The New York Mob in the ’70s: The Fall of The House of Cards

It was a sweltering mid-July afternoon. As the sun bore down, my poorly air-conditioned portacabin office did its best to keep me from dying of heatstroke. In a way, I was thankful for the heat. At least I could explain the pools of sweat as an effect of the midday sun. Things weren’t going according to plan. As a contractor, my job is essentially to finish construction on time. The Hyatt on 55th & Madison, though, was proving to be a real piece of work. We were already two months behind schedule, and to make matters worse—the New York Cement and Concrete Workers’ Union had just gone on strike. Something about them not being paid enough. It was bullshit, and they knew it. Having had enough, I dialed up the president of the Union. A raspy old voice answered. “Hey there, Andy. I was expecting your call. Let’s have a little chat, you and I. My office sound good?” 

I arrived well ahead of time. The way he spoke on the phone unnerved me, but I agreed to the meeting nonetheless. Ralph Scopo. The old raisin was the president of the Cement and Concrete Workers’ Union. I’d hated his guts from day one, but the guy held power. He could halt every construction project in the Big Apple with a single phone call. And he’d done so in the past. Trust me; you did not want to get on this man’s wrong side.

As I sat there going over my talking points, I saw Ralphie making his way over to my car from across the street. A 5’5 man with a stocky build, he donned the Sicilian standard slick-back hair, open neck shirt, and waffle-weave bell bottoms. 

“Andy Palmero, you’re the guy giving me a lot of trouble, huh?” he playfully said as he got into my car. Up close, he didn’t look as threatening as his voice suggested. 

“Wish I could stay out of your hair sir, but the Hyatt needs to get done, or the boss will have my head,” I said, following up with a nervous chuckle.

“Listen, son; I’d love to help you out. But like my messenger said, you’re gonna have to shell out 2% of the cash you got from the contract or the workers stay out,” he said. His tone had shifted from pleasant to threatening scarily fast. 

“Messenger? You mean the Mafia goon that came to–,” I stopped midway. All of a sudden, it hit me. 

A couple of weeks ago, a Mafia low-life had come to see me. He’d explained to me that my previous boss had approached his capo to woo him into getting our company the Hyatt contract. In return, the boss had promised the capo 2% of the contract money. The goon had threatened to throw my workers out and halt work if I didn’t pay. At the time, I’d brushed it off as some Mafia stunt to scare me into giving them free cash. Now though, it was all starting to make sense. Ralphie was the capo. He was working for the Mafia.

 “Listen here, kid, you look like you’ve been to school. You must understand what I’m saying fairly well. You don’t gimme the cash—first, you lose your workers. You still don’t budge; I send you to sleep with the fishes. Take your pick,” he said and lit up a cigarette. 

I was caught between a rock and a hard place. I mean, this guy could end my life right now if he wanted to. On the other hand, I could get in serious, serious trouble for misusing contract funds. The cocktail of smells of Scopo’s aftershave and the cigarette—as well as the general threat of death looming over me—made me feel queasy.

Unsurprisingly, I whimpered, “Hey, Mr Scopo, I don’t want any trouble. You’ll have the cash tomorrow.” 

Scopo beamed at me. “I knew you were bright, kid. Now we’re all happy,” he said and put out the cigarette on the dashboard. “Toodles,” he said and struggled out of my car. As I watched him walk away, I realised I’d unknowingly done the one thing I swore I would never I do—be involved with the Mafia. 

Andy recalls his past

‘Fat Tony’ Salerno. The name sends shivers down the spine of any contractor in the city. I take it back; it sends shivers down the spine of every New Yorker. Donning a fedora hat on his head, with a cigar in his mouth—Fat Tony is the boss of the Genovese crime family. 

‘Fat Tony’ and I go a long way. Sometimes, I think this is what gives him the upper hand. I remember the first time I met him, as though it were yesterday. My brothers, sisters, parents, and I were seated around our cramped dining table in our dingy one-bedroom house, a turkey bigger than my little sister’s face at its centre. The joy infused amongst the wrinkles of my mother’s face beckoned the winds of change into our daily lives. My father laughed merrily, clutching a bottle of cheap beer in his hand. Ruffling my hair, he drunkenly told me that I was destined for greatness. All this because he—Robert Palmero—had helped close the deal for a skyscraper being constructed in Harlem. Twenty floors tall—it guaranteed my entry into NYU, my father promised, and he was a man of his words.

That day demarcated a turning point in the lives of the Palmero family of The Bronx. But, the change wasn’t the one you would’ve expected. It didn’t consist of rainbows and butterflies. It was frightening and tearful.

