Relying on mobsters-turned-informants, secret recordings and painstaking, old-fashioned police work, a special team of FBI agents struck major blows against two New York organized-crime families that have been responsible for murders, extortion, labor racketeering, fraud, loansharking and other serious crimes.
Since 2008, the FBI team known as C-38 has spearheaded the dismantling of the once mighty Colombo and Bonanno La Cosa Nostra families, with the arrests of 120 members and associates that have included the top echelons of both crime organizations. In the past several years, guilty pleas or jury convictions have been obtained for 115 of those individuals.
“The Colombo family has pretty much been decimated. They are in complete shambles and disarray,” said Belle Chen, an assistant special agent in charge at the FBI’s New York Field Office. “The Bonanno family has been severely disrupted.”
Led by Supervisory Special Agent Seamus McElearney, the FBI team of nine agents and one analyst ended a key operational phase of a massive undercover investigation in January 2011 with the arrests of 60 members and associates of the Colombo and Bonanno families.
These arrests were part of a multistate sweep that netted some 127 suspected members of all five of New York’s Mafia families, and included Colombo family street boss Andrew (Andy Mush) Russo; underboss Benjamin (The Claw) Castellazzo; Richard (Richie Nerves) Fusco, the consigliere; and five captains. In addition, the investigations by the C-38 team have led to racketeering convictions of many other members of the Colombo hierarchy, including former street boss Tommy (Shots) Gioeli in 2012 and former underboss John (Sonny) Franzese in 2010.
The Bonanno family also has been badly hurt, with the 2011 conviction of acting boss Vincent (Vinnie Gorgeous) Basciano for a gangland murder. Former Bonanno boss Joseph (Big Joey) Massino had secretly recorded conversations with Basciano while both were in jail, and testified against him, providing details about numerous crimes and the current structure and inner dealings of the family.
It was unprecedented for a mob boss to testify against a family member and to secretly record conversations that were used as evidence in court.
Other recent Bonanno convictions have involved other bosses, powerful captains, soldiers and associates.
In addition to the convictions, the investigations of the two families helped solve 15 homicides, including a murder of a police officer, and aided in the recovery of two bodies of individuals who were reported missing in the 1990s; the foiling of numerous violent plots; the forfeiture of $10 million; and the development of evidence that led to a local concrete workers union being put under trusteeship to eliminate control by the Colombo crime family.
After the numerous mob arrests in January 2011, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, III pointed out that some people believe that organized crime is a thing of the past. “Unfortunately, there are still people who extort, intimidate and victimize innocent Americans. The costs legitimate businesses are forced to pay are ultimately borne by American consumers nationwide,” he said.
Chen said McElearney was a linchpin for massive investigations, making key day-to-day tactical and operational decisions, and engaged with his team members in convincing hardened criminals to break their oaths of silence and become cooperating witnesses.
“His experience and knowledge of the families and their culture was a key to the success of this squad,” said Chen.
McElearney said members of his team often worked around the clock, monitoring electronic surveillance, protecting mob informants as they secretly recorded conversations of their associates, preparing search warrants, handling arrests and assisting prosecutors, to put behind bars those who have preyed on the public with senseless violence.
“By eliminating this element, we are getting rid of a menace to society—individuals who have created untold mayhem,” said McElearney.
George Khouzami, an FBI coordinating supervisory special agent in New York, said the group took some high-risk, high-reward strategies to get mob members to cooperate and turn on their compatriots. At various stages, he said, dominos fell and members of each of the families no longer knew who to trust.
“This was totally a team effort,” said Khouzami.
In addition to McElearney, the FBI team consists of Special Agents Chance J. Adam, Russell Castrogiovanni, Scott R. Curtis, Vincent D. D’Agostino, Christopher P. Hudson, Adam Mininni, Violet Syku, Zachary M. Weller and Robert Ypelaar. The investigative analyst is Maria Kinigopoulos.