At 6’6” Lenny Montana was bigger than life. If you’ve seen The Godfather, you’d recognize him as Luca Brasi—a hitman. And Lenny just so happened to be one in real life.
Before Hollywood, he held the role of “enforcer” for the infamous Colombo crime family. Apparently, while on the set of The Godfather, he shared a few stories of the ol’ days. Including how he’d dip a tampon in kerosene, tie it to the tail of a mouse, light it, then let the mouse free in a building. Or he’d light a candle and stick it front of a cuckoo clock. So when the bird popped out…
As an enforcer, Lenny’s job was simple: Intimidate, assault, and murder as needed for the Colombo crime family—one of the five major families heading up organized crime in New York City.
Elie: Fundamentally, there are two things that the mob cares about and wants to achieve. One is they want to make money. Two is they don’t want to get pinched. They don’t want to get arrested and thrown in jail.
My name is Elie Honig. I spent 14 years as a federal and state prosecutor. I now do a variety of things. I teach at Rutgers University. I work for CNN as a senior legal analyst. I have written a book, and I work on podcasts as well.
Elie’s most recent podcast is called Up Against the Mob, where he unveils inside stories of the modern-day mafia. He’s been involved in major cases like John Gotti Jr. and Ciro Perrone of the Genovese crime family. Elie’s been dubbed “organized crime’s worst nightmare.” If you need to know anything about the mafia and their history of violence, Elie’s your guy.
Elie: Probably the biggest part of what made the mafia in this country—going back to the early and middle of the 20th century—was the fear of violence. And fear, of course, became the mob’s most powerful weapon. I mean, how do they get away with extorting a company? Why would a butcher or a baker in Queens in the 1960s pay the mob 200 bucks a week in cash? Fear.
Is that fear actually justified by frequent fat lips and broken legs? Or even worse…a cement overcoat, a hit, a contract, an Italian rope trick…you know…murder. Is the mafia as violent as they’re made out to be? Or has fear gotten the best of us?
If you’re looking to get made, murder is a gold star on your resume.
Elie: The mob started using fear to build up their reputation. And that enabled them to commit a bunch of crimes in the 80s and 90s. You got into the war phase where they were dropping each other, shooting each other for retribution across families. And that’s been depicted in movies.
To ensure a sense of order and authority, mafia families have rankings. At the bottom of the list of made guys are soldiers—which include enforcers like Lenny Montana. Then you’ve got the Capo…
Elie: …who runs a crew and that usually 10-15 or so soldiers and associates.
Then the underboss and consigliere. And sitting pretty at the top of the ranks is the boss.
Elie: Orders to commit violence typically start at the top. Under the rules of the mob, which are usually but not always followed, you cannot commit a murder unless it’s sanctioned by the boss. And in fact, if you do commit a murder without the boss’s blessing, you can be killed.
So the boss passes down the murder request to a Capo or soldier. And then that person has to sort out all the nitty gritty details. If this were a scene in a movie, it’d be the planning phase of a heist film. Except instead of a precious diamond, they’re stealing a life. (Cue the heist music.)
Elie: Okay, what’s my hit team gonna look like? I need a shooter. Do I need a second shooter? Do I need someone to steal a van that we can use? That’s obviously from a specific case I did. Do I need a driver there? Do I need a getaway driver? Do I need what they call a “crash car driver,” which is in case the getaway car gets stopped by the cops or something you have another car that crashes into a wall so the cops are gonna deal with that.
The lower you are, generally speaking, the more of the hands-on work you’re going to end up doing. The more at-risk you’re going to be of getting caught by the cops. So being a boss has its benefits.
Doug: When they’re putting a team together, do they ever hire outside of the family?
Elie: Hmm, good question. So that’s very, very sensitive within the mob in the murder context. I’ve prosecuted murders where they’ve used associates, trusted associates, guys who they knew would eventually go on to get made. It would be awfully risky for any of the families to bring in somebody who’s not even an associate in the murder context, because that risk of cooperation.
However, I did a series of cases involving home invasions, where the Genovese family was targeting people who they knew had large amounts of cash in their homes, typically drug dealers, people who owned all-cash businesses. “Oh, I heard this person keeps $500,000 in his home.” The Genovese family, for whatever reason, didn’t want to send their own guys. And maybe their guys felt it was too risky, right? Breaking into a home, you can get shot, you can get arrested, you can get attacked by a dog, who knows. And maybe they just didn’t have the stomach for it.
They went out and they essentially subcontracted a bunch of Albanians, and these Albanians were younger kids newer to the game, more willing to commit acts of violence. And so I did this whole big indictment where the top half of the indictments were all the Genovese guys who set up these robberies and made most of the money. And the bottom half of the indictment is the Albanian guys who were breaking in and zip tying people and beating them, pistol whipping them, that kind of stuff.
So that’s an example where they would subcontract. But when it comes to murder, I’ve not seen an example of the mob going outside of their people.
Now, there’s also a sort of flip side to that, which is, it’s widely believed, it’s not really strictly true, that in order to get made, to get that button, which is sort of the golden ring in the mob, you have to have committed a murder, or you have to have proven that you’re “capable,” as they say. I don’t know if that was ever strictly the case. But look, they want tough guys, they don’t want guys who were afraid of throwing fists or giving out a beating. But if you’re looking to get made, murder is a gold star on your resume.
Why do people get killed in the first place? There are two main reasons.
