Thursday, 15 November 2007

Married To The Mob: Mafia Wives And Mistresses

By Anthony Bruno (Source)

Behind Closed Doors
In an episode of the hit television series “The Sopranos” the fictional mob boss Tony Soprano scrambles to collect all the cash he has at home. He grabs a ladder and goes to his hiding place in the house, pulling thick packets of money from behind the ceiling panels. His long-suffering but ever-loyal wife, Carmela, holds a plastic garbage bag open as he drops his stash into it. At no point does she ever ask where all this money came from, nor does she seem surprised that it’s there. Like all good Mafia wives—the real ones included—Carmela “doesn’t wanna know nothin’.” A mob wife’s operating principle is simple: As long as her husband can bring in enough income to support his family and maintain a respectable lifestyle, the wife doesn’t care to know where it all came from. And if she’s smart, she won’t ask.

Most mafia wives exist in a unique state of denial. To the outside world, these women swear that their husbands are not thieves and killers. They’re businessmen and independent contractors harassed by law enforcement because they happen to be of Italian descent and are therefore unfairly tarred with the Mafia brush. But among themselves, Mafia wives exhibit a different kind of denial. Generally they all know what their husbands do for a living, even if they aren’t always privy to the specific scams. But even with each other, these women rarely acknowledge the obvious. They might socialize together, shop together, discuss their kids and share their personal problems, but they rarely discuss mob business.

Karen Hill, wife of Lucchese family associate Henry Hill, who was the subject of the best-selling book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi, recalled her first encounter with other mob wives on a visit to their husbands in prison: “They knew the good prisons and the bad ones. They never talked about what their husbands had done to get sent to jail. That just wasn’t ever a part of the conversation. What they discussed was how the prosecutors and the cops lied. How people picked on their husbands. How their husbands had done something everybody was doing but had just had the bad luck to get caught.”

Like their husbands who must abide by the rules of omerta, the Mafia code of silence, in order to survive and prosper, Mafia wives follow their own code of silence. Large houses, luxury cars, expensive clothes, lavish restaurant meals and generous amounts of spending money ensure that their lips remain sealed. As long as the goodies keep coming, the wives don’t ask and they don’t tell.

Every member of law enforcement interviewed for this story declined to go on the record with their opinions and observations about the mates of Mafiosi, but they all agreed that Mafia wives are not as innocent of their husbands’ doings as they often claim. These officers’ intimate knowledge of life inside a wiseguy’s home mostly comes from telephone wiretaps. An investigation of a given mobster can generate hundreds of hours of secretly taped telephone conversations, and the officers and prosecutors who monitor these tapes learn a lot about domestic life inside a mobster’s family. However, only material pertinent to the charges brought against the accused can be used in a court of law and thus released to the public. Everything else is sealed. So when it comes to the details of Mafia wives, law enforcement knows but cannot say.

The Wives of "Trigger Mike"
According to an old Sicilian saying, wives should be kept at home, barefoot and pregnant. The updated version says that a wife should see only the kitchen and the bedroom ceiling. As misogynistic as these sentiments are, they are the underlying rules of many Mafia marriages. Ann Coppola, the second wife of New York capo Michael “Trigger Mike” Coppola, suffered much more than most. Her husband added “bloody” to the list of things a good mob wife should be.

Coppola, who was known for his violent temper, ran lucrative narcotics and numbers operations in Harlem in the 1940s and ‘50s. He married his second wife Ann Augustine in 1955 after the tragic passing of his first wife Doris. He told Ann that Doris died in childbirth, but it wasn’t long before Ann had reason to suspect that Doris’s death was more sinister than “Trigger Mike” had revealed.

When Ann became pregnant, Coppola told her emphatically that he didn’t want any more kids. He’d had two by Doris, and Ann’s daughter by a previous marriage was living with them as well. As reported by organized crime historian Allan May, Coppola told Ann not to worry. “Just leave everything to me,” he assured her.

One day after the children had gone off to school, a physician came to the house. Coppola greeted him at the door and showed him in, introducing him to Ann simply as “Dr. D.” The doctor spread a sheet over the kitchen table and performed an abortion on Ann while Coppola stood by and watched, grinning throughout the entire procedure. Afterward, he made sure that Ann knew that the abortion had cost him $1,000.