Before any of us had the chance to dig into the generous amount of food on our plates, a loud banging at the door broke us out of our reverie.

My father got up and opened the door. It seemed like he was making an effort to conceal the person he was talking to in hushed undertones. But the man was so big that my father’s slender figure hardly did anything to obscure him. 

My father spoke in a pleading voice. The man, however, was demanding and looked as though he was putting all his effort into spitting on my father’s face. His voice gave him a merciless aura, and I felt my insides churn every time the man snorted. I could hear my father’s throat drying up, and I knew everything had now gone down the drain.

“You better listen to me, Bobby. Lil Andy will never make it to NYU, or better yet, he may lose a limb or two there, if you dare to deceive the Genovese. Ci vediamo dopo amico!” The man said, shoving my father out of the way. He looked straight into the dining area and pointed his crooked finger at me—his eyes bloodshot and hungry. With that, Anthony ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno took his leave.

My father shut the door and turned around to look at us. All he did was smile; there was no explanation for what had happened, but we understood. We did celebrate, except we only celebrated the end of our old miseries, welcoming newer and bigger ones. My family was now in the hands of the New York mafia.

In the years that followed, Fat Tony kept visiting us. Each time he did, our savings suffered. I never understood why my father didn’t hold his ground.  However, I soon realised I had overestimated his integrity—he never managed to send me to NYU.  Every time I saw my father succumb to the short, stout man, an overwhelming feeling of hatred erupted inside me. The day those buried emotions at the pit of my stomach took over me, I left home. I vowed never to let someone dictate my life, let alone someone with a name as ridiculous as “Fat Tony.” 

When I first met Fat Tony, he was a captain. The day I left home, he was a soldier. Today, he was the boss of the Genovese crime family. 

 I did not ever want to be called “Lil Andy” anymore. I didn’t want to hear that man’s crass tone and tobacco-filled breath even if my life depended on it. But I knew it wasn’t up to me. He eventually came back—as a reminder of what my life could’ve been if he didn’t come charging to our doorstep all those years ago. Now that I look around New York, I see future Fat Tony-s marching around—groping unsuspecting women, threatening hard-working men, and killing anyone who stands in their way. They drive the most expensive cars, have the most expensive Rolex, and have silver and gold-plated grins. They own the entire city. And it never sleeps; the citizens never sleep, in fear of waking up the next day, one family member short. 

Rudy Giuliani dominates the media

The chilly evening air blew in through the open window of our modest living room. The view from our apartment wasn’t breathtaking, but it was beautiful enough for me to stare at and relax. It was the perfect time to kick back with a glass of wine, had it not been for the constant, crippling fear. We’d just finished up dinner—a failed effort to talk pleasantly when all we saw around us was death and destruction. After tucking the kids into bed, the wife and I tuned into the news. 

ABC News had an interview with the newly appointed District Attorney of South District, Rudy Giuliani. A third-generation Italian-American, Giuliani seemed like he was hellbent on sticking it to the Mafia. I saw in him the same fire that I’d had in me as ‘Lil Andy.’  Just like me, he hated what they were doing to the city. He despised how they took advantage of Italian-American immigrants and how they thought they were invincible. For some reason, his promises to dismantle the Mafia didn’t seem empty and hollow. For the first time in a long time, I felt a warm feeling of hope engulf me. Hope that law enforcement had a fighting chance against these bastards. Hope that a man was finally on our side and not on the Mafia’s payroll. I knew Giuliani was the saviour NYC had been looking for all along. And hell, who better to take on the Italian Mob than a DA with a little Italian in him as well?  

The Mafia is rounded up by the FBI

 February 25, 1985

Three days left until payday. 8% of mine and 12% of my workers’ will end up in the Genovese’s pocket. Three days before my landlord comes knocking at the door, demanding the due rent. 

With these thoughts running in my head, I collapsed on the sofa.  The soundtrack of the 7 o’clock news diverted my attention. I wonder why I watch the news. It is always filled with graphic images of construction workers, and contractors who fell from the top of the buildings that they were working on. But a part of me was still expectant; maybe Rudy Guiliani would announce new developments that guaranteed the bosses of the families a cell in federal prison. 

There was a smile on the reporter’s face. He tried to maintain a serious face to complement his well-brushed hair and an expensive suit, but a hint of relief in the twinkle of his eye and the slight sing-song in his voice were evident. 

The five bosses of the crime families had been rounded up by the FBI! All five! I was transfixed to the TV screen, unable to believe the events unfolding on it. My wife gasped and was already in tears. My children, confused, were screaming “bad, bad, bad” at a picture of Fat Tony that took up the entire screen. The mood lightened, my spirits rose, a slow smile turned into shaky laughter, and my shoulders fell with relief. My kids will grow up to be NYU grads. They will grow in a world where their father is a respected man—Andrew Palmero and not Lil Andy.

