I was in King’s Court, a mob hangout on the west side of Newark, New Jersey, with two wiseguys. We were doing what wiseguys do: talking about pussy and money, not necessarily in that order.
The club was in a commercial area, which for Newark at that time meant more vacant storefronts than viable businesses. The Court was what passed for a health club back then: four racquetball courts and a weight room the size of a closet. The main attraction was the disco, a club within a club, located in the center of that mecca to healthy living. Play a few games of racquetball to get the cardio up and the hamstrings loose, then repair to the bar to drink yourself silly, dabble in some coke, maybe get laid.
It was the eighties; disco was still in bloom, but waning, slowly being replaced by hip-hop and rap. In this primarily Italian and Irish neighborhood, disco wasn’t going down without a fight.
That night the disco was packed with a diversity of types. Mobsters mixed with college students, off-duty firefighters and cops, with a smattering of junkies and underage girls looking to trade some free tight snatch for drugs. There was no shortage of takers. The racquetball courts were deserted.
Despite the variety of the clientele and the size of the crowd, peace was usually maintained in the disco. The owners, made guys from the Lucchese crime family, saw to it, as did the small army of bouncers who were as big as Buicks. The Lucchese family ran this section of Newark and had a mostly peaceful yet contentious relationship with the Gambino and Genovese families, who whacked up the rest of the city.
Anthony Acceturo was the capo who ran the Lucchese crew. Acceturo—or Tumac as he was known on the street—was a heroin addict and all-around scumbag. Born and raised in Newark, his claim to fame was killing some black bookmakers back in the sixties to make his bones with the Luccheses.
Like-minded groups gathered at the bar and in corners, shrouded by smoke and trying to maintain private conversations under the din of blasting music. As an homage to the old days, the joint also boasted a live singer a few days a week who focused on the old standards, giving people with taste a respite from the noise. The current Sinatra wannabe was Frank Vincent, who had a pretty good voice and would later go on to appear in the HBO series The Sopranos and numerous other TV shows and movies, always typecast as a gangster. He’s best known for telling Joe Pesci to get his “fucking shine box” in the movie GoodFellas, and exiting the scene via bullets, stab wounds, and numerous kicks to the head.
Tonight, those patrons who weren’t sweating on the dance floor to the rhythmic beat of Gloria Gaynor made frequent trips to the bathrooms to partake in as much cocaine as they could shovel up their noses. Coke isn’t a mellow drug, it causes users to seek action. The resurgence of coke in the eighties fueled the success of clubs everywhere. These were the days before random drug tests, and it was in the best interest of partygoers to keep the peace and blow their brains out with impunity. This included cops, bad guys, doctors, lawyers, politicians, and everyone else. It was party time.
An eclectic crowd if there ever was one.
With me were Joey Ricardi and Rory DeLuca, two Lucchese associates, young guys looking to get made and maybe someday get rich as bosses of their own crews. Or maybe wind up in the trunk of a Cadillac in the long-term-parking lot at Newark Airport, whichever came first.
My name’s Mike Russell and I was a New Jersey state trooper working undercover, playing the role of an up-and-coming mobster looking to work with a crew and make a ton of money. My cover was that I was once a cop but was fired for being excessively violent and had been accused of criminality by my cop bosses, charges that had never been substantiated. I had been given the nickname Mikey Ga-Ga by my new best friends in the Court, a street name that truly meant nothing. A drunken capo had coined it one night and it stuck.
I was thirty-two years old, from the Newark area, had spent my life on the street, and had the well-deserved reputation of being a tough guy. The local Mafia contingent believed my bullshit story, but it was still taking a while for me to work my way into the confidence of Acceturo. I had plenty of time. Cops are nothing if not patient. While patience might be a virtue, trying to work your way into a Mafia family made it a necessity.
It can sometimes take many months or even years to convince normally suspicious gangsters that you are one of them. My object was to build a good criminal case, one that would stick in court and send the bad guys to jail for a long time. To what extent my supervisors would have me go to get convictions would soon become evident, but for now I was simply biding my time by tending bar, managing the health-club portion of the Court, and talking up a good background for myself.