Three months later, Ann was pregnant again, and Dr. D returned. Once again Trigger Mike watched the whole thing, obviously enjoying it. Two more abortions followed. Ann came to realize that the only reason her husband had sex with her was to get her pregnant so that he could watch the abortions. Perhaps Doris, whose remains were cremated at Coppola’s insistence, had had one abortion too many.

Ann endured regular beatings from her husband, but he also lavished her with fine clothes and jewelry. “He gave me this vast amount of material things,” she said, recalling her marriage, “to prove to people how big and successful he was and to feed his ego until he himself believed that he was God Almighty.” He once blackened both her eyes by poking them simultaneously with his index and middle fingers Three Stooges-style.

After five years of unspeakable abuse, Ann finally walked out on him and filed for divorce. At about the same time, Coppola was indicted on four counts of tax evasion. He pleaded guilty on orders from the mob hierarchy, who feared what Ann would reveal if there was a trial and she was called to the stand. Coppola was sentenced to serve a year and a day.

While Coppola was in prison, Ann moved to Italy and took her own life one day in a hotel room, overdosing on Scotch-and-barbiturate cocktails. Among the many goodbye notes she left was a last request to be cremated and have her ashes dropped from an airplane over Trigger Mike’s house.

Ann Coppola’s marriage is an extreme example of the pitfalls of being married to the mob, but not all wiseguys are so heartless. Many gangsters have been known to treat their wives well and not just in terms of material possessions. Frequently mob wives are often charged with crimes along with their husbands, and many mobsters will agree to a plea bargain to get their wives off the hook. Reputed Bonanno family soldier John “Porky” Zancocchio was just such a goodfella when it came to his wife and family.

Zancocchio ran a major New York bookmaking operation, which, at its height, pulled down $280 million a year. Among his high-rolling clients was banished former baseball great Pete Rose. But in 1990 Zancocchio was hauled into court on federal tax evasions charges. The feds turned up the heat on Porky by charging his wife Lana with mail fraud. They also threatened to charge Porky’s mother, who had allowed her son and his capo to buy a pizzeria in her name, which they called Mama Rosa’s. Putting the women in legal jeopardy had the desired effect. Zancocchio pleaded guilty to failing to file an income tax return and was sentenced to one year in prison with a fine of $100,000.

It was a noble gesture on Porky’s part, but mobsters—and their wives—don’t always learn from their lessons. Eleven years later, in 2002, Zancocchio was again hit with tax fraud charges and so was Lana. The charges stretched from 1995 to 2000, and the combined weight of the alleged offenses made a plea bargain impossible. Both husband and wife ultimately pleaded guilty, although the charges against her were lighter. Porky faced up to 71 months in prison and fines up to $300,000. Lana could have been sentenced to 16 months, but her attorney was able to negotiate a deal where she could serve her sentence at home and continue to raise her children.

Henry Hill, the mob associate whose story was the inspiration for Martin Scorcese’s classic Mafia film, Goodfellas was blessed with a tremendously loyal wife. Hill, an associate in the Lucchese crime family, could never become a “made” member of the Mafia because he wasn’t 100% Italian, but that didn’t stop him from participating in some major crimes in the New York City area, including the infamous 1978 Lufthansa heist in which more than $4 million in unmarked cash was stolen from a warehouse at Kennedy Airport.

As recounted in Pileggi’s Wiseguy, Henry’s wife Karen endured more hardships than the average American wife. When Henry was flush, life was sweet, but when his scams weren’t paying off, they had to scrounge like paupers. When Henry went away to prison, Karen was left alone to fend for herself and raise the kids. Worst of all, Henry’s cocaine dealing led to addiction, and Karen was sucked into that seductive whirl as well.

In Pileggi’s book, Karen Hill took the long view of her relationship with a mobster: “I suppose if I wrote down the pros and cons of the marriage, lots of people might think I was nuts to stay with him, but I guess we have our own needs, and they’re not added up in the columns. He and I were always excited by each other, even later, after the kids . . . I would listen to my friends talk about their marriages and I knew that for all my troubles, I still had a better deal than they did.”

