Coming to court: Part Two of the real-life 'Donnie Brasco'

It has all the ingredients of high drama plus that extra bit of Hollywood magic. David Usborne reports on what has been billed as the biggest Mafia trial since John Gotti was jailed in 1992

How can you best bill the trial of Joe Massino that is about to get under way in a federal courtroom in Manhattan? For prosecutors it is the moment when the last of the great mafia dons will finally come face to face with justice. For fans of gangster movies, however, the answer is simpler. It is Donnie Brasco II.

Not since the Dapper Don, John Gotti, went down in 1992, has there been so much anticipation of a Mafia trial in New York. Massino, 61, the reputed head of the Bonanno crime family, faces multiple charges - ranging from extortion to murder - that could put him in a prison cell for the rest of his life.

But it is the Hollywood connection that promises to give this trial its theatre. This is real life for sure - seven murder counts are ranged against Massino. But it is also perfectly apt to describe what promises to unfold in court as the long-awaited sequel to a film that was itself a retelling of true events.

Brasco, played by Johnny Depp on screen, was the name used by FBI agent Joe Pistone when he famously infiltrated the Bonanno family between 1976 and 1981, before he was finally withdrawn by the agency for his own safety when his true identity was suddenly revealed. The information gleaned by Pistone, as he masqueraded as a jewel thief and Mafia collaborator, helped put 120 wise-guys behind bars.

Yet, with all the help that Pistone gave, prosecutors were never able to decapitate the Bonanno clan completely. Over the years, the heads of the other families - the Gambino, Luchese, Colombo and Genovese crime organizations - have all been successfully prosecuted, the late Gotti among them. Pistone had plenty to tell about Massino, but only now has the government assembled a case they believe will nail him.

This trial, which began yesterday with jury selection - testimony is expected to start in a few weeks and take about three months to complete - is, in other words, about unfinished business. Two of the murders that will be invoked concern victims who were allegedly killed on Massino's orders precisely because they were the ones who were suckered by Pistone and allowed him into the clan's inner circle.

Pistone, who since his mission has lived at a secret location under government protection, is among those expected to take the witness stand. He has made it clear that he hopes the time has finally come for Massino's career atop the Bonanno family tree to come to an end. "Joey's the last of the real gangsters," offers Pistone as he readies himself to testify.

In an ominous turn for Massino, meanwhile, the witness list also includes a man who used to be one of his most loyal lieutenants, best friend and brother-in-law. He is Salvatore Vitale - also known as "Good Looking Sal". Vitale is one of several former Bonanno capos who have abandoned the old oath of silence, or omerta - which traditionally forbade Mafia gangsters from cooperating with prosecutors and divulging secrets - and agreed to take the stand in return for more lenient punishments for themselves. Vitale and Massino became friends as youths, and Massino married Vitale's sister, Josephine.

"Look at the number of people who have turned against him from his own family,'' Pistone commented, looking forward to what he expects to be Massino's conviction. "He's been betrayed by a new, younger generation of Mafia guys who could not care less about the traditions of refusing to cooperate with law enforcement officials. They'll cut a deal for themselves the first chance they get.''

Pistone's most important contact in the Bonanno network was one of its most senior captains, Dominick Napolitano or "Sonny Black" as we he was known in the underworld. (Apparently, his Mafia name arose from his well-known penchant for black hair dye.) Napolitano so trusted Pistone that he introduced him to the wives and children of the other captains as well as to Massino. And he shared with the agent many of the details of the crimes the family had committed.

Not long after Pistone's cover was blown in 1981, the body of Napolitano was discovered in a swamp on Staten Island. Prosecutors say that he was "whacked" by the family - more specifically on the orders of Massino - as punishment for the mistake he had made with Pistone. The hands of Napolitano had been severed, presumably as a symbol of retribution for shaking hands with a turncoat and infiltrator. Another Bonanno captain was killed a year later, allegedly also because he had been close to Pistone.

It will be a signal moment for the government if it succeeds in convicting Massino. Over the past 15 years, the authorities have spread a widening dragnet over the activities of the Mafia in New York with considerable success. The organisation's one time grip on the city - on its labour leaders, its docks and even some of its politicians - has been very considerably weakened. But for a long time, the Bonanno crew, well known for its secrecy and low profile, managed to stay below the government's radar.

Recently, however, prosecutors have brought charges against a total of 25 senior figures in the plan. It is a gutting of its hierarchy that may put it out of business for good. "The Bonanno family is reeling,'' said Pasquale J D'Amuro, who spent four years directing an FBI probe of Massino and others, resulting in the recent round-up. "Today, to say it has an organised structure is to give it too much credit."

