A Fiery Saint
“If I betray my friends and our family, I and my soul will burn in hell like this saint.”
As Tony Accetturo recited this grave oath, the holy picture in his hand perished in flames. A cluster of nodding, stone-faced men lined up to embrace him, kiss him on the cheek, and vigorously shake his hand, a collective gesture of solemn congratulations. For Accetturo, it was the most memorable moment of his life. The ceremony burnt into his soul; his prime ambition was fulfilled. He was now the newest member of an exclusive, secret coterie: he was a “made” man in the American Mafia.
Twenty years of faithful service, first as a stern loan-shark enforcer and later as a major “earner,” moneymaker, for important mobsters in New Jersey, had paid off bountifully for Accetturo. Earlier that afternoon, he intuitively grasped that this day would be significant. His orders were to rendezvous with Joe Abate, a reclusive figure who rarely met face-to-face with underlings, even though their lucrative extortion, gambling, and loan-sharking rackets enriched him. Abate, a sagacious capo in a borgata or brugard—Mafia slang for a criminal gang that is derived from the Sicilian word for a close-knit community or hamlet—supervised all operations in New Jersey for the Lucchese crime family.
Abate was waiting for Accetturo at a prearranged spot in the bustling Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown Manhattan. As a capo or captain, Abate was the impresario for more than one hundred gangsters, who illegally harvested millions of dollars every year for themselves and, as a tithe, sent a portion of their earnings to the administration, the Lucchese family leaders across the Hudson River in New York. Already in his mid-seventies, Abate bore no resemblance to a pensioner. Tall, lean, almost ramrod erect, he greeted Accetturo with a perfunctory handshake and walked briskly from the bus terminal.
On that June afternoon in 1976, there was little conversation as Accetturo, almost forty years younger than his capo, quickened his pace to keep in step with the energetic older man. Accetturo, a strapping, muscular two hundred pounds on a five-feet eight-inch frame, knew from a bitter encounter with Abate never to initiate small talk with him. Among New Jersey mafiosi, Joe Abate was a feared presence, a veteran combatant with an exalted aura. He had been a gunslinger for Al Capone in Chicago when Capone was America’s most notorious gangster in the 1920s. And in Abate’s presence, it was prudent to answer his questions directly and to carry out his commands without hesitation.
Several blocks from the bus terminal, at a clothing factory in Manhattan’s Garment Center, Abate introduced Accetturo to a grim-faced man who would drive them to another location. He was Andimo “Tom” Pappadio, an important soldier responsible for handling the Lucchese’s extensive labor extortions, bookmaking, and loan-sharking rackets in the Garment Center. Like the brief walk to the Garment District, the thirty-minute drive was a silent trip until they pulled up in front of a simple frame house. Unfamiliar with much of New York, Accetturo thought they were in the Bronx, the borough just north of Manhattan.
Inside a drab living room, several men unknown to Accetturo were waiting and one of them introduced himself as Tony Corallo. Accetturo knew that in the insular planet of the Mafia, this unsmiling, short, stocky man in his sixties was widely recognized by another name, “Tony Ducks.” And he keenly understood what that name represented. Antonio Corallo, whose nickname originated from a lifetime of evading arrests and subpoenas, was the boss of the entire Lucchese family. The small group of men were gathered in the living room for one reason: a secret ceremony that would transform Accetturo into a “Man of Honor,” a full-fledged “made” man.
Tony Accetturo was aware that “the books,” membership rosters in New York’s five Mafia families, had been closed for twenty years. Recently, whispers abounded that the rolls finally were being reopened for deserving people. Accetturo had agonized over his future, eager to end his long apprenticeship with coveted membership as a “soldier.”
“Making your bones,” the Mafia euphemism for passing its entrance examination, requires participating in a violent crime—often murder—or becoming a big earner for the family. Accetturo was confident that he had made his bones with high marks in both categories.
Accetturo had heard older men drop hints about the ritual of getting made. He had a vague idea that it involved incantation of ancient oaths of loyalty, sworn over a gun, a knife, a saint’s picture, and validated by bloodletting through a cut trigger finger. Yet when his ceremony was over, Accetturo was surprised and slightly disappointed by its brevity.
