Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Christmas on the Lam

Sing a sad Christmas song for Joe Dogs.

On Dec. 25, when much of the world opens presents beneath the tree or enjoys a turkey dinner, Joe Iannuzzi will spend another lonely holiday far from his family, his friends, his city. Maybe knock back a couple of drinks, probably shed a few tears.

"It's sad," says Joe Dogs, whose nickname pays homage to a long fascination with gambling on greyhounds. "Very sad." And very predictable, given Iannuzzi's past. Once a made member of New York's Genovese crime family, Iannuzzi survived a vicious mob beating in 1981 that left him near dead. He awoke in a Florida hospital to find a priest giving him the last rites.

Months later, Iannuzzi recovered. He became convinced that revenge, even more than laughter, was the best medicine. He became an informer, testified at a dozen trials, put away some old pals. A botched mob hit sent him into the federal Witness Protection Program. And now, 24 years after he flipped for the feds, every Christmas brings a reminder of what he left behind.

Joe Dogs may eat alone on Christmas, but he's not the only one. Since 1971, more than 7,700 witnesses were relocated after testifying for the federal government at the risk of their lives. Not all wound up as lonesome as Iannuzzi; 9,800 family members were relocated with them. But they're all far from home, and for many, the holidays are a melancholy time.

"There's tremendous pressure to return home. We sympathize with it, but that's absolutely forbidden," says Dave Turner of the U.S. Marshals Service, which runs witness protection.

Ianuzzi hasn't gone home. He abandoned the high-end world of New York and Florida for low-profile homes in Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama. He now resides in an undisclosed Midwest location where "I gotta travel 100 miles to go to a decent restaurant."

He's gotten used to the rootless life but not Christmas on the lam. "The very worst for me," Iannuzzi says over the phone from his apartment, his accent still betraying his New York roots. "I never had the warm feelings that a normal individual would have during that holiday. ... I haven't been around my family since 1982. "You count the Christmas days."

It wasn't always this way. When he was with the mob, every day was a holiday, and he greeted every maitre d' and doorman with a flash of cash. The son of a suburban bookie, he grew up among mobsters north of the Bronx. His first arrest came at age 14. He worked briefly as a dognapper, returning the pilfered pooches once their owners posted a reward.

Iannuzzi had a straight gig as a cook, working in diners and hot dog stands. It was at a classy restaurant in Cleveland that he received professional training, emerging as a saucier. But after a year, he longed for home. "It was time for me to leave," he says. "So I stole a car and went back to New York. It was less expensive that way. I stole a pink Lincoln. Can you imagine? I kept it for a couple of months then parked the car near a place called 'Buzzy's Big Nightclub.' "It still had the Ohio plates."

Three marriages and five kids followed as Iannuzzi burrowed deeper into organized crime. He moved to Florida and became the protege of Gambino soldier Tommy Agro - a hoodlum straight off a Hollywood lot, with a flashy wardrobe, a big bankroll and a short fuse.

Iannuzzi provided muscle for Agro, who loaned him money to launch a loan-sharking operation. But as Joe Dogs fell behind on the payments, their friendship faded and Agro's anger grew. On Jan. 19, 1981, inside a Florida pizzeria, Iannuzzi took a terrible beating from his one-time mentor and some cronies.

His last memory before everything went black was Agro's alligator loafer sinking forcefully into his ribs. When he finally recovered, Iannuzzi joined up with the FBI and taped his fellow Mafiosi discussing their illicit businesses. "All these guys convicted themselves with their big mouths," Iannuzzi says. "All I did was tape it. They all talked their heads off."

When the chatter finally stopped, Colombo boss Carmine "The Snake" Persico went to jail along with another dozen mobsters - including the brutal Agro, who died of cancer in 1987.

Iannuzzi went into witness protection after surviving a murder attempt on a Florida interstate. Today he demurs when asked if he's ever killed somebody: "My answer is, 'That's a rude question.' Let's go onto another subject."

Iannuzzi soon was supplementing his witness protection stipend as a writer. But he was booted from the program in October 1993 after violating its rules: He returned to New York to promote "The Mob Cookbook" on David Letterman's show. He would have to protect himself.

Iannuzzi just published another book, "Cooking on the Lam," which intersperses recipes for brook trout amandine and strawberries with Grand Marinier sauce with tales of life in and out of the mob. It's his fourth book; in his biggest non-mob score, he was paid $250,000 for his autobiography. "How many people wrote one book, much less four?" he asks. "I'm trying to do things the hard way: honest."

Iannuzzi stays in contact with one of his daughters, who calls him 10 times a day. "She loves her dad," he says. He avoids contact with all of his other old friends and stays away from New York and its environs.

Iannuzzi knows sitting alone on Christmas is not necessarily the worst thing. Henry Hill, the infamous mob informant whose story became the Oscar-winning movie "GoodFellas," won't be alone this Christmas - he'll share his meal with the rest of the inmates at the Lincoln County Jail in North Platte, Neb. Hill, a fellow witness protection alumnus, is finishing up a six-month stretch following his July arrest on drug charges.

At 74, Joe Dogs has slowed down quite a bit. He recently survived "triple A surgery" - operations on his aorta, abdomen and an aneurysm. He shares his apartment with two Yorkshire terriers and confides some of the tamer old tales to a few locals.

"Some of them are still scared to death of me," says Iannuzzi. "I don't know why. I'm a nice guy. I say that every day to myself."

Thanks to Larry McShane

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