Read Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family Online

Authors: Nicholas Pileggi

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Media Tie-In, #Murder, #Social Science, #General & Literary Fiction, #United States, #Biography, #Biography & Autobiography, #Autobiography, #Media Tie-In - General, #Movie-TV Tie-In - General, #Crime, #True Crime, #Case studies, #Criminals & Outlaws, #Movie or Television Tie-In, #Criminology, #Criminals, #Organized Crime, #Biography: general, #Serial Killers, #Criminals - United States, #Henry, #Organized crime - United States, #Crime and criminals, #Mafia, #Hill, #Hill; Henry, #Mafia - United States

Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family

Henry Hill knows where a lot of bodies are buried, and he turned Federal witness to save his own life.  The mob is still hunting him for what he reveals in
WISEGUY
: hundreds of crimes including arson, extortion, hijacking, and the six-million dollar Lufthansa heist, the biggest successful cash robbery in U. S. history which led to ten murders.  A first-hand account of the secret world of the Mob,
WISEGUY
is more extraordinary, more compelling than any novel.

“At the age of twelve my ambition was to become a gangster.  To be a wiseguy.  Being a wiseguy was better than being President of the united States.  To be a wiseguy was to won the world. ” -Henry Hill

WISEGUY
is Nicholas Pileggi’s remarkable bestseller, the most intimate account ever printed of life inside the deadly high-stakes world of what some people call the Mafia. 
WISEGUY
is Henry Hill’s story, in fascinating, brutal detail, the never-before-revealed day-to-day life of a working mobster--his violence, his wild spending sprees, his wife, his mistresses, his code of honor.

NICHOLAS PILEGGI

WISE GUY

Life in a Mafia Family

Author’s Note

I want to acknowledge the contributions made to this book by U. S. Attorney Raymond Dearie of the Eastern District of New York; Asst. U. S. Attorney Edward McDonald, who headed the Brooklyn Organized Crime Strike Force; and Thomas P. Puccio, his predecessor.  I would also like to thank Special Attorneys of the Organized Crime Strike Force Jerry D. Benrstein, Laura Ward, Douglas Behm, Douglas Grover, Michael Guadagno, and Laura Brevetti, as well as Brooklyn homicide prosecutor John Fairbanks and detectives and agents Doug LeVien, Mario Sessa, Thomas Sweeney, Steve Carbone, Joel Cohen, Edmundo Guevera, Arthur Donelan, James Kapp, Daniel Mann, Jack Walsh, Alfie McNeil, Ben Panzarella, Steve DelCorso, and John Wales.

Introduction

ON TUESDAY, MA Y 22, 1980, a man named Henry Hill did what seemed to him the only sensible thing to do: he decided to cease to exist. He was in the Nassau County jail, facing a life sentence in a massive narcotics conspiracy. The federal prosecutors were asking him about his role in the $6 million Lufthansa German Airlines robbery, the largest successful cash robbery in American history. The New York City police were in line behind the feds to ask him about the ten murders that followed the Lufthansa heist. The Justice Department wanted to talk to him about his connection with a murder that also involved Michele Sindona, the convicted Italian financier. The Organized Crime Strike Force wanted to know about the Boston College basketball players he had bribed in a point-shaving scheme. Treasury agents were looking for the crates of automatic weapons and Claymore mines he had had stolen from a Connecticut armory. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office wanted information about a body they had found in a refrigeration truck which was frozen so stiff it needed two days to thaw before the medical examiner could perform an autopsy.

When Henry Hill had been arrested only three weeks earlier, it hadn’t been big news. There were no front-page stories in the newspapers and no segments on the evening news. His arrest was just another of dozens of the slightly exaggerated multimillion-dollar drug busts that police make annually in their search for paragraphs of praise. But the arrest of Henry Hill was a prize beyond measure. Hill had grown up in the mob. He was only a mechanic, but he knew everything. He knew how it worked. He knew who oiled the machinery. He knew, literally, where the bodies were buried. If he talked, the police knew that Henry Hill could give them the key to dozens of indictments and convictions. And even if he didn’t talk, Henry Hill knew that his own friends would kill him just as they had killed nearly everyone who had been involved in the Lufthansa robbery. In jail Henry heard the news: his own protector, Paul Vario, the seventy-year-old mob chief in whose house Henry had been raised from childhood, was through with him; and James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke, Henry’s closest friend, his confidant and partner, the man he had ‘been scheming and hustling with since he was thirteen years old, was planning to murder him.

