- - Sunday, March 11, 2018


By Scott M. Deitche

Rowman & Littlefield, $35, 228 pages

New Jersey is unique as it is the only state in America that is home to several different Cosa Nostra organized crime families (called La Cosa Nostra by law enforcement).

In addition to the state’s homegrown DeCavalcante Cosa Nostra crime family (which the TV series “The Sopranos” was based on), all of the five New York City Cosa Nostra crime families, as well as the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra crime family, have branches in New Jersey that operate criminal enterprises independent of each other and in tandem.

Scott M. Deitche’s “Garden State Gangland: The Rise of the Mob in New Jersey” tells the more than 100-year-old history of organized crime in the state, from the 1900s’ Black Hand extortionists to the Prohibition-era’s Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, an Atlantic City politician and bootlegger who was the model for the main character in the “Boardwalk Empire” TV series, and onward to the powerful Jewish gangsters, like Abner “Longy” Zwillman, and the eventual control by the Cosa Nostra crime families.

A good number of New Jersey mobsters became powerful and influential national crime figures.

“To trace the start of traditional organized crime (the mob, the syndicate, the Mafia) in New Jersey, you could begin in a few cities around the state where new immigrant groups at the turn of the twentieth century fell victim to extortion gangs and police indifference,” Mr. Deitche writes in the beginning of this interesting and informative true crime book.

“It was in these tight-knit immigrant neighborhoods where the strands and threads of organized-crime groups began. But if there was one focal point, one birthplace where originated the larger, more influential crime figures who would shape both the underworld and overall history of the state through much of the twentieth century, it would be Newark.”

Mr. Deitche describes Newark as the biggest city in the state where in the early part of the 20th century the expanding industries attracted immigrants that settled in neighborhoods like the Italian First Ward and the Jewish Third Ward. Wary and suspicious of the police, these immigrants were considered easy pickings by the criminal gangs.

By preying on their own people, the criminals had little to fear from the cops. But there was one tough police officer, Mr. Deitche informs us, that went up against the Black Hand in Newark, an Italian-American detective named Thomas Adubato. The tall and imposing detective with a thick handlebar mustache, one of the many fascinating people one learns about in the book, was later killed in New York.

There are so many interesting crime stories in this book, but one story that was of particular interest to me, having grown up in South Philadelphia, was the 1980 murder of Angelo Bruno, the Philadelphia mob boss. The story illustrates the greed, treachery and viciousness of the mob.

Bruno’s murder, as Mr. Deitche recounts, was planned by Bruno’s consigliere, Antonio “Tony Bananas” Caponigro, who ran the Philly mob’s operations in North Jersey. Caponigro, like others in the Philly crime family, resented that Bruno had declared Atlantic City, Philly’s longtime territory, to be an open city, allowing other crime families to operate there after gambling was legalized. There were numerous other complaints as well.

According to knowledgeable sources, Caponigro took his beef to the New York Genovese crime family, a leading member on the National Cosa Nostra Crime Commission. Caponigro was told to “take care of it.” He took this as approval to murder his boss, who was a member of the commission. Funzi Tieri, a Genovese boss, so the story goes, intentionally mislead Caponigro, as he had his eye on Caponigro’s two million dollar bookmaking operation in North Jersey.

After Bruno was killed by a shotgun blast as he sat in a car outside of his South Philly home in March 1980, Caponigro went to New York thinking he was to be inducted as the new Philly mob boss. Instead, he and his brother-in-law were brutally murdered by commission members who denied authorizing him to kill Bruno and believed that killing a boss was a Cosa Nostra cardinal sin.

The Bruno murder set off a decade-long violent internecine mob war that left a good number of dead mobsters on the streets of South Philly and New Jersey.

Although Cosa Nostra is not as powerful as it once was in America, the 2016 mob take-down of more than 40 members from Massachusetts to Florida in what federal prosecutors called a far-reaching criminal conspiracy, illustrates they are still very much in the game. The charges included loansharking, illegal gambling, firearms trafficking and credit card and health care fraud. Although the federal racketeering trial of reputed Philadelphia boss Joseph Merlino ended in a hung jury, all of the other indicted mobsters pleaded guilty.

Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism

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