The epic saga of the Genovese crime family
But Who's Really the Boss?
Frank "Funzi" Tieri came as a breath of fresh air to the soldiers of the Genovese family. Tieri was considered a class act and, more importantly, an ace moneymaker who believed in spreading the wealth. He lived in a modest home in the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn with his wife and two granddaughters and kept his long-time mistress, a former opera singer from Italy, in a house just five minutes away. With only one conviction for armed robbery dating back when he was 20 years old, he beat nine trials during his lifetime. He ran his crime family the way he ran his life—orderly, frugal, sensible.
Tieri was less likely to resort to violence than his predecessors, but when it was necessary, he did whatever had to be done. In 1980, he showed some of the guile of his good friend Carlo Gambino in orchestrating the assassination of Angelo Bruno, the mob boss of Philadelphia. When the state of New Jersey announced that it would legalize gambling in Atlantic City, gangsters around the country started to salivate, dreaming of an East-Coast Las Vegas with loads of illegal profit potential. There was just one problem: Atlantic City fell within the province of the Philly mob.
For years no one had paid much attention to the dying seaside resort. It was such a dead end, Bruno, who was known as the Gentle Don, would send the bad boys in his family to Atlantic City as punishment. But with the prospect of legalized gambling looming and all the money that could be made by infiltrating the unions and ancillary services that are the lifeblood of the casinos, the Gentle Don made it clear that he wasn't about to share his good fortune with anyone else. The New York families saw it differently. They stared down the Garden State Parkway and viewed Atlantic City as close enough to their turf to get in on the action.
Killing a boss is dicey business, and normally this kind of rubout must be approved by the Mafia Commission. Tieri passed the word to the Philadelphia family's ambitious capo in Newark, N.J., Anthony "Tony Bananas" Caponigro, that he had the go-ahead to assassinate the Philadelphia boss. On March 21, 1980, Bruno took a shotgun shell to the back of the head while he sat in his car after dinner in Philadelphia. Weeks later, Tony Bananas' naked body was found in the trunk of a car. He'd been stabbed, strangled, and brutally beaten. Multiple $20 bills had been "stuffed into every orifice of his body, a symbolic gesture, indicating that it was greed that killed him," writes John William Tuohy in his article "The Puppet Boss." Caponigro had committed the mortal sin of taking it upon himself to kill a boss without sanction, and so he was punished accordingly. With the Philadelphia family in confusion as it tried to settle on a new leader, the New York families converged on Atlantic City.
Tieri has the odd distinction of being the first man ever convicted under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, better known by its acronym RICO. The RICO laws allowed prosecutors to pursue mob bosses for taking part in a "pattern of racketeering activity," according to Tuohy. Mafia chieftains could no longer claim that they had nothing to do with the crimes their underlings had committed. In January 1981, the government sent a chill through the ranks of the mob when Funzi Tieri, after a lifetime of avoiding convictions, was found guilty. When he rolled into court in a wheelchair for his sentencing, he showed the judge a scar from a recent operation and said that he was a "sick man, very sick" hoping for leniency from the court. He was given a 10-year sentence but died peacefully in the hospital two months later while on bail.
After Tieri's passing, Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno was promoted from consigliere to boss of the family. Author Peter Maas in his book Underboss: Sammy "the Bull " Gravano's Life in the Mafia, describes Salerno as "almost a caricature of an old-line hoodlum, with his cap and baggy pants, his teeth invariably clenching the stub of a cigar, his undershirt peeking above his unbuttoned collar…" But Salerno lived up to his tough-guy image. Before becoming boss, he maintained a vise-grip on rackets in Harlem, exacting a percentage from every hood—black, white, or Hispanic— who operated there. In 1986 Fortune magazine put him at the top of their criminal executive list. He had homes in Manhattan and Miami Beach and a 100-acre estate in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
Salerno's criminal career sputtered when he was indicted on RICO charges along with the heads of four of the five New York Mafia families in what became know as the Commission trial. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to 100 years. Five years into his sentence, he died in prison.
Though the government viewed Salerno as one of the mob kingpins in New York, it's now believed that he was just a figurehead, an "up-front boss," like his predecessors. Tommy Eboli and Funzi Tieri had in fact taken orders from little-known mobster Philip "Benny Squint" Lombardo who had ruled the family from behind the throne until his death in 1981. Salerno, after suffering a stroke that same year, became yet another "up-front boss," taking his orders from the strangest gangster in the history of the American Mafia, a man who wandered the streets in his bathrobe and slippers, constantly seemed lost and confused, and forbid his underlings from uttering his name. The press dubbed him The Oddfather.