Under the circumstances, Henry made his decision: he became part of the Justice Department’s Federal Witness Protection Program. His wife, Karen, and their children, Judy, fifteen, and Ruth, twelve, ceased to exist along with him. They were given new identities. It should be said that it was slightly easier for Henry Hill to cease to exist than it might have been for an average citizen, since the actual evidence of Hill’s existence was extraordinarily slim. His home was apparently owned by his mother-in-law. His car was registered in his wife’s name. His Social Security cards and driver’s licenses--he had several of each--were forged and made out to fictitious names. He had never voted and he had never paid taxes. He had never even flown on an airplane using a ticket made out in his own name. In fact one of the only pieces of documentary evidence that proved without doubt that Henry Hill had lived--besides his birth certificate--was his yellow sheet, the police record of arrests he had begun as a teenage apprentice to the mob.

A year after Henry Hill’s arrest I was approached by his attorney, who said that Hill was looking for someone to write his story. At that point I had been writing about organized-crime figures for most of my career as a journalist and had gotten bored with the egomaniacal ravings of illiterate hoods masquerading as benevolent Godfathers. In addition, I had never heard of Henry Hill. In my office are four boxes of index cards upon which I compulsively jot the names and various details of every major and minor organized-crime figure I run across in the press or court dockets. When I looked in it I discovered I had a card on Hill, dated from 1970 and misidentifying him as a member of the Joseph Bonanno crime family. And yet, from the mountain of data the feds had begun to compile about him since his arrest a year earlier and the importance they attached to him as a witness, it was clear that Henry Hill was at least worth meeting.

Since he was in the Federal Witness Program, the meeting had to take place at a location where his safety was guaranteed. I was instructed to meet two federal marshals at the Braniff counter at LaGuardia Airport. When I got there the two men had my ticket in their hands. They asked if I had to go to the bathroom. It struck me as a bizarre question coming from federal agents, but they explained that once they gave me the ticket I could not leave their sight until we boarded the plane. They couldn’t take the chance that I might see the destination and tip someone off as to where I was going. As it turned out, the plane we took was not a Braniff plane, and the first place we landed was not the place where Henry Hill was waiting. It took more than one flight that day to finally get to a town where, I learned later, Hill and his federal agent bodyguards had arrived just a couple of hours earlier.

Hill was a surprising man. He didn’t look or act like most of the street hoods I had come across. He spoke coherently and fairly grammatically. He smiled occasionally. He knew a great deal about the world in which he had been raised, but he spoke about it with an odd detachment, and he had an outsider’s eye for detail. Most of the mobsters who have been interviewed for books and articles over the years have been unable to detach themselves from their experiences long enough to put their lives in some perspective. They so blindly followed the mobster’s path that they rarely saw any of the scenery along the way. Henry Hill was all eyes. He was fascinated by the world in which he had grown up, and there was very little about it that he did not remember.

Henry Hill was a hood. He was a hustler. He had schemed and plotted and broken heads. He knew how to bribe and he knew how to con. He was a fulltime working racketeer, an articulate hoodlum from organized crime, the kind of rara avis that should please social anthropologists as much as cops. On the street he and his friends referred to each other as wiseguys. It seemed to me that a book about his life might provide an insider’s look at a world usually heard about either from the outside or from the
capo di tutti capi,
top.

One

HENRY HILL WAS INTRODUCED to life in the mob almost by accident. In 1955, when he was eleven years old, he wandered into a drab, paint-flecked cabstand at 391 Pine Street, near Pitkin Avenue, in the Brownsville-East New York section of Brooklyn, looking for a part-time, after-school job. The one-story, storefront cabstand and dispatch office was directly across the street from where he lived with his mother, father, four older sisters, and two brothers, and Henry had been intrigued by the place almost as far back as he could remember. Even before he went to work there Henry had seen the long black Cadillacs and Lincolns glide into the block. He had watched the expressionless faces of the cabstand visitors, and he always remembered their huge, wide coats. Some of the visitors were so large that when they hauled themselves out of their cars, the vehicles rose by inches. He saw glittering rings and jewel-studded belt buckles and thick gold wrist bands holding wafer-thin platinum watches.

