A jailed former Mafia boss who once ordered a payback killing in the infamous "Donnie Brasco" case has become the highest-ranking member of the city's five Italian organised crime families to break their vow of silence and testify against one of their own.
Joseph Massino took the witness stand at the Brooklyn trial of Vincent "Vinny Gorgeous" Basciano, who served as one of his captains in the Bonanno crime family. Prosecutors say that Massino secretly recorded Basciano admitting he ordered a hit on an associate who ran foul of the Bonannos. Basciano denies the charges.
Moments after being sworn in, Massino pointed across the courtroom and identified Basciano – "the guy sitting in the grey suit" – as the crime family's former acting boss. The defendant stared back at the government's star witness, steadily chewing on a piece of gum.
In clipped tones, Massino gave the anonymous jury a colourful tutorial on the Mafia. By co-operating, he explained, he was violating a sacred oath. It was understood, he said, that "once a bullet leaves that gun, you never talk about it".
Asked about his duties as boss, he replied, "Murder.... Making captains. Breaking captains" – slang for promoting and demoting capos. He said he also had to assess talent.
"It takes all kinds of meat to make a good sauce," said Massino, the one-time proprietor of a Queens restaurant called CasaBlanca. "Some people, they kill. Some people, they earn, they can't kill."
Massino, 68, began talking with investigators after his 2004 conviction for orchestrating a quarter-century's worth of murder, racketeering and other crimes. The bloodshed included the slayings of three rival captains and the execution of a mobster who vouched for FBI undercover agent Brasco in the 1980s. Brasco's story became a movie starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino.
While imprisoned together in 2005, the former Bonanno boss agreed to wear a wire and betray Basciano.
The understudy "told me that he killed him," Massino said. "He said [the victim] was a scumbag, a rat, a troublemaker, a bad kid."
Basciano, 50, known for his explosive temper, could face the death penalty if convicted of racketeering, murder and other charges. He already is serving a life term for a conviction in a separate case in 2007.
Massino is serving two consecutive life terms for eight murders. He said he hoped "one day maybe I'll see a little light at the end of the tunnel".