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OUT OF THE SHADOWS: The Joe Colombo Story

- 7 June 2009, 08:06

By

Sonny Girard

If you went back far enough, you’d come to the conclusion that Joe Colombo was unlikely to ever be boss of the Profaci Crime Family, let alone the one who would be dominant enough to have its name changed to his.  He was a good soldier who stood solidly in the establishment camp during the Gallo-Profaci War, an earner, a standup guy, but not in the dynamic way that other members did.  His was not a legendary name like Sally The Shiek or Johnny Bathbeach.  He didn’t have a strong crew beneath him like Sally D’Ambrosio or Mimi Scala.  Then he got a bit of luck.  I’ve been told that luck is preparation meeting opportunity.  Joe got that opportunity when Joseph Profaci died and his inept relative, Joseph “The Fat Man” Magliocco got the nod as boss.  Fatso was weak and malleable, so when Joe Bonnano proposed they kill a couple of mob bosses, including Carlo Gambino, and rule the underworld, he agreed then palmed the job off to one of his underlings: Joe Colombo.  It didn’t take long for Joe to realize the Fat Man was a fat head to go along with something so dumb, and informed Gambino of the plot.  Magliocco died of a heart attack, Bonnano fled, and with Gambino’s support Joe Colombo became the next boss of the Profaci Family.  Joe actually grew into the role and became a pretty decent boss, smart, forward looking, and ruthless when he had to be for the next six or seven years.  Then the best mob story in modern times began.

One day Joe was informed that his eldest son, and his pride and joy, Joe Jr., had been arrested by the FBI on charges of melting down U.S. coins for their silver content.  Joe believed the charges were trumped up and that the government was trying to get to him by falsely accusing his son.  Infuriated, he ordered those in and around his real estate business to print up signs that the FBI was persecuting Italians.  He then led a caravan to the front of the FBI Building in Upper Manhattan and began picketing.  After a couple of days of picketing and shouting by a small group of Colombo’s people, the media picked up the story.  Before long, picketers and media coverage multiplied until the nightly marches took on a circus-like atmosphere: legitimate Italians who felt that the government had stereotyped them marched with signs and yelled alongside real mobsters.  Other mob bosses gave permission for their people to picket too.  In fact, many mobsters were actually ordered to march.  Joe Colombo led them all from the platform of a truck, yelling things like “The FBI persecutes Italians,” but always punctuated by “We’re Number One,” over and over again.  As a writer now and a marcher then, it is nearly impossible for me to relate the heady feeling of power Joe instilled in everyone, even as FBI Agents spit down and threw water on us all.  Small skirmishes broke out with police.  Newspapers who wrote bad stories about the picketing had their trucks overturned.  In a big win for Colombo, New York Supreme Court upheld the right of the crowd to picket.

It was a short leap from simple picketing to the formation of an organization, the “Italian American Civil Rights League,” headed by Joe Colombo Sr., himself.  Chapters of the League opened all over the city, most run by mobsters.  Members joined by the thousands: doctors, mob guys, priests, mob guys, housewives, mob guys, politicians, mob guys.  Governor Nelson Rockefeller was an honorary member.  All over the city, signs, jewelry, pennants, all read “#1.”  Joe Colombo became a national hero to many.  He was named Man of the Year by one organization, was profiled in magazines, and appeared on television interviews with Dick Cavett and others…all the while denying any participation in any criminal organization and running on a day to day basis what was by that time known to law enforcement as the Colombo Crime Family.  As his profile grew, so did Joe’s power.  He forced the U.S. Attorney’s Office to publicly announce they would discontinue the use of terms like “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra.”  He demanded Paramount Pictures eliminate those same terms from their upcoming film, “Godfather,” and got it.  He had an Alka Seltzer television commercial removed from the air because he believed it was offensive to Italians.  Sinatra and the Rat Pack did a huge fundraising concert for the League at Madison Square Garden.  That summer he conducted an outdoor First Annual Unity Day Rally at Manhattan’s Columbus Circle that drew almost fifty thousand people, from Italians who closed their businesses, FBI Agents, hot dog vendors cashing in, media people, politicians and entertainers on the podium, kids, mobsters, grandmothers.  For those of us who were there, it is one of the most memorable celebrations in our lives.  The rally ended with a march from Columbus Circle to the FBI Building to continue picketing.

