Aniello “Mr. Neil” Dellacroce
In many respects, Aniello “Mr. Neil” Dellacroce was the model of the mythic Mafia don. His name in Italian meant “little lamb of the cross,” and the underworld is rife with tales of the pleasure he took in killing people. A federal agent once said of him, “He likes to peer into a victim’s face, like some kind of dark angel, at the moment of death.” Sometimes he even traveled about the country on mob business done up as Father O’Neill, a pay on his first name. On other occasions he was Timothy O’Neil. He also sought to confuse his enemies on both sides of the law by occasionally having a look-alike pose as him in public.
Dellacroce spent decades in the Mafia and was a faithful follower of the murderous Albert Anastasia and, later Carlo Gambino. Gambino had conspired in Anastasia’s 1957 assassination but there is no accurate information on whether Dellacroce was involved or whether he believed a boss ever should be deposed. When Gambino took over the Anastasia crime family, Dellacroce stepped up to the position of underboss and seemed to be in line eventually to succeed Gambino. He had all the prerequisites, including the cool toughness and mercilessness the job required.
However, when Gambino was dying in 1976, he tapped his brother-in-law Paul Castellano as his successor. Gambino was smart enough to realize that if the tough Dellacroce wanted to fight, he could probably crush the less-than-imposing Castellano. To placate Dellacroce he offered him essential control of all the family’s lucrative Manhattan activities. It was not an offer Dellacroce could refuse, and for a time it defused the harsh feelings by the Dellacroce and Castellano factions.
Compromises seldom stay glued in the Mafia; it figured that power would sooner or later shift to the stronger side of the Gambino family. Except for the fact that Dellacroce was in ill health, it seemed he would eventually take over. Certainly the Young Turks aligned with Dellacroce favored expansion into more violent types of crime, such as armored car robberies and hijackings as well as narcotics. Castellano laid greater emphasis on loan-sharking, union construction shake-downs and relatively easy crimes, such as car theft on a wholesale level.
Police experts indicated that only Dellacroce could hold the Young Turks back, especially John Gotti, a dapper though deadly capo in the organization, described as having patterned himself after his idol, Albert Anastasia. Gotti held back striking at Castellano, it was said, out of fear and respect for Dellacroce.
Then on December 2, 1985, Dellacroce, who was suffering from cancer, died in a New York hospital. Two weeks to the day later Paul Castellano and one of his trusted capos, Thomas Bilotti, were gunned down outside a mid-Manhattan steak house.
There was speculation that Dellacroce’s death made certain Castellano’s demise. Castellano, who was likely to go to prison for a number of federal offenses, was planning to name Bilotti as underboss to take over as acting boss if need be. A police source was quoted, “When Dellacroce died, it left Gotti without a rabbi.” It was a situation that forced Gotti to move with more than deliberate speed against Castellano. If he didn’t, Gotti knew that Big Paul would tighten a death noose on him.
A curious story in Time magazine, datelined on the day of Castellano’s murder but printed earlier, declared that Dellacroce had been an informer for the FBI for some two decades. Among other things, it claimed Dellacroce had tipped off the FBI when Carmine Galante, a would-be boss of bosses, was marked for death. He also was said to have given the FBI leads on the long-unsolved murder of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa and that he helped to break some major narcotics cases. Perhaps the most stunning, or the most unbelievable, part of the story was that Dellacroce never asked for some kind of a payoff – most Mafia informers want legal clearance for themselves or money or both.
Not unsurprisingly the New York media seemed underwhelmed by Time‘s disclosures, ignoring the story pending some additional proof. It can be speculated whether the story would have appeared if Castellano’s murder had become known first. Some observers looked on the story as a form of FBI disinformation. It was possible that the FBI – clearly the source of Time’s account – was seeking to rattle the boys in general or quite possibly was intent on using the story as a ply to cover up its real informers. There had been for many weeks some feeling in the underworld that Castellano might break or indeed might have already broken, that he was not tough enough to take a long prison term at the twilight of his life. Maybe the FBI was carrying out a “dirty trick” operation to plant suspicions on all the elderly dons it was bringing to trial? That could make them hit candidates and perhaps more interested in accepting a deal with the government.
The one thing that was certain was that Aniello Dellacroce, alias Father O’Neill, remained as enigmatic a figure in death as he had been in life – the quintessential Mafia don.