Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Dying of the Light: The Joseph Valachi Story

The Trouble with Tony

Charles (Lucky) Luciano, 1936 (CORBIS)
Charles (Lucky)
Luciano, 1936
(CORBIS)
Charlie Luciano, boss of the largest crime family in America, was arrested in 1936 and charged with 61 counts of compulsory prostitution. According to Michael Stern, the crime reporter who subsequently interviewed him ten years later, Lucky, who had broken just about every law on the books, was finally brought to a well-merited justice for a crime of which he was least guilty. Sentenced to prison for up to 50 years, he was released in 1946 and deported to Italy, where he eventually died in 1962 of a heart attack. The man who had done more than any other to Americanize the Mafia was out of the mainstream forever, although he would continue to use his influence from off-shore, particularly in connection with narcotic trafficking into America.

Vito Genovese, 1937 (CORBIS)
Vito Genovese, 1937
(CORBIS)
In 1937, Vito Genovese left New York. He had been involved in the messy murder of a low-level street hood named Ferdinand Boccia and he feared justice. Although he was running the family as Charlie languished in Dannemora Prison in upstate New York, he decided to visit his hometown of Naples and lay low for awhile. That "while" would stretch almost ten years. At this point, the family came under the control of Frank Costello, who would manage its affairs for the next twenty years. Costello was an unknown quantity to Joe, but more importantly he was not interested in the problems Joe was experiencing with his immediate superior, capo Tony Bender.

In 1939, Louis Buchalter was arrested. The most feared Jewish gangster in New York and a close ally and partner of many senior underworld figures, he was subsequently tried for murder. He was electrocuted on March 4th, 1944, the only gang boss in American history to pay the ultimate price for his sins. His execution sent shock waves through the criminal world.

Abe (Kid Twist) Reles, a crony of Buchalter, and one of the more renowned serial killers of the Jewish underworld, belonged to a group of psychopaths that became known as Murder Incorporated. They supposedly handled murder contracts for the entire American underworld, although Valachi denied this in his testimony. He stated that Cosa Nostra always relied on its own members or associates to carry out their judicial killings. Although his testimony resulted in convictions in at least six previously unsolved gangland killings, Reles' career as an informer came to an abrupt end. On November 12th, 1941, he flew out of a sixth floor window at a Coney Island hotel while in protective custody, under the guard of a posse of New York policemen.

As all of this was going on, Joe was trying to operate his business interests, keep a low profile and try to avoid problems. It wasnt that easy, especially with Tony Bender hanging around his neck.

Anthony Strollo, also known as Tony Bender and Tony Banda, was born in New York, in 1899. He grew up on Monroe Street, in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, which opened up to traffic when he was ten years old. In his early thirties he worked under Masseria, but was renowned as a man who would switch sides quicker than a frog would blink. According to Luciano, Bender was pretty good at working both sides of the street, and getting away with it and He was always for sale to the highest bidder. He transferred from Masseria to Maranzano, shifted to work under Luciano, and then moved to be with Genovese before relocating to Costello. Then he went back to Genovese, accomplishing all of this in less than seventeen years.

Standing only five feet seven, and weighing about one hundred and fifty pounds, he was a doleful man with sandy brown hair who always looked like he had just come from a funeral. His front was real estate sales, but he was known as the racket czar of Greenwich Village. In addition he was a power on the Jersey docks. When the U.S. Army opened the Claremont Terminal on the Jersey City waterfront in 1951, Bender assumed control for the mob and made it a haven for the underworld.

One day Santucci approached Joe and told him Bender wanted two men disciplined. They had beaten up a member of Benders crew, a man called Eddie Copobianco, and Tony wanted retribution. The trouble was, the two men belonged to another crime family. It was the one that Joe had originally joined, which was controlled by Gagliano and his right hand man, a tiny, tightly wound hoodlum called Gaetano Lucchese.

Although Joe had his doubts, he arranged to have the two men suitably chastised with baseball bats, courtesy of two goons. One of them, Tommy Eboli, would eventually be leader of the family. Sure enough, Joe was called on the mat for the beatings. Although he had been acting under orders, he felt it better to accept full responsibility, knowing the kind of vindictive nature that Bender could display. Fortunately for him, Lucchese (also known as Tommy Brown) had been a close friend of Mildreds late father, Gaetano Reina, and was warm towards Joe. As a consequence, the matter was soothed over. Yet this wasnt to be the end of Joes problems with Tony B.

The loan sharking business Joe had created with another gangster called Johnny Robilotto came under the scrutiny of Bender. A compulsive gambler, he let it be known he was losing heavily on the horses and wanted a share of Valachis action. Joe refused to give up any and was called to a meeting with his boss at a famous gangster rendezvous, Dukes restaurant in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. In the end Joe had to give in, but rather than split his half he bought out his partner and passed that share over to Bender. Although he took a loss and had to break up a successful business, in his own eyes he had maintained his integrity and stood up for his rights.

In 1941, America entered the war and Joes business ventures went off on a different tangent. By now he had sold his restaurant, but his clothing factory was working overtime meeting military orders. His numbers and shylocking business went into decline because there were plenty of jobs and as a consequence, plenty of money to spread around. Like all resourceful members of your everyday crime family, Joe looked around and came up with a way to fill the vacuum created by the diminishing returns of his gambling and lending ventures.

From 1942 until 1945, he made big money in the black market. His source of revenue was gas ration stamps. He formed a partnership with another member of the Cosa Nostra, a man called Frank Luciano (unrelated to Lucky). Together they wholesaled the ration stamps that had been stolen from local offices of the OPA (Office of Price Administration) by independent gangs of thieves, who then sold them to people like Joe and his partner. Although the profit per stamp was only between 3 and 5 cents, the scale of the operation was huge. The OAP estimated that over 2 million stamps were stolen every day for the duration of the war, generating illegal annual revenues of over $20 million dollars.

Often the wealthier mob members would purchase stamps in blocks of $250,000 lots and pass them on down the chain to people like Joe. He would then resell to garages and gas stations, which in turn would eventually pass them on back to the OPA. It seemed to be a never-ending circle of opportunity for the underworld.

Joe prospered sufficiently with his gas stamp scam-to the tune of $150,000-to buy himself another racehorse and another restaurant, the Aida in Harlem. Things were progressing nicely into the 1940s, and then Vito came back.

 

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