The Discourses of Simone Rizzo De-Cavalcante, 1962 to 1965
Theft of the Nation
The Grim Reapers
“Gregory the Great tells us how the nun of a convent, walking in the garden, ate a lettuce-leaf without making the cautionary sign of the cross, and was immediately possessed by a demon. St. Equitius tortured the spirit with his exorcisms till the unhappy imp exclaimed: ‘What have I done? I was sitting on the leaf and she ate me.’ But Equitius would listen to no excuse and forced him to depart.”
—Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has yielded up to us the transcripts of its long eavesdropping upon the office hours of Simone Rizzo (Sam) DeCavalcante, boss of a Cosa Nostra Family seated in Union County, New Jersey. DeCavalcante was facing trial for conspiracy to extort; his counsel demanded that the Justice Department produce any wire taps that might have assisted it toward the indictment; and to his surprise, and probable chagrin, he was granted the public release of his client’s conversation, the private as well as the professional, all of it faithfully and indiscriminately recorded by the special agents of the FBI, and none of it, by the way, bearing upon the particular crime charged. This mass of intimacies, disjointed and expensive though it is, carries the sizeable reward of providing us with more that we can trust than we have ever before been told about an American mafioso of executive stature.
Donald R. Cressey is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and though we may think that Theft of the Nation is a title that might have better served the Sierra Club, the work itself comes to us with academic credentials more elaborate than any before offered in Mafia studies. Ed Reid began as a reporter in Brooklyn, which is to organized crime what Rome is to the Church. He won a Pulitzer Prize for investigating police corruption more than twenty years ago. The Grim Reapers is at least his fifth book in the field. Yet read alongside the real life of Sam DeCavalcante, the reports of these two authorities seem astoundingly credulous, the journalist and the academic being our chief sources of social misinformation. One of the few knowledgeable persons I can imagine believing them is Sam DeCavalcante himself; the faith of witches and of the hunters of witches survives the failure of witchcraft.
The gap between such authority and the world itself begins when we set down first Dr. Cressey’s notion of our general condition and then DeCavalcante’s description of his particular circumstance. For example:
The $6 or $7 billion going into the hands of ordinary criminals each year is not all profit…. Neither can it be assumed that the amount is divided equally among the five thousand or so members of Cosa Nostra. But the profits are huge enough that any given member of Cosa Nostra is more likely to be a millionaire than not.
We got 31 or 32 soldiers. Most of them are old people who ain’t making much. Those making money give me one third. Say one makes $600, then he gives me $200 and I don’t split with anyone else.
(Sam DeCavalcante, June 4, 1964)
DeCavalcante was describing his province, of course, a little while after his elevation to command of a Family of such modest dimensions as to be unlisted in most Cosa Nostra public registers. Then too he was talking to Gene Catena, whose brother Jerry was a rather more substantial figure; and DeCavalcante may have thought it wise to undervalue his estate in conversation with imperialists. For a more respectful view of the property, we have the estimate of Anthony Russo, Cosa Nostra’s man in Long Branch, New Jersey: “I wish I had Elizabeth [New Jersey] locked up like you have…. There’s a lot of money in Elizabeth.”
But it is clearly not an environment productive of millionaires. Any given DeCavalcante soldier can hardly sit in his presence without giving way to confessions of indigence:
Frank Cocchiaro told DeCavalcante that he has money problems, as he gives his wife $50 a week, pays $125 a month rent in N.J. and $115 rent per month for his wife.
In December, 1964, DeCavalcante and Frank Majuri, his underboss, meet to arbitrate a protocol dispute between Joe Riggi and Joe Sferra, two capiregime. “Sam, I came to you yesterday,” Riggi says, “because I felt that, as an amico nos and a caporegima, I’m not getting the respect I should from Joe Sferra.” Sferra’s regime was the Elizabeth Hod Carriers local; his affront was in not relieving Riggi’s father from carrying brick and finding him a lighter assignment.
“Sam, I had the understanding that our people came first,” Riggi went on. “I think we went in and asked for the job before anybody else. I didn’t get the cooperation or the respect from Joe. I have to answer for my father…. First I feel offended as an amico nos—that I can’t go to my friend and get a favor for one of my soldiers. Second, even as a caporegima, I can’t do nothing. I did what I did only because of my father who has lived a dog’s life for three years.”
These are not the problems of affluence. This penury, of course, may not be typical; the legendary metropolitan Families (the Luccheses, the Gambinos, and the Profacis) could have a dividend picture closer to Dr. Cressey’s gaudy colors. DeCavalcante certainly shares that impression. In January of 1965, he tells underboss Majuri: “Listen, if we don’t join these big outfits and try to make a buck, we’re dead. They got the money.”
