Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Colombo Family

Star Power

As a young man, Joe Colombo made his mark as part of Joe Profacis elite execution squad, a five-man hit team that included Larry and Joey Gallo.  When you killed with the Gallo boys, Carl Sifakis writes in The Mafia Encyclopedia, you killed with the best.    In addition to his hit-man duties, Colombo initially worked as an enforcer on the docks, then moved up to running gambling dens, hijacking, and loan-sharking.  But perhaps what formed his thinking more than any of his criminal experiences was the gangland slaying of his father, Anthony Colombo, who was found garroted in his car along with his girlfriend.  Joe Colombo knew first hand how quickly a wiseguy can fall out of favor and be exterminated.  Colombo was probably thinking of his fathers fate when he decided that siding with Carlo Gambino and Tommy Lucchese was a better bet than following his own boss Joe Magliocco and the power-mad Joe Bonanno. 

Sam DeCavalcante
Sam DeCavalcante
In January 1964, at age 41, Colombo became one of the youngest men ever to take over a  mob family.  Many within the Mafia welcomed the regime change, but some had their doubts about Colombos competence.  What experience has he got? New Jersey boss Sam The Plumber DeCavalcante complained in a conversation taped by the FBI.  What does he know?  But as Colombo settled into his position, some felt that he was the most progressive mob leader to come down the pike in some years.  Others felt he was a self-centered showboat who sported excessively expensive suits and enjoyed being covered by the press. 

When he formed the Italian American Civil Rights League, his fellow mobsters didnt know what to think.  On one hand, they agreed with his cause, believing that all Italian-Americans were unfairly targeted by law enforcement simply because of their heritage.  But on the other hand, they traditionally thrived in the shadows away from public scrutiny.  Colombo, they felt, was drawing too much attention to them.  After an initial showing of support, mobsters tried to distance themselves from him, especially after the FBI discovered the damning list of mob donors.

The attempt on his life at the league rally in 1971 was too public to have been a Mafia hit.   Despite the finger-pointing by the police, it just wasnt the way the mob did things.    They would have chosen an isolated spot late at night and away from witnesses, not unlike the way his father was killed.   Nevertheless, Colombos incapacitation was not an unwelcome event to those who felt he had stepped dangerously out of bounds.

Colombo survived the shooting, but just barely.  Brain-dead and unresponsive, he lived seven more years, finally dying in 1978.  During that time, the Colombo Family closed ranks and chose not to reveal the identity of their new boss.  The FBI worked for three years to find out who he was.  Finally, they discovered that the new boss was Thomas DiBella, a wiseguy who hardly registered on their radar screens.  With only one conviction for bootlegging in 1932, they had no idea how important DiBella was in the family hierarchy.

Keeping things quiet was a good idea, but no sooner did one mob star get vegetabled than another one found the spotlight, and this one threatened to shine brighter than even Joe Colombo.

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