It was a typically brisk winter evening, cold and dank. I’m convinced God gave Newark what seemed like a permanent overcast to fit in with the palpable feeling of despair and defeat that hung in that economic DMZ. The race riots after the Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations of the 1960s had permanently labeled Newark as a slum that needed to either be bombed off the map or rehabilitated with massive amounts of federal funds, depending on your political point of view.
We occupied a table in the back near the office, surveying the throng of guys bellying up to the bar or to the butts of the women they were trying to score.
“Lotta off-duty cops,” Joey observed.
“Yeah,” Rory agreed.
Joey Ricardi was in his twenties, like Rory, and dressed like a typical mob associate: tight jeans, black silk shirt, black leather jacket, and slicked-back hair, what I referred to as a ninety-mile-an-hour hairstyle. He was dark and couldn’t be mistaken for anything but Italian. Rory DeLuca looked like Joey, except for the black silk shirt. His was red. Both had enduring sneers and were adorned with enough gold chains to anchor a battleship. If and when they got inducted into the Brotherhood as made guys, the thug look would get replaced with $2,000 suits. They’d still look like hoodlums, only better dressed.
I looked as if I was trying to fit in, dressing the dress and walking the walk, but while these guys were dark and swarthy, I was more Newark-noir, fair skinned and brooding.
These guys could spot an off-duty cop with a paper bag over his head. I knew what was coming next: We were going to boost cars for guns. This was the practice of looking for the cars that belonged to the off-duty cops, who would invariably stash their pieces in their rides before entering the club. Nothing turned off a nubile, young thing like grabbing a guy around the waist and coming up with a fistful of iron.
With almost a hundred cars parked in the vicinity, how could we pick out a cop’s car? For me it was easy: I was a cop. For Joey and Rory it was a matter of survival; if they couldn’t spot a cop at fifty yards, they were destined to be handcuffed by a lot of them.
It didn’t take a clairvoyant; most cops parked as close to their destinations as possible, traffic laws be damned. Their cars could be identified to other cops by placing a police-union card on the dashboard. Subtle. This was the eighties, before the term politically correct was hammered into the American lexicon. Cops could park by fire hydrants, in crosswalks, on sidewalks, in driveways. If there were a way to pull their cars into someone’s living room, they’d do it.
So, with little difficulty, we went hunting for cops’ private cars. The object was to smash and grab: break a window, rifle the car as quickly as possible for a gun or other valuables, and move on to the next vehicle. Brain surgery it wasn’t.
I didn’t want to be the window breaker, seeing as how I was the law. I had planned on being the lookout, but that was soon to change. Undercovers were not supposed to break the law. At least that’s what the book said. The street dictated a different set of rules. To seem real and, better yet, not get made as a cop, I occasionally committed the random felony. Tonight would be one of those times.
I scored almost immediately. In the club’s parking lot I spotted a brand-new, shiny, black Mercedes-Benz with the doors unlocked and a leather briefcase in the backseat. While the vehicle certainly didn’t belong to a cop, it was easy pickings.
Joey and Rory were otherwise occupied, peering into the windows of cars adorned with PBA stickers. I decided to give them a heads-up.
“Hey,” I called out. “Got an open car here. Briefcase in it.”
Joey’s head bobbed up. “No gun?”
I shrugged. “Doubt it. Looks like it belongs to a citizen.”
“Fuck it then,” Joey said, and went back to the hunt.
Rory had wandered down the street and didn’t notice the exchange.
I removed the briefcase, glanced quickly inside, and saw a wad of cash and a lot of paper. I walked to my own car and tossed the briefcase in the trunk, a decision I made on the spur of the moment. The briefcase, the expensive car, that it was left unlocked, spelled M-O-B. Wiseguys didn’t lock their cars when parked in friendly territory, figuring no one would have the balls to take off a car obviously belonging to a connected guy. A show of bravado, if you will. I’m a wiseguy, fuck with my car at your own peril. Or maybe the Benz belonged to Joe Citizen and he was too drunk to remember to lock it. My cop instinct, however, told me it was the former.