The Goomatta
The inevitable bane of every mob wife’s life is her husband’s “goomatta.” Whether pronounced “goomah,” “goomar” or “goomatta,” the word is the Americanized corruption of the Italian word comare, which means “mistress” or “girlfriend.” According to the glossary in The Sopranos: A Family History, “No self-respecting wiseguy is without one.”

How a mob wife reacts when she learns of her husband’s goomatta is usually determined by the wife’s age. The younger wives tend to lash out and demand their husband’s fidelity, but in time these women learn that the goomatta is a fact of mob life. To keep the goodies—the house, the cars, the furs, the jewelry, etc.—the mob wife has to put up with the mistress. The flashy young girlfriend is a necessary accessory for a man of honor, like a Lexus or a Rolex. Having a woman on the side is a symbol of the man’s success and power. It says to the world that, not only is he potent enough to keep two women satisfied, he clearly rules the roost and doesn’t have to worry about retaliation from the woman he married.

This, at least from the man’s point of view, is the ideal. The reality, however, is sometimes quite different. Goomattas are not always pliable play things, and they aren’t always centerfold material. And it often seems that the higher in rank the mobster is, the more trouble his goomatta becomes.

Ralph Natale, former boss of Philadelphia’s Bruno-Scarfo Family, was a little too public with his goomatta, and as a result earned the resentment of many of his underlings. Natale came to power in the confusion that followed the government’s successful prosecution of his predecessor, the hard-nosed, Sicilian-born boss John Stanfa.

While serving a 16-year sentence for arson and drug convictions, Natale and his cellmate, Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, had carefully planned how they would take over the disorganized Philly mob. They agreed that Natale, the older of the two, would become the new boss. Natale, who was in his early 60s, was not a made member of the Mafia at the time, although Merlino, then 32, was. Natale’s induction ceremony took place in a hotel room near Philadelphia’s Veteran Stadium after he was paroled in 1994.

With the old boss Stanfa in prison and out of the picture, Natale and Merlino were free to realize their mob dreams. During Merlino’s 2001 trial in which the government took on the whole Philly mob for an unprecedented third time, witnesses claimed that Skinny Joey tolerated Natale because he felt that the older wiseguys wouldn’t obey him if he ever tried to take over as boss. Natale had been close to Angelo Bruno, the legendary “Docile Don” who had ruled the Philly mob for decades; Merlino needed an elder statesman to provide a figurehead while he, as underboss, ran things his way. In fact, the city of Philadelphia became Merlino’s territory because the conditions of Natale’s parole stipulated that he could not enter the city without prior approval from his parole officer. Natale was forced to run things from his home in Pennsauken, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philly.

Natale’s daughter Vanessa had a good friend who spent a lot of time at the Natale’s New Jersey home. Her name was Ruthann Seccio, a slender blonde who had seen some tough times on the streets of South Philadelphia. A former drug addict and gang member, Ruthann had turned her life around and was supporting herself as a waitress. Natale found the outspoken young woman irresistible despite the fact that she was 34 years younger and three inches taller than him.

Natale romanced Seccio shamelessly and set her up in a condominium in Voorhees, New Jersey, 10 miles from the home he shared with his wife Lucy. When Ruthann fell for him, she asked why he wouldn’t leave his wife. Natale told her that Lucy was very ill with both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, that her hearing was terrible, and that she had to wear a heart monitor all the time. After 42 years of marriage, he couldn’t just dump his wife, Natale told Ruthann. Ruthann later found out that Lucy Natale suffered from none of these afflictions.

Despite his decision to stay married, love bloomed with Ruthann. He gave her extravagant gifts—including a Cadillac and a long-haired Himalayan cat named Dusty—and took her to the best restaurants. Ruthann was so smitten she had a red rose tattooed on her left hip with the word “Ralph’s” engraved in blue underneath. But their bliss was cut short in 1998 when Natale’s parole officer caught him meeting with other mobsters at restaurants were he claimed to be selling fish, which supposedly was his legitimate job. Natale was sent back to prison for violating his parole, and he called Ruthann every day, often several times a day. He asked Joey Merlino to take care of Ruthann as well as his wife Lucy while he was away.

