Tags: Storied | 'Godfather' | Joe | Bonanno | Dies

Storied 'Godfather' Joe Bonanno Dies at 97

Sunday, 12 May 2002 12:00 AM

Surrounded by family members, Bonanno succumbed to heart problems and old age at St. Mary's Hospital, according to the Arizona Daily Star, having avoided the assassination or long imprisonment of many of his crime world contemporaries.

Bonanno went from bootlegger and gunrunner for Al Capone to an underworld executive running clothing and cheese firms. He eventually reached the pinnacle of American Mafia leadership where he reigned for more than 30 years.

When he was still a child his parents returned with him to his Sicilian birthplace after a few years in the United States. But in his 20s he returned to Brooklyn to quickly establish himself as the youngest major crime kingpin in the country.

Later Bonanno's New York-based operation, sustained by bullets and his considerable organizational skills, extended into the Caribbean and Latin America.

After Bonanno's position as one of the top five leaders of the American Mafia became generally known, he was one of the inspirations for the 1970s "The Godfather" movie trilogy, a key figure in the Gay Talese book "Honor Thy Father" written with the help of a son, and the subject of another son's biography that was the basis for a television series.

In his own book Bonanno became the first authentic Mafia figure to describe the inner workings of his murderous world.

Before publication, his writings were fodder for prosecutors.

Despite his notoriety, in his lifetime Bonanno served little more than two years in prison despite the efforts of prosecutors like then U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani. In fact, Bonanno was not convicted of anything other than a rent control violation until he was 75.

Instead it was his colleagues in crime who determined his ultimate fate, forcing his exile to Tucson and the abdication of his leadership role in the late 1960s after an assassination plot went awry.

The Bonanno story began when he emerged the surviving winner of gun battles among his Sicilian counterparts in the 1930s. It was a bloody era in New York that entered gangland legend as the Castellammare War, named for the Italian point of origin of many of the era's cream of the crime crop, Castellammare del Golfo.

Bonanno helped maintain a national governing commission of five crime families inaugurated by Lucky Luciano that he said was more an administrative mechanism than a way of life depicted in popular Mafia romanticism. Vestiges of the commission are occasionally reported to remain in existence even in the 21st century.

Bonanno claimed to have had an audience with a pope and a handshake with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He never liked his nickname "Joe Bananas."

Bonanno's reign as a mob overlord was believed to have lasted until his 1964 -- apparently feigned -- kidnapping by gunmen in front of his Park Avenue apartment, one day before he was scheduled to testify on Mafia operations before a New York grand jury.

He went into hiding for 19 months, emerging in May 1966 to surrender at a federal courthouse in New York. He never explained his absence, but was acquitted of conspiracy to obstruct justice for failing to appear before the grand jury.

Bonanno then went into a much violated retirement in the Tucson, Ariz., home he had purchased years before.

Mobster-turned-informant Frank "The Bomp" Bompensiero told FBI agents in 1972 that Bonanno said he wanted to set up a new family in California to fill a West Coast "Mafia vacuum."

Bompensiero, shot and killed in San Diego in 1977, told the FBI that Bonanno bragged to him that he had 600 "hungry" men in Brooklyn that he could bring to California in small groups to form such a family.

A San Francisco grand jury issued an indictment in April 1979 charging Bonanno with interfering with an investigation into the "laundering" of Mafia money. He was charged with attempting to conceal the books and records of four legitimate companies owned by members of his family.

In September 1980, after a 14-week, non-jury trial, U.S. District Judge William Ingram found Bonanno guilty of conspiracy to obstruct justice.

In an hour-long plea for leniency before sentencing, Bonanno's lawyer, Albert Krieger, noted his client suffered from cancer and heart trouble and his wife recently had died "as a direct result of Mr. Bonanno's conviction." Bonnano was to live another 22 years.

Bonanno was sentenced to five years in prison -- later reduced to a year -- and fined $10,000. But he was actually behind bars for less than eight months.

Almost five years later, when he was 79, he served another 14 months for refusing to testify against New York Mafia leaders.

Always distinguished from the stereotypical Mafia flamboyance by his unadorned lifestyle, Bonanno was sensitive about his public image, suing his own publisher for a cover illustration he said demeaned him.

Two of Bonanno's sons, Salvatore (Bill) and Joseph Jr., had homes in San Jose and served their own prison terms on parole violations from earlier convictions.

Writer Talese focused on the activities of Salvatore and the rest of the Bonanno family.

In March 1981, despite his intentions Bonnano's behind-the-scenes revelations became public knowledge as FBI agents and Arizona officials swarmed into Bonanno's Tucson home with search warrants.

They found 250 handwritten pages of memoirs, titled "My Reign, 1939 to the present," hidden in his bedroom. Bonanno, who was home at the time, reportedly became so upset he threw up.

Before the raid, agents had already gathered a substantial pile of evidence from an unlikely source, Bonanno's garbage. Twice a week, beginning in 1975, plastic bags of garbage outside his home were collected, having been switched with similar-looking refuse.

The agents pieced together the shredded documents they found, presenting them to a federal grand jury in San Francisco which returned a secret indictment on April 27. When he surrendered in Tucson the next day, the aged don smiled and joked with FBI agents, posted a $25,000 bond and went free.

Bonanno was released from prison July 29, 1984, after serving nearly eight months of a one-year sentence in the federal prison in Lexington, Ky., for obstruction of justice, up to then the longest time he had ever spent behind bars.

"Home, sweet home. It's beautiful," Bonanno said when he stepped off a plane in Tucson, Ariz. "I'm back home and I feel happy."

Copyright 2002 by United Press International.

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Surrounded by family members, Bonanno succumbed to heart problems and old age at St. Mary's Hospital, according to the Arizona Daily Star, having avoided the assassination or long imprisonment of many of his crime world contemporaries. Bonanno went from bootlegger and...
Sunday, 12 May 2002 12:00 AM
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