Joey and Rory didn’t score any guns, but came up with some loose change, a flashlight, a bottle of Scotch, a box of condoms, and a banana. They stole everything but the fruit. Big-time gangsters.
We wound up back in the club, where we spent the rest of the night getting drunk. Tough work, being an undercover. Rory brought up the briefcase, and I told him it only contained paper so I’d put it back in the car. He accepted that and promptly forgot about it. Joey was too drunk to give a damn.
I got home late, briefcase in hand. My wife and kids were asleep, so I quietly emptied the contents of the case onto the kitchen table. The briefcase contained $2,000 in cash and a bonanza of mob payoff records that listed political bribes paid to individuals to approve a chain of fast-food restaurants on the Garden State Parkway, plus money-laundering records from the proceeds of gambling and narcotics ventures by the Lucchese crime family. I’d hit the proverbial mother lode. The cash and records belonged to James Castagna, one of the Lucchese bosses and the family’s money manager.
After gathering up the records and the cash, I drove to the Bloomfield State Police Barracks, where I made copies of the records, called my trooper handler, and told him of the existence of the records and money. I could have copied the records at a local police precinct, but this was the eighties and police corruption in the Newark area was rampant. I didn’t want to have some cop who was on the take report my presence to Tumac even before I got home and into my jammies.
The next day I got a phone call from Michael Taccetta, a soldier in Tumac’s crew. He was also Tumac’s cousin, a fat-slob bookmaker who without the family connection wouldn’t have been intellectually qualified to polish bowling balls.
“Yo, Mikey,” Taccetta said, “ya got that briefcase you boosted last night?”
I’d told Joey and Rory I’d put the briefcase back in the Benz, but wiseguys lied to each other all the time. Wiseguys understood that lying was justified if there was money to be made, and since I was supposed to be a wiseguy, larcenous intent was justified. But now was the time to come clean.
“Yeah, I got it,” I said.
“Well, it belongs to Jimmy C. He needs the fuckin’ thing back.”
I had to ask myself what a real low-life mobster would do in a position like this. The mob is all about making money, not loyalty, tradition, respect, or anything else you might see in the Godfather movies. It’s all about being an “earner.” The more money you generated and the greedier you were, the more respect you got.
“He can have it back,” I said, “for five grand.”
A few seconds of dead air ensued, which seemed more like an hour.
“You gotta be fuckin’ with me, right, Mikey?” Taccetta said.
“I ain’t fuckin’ with you. You want the case, it’s gonna cost you five large.” I knew this was a risky move, but one that made me seem real. To turn over the case, no questions asked, would be unnatural for a wiseguy. There would at least be some negotiations, even if the case wound up being returned for nothing for a favor owed at a later date. If I couldn’t negotiate the $5,000 and returned the case gratis, I might be viewed as a stand-up guy. Either way, it was the right thing to do.
“Okay, ya prick,” Taccetta said, “I’ll call ya back.” I detected a tone of respect in his voice.
* * *
A week passed and no one got back to me regarding the briefcase. I didn’t know what to make of it. While I continued to show up at the Court, no one mentioned the briefcase or its contents and I didn’t bring it up. Perhaps I’d passed a test by being hard-nosed and seemingly unafraid. I knew the Luccheses didn’t give a damn about the two grand, and their paperwork was undoubtedly duplicated somewhere. They would have no fear of an associate’s turning it over to the cops unless it could be used as a bargaining chip in an arrest situation. Since I wasn’t collared and was staying below the cops’ radar, they probably didn’t care about the paper. Besides, the payoff information was written in code, or what passed for code among the wiseguys. Realistically, Stevie Wonder could decipher it in minutes. Superspies these guys were not, but they thought they had invented an undecipherable code that would make James Bond proud.