Without preamble, Tony Ducks rose from his chair in the living room, said, “Let’s get started,” and then bluntly told Accetturo that he was the “boss” of the family. Accetturo was handed a picture of a saint on a square piece of paper, told to burn it with a match, and to repeat the oath Corallo somberly intoned: “If I betray my friends and our family, I and my soul will burn in hell like this saint.”
Despite the abruptness and informality of the rite, Accetturo glowed inwardly with enthusiasm at its meaningfulness. “I was bursting with excitement. It was the greatest honor of my life. They set me apart from ordinary people. I was in a secret society that I was aching to be part of since I was a kid, from the time I was a teenager.”
Soon afterward, returning to his haunts in New Jersey, Accetturo learned from older made men, who could now talk openly with him because he had attained prized membership, the reason for the brusque initiation. Abate and other overseers in the Lucchese family thought so highly of his accomplishments and behavior that the trappings used to inculcate ordinary recruits were deemed unnecessary. He already knew the ground rules and was considered far superior and more knowledgeable of the Mafia’s code of conduct than most new soldiers. There was no question that he was suited for “the life.”
Over the next two decades, Accetturo would himself witness and learn from his underworld cronies how a more typical induction was performed by the American Mafia in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The ritual, modeled on secret practices with religious undertones begun by the Mafia in Sicily as far back as the nineteenth century, was intended to mark the vital passage from “wannabe,” an associate in the crime family, a mere striver without prestige, to a restricted rank with extraordinary dividends and extraordinary obligations.
While the liturgy was roughly similar throughout the country, in the New York area, the American Mafia’s acknowledged capital, a rigid formula prevailed among its five long-established gangs. The candidate had to be sponsored by the capo he would work for and personally cleared by the ultimate leader, the family representante, or boss. The final exam was the submission of the proposed soldier’s identity to the leaders of the other four borgatas for vetting to determine if there were any black marks or negative information against him. To maintain the fixed sizes and strength of the families and to prevent unauthorized expansions, a prospective member could only be added to replace a dead mafioso in his borgata.
Although probably surmising that his induction loomed, the recruit was never specifically told what was in store or the date he would be “straightened out,” promoted. On short notice he was instructed to “get dressed,” meaning wear a suit and tie, for an unspecified assignment. Made members picked up and escorted the initiate to the ordination. Driving to the site, a process known as “cleaning” or “dry cleaning,” was often employed to evade possible law-enforcement surveillance. The passengers might switch cars in public garages. They also drove aimlessly for as long as half an hour and then “squared blocks,” driving slowly with abrupt sharp turns, or reversed directions to shake investigators who might be tailing them on routine surveillance.
The special precautions were intended to conceal the meeting place from prying eyes, mainly because the family’s boss and other high-ranking leaders would be in attendance and protecting them from law-enforcement snoops was a paramount consideration.
Unlike the ceremony he conducted for Accetturo, at most inductions Tony Ducks Corallo officiated with greater pomp and formality. “Do you know why you are here?” he would ask at the outset, and the candidate was expected to reply untruthfully, “No.” This charade was enacted because the induction was presumed to be a closely guarded secret to prevent leaks to law-enforcement investigators and outsiders about the identities of the family’s leaders and its members.
Continuing, Tony Ducks explained, “You are going to be part of this family. Do you have any objections to that?”
Another member of the group circling the ceremonial table would then use a needle, knife, or safety pin to prick the candidate’s trigger finger, dropping blood over a picture of a saint. As the candidate held the bloody image aloft, someone put a match to it, and Tony Ducks directed the new member to repeat, “May I burn, may my soul burn like this paper, if I betray anyone in this family or anyone in this room.”
After scattering the ashes of the saint’s holy picture, Corallo or one of his lieutenants warned the newly made man that henceforth the borgata’s needs—including committing murders—came before any other obligation in his life. The initiate no longer owed allegiance to God, country, wife, children, or close relatives, only to the crime family. Decrees from the boss, who ruled as the family’s “father,” must instantly be obeyed, even if it meant neglecting a dying child.
