But it also had some modern tweaks: Cali, 53, was shot outside his home, rather than in a public place away from his family, after apparently being lured outside when someone crashed a pickup truck into Cali’s parked SUV. And the killing was captured on surveillance video, New York City police said Thursday.
Still, “mob hits” of top bosses are now rare, a further sign of the Mafia’s steady decline since its peak of power and influence in the mid-1980s. The legendary “five families” still exist, experts said, and still operate in the same realms of organized crime: extortion, loan-sharking, racketeering, gambling. In fact, the alleged boss of the Bonanno crime family and his supposed consigliere just finished a two-week federal trial Wednesday, accused of loan-sharking and drug-dealing over a 16-year period on Staten Island and Long Island. Their lawyer argued that “looking like you stepped out of central casting in a mob movie doesn’t make you a part of one of these groups,” even though one defendant admitted beating another man inside a strip club the two men owned. The jury found both men not guilty.
“They don’t have the power they had in the ’80s or the early ’90s,” said J. Bruce Mouw, a former FBI special agent who headed the investigations into former mob boss John Gotti and the Gambino family for two decades. “The important, influential guys went to jail,” Mouw said, echoing a theory voiced by a number of experts: that the federal government’s targeting of organized crime starting in the 1980s effectively knocked out not only the existing leadership of the Mafia, but also the next echelon of soldiers who otherwise would have ascended to power in their crime families.
Another crucial blow to organized crime, Mouw said, was “the bureau took away all the unions. The Gambino family had 10 to 15 unions that they controlled, construction, garbage collection. The unions made a lot of money for them. They may have a few now, but they are few and far between.”
Cali’s death was considered the first slaying of a mob boss since the 1985 killing of Paul Castellano, the Gambino boss gunned down outside a midtown Manhattan steak house. That hit was engineered by Gotti, who was more flamboyant and courted the limelight. Cali was reportedly the opposite — quiet, low-profile, trying not to attract attention.
There was an unusual aspect to Cali’s death — it happened in front of his house in Staten Island, where many other mobsters live. “It’s pretty significant to kill the boss in front of his own house, in front of his family,” said former New York City police commissioner William Bratton. “That is usually not done, it’s a pretty interesting twist.”
The shooting was captured on surveillance video, New York chief of detectives Dermot Shea said Thursday in a news conference. Cali went outside his house about 9 p.m. Wednesday after a blue pickup truck struck Cali’s parked Cadillac SUV, an impact that rocked the SUV, Shea said. Cali and the man spoke for about a minute and then the gunfire erupted. Shea said that Cali tried to dive under the Cadillac to avoid the bullets, and that police recovered 12 9mm shell casings. Cali was hit six times and was pronounced dead at a Staten Island hospital, Shea said.
Bratton said investigators would look at whether the slaying was the result of internal tensions in the Gambino family, or was an external hit from one of the other crime families. “If it’s an external hit,” Bratton said, “there will likely be more violence coming out of it. If the family doesn’t retaliate, that would be seen as a loss of strength among the five families.”
FBI agents were working the shooting alongside New York homicide detectives, and Bratton said that was another reason the Mafia’s presence had decreased. “There’s a lot of collaboration,” the former New York and Boston chief said, “unlike the past, where there was competition. There’s never been a time where the NYPD and the FBI have had better relationships.”
Mouw cited two other reasons for the decrease in high-profile hits: a federal law passed in 1998 imposing a life sentence in murder-for-hire cases, and the willingness of Mafia members to cooperate. “You’re a 30-year-old Gambino associate,” Mouw said, “you aspire to be the boss, you do a hit, then you die in jail.”
The potential for life sentences, as opposed to 10 or 15 years behind bars, led to a new stream of informants, most notably Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, who turned on Gotti and was handled by Mouw. “You develop witnesses like Gravano, or Joseph Valachi, or Al D’Arco,” and everybody rats,” Mouw said. “They realize the murders are destroying the family, and they stopped doing it.”
Mouw said one theory police are considering in the Cali killing was a rift in the Gambino family between the Sicilians and the Italian Americans. Cali was born in Sicily, but Gotti’s followers are American, and police are examining whether “that Gotti-American faction is trying to take it over.”
Shea noted there had been a slight uptick in mob violence in New York recently. In October, Sylvester Zottola, a supposed Bonanno crime family member, was shot and killed in a McDonald’s drive-through in the Bronx. And three months earlier, Zottola’s son was shot outside his family’s home in the Bronx, but survived. “More than we generally have seen in the last couple of years,” Shea said.
Another reason for the mob’s decline is the decreasing Italian American population in New York, said Bratton and Jay Albanese, a criminologist and organized crime expert at Virginia Commonwealth University. Albanese noted that federal prosecutors’ use of the RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] law not only effectively knocked out top mob bosses in trials of the 1980s and ’90s, but also discouraged others from taking their place.
Albanese said Italians no longer seem to be exerting influence in areas where they were once either dominant or taking a financial cut, such as massage parlors. Bratton said criminal groups from China, Russia and Albania had stepped up their presence in New York. The Mafia “has more competition than they had in the old days,” Bratton said.
Mouw and Bratton both said the famed “omerta,” or code of silence, is gone from the Mafia, enabling authorities to solve crimes sooner. “Essentially, the mob has become a cage full of canaries,” Bratton said. “It’s just a matter of finding the right canary to sing the right tune.”