Born on January 10, 1943, in New York, Joseph Massino became boss of the Bonanno crime family when other crime bosses were being sent to jail for life. The press called him "the Last Don." On January 9, 2003, the FBI picked up Massino at his home in Howard Beach, Queens, to face 19 federal charges. More charges soon followed. In July 2004, he was convicted on 11 counts. In 2005, he made a deal and avoided the death penalty. He testified in a trial against the mafia in 2011, becoming the first of New York's crime bosses to break the honored code of silence.
Mobster Joseph Charles Messino was born on January 10, 1943, and grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Maspeth in Queens, New York. His parents were both second-generation Italian-American. His father worked as a fruit vendor while his mother stayed at home to raise their three children.
A poor student, Massino had more street smarts than book smarts and, in the neighborhood, he developed a reputation for being a tough guy. He did reportedly do well in math, a subject he would later use in his illegal endeavors, but he dropped out before finishing high school. Massino eventually started up a lunch wagon business, selling food and drinks at factories and other sites. His operation soon grew to include gambling, selling stolen goods and loan-sharking—all done from his trucks.
Introduction to the Mafia
In 1960, Massino married Josephine Vitale. The couple had two daughters, Adeline and Joanne, together. Through Josephine, Massino developed a tight bond with his brother-in-law, Salvatore. Salvatore "Good Looking Sal" Vitale became Massino's right-hand man in both his legal and illegal activities. He also made friends with a number of important players within the world of organized crime, and was especially close to Philip "Rusty" Rastelli, a capo in the Bonanno crime family.
In addition to his growing food service operation, Massino also got into hijacking trucks. He landed his first indictment for one of these heists in 1975. His partner in crime, Ray Wean, was convicted of possessing stolen property, but Massino got off the hook on a technicality in 1977. Around this time, Massino became an official "made" man, or Mafia member, and was accepted into the Bonanno crime family.
The Bonanno Crime Family
The Bonanno crime family went through a number of power struggles over the years. In 1979, the group's leader, Carmine Galante, was assassinated. Massino's close friend Rastelli took over as boss, ruling the family from prison. When someone started to complain about the family's leadership, Massino soon took drastic steps to eliminate any opposition.
In May 1981, Philip Giaccone, Alphonse "Sonny Red" Indelicato and Dominick "Big Trin" Trinchera went to a meeting at a Brooklyn social club. They were there to try to work out the power struggle within the family, but it proved to be a trap. Massino was on hand to make sure these three mutinous Bonanno captains never saw the light of day again.
The Bonanno family was again torn apart by the discovery of an undercover FBI agent in their midst. Operating under the name "Donnie Brasco," agent Joseph Pistone had spent years within the organization. He collected enough evidence to put many key players away for a long time. Angered at this betrayal, Massino helped organize the murder of Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano. Napolitano had been close to Brasco and even nominated him to become an official member of the family.
In August 1981, Napolitano was killed by some of Massino's associates. His body wasn't discovered until the following year. Meanwhile, the first of the indictments stemming from the Donnie Brasco operation was handed down in November 1981. Massino was not in this first wave of arrests, largely because he had been very cautious about government surveillance. He did not usually let people refer to him by name; they just tugged on their ear instead.
Massino, however, knew it was only a matter of time before he, too, would be facing charges. To avoid arrest, he went into hiding in March 1982. Meanwhile, he was indicted on racketeering charges. After first hiding in the Hamptons, he then spent most of his time away in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. Still, he frequently met with associates and managed his many illegal enterprises. In July 1982, Massino was indicted again on conspiracy charges in the case of the three captains' murders. In July 1984, Massino decide to return to New York City after consulting with a lawyer. He thought he had a good chance of winning in court.
In 1986, Massino went on trial for the labor racketeering with Rastelli and members of the Teamsters union. They had been running a scam in the moving and storage industry. Massino was found guilty in that case and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The following year, he had better luck with the conspiracy case against him in connection to the 1981 murders of the three Bonanno captains. Massino was acquitted of that charge. In the same trial, he also was found guilty in connection with a 1975 hijacking and theft case, but he was acquitted on a technicality.
The Last Don
While in prison, Massino is believed by some to have taken the reins of the Bonanno family after Rastelli's death in 1991. He was released the following year, and it was soon clear to all that he had become boss of the Bonanno family. Massino flourished at a time when other crime bosses, such as his close friend John Gotti of the Gambino family, were being sent to jail for life. The press took to calling him "the Last Don."
In 2001, Massino's underboss, Salvatore Vitale, was arrested. His brother-in-law eventually decided to testify against Massino to save himself. Many other members of the Bonanno family soon offered up what they knew to get a better deal for themselves, too. Meanwhile, "Big Joey" continued to hold court at his Maspeth restaurant, CasaBlanca. His nickname came from his size—weighing as much as 300 to 400 pounds at one point. But Massino would not be enjoying fine meals for long.
Prison Sentence and Death Penalty
On January 9, 2003, the FBI picked up Massino from his home in Howard Beach, Queens, to face 19 federal charges. More charges soon followed. "Massino was the most powerful mobster in the country" when he was arrested, explained Pasquale J. D'Amuro, FBI assistant director.
When he went on trial in 2004, Massino faced charges related to seven murders, loan-sharking, arson, gambling, money laundering and extortion. The trial lasted for nine weeks and featured more than 70 witnesses, including his brother-in-law and six other members of the Bonanno family. They placed him at the scenes of four of the murders.
In July 2004, Massino was convicted on 11 counts, including the murders of the three captains and Dominick Napolitano. But the FBI still wasn't finished with him yet. Massino was going to be tried for the 1999 murder of a Bonanno captain named Gerlando "George from Canada" Sciascia. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft wanted to seek the death penalty.
Broken Code of Silence
Now facing the death penalty, Massino began to reconsider his position on cooperating with the authorities. He also worried for his wife and daughters after the government sought to seize all of his assets, a move that might leave his family homeless and broke. In 2005, Massino decided to make a deal.
While in prison, Massino helped the authorities gather evidence against another inmate, Vincent "Vinny Gorgeous" Basciano, who had become the acting head of the Bonanno family. He also reportedly told them where some of the mob's murder victims were buried. In 2005, Massino pled guilty to the Sciascia murder. He received a life sentence for that crime, and another life sentence for his previous convictions. The authorities lowered the amount of money they wanted to take from him, from over $10 million to $9 million.
In April 2011, Massino testified in a trial that Basciano behind bars and leaked various information about the elusive crime families of New York. Not only did he reveal crucial information about the Bonanno family—he also recorded prison conversations with the Bonanno family boss—but he also revealed the names of hundreds of people associated with the organized crime world in New York. For his extensive cooperation in catching some of New York's most sought after criminals, prosecutors were prompted to reduce Massino's two life sentences.
Massino's work with the government in revealing the plans of several prominent criminals paid off. In July 2013, a federal judge changed his sentence to time served—which would be 10 years total—and Massino was scheduled to be released from prison 60 days later. That time was used to make the proper accommodations to avoid the enemies that Massino had made throughout his testimony. Massino's whereabouts are unknown after being released from prison.
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