Still, there are overtones in DeCavalcante’s long courtship of the Gambino Family which raise doubts even about its majesty. His control over the Elizabeth hod carriers union was mainly useful to DeCavalcante for providing jobs for unemployed soldiers; and Carlo Gambino seems to have felt more gratitude at having its courtesies extended to his Family than comports with one’s image of a great prince of unlimited resources.
In September of 1964, Joseph Zoppo, a Gambino soldier, is laid off his job as a hod carrier; and DeCavalcante taxes the local’s capo-regima with having caused this embarrassment. “What did he run to you for?” Sferra asks. “He’s got a lot of nerve.”
“Joe, nerve or no nerve,” his Boss replies. “You know I promised Carl Gambino that we’d treat their men better than our own people. And I want it that way…. You see, Joe, over here, I’m trying to build a good relationship with everybody on the Commission. Our brigata is small, but we could do things as good as anybody else. And I told you—as long as they are amico nostro, I want to keep them working before anyone else.”
In the end Sferra was deposed from his regime. One culminating offense was his loss of dignity in a traffic dispute: “The [other driver] went after him like a tiger and put Joe off his feet. When he fell he broke his foot. Now is that any way for an amico nos and a caporegima to act?” But Sferra’s worse sin was in neglecting his duty to provide Cosa Nostra soldiers what special favors we can imagine as available to persons seeking common labor: “I told Sferra I was saving his life by removing him; he was defying Carl Gambino.” Over who gets to carry brick?
There is indeed very little evidence in these conversations that even the major Families have attained that security beyond worry about the basic necessities. “Joe Notaro [underboss of the Bonnano Family] owes me money,” Joe Bayonne says, “He owes Mike Coppola money—he can’t pay. He hasn’t got a quarter.” Joe Columbo, who inherited the Profaci Family, steals dresses from factories, two out of each lot. These are hardly either the circumstances or enterprises of captains who rule over millionaries.
The true case is rather more like the scene described in one talk between DeCavalcante and Anthony Russo, his colleague in Long Branch:
DeCavalcante: Do you know Frank [Cocchiaro] is a rough guy I have to watch. Frank would do heist jobs [armed robberies] if I’d let him.
Russo: Sammy, do you know how many friends of ours are on heists.
DeCavalcante: They can’t support themselves.
Russo: Do you know how many guys are safe-cracking? What they gonna do? Half these guys are handling junk [narcotics]. Now there’s a [Cosa Nostra] law out that they can’t touch it. They have no other way of making a living, so what can they do? All right, we’re fortunate enough that we didn’t have to move around and didn’t have to resort to that stuff. What are the other poor suckers going to do? Pretty soon we’ll have all the mob here [in New Jersey]. Guys are coming here asking to be put on [work gambling games], and they’re friends of ours, so I put them on because I can’t let them starve to death. Sam, pretty soon I may have to say no to them because I got to look out for myself. I’ll help your boys when I can.
DeCavalcante: My people won’t starve to death. I’ll feed them.
Criminal organizations dealing only in illicit goods and services are no great threat to the nation. The danger of organized crime arises because the vast profits acquired from the sale of illicit goods and services are being invested in licit enterprises in both the economic sphere and the political sphere. It is when criminal syndicates start to undermine basic economic and political traditions and institutions that the real trouble begins.
No, Bob, we’re doing real good here. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but we’re doing okay. If I can continue for two or three years, I will be able to show $40,000 or $50,000 legitimately and can walk out. Then my family situation will be resolved.
Experts on the Mafia conceive of its legitimate businesses as disguises; Sam DeCavalcante thinks of his as an escape from the instabilities of illegitimacy. His chief licit enterprise is the Kenworth Corporation, a plumbing and heating supply house in Kenilworth, N.J. It is very much a Family business, having been bequeathed to him by Nick Delmore, the deceased head of what is now called the DeCavalcante Family. His partner is Lawrence Wolfson, who, if he cannot with full assurance be described as a legitimate business man, is certainly a licensed one. DeCavalcante seems to have brought little wealth to the partnership except the weight of his name as a Cosa Nostra boss; building contractors use Wolfson and DeCavalcante to bribe construction trades labor leaders for exemption from union conditions, and reward this service by buying their plumbing from Kenworth.
Wolfson appears to have indulged this special sales technique with so much more enthusiasm than DeCavalcante ever did that there even arose complaints that he was damaging DeCavalcante’s good name.