So, with no trepidation, I agreed to help Rory and Joey, along with another associate, Bobby Alvegi, break into a safe in a warehouse on South Orange Avenue in Newark.
“Safe belongs to a coke dealer,” Bobby said. “Supposed to be packed with coke and cash. We’ll whack it up. You in?”
I’d told the crew I was a good safecracker, and now I had to prove it. I knew most people who owned safes utilized the practice known as day locking. This was done by advancing the first few numbers on the combination dial to within one number of opening. This method saved time when the guy who owned the safe wanted to get into it; all he had to do was go to the last number and the safe would open. Since most safe combinations consisted of four numbers, beginning with a right turn, I knew the last turn had to be to the left. All I had to do was move the combination dial one click at a time and try the handle after every move. Eventually I’d get to the right number and the safe would open.
Of course the Three Stooges didn’t know day locking from Doris Day, and I’d have them looking out for cops or heavily armed drug dealers while I seemingly worked my Jimmy Valentine magic.
“Yeah,” I said, “why the fuck not?”
“We’ll pick you up in twenty minutes.”
I called my handler in the State Police and cleared the caper with him. Break into a safe? No problem. Commit a felony? No problem. Just another brick in the shithouse that would eventually nail the crew on a variety of charges.
The trio of knuckleheads was on time. Rory was driving a beat-up Dodge, probably stolen, with Joey in the front seat. Bobby Alvegi was in the back with me.
Conversation, if you could call it that, centered on the job.
“Piece a cake,” Joey said.
“Yeah, cake,” Rory said.
Good thing I didn’t have time to wire myself for sound. It would’ve been a waste of good audiotape.
The ride to the warehouse, which was in a commercial area of mostly deserted buildings and storefronts, took twenty minutes. The building we were going to burglarize looked like any of the others in the area, bleak and in need of maintenance. The stand-alone, two-story brick structure was unadorned by signs or other identifying markings. Two narrow alleyways bordered the building and separated it from two other buildings that looked just like it.
Rory circled the block twice to make certain no potential witnesses were lurking about. Aside from a quartet of junkies standing on a nearby corner waiting for their delivery of dope, we had free rein. We could have parked the Dodge on their feet and would have gone unnoticed, an addict’s attention span being that of a gnat.
We parked down the street and walked silently toward the building. Bobby was carrying a duffle bag loaded with power tools, crowbars, and a police-radio scanner.
When we got near the target, Joey said, “We take the alley on the right. There’s a door near the end. You guys go down first, I’ll be behind you.”
Sounded like a plan. We strolled down the alley single file with me in the lead.
The alley was strewn with debris. I was dodging broken glass and a Dumpster when I felt a sharp pain in the side of my face.
Rory DeLuca had sucker punched me. I spun around from the force of the blow, disoriented and in pain. Instinctually I raised my hands to defend myself, but by this time Joey had maneuvered behind me and Bobby was circling me like a lion stalking an antelope.
I knew instantly that I was about to get a payback for not turning over the briefcase. The burglary job was a con just to get me alone. I’d been set up for a hit.
Rory was coming directly at me, screaming obscenities. I consider myself a pretty tough guy, in good shape and able to take a punch. I felt myself recovering from the strike to the head, but not feeling confident that I’d get out of the alley alive.
My peripheral vision picked up Joey with a dark object in his hand. A brick? A sap?
It was a gun.
Before I could react, I felt a dull thud in the back of my head. I’d been shot square in my skull, the force of the bullet ramming my face against the wall of the warehouse. Everything started to go black. I knew I was going to die. The curses began to fade, as if I were hearing them from a great distance. My life didn’t flash before my eyes; I had no time to think of my wife and kids. All I thought about was dying. After twelve years doing police work, I was going to die helpless in a filthy alley, alone.
My last conscious thought was one of frustration: Why hadn’t I seen this coming?
Then the world went black and I drifted to the ground.
Copyright © 2013 by Michael Russell with Patrick W. Picciavelli