Sept. 22, 1904, to April 3, 1971.
"Joe Cargo," "Cago"
Valachi was a minor Mafioso from the 1930s to 1950s who turned out to be a major media attraction in the 1960s. After turning informant, he was utilized by the Kennedy Justice Department to communicate the details of "Cosa Nostra" to the American public.
Valachi's celebrated testimony before a Senate committee outlined the events of the so-called Castellammarese War in the early 1930s, his own dealings with Mafia families in New York and a significant number of events that were probably outside of his personal knowledge. That Valachi was coached by Justice Department officials before his speeches now seems a historical certainty.
Valachi, born to Neapolitan immigrants, grew up within an East Harlem street gang known as the Minute Men. An early brush with the law (burglary) resulted in a nine-month sentence for 20-year-old Valachi at Sing Sing prison. He returned to Sing Sing for three years in 1925. At that time, he met Allessandro Vollero, a turn-of-the-century Camorra leader who did battle with the Morello-Terranova Mafia clan. Vollero warned Valachi against mixing with Sicilians and recommended he consider relocating to Chicago and joining the growing Outfit of Al Capone.
After his release from prison on June 15, 1928, Valachi ignored Vollero's warning and joined up with a gang that included Sicilians. Possibly due to his discussions with Vollero, Valachi was fearful of Ciro Terranova, a Mafia power in East Harlem and the Bronx. Valachi reportedly believed that Terranova once tried to have him killed.
Valachi's criminal friends of the period included Neapolitan Dominick "The Gap" Petrilli and Sicilian Girolamo "Bobby Doyle" Santucci. Both brought Valachi in touch with the Bronx organization of Tom Reina through Reina capo Tom Gagliano. Sides were forming in a growing underworld feud, and the Reina group was leaning away from boss of bosses Joe Masseria and his Bronx ally Terranova. Reina was shortly murdered and replaced by Masseria puppet Joe Pinzolo.
Valachi took part in the November 1930 assassination of Masseria allies Al Mineo and Steve Ferrigno in the Bronx. he was subsequently inducted into a Gagliano-administered Mafia organization by Castellammarese leader Salvatore Maranzano. At the conclusion of the Castellammarese conflict, Valachi joined Maranzano's personal staff. (Maranzano had established himself as boss of bosses, a power apart from the traditional Mafia families.)
Maranzano was quickly deposed, and, in the new order brought to the Sicilian-Italian underworld by Charlie Luciano, Valachi became part of the Luciano Family. He was welcomed by underboss Vito Genovese and assigned to lieutenant Tony "Bender" Strollo.
Valachi married Mildred Reina, daughter of the late Tom Reina. He participated in a number of underworld activities, including slot machines and a small numbers racket, and ran a restaurant/bar and jukebox business.
With his superior Strollo, and despite a family rule against drug trafficking, Valachi became involved in the smuggling of heroin into the United States from France. Strollo and Vito Genovese reportedly demanded much of the drug sale profit for themselves.
In the mid-1950s, narcotics agents repeatedly arrested Valachi. He managed to avoid serious penalty on two occasions. When he was arrested Nov. 19, 1959, Valachi's luck had run out. He was sentenced to 15 years at Atlanta prison on June 3, 1960. Another conviction early in 1962 resulted in a concurrently run sentence of 25 years.
Valachi was approaching age 60 and had every reason to expect that he would spend the rest of his life behind bars. That prospect has often led to the turning of Mafiosi, but it seems Valachi was determined to be a stand-up guy until the Mafia turned on him.
Another inmate at Atlanta happened to be Valachi's boss Vito Genovese, also serving time on a drug conviction. Though it seems certain that Genovese participated in drug trafficking, the boss felt certain that his jail time was the result of an underworld betrayal. (Some charge that exiled Charlie Luciano arranged with Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky to set up the renegade Genovese for a fall. Genovese had made a move to establish himself as boss of bosses of the American Mafia in the late 1950s, offing Albert Anastasia and forcing Costello into retirement after a botched hit.)
Genovese's rage, which appears to have claimed the life of Tony "Bender" Strollo (he disappeared in April 1962), eventually focused on Valachi, and the boss reportedly ordered his underling killed. Valachi was tipped off - he says it was by a Genovese "kiss of death." Believing he was acting in self-defense, Valachi killed another prisoner in June 1962, mistaking the man for Joe "Beck" DiPalermo. Valachi pleaded guilty to the homicide on July 17 and sought protection from federal authorities.
His case was assigned to the FBI. After being repeatedly interviewed and then briefed on current Justice Department information on Mafia networks outside of New York, Valachi appeared before the McClellan Committee.
Valachi died of a heart attack April 3, 1971, while in protective custody at La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution in El Paso, Texas. His body was claimed by an unknown person and buried in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Lewiston, NY (near Niagara Falls), on April 7. News of his burial reached the public a month later.
© 2007 T.Hunt
The American "Mafia"