But what should have been a short stretch in prison turned far more serious when federal agents threatened to charge Natale with financing a methamphetamine ring. If convicted on another drug charge, Natale would spend the rest of his days behind bars. The feds made the boss an offer he apparently couldn’t refuse: testify against Merlino and the rest of the Philly mob and they’d put him in the Witness Protection Program where at least he’d have his freedom. With just five years under his belt as a man of honor, Natale decided to take their offer and rat on the mob. The government was delighted. Natale, they crowed, was the first sitting boss to turn state’s witness.

Ruthann, who in her heart would always be a street tough, was stunned when she read the headline of the Philadelphia Daily News on August 20, 2000. Her boyfriend was being called “King Rat.”

“I’d rather die than rat,” she told Daily News staff writer Kitty Caparella. “I believed in ‘death before dishonor’ long before I met Ralph.” Ruthann said she took repeated showers because she felt “dirty and violated.” Though unable to sleep, she said she sandwiched herself between mattresses to try to “keep the world out.”

Unlike Ralph’s wife, Ruthann didn’t suffer in silence, and she agreed to do interviews with several local reporters. Even though she had never been popular in Philly mob circles, she took the mob’s side against her old lover once it was revealed that he would be testifying against Merlino and four of his mob cohorts.

In April 2001, Natale took the stand for two straight weeks. He looked fit and well-rested as he recounted his criminal experiences with Merlino and the other defendants. Natale succeeded in keeping his composure for the most part, but at one point he angrily gave Merlino the finger while testifying that the younger Mafioso had reneged on a promise he had made to Natale. Merlino had discontinued the agreed-upon monthly payments to Natale’s wife Lucy ($3,500) and Ruthann ($1,000). This broken promise had apparently played a big part in Natale’s decision to turn state’s witness. Merlino and his co-defendants were ultimately convicted but not on the most serious charges brought against them.

Ruthann was offered a place in the Witness Protection Program, but she adamantly refused, and her decision was not applauded by the mobsters she had so staunchly defended. To them she was still Natale’s goomatta, and since Natale was King Rat, she was no more than the rat’s girlfriend.

Ruthann Seccio remains bitter. “I guess they don’t have a Mafia Women Support Group,” she told the Philadelphia Daily News. “That’s what I’ll start in the future for us misfits.”

"Big Paul's" Maid
From 1976 to 1985, Paul “Big Paul” Castellano was the capo di tutti capi, boss of all bosses, of New York’s Gambino crime family, then the most powerful of the city’s five families. But Castellano is remembered more for his death than for what he accomplished in life. He was gunned down in front of his favorite steakhouse in midtown Manhattan in the middle of rush hour. It was the boldest, most spectacular gangland slaying in modern mob history. Castellano’s execution was as much a statement as a power play orchestrated by John Gotti who muscled his way onto Castellano’s throne and became the next boss of all bosses.

Gotti’s main beef with Castellano was that the boss favored taking the family into legitimate businesses at the expense of the bread-and-butter rackets that are the cornerstones of mafia money-making. Specifically Gotti wanted freer reign to steal from the New York airports.

In their personal styles, the two men were worlds apart. Gotti relished the tough-guy role, quick to retaliate against anyone who stood in his way. Castellano, who was tall and gentlemanly, saw himself as a businessman, though he didn’t hesitate to use violence when he deemed it necessary. Gotti lived in a middle-class neighborhood in Queens. Castellano lived in a mansion nicknamed the White House in the exclusive Todt Hill section of Staten Island, far removed from the rough and tumble activities of his underlings. But what might have been the last straw for Gotti and his supporters was Castellano’s choice of goomatta, his Colombian maid, Gloria Olarte.

Olarte was a most unlikely candidate for a boss’s mistress. She wasn’t the kind of flashy beauty wiseguys prize. She was small and dark with coarse black hair, a shy immigrant hired by Castellano’s wife Nina to work as a domestic. But for reasons that Castellano took to the grave, at the age of 70 he became hopelessly smitten with the maid who spoke almost no English. They carried on in his home in the presence of his wife, and in so doing, Castellano crossed a line that likely contributed to his undoing.