The men at the cabstand were not like anyone else from the neighborhood. They wore silk suits in the morning and would drape the fenders of their cars with handkerchiefs before leaning back for a talk. He had watched them double-park their cars and never get tickets, even when they parked smack in front of a fire hydrant. In the winter he had seen the city’s sanitation trucks plow the snow from the cabstand’s parking lot before getting around to cleaning the school yard and hospital grounds. In the summer he could hear the noisy all-night card games, and he knew that no one--not even Mr. Mancuso, who lived down the block and groused about everything--would dare to complain. And the men at the cabstand were rich. They flashed wads of twenty-dollar bills as round as softballs and they sported diamond pinky rings the size of walnuts. The sight of all that wealth, and power, and girth was intoxicating.

At first Henry’s parents were delighted that their energetic young son had found a job just across the street. Henry’s father, Henry Hill Sr. , a hardworking construction company electrician, always felt youngsters should work and learn the value of the money they were forever demanding. He had seven children to support on an electrical worker’s salary, so any additional income was welcome. Since he was twelve years old, when he had come to the United States from Ireland shortly after his own father died, Henry Hill Sr. had had to support his mother and three younger brothers. It was work at an early age, he insisted, that taught young people the value of money. American youngsters, unlike the children of his native Ireland, seemed to dawdle about in their adolescence much longer than necessary.

Henry’s mother, Carmela Costa Hill, was also delighted that her son had found a job nearby but for different reasons. First, she knew that her son’s job would please his father. Second, she hoped that the after-school job might get her feisty young son out of the house long enough to keep him from bickering incessantly with his sisters. Also, with young Henry working, she would have more time to spend with Michael, her youngest son, who had been born with a spinal defect and was confined to either his bed or a wheelchair. Carmela Hill was further pleased-almost ecstatic, really-when she found that the Varios, the family who owned the cabstand, came from the same part of Sicily where she had been born. Carmela Costa had been brought to the United States as a small child, and she had married the tall, handsome, black-haired young Irish lad she had met in the neighborhood at the age of seventeen, but she never lost her ties to the country of her birth. She always maintained a Sicilian kitchen, for instance, making her own pasta and introducing her young husband to anchovy sauce and
calamari
after throwing out his catsup bottle. She still believed in the religious powers of certain western Sicilian saints, such as Santa Pantaleone, the patron saint of toothaches. And like many members of immigrant groups, she felt that people with ties to her old country somehow had ties with her. The idea of her son’s getting his first job with
paesani
was the answer to Carmela’s prayers.

It wasn’t too long, however, before Henry’s parents began to change their minds about their son’s after-school job. After the first couple of months they found that what had started out as a part-time job for their son had become a full-time compulsion. Henry junior was always at the cabstand. If his mother had an errand for him to run, he was at the cabstand. He was at the cabstand in the morning before going to school and he was at the cabstand in the afternoon when school let out. His father asked about his homework. “I do it at the cabstand,” he said. His mother noticed that he was no longer playing with youngsters his own age. “We play at the cabstand,” he said.

“My father was always angry. He was born angry. He was angry that he had to work so hard for next to nothing. Electricians, even union electricians, didn’t earn much in those days. He was angry that the three-bedroom house was so noisy, with my four sisters and two brothers and me. He used to scream that all he wanted was peace and quiet, but by then we’d all be like mice and he’d be the only one screaming and yelling and banging dishes against the wall. He was angry that my brother Michael should have been born paralyzed from the waist down. But mostly he was angry about me hanging around the cabstand. ‘They’re bums!’ he used to scream. ‘You’re gonna get in trouble!’ he’d yell. But I’d just pretend I didn’t know what he was talking about and say that all I was doing was running errands after school instead of running bets, and I’d swear that I was going to school when I hadn’t been near the place in weeks. But he never bought it. He knew what really went on at the cabstand, and every once in a while, usually after he got his load on, I’d have to take a beating. But by then I didn’t care. Everybody has to take a beating sometime. ”

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