The Path of Least Resistance
Roy Albert DeMeo was born in 1942 into a working class Italian family in Brooklyn, New York. Like most teenagers in the 1950s, especially those in economically deprived circumstances, he looked for ways to make money. From hanging out with the sons of a neighbor, Mafia boss Joseph Profaci, Roy learned about the illegal practice of loansharking: Someone with means loaned money to people who could not get loans from regular venues, such as banks, and for this favor, they would then charge exorbitant interest rates. At first, Roy's assignments were just to pick up the interest owed each week from various businesses, but eventually he learned how to make the loans on his own. Through that enterprise, he was drawn more deeply into organized crime and was exposed to the ways of the southern Italians who had been transplanted to New York.
Southern Italian men, as detailed in Howard Abadinsky's Organized Crime, had long developed certain ideals that fueled ambition in an arena where they were otherwise powerless. According to their code, a real man :
- did not cooperate with authorities
- maintained self-control in the face of adversity
- carried out vendettas to avenge any slight suffered by his family
- did not forget
According to this ideal, family connection was the only basis for trust, and that included even the most remote blood relatives. Outsiders could "become" family through rituals that involved the tradition of godparenting.
The patriarch decided all of the important matters in the family, including who would live and who would die, as well as the enterprises in which the clan made money. Carlo Gambino and Paul Castellano, for example, forbade drug dealing among family members, especially heroin, because the stiff penalties could easily turn dealers into government informants. Those who participated in this illegal and forbidden venue risked being "made a memory." Everyone, writes author Richard Gambino in Blood of my Blood, was responsible to the capo di famiglia.
The duty of family members was to make the familyespecially the patriarchwealthy, respectable and powerful. That meant good marriages and honorable alliances with other families of statusmostly Sicilians with Sicilians. Those who were strong and aggressive on the family's behalf were rewarded with more responsible roles. To prevent anarchy and the avenging of imagined slights, rules were devised to keep order. Hence, even as criminals exploiting society at large, if they respected the rules, they could consider themselves men of honora concept associated with domination, manhood, and strength.
When several families were allied, or at least in agreement, one man stood out as the boss of all bosses, the capo di tutti capi. The others owed him their support and respect. He offered protection in the form of employment, lawyers when arrested, expenses for family when serving time, and threats against business rivals. For these services, he took a cut from everyone's pie. All business was transacted through him and he settled grievances among family members.
Nicholas Pileggi says that the attitude developed among "wiseguys," or members of traditional families dealing in organized crime, that crime was preferred over legitimate business, because much more money could be made. In Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, he states: "They lived in an environment awash in crime, and those who did not partake were simply viewed as prey. To live otherwise was foolish." Easy money, especially made by getting one over on someone else, was the best money. Apprenticeships often occurred within the neighborhood gang. You came into contact with it, you got assignments, and you proved yourself.
As an adolescent, Roy DeMeo might just as easily have learned some other tradehis mother hoped he would become a doctorbut loansharking proved to be easy money, made quickly, and he was good at itpartly because he had no qualms about using violence against someone who failed to pay on time. He saw nothing wrong with the practice. Strongly impressed with the shiny Cadillacs that the neighborhood gangsters drove while he was growing up, he made his choice. It wasn't long before he met members of the Gambino crime family.
Carlo Gambino commanded some 250 made men and hundreds of other associates, who collectively controlled a virtual crime empire in the New York area. Roy wanted in, so he proved himself as a soldier under the command of Anthony Gaggi, known as Nino. The more money he turned over to Nino from his own take, the more Nino could pass on to his overbosses. Nino had influence and Roy had the ability to earn, so they used each other.
Nino Gaggi had grown up in the dog-eat-dog world of Manhattan's Lower East Side, learning fast about the survival of the fittest among the racketeers who made up the crime families. Those who were powerful got the spoils, and they displayed their power in material wealth, fine clothing, and a polished appearance. Beneath tailored suits, silk ties, and manicured nails, they were willing to do whatever it took to develop, hold and improve their position in the family. At five-foot-eight and 160 pounds, Nino had been a fighter and he'd quickly sniffed out opportunity for himself in the form of his father's cousin, Frank Scalise. A loanshark with connections in high places, Scalise was an underboss for Albert Anastasia, and Nino ran a stolen car ring for him.
In 1957, Frank Scalise was hit while out buying fruitallegedly because he was selling memberships into the family to enrich himself. Then two more "soldiers" from the same family were assassinated, including his brother, which provoked a war in the underworld. By the end of that year, Anastasia was murdered, which meant someone could take over the reigns. Carlo Gambino and his cousin and trusted underboss, Paul Castellano, rose to the top of the heap, and Nino, having proven himself on the lesser rungs of the ladder, now became a "made" man.
To become a made man in a crime family, one had to demonstrate two abilities on a continuous basis: one was to make money. As one character on the Mafia television series "The Sopranos" told another, "You're only as good as your last envelope." To prove one's manhood meant lining the pockets of the bosses (as well as one's own). The other qualification was to kill when necessary. Family members had to be trustworthy, which meant they kept quiet about the family's clandestine operations. If they didn't, they were dead.
However, people could be "whacked" or eliminated based on mere suspicion and innuendo, so if someone wanted to usurp another's business operations, he had only to spread the rumor that the target man was either an informant or "talking subversive," as in threatening to undermine the boss. People got whacked for lesser crimes.
But Roy's were not insignificant.