A Mafia “godfather” clawed his way to the top of a major US crime organisation with a string of hits on fellow gangsters, a court has heard.
Joseph Massino, 61, allegedly built a network of illegal gambling, extortion and murder as boss of New York’s Bonanno organised crime family.
Massino is the only accused head of one of New York’s five Mafia families who is not in prison or awaiting sentencing, leading some to call him “the last don”.
“This trial is about the vicious, violent, cunning and murderous rise to power of Joseph Massino,” prosecutor Robert Henoch told jurors in Brooklyn federal court yesterday.
But defence lawyer David Breitbart said Massino had been set up by informers who were coerced into lies by prosecutors and the FBI.
In an unusual move, Mr Breitbart said he would not contest that Massino may have headed the Bonanno family, which was infiltrated in the late 1970s by undercover FBI agent Joseph Pistone, using the street name Donnie Brasco. The agent’s testimony has helped imprison more than 120 mobsters.
Mr Breitbart called Mr Pistone “a slug, someone who got seduced by the organisation and became a junkie, a womaniser”. Prosecutors have not said whether Mr Pistone will testify against Massino.
More devastating to Massino may be the betrayal by brother-in-law Salvatore Vitale, one of at least seven informers expected to testify.
The co-operators gave prosecutors crucial ammunition in their effort to imprison Massino, who dodged surveillance by ordering subordinates to refer to him simply by touching their noses, Mr Henoch said.
Prosecutors say Massino ran much of his operation from the CasaBlanca, a Queens restaurant his underlings were ordered to patronise.
Mr Breitbart said he will show how prosecution witnesses are made suspect by their complicity in the crimes they accuse Massino of commanding, and by alleged coercion at the hands of prosecutors and the FBI.
“They seduce, they bribe them, they torture them into becoming a witness,” he said.
Prosecutors said their first witness, former union official Anthony Giliberti, would describe how Massino hit him and threatened his life before Mr Giliberti was shot nine times in 1982.
But Mr Giliberti, 80, offered halting and confused testimony, acknowledging on cross-examination that he could not identify Massino as the man sitting at the defence table.
“I don’t know that guy,” said Mr Giliberti, adding that some of the six medicines he takes daily affect his memory.
Massino began his career hijacking trucks, prosecutors said. He rose from Bonanno family associate to soldier to captain and eventually to boss by orchestrating at least seven killings of underperforming lackeys and rivals, they said.
Charges against Massino also include money laundering, loan sharking and arson. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.