At the ceremony for Tommy Ricciardi, a longtime sidekick of Accetturo’s, Tony Ducks and his henchmen carefully enumerated the family and the Mafia’s inviolable rules and protocol. The foremost principle was omertà, the code of silence that forbade the slightest cooperation with law enforcement, or more ominously, informing, ratting on anyone in the underworld.
A new “button man,” or soldier, remained under the direct control of the capo who recommended his membership. All illegal activities the soldier engaged in and even his legal businesses were “put on record” or “registered” with the family through his capo so that the organization could profit from these projects and utilize them for planning crimes and deals. Booty from legal and illegal activities was shared with the soldier’s capo; a percentage, depending on the mood of the boss, was funneled to him as a sign of respect and was used also for the borgata’s needs and overhead costs.
In business or social matters, only a made man from the Lucchese family and other borgatas could be introduced to other mafiosi as an amico nostro, a friend of ours. Others associated or working with the Mob were referred to simply as “a friend,” or “my friend,” as a cautionary signal that the third man was not made and no Mafia secrets should be discussed in his presence.
And the awesome word “Mafia” was banished from the group’s vocabulary. Its use, even in private conversations, was forbidden because it could be considered incriminating evidence at trials if overheard by prosecution witnesses or detected by investigators through electronic eavesdropping. Instead, if an organizational name had to be mentioned, the more innocent sounding Cosa Nostra, Our Thing, or the initials C.N. were used.
Despite any knowledge the recruit might possess at the time of his initiation, he was nevertheless formally instructed about the composition and powers of the family hierarchy. At the summit, the boss set policies as to what crimes and rackets the family would engage in and appointed and removed capos and other high-ranking leaders.
Like an imperial caesar, the boss’s most terrifying arbitrary authority was deciding who lived and died. Murders inside the family for internal reasons or the elimination of anyone outside the borgata could be sanctioned only by him.
Usually present at induction ceremonies were the “underboss,” the second-in-command, who assisted in running the family’s day-to-day business, and the consigliere, the counselor and adviser on family matters and on relations and disputes with other Mafia groups.
At Lucchese inductions, the identities of the bosses of New York’s four other large Mafia families (Genovese, Gambino, Bonanno, and Colombo) and a smaller one (DeCavalcante) based in New Jersey were disclosed to the new soldier. This confidential information came with the admonition that if another family boss was encountered he should be accorded the utmost respect.
Finally, several New York families concluded their ceremony with a ticada, Italian for “tie-in” or a “tack-up.” To demonstrate the internal solidarity of their secret organization, all witnesses and the new member clasped hands to unite in what the boss declared “the unbreakable knot of brotherhood.”
Alphonso D’Arco’s big day in the Lucchese family was August 23, 1982. He was instructed to “get dressed, you’re going somewhere” by his capo, picked up at a street corner in Manhattan’s Little Italy section, and like Tony Accetturo driven to a modest home in the Bronx. Four other candidates sat in the parlor, waiting to be summoned into another room, a kitchen. When D’Arco’s turn came, he was introduced to Tony Ducks Corallo and other members of the administration seated around a table.
“Do you know why you’re here?” one of the men asked, and D’Arco dutifully replied, “No.”
“You’re going to be part of this family,” the man continued. “If you’re asked to kill somebody, would you do it?”
D’Arco nodded his assent and then his trigger finger was pricked and the saint’s picture burned. One of the men surrounding the table removed a towel that covered a gun and a knife lying on the table. “You live by the gun and the knife and you die by the gun and knife if you betray anyone in this room,” the speaker said somberly. Finally, D’Arco repeated a version of the Mafia’s holy oath: “If I betray my friends and my family, may my soul burn in hell like this saint.”
Later, when the ceremony for all of the recruits was completed, Ducks Corallo rose and asked everyone to attaccata, to tack or tie up by holding hands. “La fata di questa famiglia sono aperti,” Corallo announced, meaning the affairs of this family are open. He then lectured his new soldiers on basic principles, precepts etched in D’Arco’s memory.
