Monday, May 15, 2006

La Cosa Nostra Tough Guy-Turned-Witness follows the Rules

Friends of ours: Bruno Facciola, Luchesse Crime Family, Alphonse "Little Al" D'Arco, Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, John Gotti, Vittorio Amuso, Paulie Vario, Henry Hill, Vic Amuso, Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso, Genovese Crime Family, Vincent "Chin" Gigante, Colombo Crime Family, "Little Vic" Orena, Bonanno Crime Family, Anthony Spero, James Ida
Friends of mine: Stephen Caracappa, Louis Eppolito

The killers placed the dead canary in the freezer. Later, after their work was finished, they placed the bird inside the mouth of the equally deceased Bruno Facciola.

The August 1990 mob hit followed a tip from two corrupt NYPD detectives that the Luchese family capo had turned government informant. Facciola was stabbed, shot through both eyes and shot again in the head before the bird was stuffed in his mouth. It was murder with a message: See no evil. And definitely speak no evil.

The slaying was orchestrated by one of the crime family's true believers, a diminutive thug known to fellow Mafiosi as "Little Al." Few in organized crime embraced the mob ethos more fervently than Alphonse D'Arco, a hard case from the cradle.

"I was a man when I was born," Little Al once bragged. He committed every crime except pimping and pornography, which D'Arco deemed beneath his dignity. Murder was a different story; he committed eight while rising from Luchese associate to acting boss.

Few in organized crime despised informants more than Little Al. "Rats," he'd spit, his face contorted with disgust. He did a three-year heroin rap without opening his yap. So when the word came down that Facciola was singing to the feds, D'Arco arranged for his demise. And for the canary.

Four months later, with the family in turmoil, D'Arco stepped up to become the Luchese boss. His reign abruptly ended on Aug. 21, 1991, but not in the fashion he expected: on the wrong end of a jury verdict. Or maybe a bullet. Instead, D'Arco _ disgusted by the loss of mob honor, double-crossed by men he had respected _ became what he most abhorred: a rat. And not just any rat.

He brought down mob bosses, underbosses, consiglieres. Fifteen years later, the former made man is still making inmates out of accomplices as perhaps the most devastating mob informant ever _ even better than Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, who famously flipped on mob superstar John Gotti.

Alphonse D'Arco, born July 28, 1932, grew up near the Brooklyn Navy Yards. The neighborhood was heavy with heavyweight mobsters, including some of his relatives. His childhood, D'Arco once recalled, was "like being in the forest and all the trees were the dons and the organized crime guys." D'Arco walked into the woods without hesitation. He was 14 when he started hanging with the local mobsters; one year later, he dropped out of school.

Two tenets of the old-school Mafia appealed to D'Arco: Loyalty and honor. Both extended into his personal life; in 1951, during the Korean War, D'Arco volunteered for the Army, served two years and received an honorable discharge. When he returned to Brooklyn and the mob, he found a wife; they remain married to this day. The D'Arcos had five children.

In 1959, D'Arco first met future Luchese family boss Vittorio Amuso. He was soon making money for the Lucheses in a variety of ways: Hijacking. Drug dealing. Burglary. Counterfeiting. Arson. Armed robbery.

D'Arco became a made man on Aug. 23, 1982, in a ceremony held in a Bronx kitchen. "I should burn like this paper if I betray anyone in this room," D'Arco swore. D'Arco was particularly good with dates, and he always remembered this one. He remembered plenty of other things along the way. D'Arco was a guy who listened more than he spoke.

D'Arco had long ago resolved the differences between mob life and straight society. As John Q. Citizen, D'Arco would have lived by the rules. As Alphonse D'Arco, mobster, he would abide by the Mafia's code _ no questions asked. He obeyed orders and his elders, kicked money up to the bosses. And he never cooperated with law enforcement. Not even on the smallest of matters.

His capo was Paulie Vario, one of the family's most valued leaders. As the entire crew would soon discover, the erosion of mob values was under way. And it was happening in their midst.

Henry Hill was a Luchese associate and a cocaine dealer. Once arrested, Hill became the most notorious Mafia turncoat of the decade. His testimony helped put Vario away in 1984. Hill's life became fodder for the classic mob movie "GoodFellas." Vario, played by Paul Sorvino in the movie, died in a Texas prison four years later. His replacement was Alphonse D'Arco.

D'Arco's old friend Vic Amuso became the head of the family. His underboss was another pal, Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso, a hoodlum responsible for three dozen murders.

The mob life was good for D'Arco. He had about $1 million in loan-sharking money spread around, and ran his own crew. The family hierarchy relied on him to handle important business _ labor unions, racketeering, murder.

"He was a true believer in La Cosa Nostra," said former federal prosecutor George Stamboulidis. "He grew up in the life. It was something that he wanted, and succeeded at."

D'Arco dressed in shirts with big "wiseguy collars," and lived in an apartment on Spring Street in Little Italy. The market rent was $1,200 a month; D'Arco paid $200.

He brought his son, Joe, into the family business, and considered doing the same for another son, John. When the order came down for Joe to whack a guy in California, Al unflinchingly told his son to do it. At his father's behest, Joe committed a second mob murder in New York. The son played by his father's rules.

