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The Massino trial is the latest--and, the feds hope, final--chapter in a century-old soap opera that began in the early '30s with Luciano's anointing of Sicilian-born Joseph Bonanno, then just 26, to rein in one of New York's warring crime gangs and sit on the newly formed Mafia Commission (Bonanno died in 2002 at 97). Bonanno's son Bill, 72, admits he ran the family for a brief, chaotic period in the '60s (true) and claims that he and his father were Mario Puzo's inspiration for Michael and Vito Corleone (debatable). He subscribes to Puzo's vision of the Mafia as a grand old society that the New World corrupted. (For full effect as you read this, play some Nino Rota music on your inner iPod.) "They came from a culture and a tradition that taught people what was right and what was wrong," he says. "When they tried to transfer it to this country, that tradition got diluted by the marketplace mentality of American society. The friendships, the family ties, the trust, loyalty, obedience--the glue that held us together--that's not there anymore. What's out there today is nothing but a parody of what it used to be. I don't even recognize it."
He might recognize it in Big Joey, who reintroduced the sternest Mafia traditions and insisted that his men honor them. Massino (who often used the alias Messina in his early days) was born in '43 and raised in Brooklyn, where he befriended Vitale and in his teens married Vitale's sister Josephine. The couple settled in Howard Beach, Queens, where they still live in a house decorated with white marble and crystal chandeliers.
In the '60s Massino's uncle owned a shop in Maspeth, where the young man made sandwiches for catering trucks, frequently driving one himself and selling coffee and cakes to workers in a Long Island City truck yard. The wiseguy soon became a wide guy. "He'd eat half the sweets on his truck," says ex-FBI agent Colgan. Government witnesses at his '87 trial said Massino fenced merchandise, from Kodak cameras to electric appliances, that workers stole from the platforms and loaded onto his truck. By the '70s, he had allegedly expanded his operation into a truck-hijacking racket. With connections at airports and on the waterfront, say feds, he and his crew would flag down trucks, usually prearranged "give-ups" with the O.K. of the drivers. He once scored 2,000 cases of Chicken of the Sea, another time 500 cartons of Mitsubishi sneakers.
During this period Massino forged an alliance with a Howard Beach neighbor and natural rival, John Gotti, then a rising enforcer in the Gambino clan. "They were running in the same area of Queens," says Colgan, "doing the same things, hijacking trucks, selling stolen goods." Twenty years later, Gotti's recommendation helped make Massino the Bonanno boss.