bail to free her husband. When he was released, Agueci drove up to Lewiston, New York, where Magaddino lived at 5118 Danna Drive, and apparently threatened him.

A police wiretapwhich was unfortunately inadmissible in court-picked up a conversation between two of Magaddinos lieutenants discussing how they would eliminate Agueci. His atrocious death was surely aimed at sending a strong warning to the underworld: Kill one but teach one hundred.

Vito Agueci swore to avenge his brothers death, but was convicted on his narcotics charge and sent to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. Here he met up with Valachi, who was serving time on a drug trafficking charge. At this time, there were about ninety organized crime figures in Atlanta. The absolute ruler of this group was Vito Genovese, who had been sent there in 1959 to serve a fifteen-year sentence, also for peddling drugs. He was the head of the largest Mafia group in America, which coincidentally was the one to which Valachi belonged.

Valachi was serving time for two drug offenses, one of which was his involvement in the same crime as Vito Aguecis. Thus crime apparently had been instigated by a senior member of the Genovese crime family, a man called Anthony Strollo, also know as Tony Bender. He was deeply involved in a complex heroin-smuggling scam that had badly backfired.

Departure of the Saturnia (CORBIS)
Departure of the Saturnia
Federal narcotic agents had seized a shipment of ten kilos of heroin, which was smuggled into America in the luggage of an immigrant family called Palermi. They boarded the Italian liner Saturnia when it docked in New York and arrested some of the minor functionaries in the process. Then they tracked the trail back to Vincent Mauro, Frankie Caruso, Sal Maneri, and Valachi, a member of Genoveses group who was working with the Agueci brothers. The trail had stretched back into Italy and the mythical figure of Salvatore Lucania, better known as Lucky Luciano, who was the exiled former boss of the criminal empire now headed by Vito Genovese.

Valachi had been involved on more than just a business level with the Agueci brothers. The late Alfonso had sheltered Valachi when he had fled to Canada in 1959 to avoid prosecution on an earlier drug charge. Vito Agueci asked Joe to make an introduction for him to Genovese, but the crafty Mafia boss avoided him and asked Valachi to walk Agueci around the penitentiary yard so that other members of the mob could easily identify him.

However, Valachi noticed that Agueci was soon in deep discussions with some of these imprisoned senior mob figures, including Mike Coppola of the Genovese family; Johnny DioGuardi, a top man in the Lucchese crime group; and Joseph (Joe Beck) DiPalermo, one of the consummate narcotics traffickers in the Mafia.

Valachi came to believe that Agueci, concerned because of his involvement with his late brother and the threats he had made against Magaddino ( a close friend of Genovese) to revenge his brothers death, had decided to placate Genovese by offering him information that Valachi had turned stool pigeon and was working for the Bureau of Narcotics.

Slowly, Joe became isolated from the rest of the mobsters in the prison and became aware of their reluctance to talk or socialize with him. One evening while walking in the prison yard, Vito Agueci started yelling at him in front of other mob prisoners, calling him a filthy dog and an informer. By June of 1962, Valachi had survived three attempts on his life. One evening in the cell he shared with Genovese and six other men, after a long rambling discussion, Genovese suddenly kissed Valachi on the cheek. One of Joes cellmates, a young hood called Ralph Wagner, remarked that Joe had just received the kiss of death.

On June 16th, Valachi took the desperate step of committing himself into solitary confinement. While there, he made frantic attempts to contact several people, including the Deputy Director of the Bureau of Narcotics. However, it was to no avail.

Released from solitary, Valachi finally reached the breaking point. On the morning of June 22nd, weak from starvation and having eaten nothing for days for fear of being poisoned, his mind and body were cracking under the pressure. He finally broke.

Three men started toward him as though to threaten him. Backing up against a wall, Valachi grabbed a piece of iron pipe lying near construction work in the yard and attacked a man whom he thought was DiPalermo. He had come to hate Joe Beck in particular. One day he had offered Valachi a steak sandwich which he was sure was poisoned, and DiPalermo was a close friend and ally of Genovese. Valachi beat the man about the head so severely that he died forty-eight hours later of multiple fractures.

Overpowered by the guards and taken to the wardens office, Valachi was mortified to find out that the man he had attacked was not DiPalermo but another prisoner who bore an uncanny physical resemblance. This man, John Joseph Saupp, had no connection with organized crime and in fact was in Atlanta for mail robbery and forgery.

According to an agent of the FBI, who spent more time with Valachi than any other law enforcement officer, this was a turning point. Valachi, he said, had no real remorse for anything he had ever done in his life, except this. Nothing crushed him more than the fact that he got the wrong man...getting a guy who was going to get him was the one satisfaction he would settle for. If he had been successful, he probably never would have talked.

On June 13th, Valachi advised the authorities that he wanted to cooperate with the federal government. On July 17th, he pleaded guilty to murder in the second degree and received a life sentence. That same day he was flown out of Atlanta and settled in the Westchester County Jail, a few miles from New York city. There, he was installed in an isolated ward in the prison hospital under the alias of Joseph DeMarco, with Frank Selvagi of the FBN as his case agent. By September 8th, he was out of the control of the Bureau of Narcotics and was being managed by the FBI, through a crack special agent from their New York office named James P. Flynn.

On that day, the agent demanded from Valachi substantiation about the criminal organization he had worked for. I want to talk about it by name, rank and serial number, he said to Joe. Whats the name? Is it Mafia?"

No, Valachi said, Its not Mafia. Thats the expression the outside uses.

Is it of Italian origin? asked Flynn.

Cosa Nostra, replied Valachi. "We call it Our Thing.

Later, when appearing before the McClellan Committee investigating organized crime, Joe answered a question from Senator Edmund Muskie. When asked if Cosa Nostra was the same as the Mafia, Joe replied, Senator, as long as I belong, they never express it as Mafia.

For the next year, Joseph Valachi talked about his thirty years in the mob. He had a photographic memory and was able to remember things in even the most minute detail. He recalled for example, that in 1913 when he was nine years old, he had committed his first criminal act: stealing a crate of soap. He could even remember the brand name, Fairy Soap.

Valachis testimony to law enforcement and subsequently to the McClellan Committee, was primarily intelligence, although in April, 1968, he helped to convict an up-and-coming star in the mob called Carmine Persico, who had been indicted on a $50,000 hijacking case.

According to William Hundley, the man in charge of the Justice Departments attack on organized crime, What Valachi did is beyond measure. Before he came along, we had no concrete evidence that anything like this existed...But Valachi named names. He revealed what the structure was and how it operates. In a word, he showed us the face of the enemy.

And what an enemy it was.


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