But the high profile also brought a downside: heat from the FBI.  Mobsters who marched became FBI targets.  Acting Genovese Boss Thomas “Tommy Ryan” Eboli was shaken down and strip searched by customs when he returned from a trip to Italy.  Other bosses felt the heat and determined that Colombo was profiting from the League and they weren’t getting any of it.  They “asked” Colombo to step down as head of the League and let some legitimate figurehead fill in.  Joe refused.  I know first hand that he really believed that without him at the helm, rallying support and leading the fight to intimidate enemies, the League would collapse.  To make matters worse, “Crazy Joe” Gallo was released from prison after serving a stint for extortion.  Colombo had inherited the Gallo-Profaci War and had pretty much tamped things down by that time.  Without his brother Larry, who had died of cancer, to keep him under control, Gallo went straight after Colombo, demanding what he considered his due.  Colombo’s peace offering was rejected.  Battles between the factions broke out in the streets of Brooklyn.  Crazy Joe went after Colombo operations.  The other bosses demanded Colombo step down from the League.  He refused again.  Joe Colombo was truly a man struggling to live in two opposing worlds at the same time.  He believed in his mob heritage and truly believed in the League and what it could accomplish, including camps for children and homes for seniors.  The other bosses were not quite as devoted to public service.  Orders went out for underlings and associates of the other crews to abandon the League.

By the time the Second Annual Unity Day Rally was scheduled at Columbus Circle, a struggle was in full force between Colombo and Gallo.  Colombo men placed signs in the windows of Brooklyn stores announcing they’d be closed the day of the rally, only to be removed shortly thereafter by Gallo’s men.  Though severely outnumbered, Gallo obviously had the support of Carlo Gambino, who, by that time, while there was no boss of bosses, was the most venerable of family bosses, and therefore deferred to by the others.  I remember as the rally approached, I was summoned by an old highly placed relative in the Gambino Family, who has since passed on.

“The rally is coming up next week.  Make sure you don’t go.”

“I had no intention of going,” I replied.

“You’re not listening to me,” he said, annoyed.  “I said, make sure you don’t go.”

“I heard.  I’m not going.”

He repeated the make sure thing a couple of more times.  I left thinking he’d gone senile.  I thought sadly that it wouldn’t be long before he didn’t recognize me any more.

The following week the rally took place.  Joe Colombo had decided that this would be his last hurrah as head of the League, and would indeed step down afterward.  Attendance was down about sixty percent.  The cheers, as I watched television coverage, seemed forced and somewhat defeatist.  Then Joe stepped up onto the stage.  A black man with news credentials and a camera hanging from his neck stepped behind him…and shot him in the head.  The black man, Jerome Johnson, was set upon and murdered on the spot.  Since Joe Gallo had befriended blacks while in prison, it was speculated that he had sent Johnson.  If that theory is true, crazy as he was, Joe Gallo would never have made that bold a move unless he had at least tacit approval from the old man.

Joe Colombo, paralyzed, lingered for seven years before succumbing.  As Colombo had predicted, without him the League collapsed.  Joe Gallo was later murdered in Umberto’s Clam House, in Little Italy.

Later, when I was writing screenplay entitled, “OUT OF THE SHADOWS: The Joe Colombo Story,” living through the events again, I was surprised at how short a time encompassed them.  I called other old pals who also lived through it.  To a man, they all answered that it was somewhere around three years.  Amazingly, everything from Joes first night of picketing the FBI Building with makeshift signs to his being shot in front of nearly twenty thousand people took place over an event-filled, fast moving fifteen months.

Are there any modern mob stories that match the impact of this man who tried to live in two diametrically opposed worlds and paid for it with his life?  Any other mob story that demands a filmed version?  I don’t think so.  Let us know at Mob Candy what you think.

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Sonny Girard is…”A Mob Guy Who’s Obviously Been There”
Nick Pileggi, author of “Wiseguys

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