A few months after they exposed Bruno Facciola, the two crooked detectives provided Casso with a new bit of information: the underboss and Amuso were targeted for arrest. On Jan. 9, 1991, the pair met with Little Al at a Brooklyn bar, where Amuso pronounced him acting boss of the Lucheses. Then Casso and Amuso vanished. Top of the world, Al.

During eight eye-opening months as boss, D'Arco's blind allegiance to the mob was undermined. From seclusion, Amuso and Casso started a whispering campaign against D'Arco among the Luchese faithful. A fellow mobster informed D'Arco about the betrayal; so did FBI agents.

Yet D'Arco was unconvinced until the night of Sept. 18, 1991, when he attended a meeting in a midtown Manhattan hotel room. His longtime Luchese associates appeared unnerved. A family hit man was among the group, and the vibe was ugly. D'Arco had no doubt that he was marked for death.

D'Arco managed to bolt the meeting, and reconsidered his life _ or what might be left of it. He considered going to war against the Amuso/Casso faction, handling things in the style of his Brooklyn mentors. But D'Arco had no more loyalty to the Lucheses. And he no longer viewed them as men of honor.

"So I says, `That's it,"' D'Arco explained later from the witness stand. "I washed my hands of the whole thing."

D'Arco sent most of his family to Hawaii, far from the deadly streets of New York. Accompanied by his son, D'Arco hid in his mother's Long Island home. A deal was made. On Sept. 21, 1991, Alphonse D'Arco became the most unlikely cooperating witness ever recruited. And also one of the most expensive.

The federal government spent more than $2 million to relocate the D'Arco clan. Little Al and six other families were moved from New York to parts unknown. He left behind a mob fortune; his legal net worth was about $30,000.

News of the stunning defection spread quickly through the underworld. An attorney was dispatched to the Metropolitan Correction Center to inform jailed Gambino boss John Gotti that Little Al was switching sides.

The acting boss was one of the highest-ranking mobsters to ever flip, and federal authorities took advantage. He testified more than a dozen times against his former friends and the mob's top echelon.

D'Arco was a combative and effective witness. His memory for details and dates was unshakable. He took on New York's top defense attorneys, and refused to let any put words into his mouth.

Testifying at a 1996 competency hearing for Genovese family boss Vincent "Chin" Gigante, D'Arco flew into a rage. "Don't break my chops," D'Arco warned defense attorney Michael Shapiro. "I'll break yours, too."

D'Arco's testimony helped convict ex-cronies Amuso and Casso; Gigante and Colombo boss "Little Vic" Orena; Bonanno consigliere Anthony Spero; Genovese consigliere James Ida; and an assortment of other mobsters.

He testified before uncounted grand juries, spilling about corruption in the unions, the Garment District, the airports and the Hunts Point market. "D'Arco gave them great value for the money," said criminal defense lawyer Edward Hayes. "He testified against a lot of guys, and they got convicted. D'Arco is a lunatic, but he has a story."

Once, in a Brooklyn courtroom, D'Arco stood before a federal judge who noted they had grown up in the same nearby neighborhood. "Yeah," D'Arco replied. "And we both rose to the top of our professions."

Prosecutor Stamboulidis said D'Arco embraced his new calling as fervently as his old. "When he entered an agreement with the government, he answered all the questions with brutal honesty and thoroughness," Stamboulidis said. "A true believer does everything 100 percent. He believes 100 percent in his current position."

His reward came in November 2002, when D'Arco was sentenced at a courtroom in suburban Westchester County. Little Al appeared via closed-circuit television and received time served, which essentially meant no jail time. He was fined $50, and returned to obscurity.

While mob turncoats like Gravano and Hill went back to jail, D'Arco stayed on the right side of the law. And one of the biggest trials yet remained in his future _ one that brought him back to the day when Bruno Facciola had a canary for his last meal.

It was March 2005 when federal authorities announced the indictments of ex-NYPD detectives Stephen Caracappa and Louis Eppolito, former police partners-turned-partners in crime. The two were charged with taking $4,000 a month from Gaspipe Casso to work as Luchese family hit men.

On occasion, they also slipped the underboss inside information. They let Casso know that Facciola was reportedly working as an informant. Casso ordered D'Arco to handle the hit.

Little Al was called again to testify. The federal RICO statute, a powerful tool that allows law enforcement to link crimes committed over decades, made D'Arco every bit as valuable in 2006 as he was 15 years before. It was a big case, and D'Arco could help bring down the "Mafia Cops."

The ex-boss, now 73, looked more grandfatherly than Godfatherly as he testified, his thick Brooklyn accent unchanged by years of life outside the city. He wore a 20-year-old suit to court, one of two now hanging in his closet.

He spent parts of two days on the stand, standing firm under withering cross-examination from Hayes and former Gotti lawyer Bruce Cutler. Caracappa and Eppolito were quickly convicted, and faced life in prison.

Alphonse D'Arco went home, where his loyalty was still appreciated. But there was a moment during his testimony where D'Arco recalled a less complicated time, when he was a young man whose belief in simple values was absolute.

The burly Cutler, his booming voice filling the courtroom, recited a litany of perks that came D'Arco's way from the Witness Protection Program: No jail time. A new identity. An attorney, free of charge. "That's another reward, yes?" Cutler asked.

"I don't see anything to be a reward," D'Arco responded without hesitation. "I'd trade it all to go back on Spring Street."

Thanks to Larry McShane

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