NEW YORK » Not long ago, Thomas DiFiore cut an intimidating figure. He was for a time the highest-ranking member of the Bonanno organized crime family not behind bars, despite a long record of arrests on charges of kidnapping, assault, promoting gambling and extortion. Even at 70, DiFiore did not seem to falter when challenging another aging Bonanno leader in 2013 for more than his share of a loan payment, according to prosecutors’ account of a government wiretap.
"’Without me,’" the other leader, Vincent Asaro, recalled DiFiore telling him, "’you wouldn’t a got nothing.’" Asaro, whose words were being recorded by the FBI, said DiFiore made a former Bonanno boss "look like St. Anthony."
Yet now, as he faces sentencing for federal unlawful debt-collection conspiracy, DiFiore’s swagger has given way to a shuffle, and he is talking about insulin and statins rather than payback.
He is one of the "oldfellas," Mafiosi whose lives of crime seem to have succumbed as much to the ravages of age as to the relentlessness of federal prosecutors. In courtrooms, they can be found displaying catheter bags or discussing the state of their kidneys in hopes that a judge will agree to a short sentence.
Many of these geriatric gangsters have been sentenced in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, which covers the key territory of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island inhabited by New York’s five major organized crime families.
DiFiore, 71, who is to be sentenced in Brooklyn on Tuesday, has outlined his drug regimen for the court: Lantus insulin shots every 12 hours; atorvastatin for cholesterol in the morning; amlodipine and lisinopril for blood pressure; and one 325-milligram aspirin a day.
As members of the Mafia seek to avoid lengthy prison terms, informers are becoming more common, said Belle Chen, assistant special agent in charge of organized crime for the FBI’s New York field office.
The prospect that these turncoats will face violent retaliation has dwindled, experts say, because of both the protection afforded by the witness-protection program and the increasing likelihood that a participant in any such retaliation could wind up helping the authorities himself. "There are too many potential cooperators these days," Chen said.
This dynamic has allowed investigators to target decades-old crimes and aging Mafia leaders, as has the federal racketeering act, under which old offenses can yield fresh indictments.
As a result, the federal courthouse in Brooklyn has been filled in recent years with tales from an era when the Mafia loomed larger than it does today, when it was linked to conspicuous acts of criminality like the 1978 Lufthansa heist at John F. Kennedy International Airport – a $6 million armed robbery in which Asaro, 80, is scheduled to go on trial this fall.
Just this month, federal agents arrested reputed Mafia members and associates in their 60s and 70s connected to the New Jersey-based crime family long thought to have inspired "The Sopranos," the HBO drama that featured its share of aging mobsters.
Given the age of the some of these defendants, court can occasionally sound less like a legal forum and more like a hospital admissions ward.
Consider Bartolomeo Vernace, who was 65 when he was sentenced last year in the 1981 killings of two owners of a Queens bar in a dispute over a spilled drink. Like DiFiore, Vernace had detailed his prescriptions for the judge: diltiazem, Accupril, Norvasc, Crestor, Zetia, Actos, Plavix and Amaryl.
Prosecutors have grown familiar with such litanies, and have contended that some defendants appear to be exaggerating their medical problems in bids for leniency.
Nicky Rizzo, a Colombo family soldier who was 86 when he was sentenced in 2013, said his health conditions included bad hearing, prostate cancer, bladder cancer, poor blood circulation in one leg, 20 medications a day and a need to use a pump with a catheter for urination.
"He stands in the bathroom for five-, 10-, 15-minute time period, he attempts to urinate," said his lawyer, Joseph Mure Jr. Rizzo lifted his pant leg to show the catheter and urinary drainage bag to the judge.
Prosecutor Allon Lifshitz responded that Rizzo’s "behavior in court today, shuffling in from the back and the purported inability to hear, and the groaning, should get zero weight." He added, "It’s a joke."
Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto, citing Rizzo’s health and age, sentenced him to six months in prison, compared to the year and a half to two years sought by prosecutors.
Some judges have questioned the aging defendants’ conditions. Matsumoto, for instance, sentenced Colombo family member Richard Fusco to just four months in prison after he listed ailments that included kidney failure, hearing loss and early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, though reporters observed that his condition seemed to improve dramatically after he left court.
"If Mr. Fusco made a fool out of me, then shame on me," Matsumoto said at a later sentencing.
Thomas Gioeli, a Colombo family member convicted of racketeering conspiracy charges, detailed his health woes at his sentencing last year: back problems, a cardiac episode, diabetes and arthritis. The formerly fearsome mobster was also, literally, toothless.
"I have no teeth," Gioeli told the court during his case. "I can’t chew my food. I’m choking more frequently. My back is out, my hips are out, my knee pops out."
Just 61 when he was sentenced, Gioeli was "a very old 61 years," his lawyer, Adam D. Perlmutter, argued.
"These medical conditions are not feigned, they are real," Judge Brian M. Cogan said. Nonetheless, he sentenced Gioeli to almost 19 years in prison, saying that the federal prisons system offered decent medical care.
Whether prisons can in fact adequately handle aged and sick inmates is a question many lawyers and defendants have raised.
Perlmutter, Gioeli’s lawyer, complained that the staff at Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where Gioeli was held, had not refilled his prescriptions.
The lawyer representing Dennis DeLucia, a Colombo family captain sentenced to 34 months in prison in 2013 at age 70, pointed out that a year had passed since a dentist at the Metropolitan Detention Center had recommended that DeLucia have a tooth removed.
As DiFiore said while pleading guilty in October, "My health has spiraled downhill, but I’m happy to say I am alive in spite of the stellar medical treatment that I have received at MDC."
Prosecutors have said that the federal prisons do have good medical facilities. Though they concede that DiFiore’s health is relevant to the sentence he will receive Tuesday, they are asking for a prison term of roughly two years, as recommended by federal sentencing guidelines.
And while DiFiore’s age may have contributed to his health problems, prosecutors suggest it worked to his advantage as well, with his many years in crime earning him "formidable" power and profits.
Stephanie Clifford, New York Times