By LARRY McSHANE
The Associated Press
Sunday, March 4, 2007; 1:37 PM
NEW YORK -- At an age when most of his contemporaries were long out to pasture or in prison, Matty "The Horse" Ianniello was still riding high.
Retirement held no appeal for the old man _ and why would it? The notorious Genovese crime family captain, an eyewitness to gangland history from the slaying of "Crazy Joey" Gallo through the conviction of Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, ascended to family boss just three years before his 80th birthday.
It was 1997, and big money was rolling in from rackets in Little Italy, the garbage industry, a mobbed-up union local. The silver-haired Ianniello kept $130,000 in cash around his suburban home, adding a touch of green to his golden years.
It took almost a decade, but "The Horse" now faces the last roundup: He pleaded guilty in a pair of racketeering cases last year. Death behind bars is a possibility for the mobster, who eschewed a graceful exit and ignored organized crime history _ the boss always becomes the No. 1 target of law enforcement.
Even if he's 86 years old. Even if he knows better.
"You know these mob guys _ it's a way of life," said mob expert Howard Abadinsky, a St. John's University professor and author of several books on organized crime. "To leave is like walking away from family, except with quote marks around `family.'
"He's part of that life."
But Ianniello's life went beyond just "The Life." He was a decorated World War II veteran. In the 1970s, he joined authorities searching for a 6-year-old named Etan Patz after the boy disappeared on a Manhattan street. He was a businessman in a world where brutality often spoke loudest, operating like a CEO rather than a street thug.
And now, instead of cashing Social Security checks, he's facing 2 1/2 years in prison at a March sentencing.
When Ianniello pleaded guilty last year to corrupting a Queens bus drivers union, he arrived in court propped up by a cane. His voice was difficult to understand during his plea; Ianniello's lawyer blamed his client's garbled diction on a stroke.
Others were more skeptical, suggesting Ianniello was as healthy as _ well, a horse.
"Don't let his age fool you," said assistant FBI special agent Matt Heron after one of Matty's arrests. "He's still an influential player."
During a crime career dating to the era of godfathers like Joe Bonanno and Carlo Gambino, Matthew Ianniello was known in their world as two things: A good earner, and a stand-up guy.
"Matty was basically a nice guy," recalled "Joe Dogs" Iannuzzi, a mob informant who knew Ianniello in the mid-1970s. "A powerful man, but helpful to people he liked."
His former attorney, Gerry Lefcourt, remembered Ianniello as a gentleman who enjoyed discussions about civil liberties and the ramifications of war.
"He was a businessman," said Lefcourt. "There's never been any suggestion of violence with him. ... He was one of those people who got what he wanted because he was smart about things."
Ianniello's nickname came from his build: 6 feet tall and 220 pounds at his fighting weight.
Before his move into organized crime, Ianniello was a World War II hero, winning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star as an Army artillery gunner in the Philippines.
Like many veterans, Ianniello lived on Long Island and commuted to work in Manhattan. He and his wife raised a family of five in Old Westbury.
While many in the mob made money through violence, Ianniello handled his affairs like a large corporation _ albeit one where millions of dollars were skimmed. Authorities said he kept dual sets of books to hide his vast illegal income, and worked with a "board of directors" composed of Genovese associates.
"Joe Dogs" Iannuzzi recalled "The Horse" stopping a violent dispute in the mid-1970s by simply reaching out to another Mafiosi _ diplomacy over death. "All politics, you know?" said Iannuzzi, whose preferred method of problem resolution was more physical.
By the mid-1970s, Ianniello's empire covered every bar, restaurant and sex shop from Fifth Avenue to the Hudson River between 34th and 59th Streets _ they all paid "The Horse," part of the cost of doing business, authorities said. Two of his more infamous holdings were Hungry Hilda's, a topless bar on Eighth Avenue, and a nearby transvestite bar, the Gilded Grape.
Although law enforcement was aware of his business, the cigar-chomping Ianniello beat charges of narcotics and extortion. Even a 1971 conviction for criminal contempt _ he declined to answer questions from a Manhattan grand jury probing police corruption _ only produced a suspended one-year sentence and a $1,500 fine.
It was a year later when Ianniello lived through one of the most infamous mob hits ever.
Ianniello was in the kitchen at his Little Italy restaurant, Umberto's Clam House, when mobster "Crazy Joey" Gallo rolled in at 5 a.m. It was April 7, Gallo's last stop after a night on the town for his 43rd birthday.
Gallo took a seat with his back to the front door of the restaurant. It was a mistake he wouldn't live to repeat.
A hitman with a .38-caliber handgun fired on Gallo, who staggered to the street and died alongside his parked Cadillac. No one was ever arrested.
Gallo's bodyguard, "Pete the Greek" Diapioulas, charged into Umberto's kitchen and found Ianniello.
When the bodyguard accused "The Horse" of setting Gallo up, Ianniello quickly denied it. "You think I'm crazy?" Ianniello asked. "To let this happen in this place?"
The shooting in some ways "made" the restaurant. It operated on Mulberry Street for the next 24 years, drawing tourists who scanned the woodwork and kitchen door for bullet holes.
Seven years after Gallo's last meal, a 6-year-old boy on his way to school disappeared in Greenwich Village _ the same neighborhood where Ianniello and Gigante shared their headquarters.
Etan Patz's name would soon become synonymous with missing children, but on the morning of May 25, 1979, police were simply looking for a lost little boy.
Authorities eventually reached out to Ianniello for help, and the mobster agreed to investigate things through his contacts. Despite the efforts, Patz was never found.
In 1985, when he became eligible for Social Security, Ianniello was convicted of skimming $2 million from an assortment of Manhattan restaurants and food suppliers _ including one that provided the hot dogs for Yankee Stadium. Three years later, he was convicted of racketeering and sentenced to 13 years.
By 1986, when Fortune magazine rated the nation's 50 biggest Mafia leaders, Ianniello was listed at No. 35 _ behind Gigante (No. 19) but ahead of Philadelphia's powerful "Little Nicky" Scarfo (No. 43).
And in 1987, Ianniello finally went to jail on his racketeering conviction.
Ianniello did his time and was released on Sept. 29, 1995, at the age of 75. But that wasn't the end of his career.
On April 7, 1997, 25 years to the day after the death of Joey Gallo, Gigante entered a Brooklyn courtroom in a typically grungy get-up. It was the end of a long run as the family's head when the bathrobe-and-slipper-wearing Gigante admitted feigning dementia to avoid prosecution.
Ianniello knew the top guy drew unwanted attention from law enforcement. But authorities say that didn't stop him from stepping up when the family asked him to take over following the guilty plea by Gigante, who died in prison in 2005.
"He's got to take `The Seat' because this is what the family needs," said mob expert Abadinsky. "He's a stand-up guy, who played by the family rules. ... Nobody around has the status like Matty has. Who's around?
"Who are you going to turn to?"
Within three years, "The Horse" was deep into a Queens union representing city bus drivers. A medical center that rented space from Local 1181 was forced to pony up $100,000 to renew its lease. With Ianniello's backing, the center was forced to make regular cash payments.
In Connecticut, "The Horse" imposed a mob tax on various garbage businesses and collected more than $800,000 between 2001 and 2005. The money was paid by the companies to ensure no one infringed on their trash-hauling routes _ a scenario right out of "The Sopranos."
His legal woes mounted, but Ianniello kept his mouth shut. He pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and tax evasion, but his plea agreement allowed him to avoid testifying against any of his two dozen co-defendants.
He's ready now to do his time, even at his age.
"What can I say, right?" Ianniello said after leaving court in Connecticut last year. "Nothing."