It was a new day. A new day in our monotonous lives of crippling fear and endless sorrows. It was not the false hope that my father had given me. This was genuine. 

The Mafia Commission Trial

The Mafia Commission trial was one of the most sensational trials ever to have happened in the United States history. The trial was a high-stakes, all-or-nothing game in which losing could’ve spelt disaster for the prosecution. Everything was on the line for Rudy Giuliani and the three young prosecutors at the peak of their respective careers—their lives, families, and their reputation. This is a story of how the culmination of years of hunting the Mafia—every bug, wiretap, and arrest—came down to 12 votes by 12 anonymous jurors.

The day had come. Around 250-300 people had gathered in the courthouse grounds. They never had, in a thousand years, imagined they’d live to see the day Fat Tony and the others were in cuffs. The atmosphere was electric. It felt more like the Beatles were about to play, and less like a court trial. 

“The Mafia Commission Trial begins today. From the prosecution’s side, tasked with making a formidable case against The Mob, are three young prosecutors from the US District Attorney’s office—Michael Chertoff, John Savarese, and Gillian Childers. The defence comprises eight defendants—all prominent Mafia figures,” a nearby reporter said, visibly elated. 

The trial proceeded for a good five to six hours. Both sides went back and forth as the defendants sat there, helpless. They were getting a taste of their own medicine, and I could tell they didn’t like it. The camera panned to the holding cell. Inside, I could see Fat Tony and Ralphie Scopo. I saw something in their eyes that I’d never seen before—fear. The same fear they used to terrify NYC with, was now coursing through every vein in their body. I was beyond pleased. This was it. It was time for the Mafia to pay. 

The trial was drawing to a close now. The jury would now retire to deliberate and come back with a decision soon. This was the tricky part, though. While all the defence had to do was convince one or two jurors to vote ‘not guilty’,  the prosecution had to convince all twelve—or the entire case would be thrown out the window. There was also the issue of the Mafia using their influence to get to one of the jurors and threatening them to vote in their favour. I was fairly confident, though. The evidence was damning. These Mafia low-lives would never see the light of day again. 

November 18, 1986

Four days had passed since the jury retired to deliberate. They still didn’t have a decision. The news channels kept reiterating that the longer a jury stayed out, slimmer were the chances of a ‘guilty’ verdict. I felt hollow, and spent sleepless nights pondering over the delay. Did the jury not see that these people were a threat to humanity? Could they not see the trouble and pain they had caused? 

The next day was a dark, cloudy Sunday morning. I awoke to my wife running into my room yelling, “The jury…they have…a decision!” I was stunned; I didn’t know what to feel. I quickly got dressed and dashed over to the courthouse. 

There seemed to be a palpable shift in the crowd’s mood from day one. You could cut the tension in the air with a knife. It was quite understandable—after dreaming of a Mafia-free NYC, the idea that they could go free was painful. The TV showed a courtroom packed to the brim. Every single seat had been occupied by federal agents, lawyers, and spectators—with several of them even standing in the back. 

The jurors had assembled. I tried my hardest to read them, but all of them had excellent poker-faces. The camera then shifted to the other side. All three of the prosecutors looked visibly nervous. For them, everything was on the line. This one verdict could change the course of their careers, for better or for worse. No one wanted to be the guy that let the Mafia off the hook. 

Finally, Judge Owen walked in and took his seat. The man looked unnaturally calm for someone tasked with overseeing a case that held grave consequences for everyone involved. He signalled to the jurors to begin voting. I couldn’t bear to watch; I closed my eyes and counted. 

“Guilty,” the first juror said. That was one. Then the second. Two. Then the third. Three. I kept counting. When I reached 12, I broke down. It was unanimous. Every single one of the eight defendants had been found guilty of every single count brought against them. The bastards were being jailed for life.

I was elated. I was finally free from the Mafia meddling in my business. My family could lead a normal life. My children could go to NYU as I’d dreamed. The wife and I could take a nice, well-deserved vacation. Filled with new-found hope, I looked up at the sky. The dark clouds parted, and sunlight poked through. The sun now shone brightly on NYC free of the Mafia. And the sunshine was here to stay. 

Dopo la pioggia, arriva il sole. 



Written by Sabarish Padmakumar and Lekhya Reddy for MTTN

Edited by Tulika Somani for MTTN

Featured Image by Vanshika Chanani for MTTN

Images (in order) by YouTube, Picuki, The Mob Museum, Daily Mirror University of Virginia Law Library, The Writers of Wrongs

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