“What experience has he got? He was a bustout guy [petty gambler] all his life. . . . What does he know?” So said New Jersey Mafia boss Simone Rizzo “Sam the Plumber” DeCavalcante in a conversation taped by the FBI. He was talking about Joseph Colombo, who in his day was the youngest Mafia boss in the country and the youngest also to be assassinated. Like DeCavalcante, numerous other mafiosi resented Joe Colombo, who had the reputation of being the Mafia’s Sammy Glick, a man who got ahead through sheer opportunism — not by brains or muscle but through being a “fink.”
It was in a sense a bum rap. For one thing, Joe Colombo was an accomplished murderer, part of a five-man hit team for Joe Profaci. Two other members of that squad were Larry and Crazy Joe Gallo; when you killed with the Gallo boys you killed with the best. The police attributed at least 15 killings to the team.
Crime Family Boss
In many respects Colombo was also one of the most forward-looking members of the Mafia. He understood the importance of image and tried to change his crime family’s way. It was to prove the death of him. But then any crime boss who manages to upset the FBI, other godfathers and his own crime family members is almost certain to go.When in the early 1960s Joe Bonanno moved to take control of the entire New York Mafia, he planned the murders of several top members of the crime syndicate’s ruling board. Bonanno gave the contract to his ally Joe Magliocco, who had fallen heir to Profaci’s Brooklyn crime family, and Magliocco in turn ordered his ambitious underboss Colombo to carry out the hits.
It was not a smart move. Joe Colombo was nothing if not a survivor, and he’d always been that way in mob affairs. He survived the assassination of his father, Anthony Colombo, who in 1938 was found dead in his car next to an equally dead lady friend. They had been garroted. Police learned from underworld informers that the elder Colombo had been rubbed out for playing loose with Mafia regulations. A reporter once asked Joe Colombo if he ever tried to find his father’s slayers, and he snapped back, “Don’t they pay policemen for that?”
Colombo went on to serve boss Profaci far better apparently than his father had. After serving time on the piers as a muscleman, he organized mob-rigged dice games, moved into bigger gambling operations in Brooklyn and Nassau County, loan-sharking, and hijacking at Kennedy airport. And he did hit team duty.But his survival instinct remained high and it was stratospheric when Magliocco handed him Bonanno’s contracts. Colombo figured the odds and decided the chances of Magliocco and Bonanno winning out were low—and zero if he took word of the plan to the intended victims, namely Carlo Gambino and Tommy Lucchese. He figured rightly. Eventually the other side won what in part would be called the Banana War. Bonanno had to retreat. Colombo fared a lot better, being rewarded with leadership of the Profaci family.
Next he had to deal with an insurrection led by the Gallo brothers. But, while fending them off, he still had time for other campaigns. One was disguising his own Mafia family, insisting that all his soldiers hold down a real job. They had to be butchers, bakers or sanitation men — anything just so it was legitimate. “It was almost a fetish with him,” an FBI agent once said. Colombo himself worked as a salesman for the Cantalupo Realty Company in Brooklyn. The flaw in Colombo’s plan was that his men didn’t much like it. One of the prime benefits of a “made” mafioso is that he doesn’t have to hold down a 9-to-5 job like “average jerks.” Now Colombo was forcing them to do what their way of life was supposed to save them from doing.
Then, Colombo moved on to another ill-conceived program, at least from the mob survival viewpoint. He came up with the idea of improving the image of Italian Americans by forming the Italian-American Civil Rights League. Colombo’s idea was that this would make Italian Americans proud of their heritage, and that in unity they would be able to fight the authorities’ alleged victimization of them. The league was also intended to fight the Italian gangster stereotype.
Other Mafia leaders looked upon Colombo’s effort with varying degrees of distaste and distrust. They had long ago decided that denying the existence of the Mafia simply called more attention to it. Still Colombo was permitted to stage a giant rally on June 29, 1970, at Columbus Circle. Fifty thousand people attended the event, and it was a huge success. Politicians vied for the right to appear at the rally. Even Governor Nelson Rockefeller took honorary membership in the league despite its Colombo imprint.
By his own acknowledgment, Colombo was a hero. He started expanding the league’s activities. But meanwhile some of Colombo’s lieutenants were alarmed by the declining revenues of the family while their boss was minding everything but crime business. These capos approached other families who were more than annoyed by Colombo’s activities, and they agreed that he was going too far. He had to be muzzled.
The chief voice in opposition was the most powerful don in the country, Carlo Gambino, whose life Colombo had saved earlier by finking on Bonanno. But Gambino was more concerned about what Colombo was doing lately. What Colombo had done was greatly annoy the FBI by establishing picket lines at the agency’s New York office. By mid-1971 the feds and other law enforcement agencies had 20 percent of the Colombo crime family under indictment for various charges. What if that happened to the other families, Gambino fretted.
According to the most widespread theory, Gambino decided to let the Gallo forces take out Colombo. The second Unity Day rally of the league was set for June 28, 1971. Gallo knew he and his men would never get close enough to Colombo to hit him, but he had other resources. Of all the Italian mafiosi, Joe Gallo had good connections with the black gangsters in Harlem. On the morning of June 28, Colombo showed up early in the rally. Just as the crowd started to form, a black man, Jerome A. Johnson, wearing newspaper photographer’s credentials, moved up on Colombo. He was no more than a step away when he pulled a pistol and put three quick shots in to the gang leader’s head. Instantly, Colombo’s bodyguards shot the assassin dead. Colombo did not die on the spot, but he suffered brain damage. He was nothing more than a vegetable for seven years before finally expiring.
There were some troubling aspects to the assassination. Why had Johnson done it when he knew he couldn’t get away? Many thought he was simply demented and that there had been no mob plot against Colombo. Carlo Gambino undoubtedly approved that line of thinking, but the police investigation indicated that the assassin had been told others were going to create a disturbance to permit his escape. Johnson was simply double-crossed.
But why kill Colombo so publicly when the mob prefers its rubouts without witnesses? The answer was twofold. Gambino wanted to doom the entire league movement by bathing it in violence. And most of all he wanted to rub Colombo’s nose in the gutter, to demean him totally.
The reason for Gambino’s venom was not discovered by government agents until 1974, three years after the shooting. According to Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter David Chandler, Gambino had gone to Colombo and ordered him to stop all his nonsense. Colombo, now infatuated by his own importance, spat in Gambino’s face. Five weeks later Colombo was paid back, and it must have pleased Gambino to no end that the man who had demeaned the godfather didn’t die outright but lingered for years in semi-death.