Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Dying of the Light: The Joseph Valachi Story

Troublesome Times, Troublesome Times

In 1945, Vito Genovese returned to America and life would never be the same for the mob...or for Joseph Valachi. Arrested in Italy by the United States Military Police as the ringleader of a massive black market operation, Genovese was returned to New York. The Brooklyn District Attorneys office then held him to face indictment in connection with the Boccia slaying from 1934-the reason he had fled to Italy.

However, the DA could not make a case against Genovese, because their chief witness, Peter LaTempa, had died in prison under mysterious circumstances. On the evening of January 15th, 1945, he had swallowed some painkillers prescribed for his ulcer, gone to sleep and died. An autopsy showed he had enough poison in his system to kill eight horses.

Peter LaTempa was the same man whod almost killed Valachi twenty years earlier in Sing Sing.

As Genovese languished in prison in Brooklyn, Joe and his gas stamp partner, Frank Luciano, went partners in a restaurant called the Lido, in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx. It opened in the winter of 1946 and was immediately successful. Valachi had invested $15,000 of his earnings in the place and it was soon grossing $2500 a week.

Then Valachi discovered that his partner had been dipping into the takings to fund his gambling habit. In a fit of rage, Joe beat him nearly to death.

In due course, Joe was called to a tablea mob hearing held to determine culpability. The Cosa Nostra had very strict rules regarding personal conduct among its members, as established by Maranzano back in 1931 at the grand meeting in the Bronx.

In the New York area, the rule about members not raising their hands to each other made a lot of sense. There were six crime families (including the one based in New Jersey) all competing for a share of the areas riches, which often resulted in animosity between soldiers of the different groups. Without a strictly enforced code of conduct, it would have descended into anarchy.

Joe was called to his hearing at Dukes restaurant, the mobs favored place in New Jersey. Accompanied by Tony Bender, Joe was grilled by the underboss of Lucianos family, then headed by Albert Anastasia, a gangster with a ferocious reputation for violence. However, the meeting went in Joes favor. In settlement of the dispute, he was awarded the restaurant...upon payment of a token sum to Luciano. Afterwards Joe went upstairs to a private room and met up with Genovese, whom he had last seen almost ten years before. Their meeting was cordial, and Genovese even offered to help Joe out of his temporary financial predicament. Unknown to Joe, this was all part of a scheme Genovese was putting in place to regain the loyalty of the soldiers of his old Family. He had a long-term plan to regain control-which he would achieve ten years down the road.

Around 1950, Joe and Mildred decided to forsake apartment living. They bought into suburbia, purchasing a house at 45 Shawnee Avenue in Yonkers, Westchester County. Their son, Donald, returned home from his final year at a private boarding school, and Joe found him a legitimate job.

A year later on October 4th, 1951, Willie Moretti was shot dead at 11:00 a.m. in Joes Restaurant in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. Willie was a close friend and ally of Frank Costello, and the killing was viewed as Genovese's the opening gambit in his dangerous game of power chess. His aim was to checkmate Costello and depose him.

Early in September 1952, Joe was issued with another mob contract, this time to hit a man called Eugenio Giannini. He was a soldier in the Gagliano Family, which since death by natural causes of Gagliano in 1951, was now under the control of Tommy Lucchese,

Giannini was an informer for the Narcotics Bureau, the one government agency the mob feared and which caused them a lot of heartburn. In 1950, Giannini had traveled to Europe to peddle counterfeit currency in order to finance a heroin shipment back into America. Caught and imprisoned by the Italian police, he divulged information to the Bureau regarding his drug dealings with the exiled Luciano, who was now living in Naples. He was subsequently released and returned to New York, but Genovese found out and decided he should die. Strictly speaking, this was a matter for the Lucchese Family, but Genovese was anxious to maintain his pressure on the underworld, so he decided to execute the warrant, using his long friendship with Luciano as the excuse.