“We were told not to deal in narcotics, counterfeit money, or stolen stocks and bonds, to respect the families or other members and not to fool around with other members’ wives or daughters. If any disputes arise that you and members cannot resolve, you must go to your captain. You do not put your hands on other family members. You are to maintain yourself with respect at all times. When your captain calls, no matter what time or day or night, you must respond immediately. This family comes before your own family. Above all, you do not discuss anything about this family with members of other families. If you do not abide by these rules, you will be killed.”
Another unbreakable rule was imposed by Corallo: police and other law-enforcement agents could never be “whacked,” killed.
“Whatever happened here tonight is never to be talked about,” Corallo warned. Instructing the group to once more tack up, he finished in Italian: “La fata di questa famiglia sono chiuso.” (“The affairs of this family are now closed.”)
The afternoon event ended on a nonalcoholic, sober note with coffee, simple snacks, and pastry offered the men before the old hands and freshly minted mobsters dispersed in small groups.
D’Arco would learn that Corallo banned involvement in narcotics and counterfeiting and stealing stocks and bonds because these were federal offenses and meant heavy prison time. Corallo, like other Mob leaders, had good reasons to prevent hits on law-enforcement personnel. Murdering a cop, an investigator, or a prosecutor would unleash the fury of the law against the Mob and make normal business hazardous. Furthermore, the rule was aimed at maintaining strict discipline and preventing rash, unauthorized acts by hotheaded troops.
The day after the induction ceremony, D’Arco was the guest of honor at a select dinner with other crew members, given by his capo. It was an occasion for him and the twenty-odd members of his crew to be introduced to one another as equals. D’Arco’s new companions laughingly explained to him what would have occurred if he had refused at the Bronx ceremony to accept membership in the borgata: He would have been killed on the spot. His refusal would have been proof that he was an agent or an informer trying to infiltrate the family.
In the early days of his membership, more Cosa Nostra customs and rules were passed on to him by older soldiers. Some shibboleths were strange, particularly those concerning grooming and wardrobe. New York’s Mob leaders frowned on soldiers growing mustaches or wearing fabrics containing the color red. Mustaches were considered ostentatious and red was looked upon as too flashy by the conservatively dressed hierarchs. Inexplicably, some Mob big shots also believed that red garments were favored by “rats,” squealers.
Although they were always under the thumb of a capo and the administration’s kingpins, there were enormous potential benefits for loyal, ambitious soldiers like Al D’Arco and Tony Accetturo. A made man automatically had greater respect, prestige, and money-making opportunities. For starters, he was entitled to a larger share of the loot from his criminal activities than had been doled out to him as a wannabe or an “associate,” someone who works or cooperates with the family. And the newcomer became eligible for a cut of the profits from other family-controlled rackets.
Another gift to a soldier was the authority to organize and exploit his own wannabes in illegal activities. Most associates aspired to become made men, but only those of Sicilian or Italian ancestry were eligible. At one time, nearly all the families would induct only men whose mother and father were Italian. Eventually, the requirement was eased: as long as the father’s roots were Italian an applicant was eligible. Regardless of his value to the borgata, an associate without Italian heritage—even if he served as a hit man committing murders on demand or was a major earner—could never gain admission. A non-Italian might be highly respected but would never be acknowledged as equal to the lowest-ranking mafioso.
Equally important, as long as a soldier complied with the Mafia’s code of conduct, the family’s financial and legal connections were available. If he got into a jam and was arrested, the family paid for expensive legal talent. If a made man wound up in prison, the borgata’s family administration or his capo were expected to support his wife and children.
For loyalty and service to the family in a violent, dangerous environment, there was yet another vital bequest: a life insurance policy. A made man could be killed only on the orders of his boss and only for a serious infraction of a Mafia rule. Others who worked for a borgata or who were involved in deals with mafiosi lacked comparable protection. They could be whacked or maimed at the whim of a made man if a conflict arose between them. A soldier had the added security of knowing that other criminals who suspected or were aware of his connections feared injuring or insulting him; the lethal retaliatory power of the organization was well known in the underworld.
Joining the Mafia in the mid and late twentieth century was arduous and hazardous, but there was no shortage of applicants; and for recruits like Tony Accetturo, full membership glittered as a prize with outstanding financial rewards.
Copyright © 2005, 2006 by Selwyn Raab. All rights reserved.