Massino, who served five years in prison on a previous conviction before being released and taking command of the clan in 1992, has made an art of being discreet. Gotti, who died from cancer in prison three years ago, was also known as the Teflon Don for successfully dodging prosecutors for years in a succession of unsuccessful trials. But whereas Gotti sought out the limelight with flashy accoutrements and flamboyant fashions, Massino preferred the safety of anonymity. Famously overweight, he is anything but cuddly; he is described as a classically gruff, ruthless and intimidating figure. One of the victims in this case was chopped into tiny pieces which were encased in concrete barrels. For Mafia figures of Massino's generation, the oath of omerta remains the principal guiding tenet.

It was during his six years in prison that Massino allegedly pondered the lessons learned from the slow assault on the Mafia by investigators. On his release, he was determined to reverse the trend of drawing unwanted attention to the mob. He closed down all the social clubs where Bonanno men were known to gather, aware that they were likely to be the targets of federal surveillance. He put out orders forbidding his underlings to attend mob funerals and he conducted many of his meetings far from the government's gaze in Italy, Mexico and other countries.

Under his control, some of the Bonanno's businesses began to flourish. They included all the classic Mafia operations; loan-sharking, illegal gambling, old-fashioned extortion and the distribution all around New York of fruit machines. "He didn't need the attention," Pistone said of Massino. "Gotti needed that publicity. Joey didn't. He is very sly. He is a throwback to the old mobsters who kept their business to themselves. He was ruthless and did what he had to do." According to Jerry Capeci, an expert on the mob and author of "Gang Land", a weekly column in the New York Sun, Massino is the last of the old-time gangsters. "He's had a 10-year run at the top of a legendary crime organization. But now the end is in sight, because prosecutors are more powerful than ever and the Mafia itself has changed greatly."

Massino's headquarters are not in Little Italy but inside a restaurant and catering business he owns in the Maspeth neighbourhood on the far fringes of Queens. Called the CasaBlanca, with maroon awnings on a busy street corner, the restaurant is purported to have been the venue for recent meetings of the heads of the main Mafia families. Inside you will find menus with traditional Italian fare and memorabilia from the movie Casablanca. A picture of Humphrey Bogart signals the men's room. Ingrid Bergman, in black and white, directs you to the ladies.

In a world so fraught with betrayal and violence, there would seem to be little room for humour. However, prosecutors remember a brief exchange in a 1987 trial that featured Pistone and Massino. As Pistone passed him in the courtroom, Massino called out: "Hey, Donnie, who you got to play me in the movie?" Pistone shot back: "You know, Joey, that's the problem. We just can't find anyone as fat as you." Massino is alleged at some points of his life to have tipped as much as 400lbs (more than 28 stone) on the scales.

In the movie, Depp co-starred with Al Pacino, who played another famous mafioso, Benjamin "Lefty Guns" Ruggiero, whom Pistone befriended. In an earlier trial of Bonanno figures, Pistone acknowledged having a conversation with one of Massino's cohorts where he discussed having Lefty Guns whacked. He explained that he said it to maintain his cover in the sure knowledge that such a hit would really be carried out.

Massino, meanwhile, has pleaded innocent to the charges. His defence lawyer, David Breitbart, says the restaurant is his legitimate business and all the allegations against his client are false. "He is an innocent man being hounded by liars,'' Breitbart insists as the trial looms. "This whole case is built on phoney evidence, and it adds up to nothing."

"I am going to use the blast furnace of truth to show what these so-called witnesses really are," Breitbart added. "Joe Massino has pleaded not guilty. We are hoping we get a fair trial but the accusations are such that we will have to wait to see whether we do.

For scholars and casual followers of Mafia mythology, the trial should offer a cornucopia of underworld tittle-tattle and intrigue. Court papers filed by prosecutors suggest that among the various capos whose names will be relevant in testimony will be Robert "Bobby Ha Ha" Attanasio, Generoso "Jimmy The General" Barbieri, Peter "Peter Rabbit" Calabrese and Michael "Mikey Bats" Cardello.

Jury selection is expected to be a gruelling process. Defence lawyers will be anxious to weed out any prospective jurors with axes to grind about the Mafia. This may include anyone who is familiar with the film Donnie Brasco and with the on-going HBO television series about the tribulations of a New Jersey Mafia boss, Tony Soprano. In answers to questionnaires last week, one potential juror remarked that Massino looked a little like Soprano. Another - who has already been disqualified from serving - admitted to knowing personally two figures identified as having been involved in Bonanno business schemes.

When Hollywood took an interest, it was a case - and far from the first one - of art imitating the brutal Mafia life. Now, in the Brooklyn courtroom, real life will take centre-stage again. And when the trial is done, who is to say that Hollywood will not return to make its own sequel?

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