The body of Eugene Gianinni (CORBIS)
The body of Eugene Gianinni
The murder of Giannini illustrates the way the mob hierarchy would isolate itself from the commission of a crime. The chain of command that would eventuate in Gianninis death started with an aggrieved Luciano in Naples. Genovese commissioned the hit, but would be nowhere near the victim at the time of the killing. Tony Bender transmitted the orders, but would also isolate himself with a perfect alibi. Even the man responsible for the murder, Valachi, would not be physically present when it went down. He in turn subcontracted the job to three East Harlem hoodlums anxious to make their bones and be inducted into Joes crime family. They were the brothers, Joe and Pat Pagano, and Valachis sisters boy, Fiore Siano.

Valachi had been chosen because he and Giannini had known each other for years, and as always in the mob, when killing time came down, the target was often set up by a good friend or a relative. Late in the evening of September 19th, Giannini was shot in the head and left for dead outside a deli on west 234th Street. For twelve years, it was another unsolved gangland killing, until Joe came along and cleared it up.

In June 1953, Joe was again summoned to a meet with Tony Bender. There was another killing to be carried out. This time it was an act of revenge by Genovese, although Bender used the usual excuse that the victim had become an informer and family security was at stake. The target was a man called Steve Franse. When he fled to Italy in 1937, Genovese had left Franse to chaperone his wife, Anna. Franse had been a partner with Vito in some nightclubs in Greenwich Village, and had also been in partnership with Mrs. Genovese in interests that lay outside of the mob. In 1952, Anna sued for divorce. In court, she had embarrassed Vito with her disclosures about his business interests, legal and illegal. A furious Genovese laid the blame for his wifes defection with Franse. Bender ordered Joe to set up the killing, and on June 18th, 1953, Franse was lured to Joes restaurant in the Bronx and brutally murdered. Joe again used Pat Pagano and his nephew Siano to do the job.

Joes problems originated not just with Tony Bender, but also from the attention he was receiving from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Under their hard-driving boss, Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, the FBN was feared and despised by the mob. It continually harassed them, often using undercover operatives to infiltrate and gather evidence. It also established a major network of informants that gave Cosa Nostra a constant case of diarrhea. The FBN was the first government agency to recognize the existence of organized crime and no other law enforcement agency had done more to dislocate it.

Frank Costello, 1939 (CORBIS)
Frank Costello, 1939
In 1948, Frank Costello ordered his men to stay out of drugs. In the absence of Luciano and Genovese, he was the acting boss, and in his opinion, the risks of drug dealing far outweighed the benefits. Other families chose to either pay lip service to this philosophy or simply ignore it. At this time, the Luccheses were possibly the most heavily involved in drug trafficking of all the crime families in America.

The Bureau had kept Joe under observation, booking him in November 1944, and again in March 1948. Valachi claimed that at this point in his life he was not dealing in drugs. He said that he had come under the FBNs scrutiny simply because of his associates. One of these was his old pal and mentor, Dominick Petrelli. The Gap had been arrested and sent to prison on drug charges in 1942, and upon his release was deported to Italy. In November 1953, Joe was again on the receiving end of disturbing news emanating from Tony Bender.

It seemed that Petrelli had returned to New York, having made a deal with the junk agents to try and set up members of Joes Cosa Nostra family. Joe knew what was coming and was adamant he would not get involved in a hit on his old friend. I dont care what the Gaps doing...dont mix me up," he told Bender. "Let his own people handle it. Petrelli was part of the Lucchese group and Joe, quite understandably, thought they should handle the problem the way it should have been with the Giannini hit.

However Joe did meet up with his old pal, who called into the Lido one night for a drink and to reminisce. After he left, Joe called Bender and told him he had made contact. A few days later, in the early hours of the morning of December 9th, three men walked into a bar in the Bronx, found Petrelli, backed him into the mens room, and blew his brains out.

Joe was sad, but resigned when he heard the news. I wouldnt have done nothing to could I forget he took me to Brooklyn and kept me out of the way when Maranzano got his?... Gee, I felt bad, it wasnt much of a Christmas.

There was a lot worse to come.


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