Jerry Capeci Stands Alone in His Coverage of New York's Mob

Jerry Capeci has no peer in covering the Mafia. His "Gang Land" column is read by defense lawyers, prosecutors, law enforcement officials and mobsters.
Jerry Capeci has no peer in covering the Mafia. His "Gang Land" column is read by defense lawyers, prosecutors, law enforcement officials and mobsters. (By Travis Fox -- The Washington Post)
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By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009

NEW YORK -- When Jerry Capeci walks into a courtroom, Mafia defense attorneys and prosecutors alike smile, slap his back, reminisce.

"You're making some friends in the jails," joked a onetime lawyer for John A. Gotti, known as "Junior," a former head of the Gambino crime family, as he slid into a seat near Capeci. "They're saying you're taking a more anti-government approach. You've turned."

In fact, for 20 years, Capeci's "Gang Land" column on the Mafia has given space to both those breaking the law and those enforcing it, offering a mix of exclusive interviews, prescient analysis and juicy details of Mob rubouts. The column started in 1989 in the New York Daily News, where it ran until 1996, when Capeci took it online. It also ran in the New York Sun for five years until 2007, when Capeci quit in a salary dispute shortly before the newspaper folded.

These days, both the Mob and Capeci seem like survivors of a previous New York, a more chaotic, less professionalized place, where Mafia bosses ruled their own bits of the city, and reporters for eight daily newspapers pounded the pavement in hot pursuit of wrongdoing. Colleagues describe Capeci as an old-time New York City newsman in an industry that's going extinct.

Well, don't write the career obit just yet.

Last year, Capeci took the innovative step of making his Web-only column subscription-based, charging $5 a month at a time when he had 50,000 to 60,000 unique visitors per week on his site. "I'm doing well enough to make a living," he said, unwilling to divulge details. Yet at a time when newspapers are trying to figure out ways to charge for content on the Web, Capeci could be seen as something of a small-scale trailblazer.

His stories are frequently picked up by the Huffington Post news aggregator, which in this new world of journalism has become emblematic of impact.

"I print his column every Thursday for my assistants to read," said Gerard Brave, chief of the organized crime and rackets bureau in the Queens District Attorney's Office.

"I have mailed his column to my clients in prison," said Seth Ginsberg, who has served as a defense lawyer for various organized crime figures.

Capeci appeared as himself on HBO's "The Sopranos," and gave the show's writers pointers on Mob etiquette and history. "It was like writing about fish and having Jacques Cousteau available," said Terence Winter, a writer and executive producer. "His knowledge about the gangster world goes back to the first caveman who tried to extort another guy."

More than a Mob gossip, Capeci, 65, has sources everywhere: underworld associates, victims, witnesses, prosecutors, FBI agents, cops and private investigators. Still, fully inducted mobsters must take a vow of omerta, and promise not to reveal the secrets of La Cosa Nostra. Capeci said he has had only two sources who are "real live, true-blue gangsters" who didn't flip. He often relies instead on documents and trials.

His work requires close knowledge of the complex geneaologies of Mafia families and instant recall stretching deep into their history of brutal crime, meaning he's the one approached at parties to answer trivia questions.

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