When it comes to the women in their lives, Mafiosi hold a double standard. While a real man must have a goomatta, the mother of his children remains sacred. Affairs are conducted outside of the house, and wives should be spared the embarrassment of their husbands’ extracurricular activities as much as possible. By the Mafia rules of etiquette, Nina Castellano, though grandmotherly by this time, deserved her husband’s respect, and Castellano more than anyone should have known that. His inappropriate, lovesick behavior with Olarte was further proof to his enemies that he was out of touch and needed to be replaced.

Gloria Olarte started working at the Castellanos’ mansion in September 1979, and it wasn’t long before Big Paul started flirting with her. Because she knew so little English, Nina had bought a handheld electronic English-Spanish translator so that she could communicate with the maid and tell her what chores she wanted done. When Castellano got ahold of the device, he used it to send flattering little messages to Olarte in Spanish, complimenting her eyes, her smile.

Castellano’s infatuation with the maid soon turned into a full-fledged love affair. Big Paul and Gloria acted like teenagers with little concern for who was watching. Gloria became quite outspoken around her lover’s associates, which didn’t win her any points with them. Castellano took her on vacations and even bought her a hot sports car, a red Datsun 280Z, even though she didn’t know how to drive. Through all of this, Nina Castellano stood her ground. The White House was her home, and she wasn’t going to budge for a pipsqueak like Olarte. If her husband wanted to act like a fool, let him. This queen wasn’t about to give up her castle.

But the depths of Castellano’s feelings for Gloria surprised even the FBI. On St. Patrick’s Day 1983, after two years of planning, FBI agents got by Castellano’s elaborate electronic security system as well as his Doberman pinschers and successfully planted a listening device in a lamp on the boss’s kitchen table. They knew from prior surveillance that Castellano often conducted business from his home, and he was most comfortable in the kitchen. In the three months that the bug operated, agents listened in on conferences between Castellano and his mob associates. The agents, by default, also heard personal conversations between Big Paul and Gloria. What the agents learned one day left them speechless.

Castellano had left the White House one day to travel to Tampa, Florida. The reason for his visit, according to his lawyer, was elective surgery. But further investigation by the U.S.
Attorney’s Office in Tampa revealed the true nature of this surgery. Big Paul had received a penile implant, a device that when unfolded would give him a mechanical erection. The implant telescoped inside of him like a manual car antenna.

This bit of information raised more than a few eyebrows within law enforcement. Castellano had never been known as a ladies’ man, but now in the autumn of his years, he was getting himself fixed, presumably to satisfy his new love. Knowing this, the agents listening in on the conversations in Castellano’s kitchen started paying more attention to the exchanges between Big Paul and Gloria.

Eventually Nina Castellano moved out of the house, having finally had enough of the lovebirds’ shenanigans. Gloria, whose English was improving, was triumphant. In her mind, she was now the lady of the house. But Gloria’s victory was short-lived. Within a year Paul Castellano’s lifeless body would be sprawled on a Manhattan sidewalk next to the open front passenger door of his black Lincoln Continental, blood seeping from multiple gunshot wounds to the head. It’s uncertain whether John Gotti knew or even cared about Paul Castellano’s penile implant. What Gotti thought of Big Paul’s affair with his maid is not public knowledge. To this day, Gotti, who is imprisoned for life in Marion, Illinois, abides by the Mafia code of silence, omerta.

Perhaps former FBI Special Agent Joseph O’Brien, co-author of Boss of Bosses: The Fall of the Godfather—The FBI and Paul Castellano, best characterized Gloria Olarte’s position within the Gambino family. O’Brien, who was one of the agents who planted the bug in Castellano’s house, called her “the Yoko Ono of the Mob.”

“The bandleader thinks he’s found the love of his life,” O’Brien’s says in his book, “the other guys think he’s lost his mind. He thinks she’s exotic, they think she’s wildly inappropriate. He thinks he’s been set free, they think he’s making a total ass of himself.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

an excellent read! thanks for posting!