Elie: One is if they’re cooperating or there’s some suspicion they’re talking to the cops, the FBI, and may flip on people. Now, if prosecutors like I was and the FBI are doing it right, they’ll never have a chance to take someone out for cooperating, because we will move them before their cooperation becomes known. But there are times when someone is lightly cooperating, maybe feeding a little bit of information to the cops, being an informant but not necessarily to testify. There are variations of it, and so many of the mob murders that I’ve prosecuted were because somebody was suspected, sometimes correctly sometimes not, of talking to the cops.
The other reason someone gets killed in the mob: money.
Elie: You’re supposed to send a certain percentage or proportion of your profits up the hierarchy. If you’re not doing that, and by the way, they all skim to some extent, I mean, they’re all criminals. But if you get caught doing that, or you’re doing it to the wrong guy, or you’re doing it for enough money, that could get you killed as well.
Violence, such as murder, has its benefits. (There’s something I never thought I’d write). The upside is you get rid of a problem and build your reputation. The downside, however, is massive risk.
Elie: First of all, that’s the best way to draw the heat. The thing that gets prosecutors like I was, and the FBI, most interested in you and dedicating the most resources and attention is to do a murder. So why does it make sense for them to kill somebody when they could just scare the crap out of them with a warning or maybe with a beating instead?
The other problem for the mob with murders is murders create murder charges, which create cooperators, and cooperators provide information that leads to more charges. And what happened was we had this whole string of cases in the Gambino family where it started with one charged murder. And two of the guys charged with that murder flipped. And they gave us a handful of more murders and more racketeering. And we just sort of had this mushrooming effect, where we built murder case after murder case and racketeering case after racketeering case. And those guys flip because murder brings the possibility, and really the likelihood, of life in prison. And that is a very different ballgame than saying, okay, we’ve charged him with extortion and loan sharking, and he’s looking at three to five years in prison.
Murders create murder charges, which create cooperators, and cooperators provide information that leads to more charges.
In recent years, the mafia is realizing that killing someone may be more trouble than it’s worth. Because murder, it turns out, is bad for business.
Elie: And now I think we’ve entered the modern era, where they realize that there’s too much downside and not enough upside to murders.
Or to put it in economic terms:
Elie: There’s not enough marginal utility to committing new acts of violence. It’s not exactly the way they phrase it. But they already have their reputation, people are already scared of them enough of them that they’re not going to defy them. So why start dropping bodies when there’s so much downside?
How does the mafia lurch away from a culture of violence? It may surprise you to hear, but the ultimate mafia goal is to go legit…relatively speaking.
Elie: But what they want to be able to do nowadays is to take the money they make through crimes, and then launder it or put it in an enterprise that they can at least put on the books and write it off. For example, if they managed to get an ownership stake in a business and importation business. A lot of times they tried to do it with strip clubs. And someone may think, strip clubs aren’t a legitimate business. I mean, it’s legal, you can have a strip club, right. So that was the sort of ultimate goal. Unions are very common targets for that. So if as a mobster, you can sort of make the leap. And this is what separates the great from the good. You know, the really accomplished mobsters from the just run-of-the-mill mobsters, is they managed to get their hooks into and at least run their money through legitimate unions or restaurants or bars or strip clubs or what have you. And that’s a constant goal. But it’s hard to do that when you’re also involved in murders at the same time.
Doug: What’s the appeal of unions?
Elie: Oh my goodness. It’s a cash cow for them. So I did a case years ago, where the Genovese family had taken over a bus drivers union local 1181, which was a Queens-based bus drivers union. And virtually all of their members are the people who drive your children to school every day. There’s nothing wrong with the drivers, but their union has been taken over by the Genovese family.
What does the Genovese family get out of it? A lot of stuff.
First of all, there’s literally millions and millions of dollars coming through the coffers every year that they pocket. For example, no-show jobs. They love no-show jobs. So what these mobsters would do, the president of the Union was a guy named Sal Battaglia. We prosecuted and convicted him.
His nickname, by the way, was “Hot Dogs.”
Elie: And when the FBI agent arrested Sal Battaglia, they said to him, you know they chitchat a little bit, it’s cordial enough. And they said, “What’s with your nickname?”
He goes, “I like to eat hotdogs.”
Okay. All right, that explains it.
Sal Battaglia was the president of the union, as well as a made man in the mafia. When the FBI pulled the union’s employee list, they noticed something peculiar.
Elie: There were like eight other Battaglias. He got “jobs” for his aunt and his nephew, and his cousin and his brother. And one of them was listed as the, I’m making this up, but the Director of Finance for the union or Supervisor of this or that for the union. And none of them showed up, none of them did any work. None of them had any qualifications. But they got a salary of 60, 70, 80 grand a year. And they got benefits through the union because even mobsters need health and dental.
It’s really one of the best things you can get into as the mob. And a lot of times you can then use a union to strongarm people. If you control a union that has any sort of tie to construction, you can use that to shakedown contractors. In this case, they controlled the bus drivers union, and then they use that to leverage their way into the New York City Department of Education. And they had certain officials they were bribing and paying off, they had them in their pockets. We ended up prosecuting a few of them.
So yeah, I feel like I’m doing a public service announcement here. If you’re in the mob, go get a union. They know that they don’t need me to tell them but a very lucrative business there for them.
They got benefits through the union because even mobsters need health and dental.
Doug: It seems like a bus drivers union would be small potatoes.
Elie: Oh, no, no. This union had I want to say 14,000 members or 11,000? This isn’t just “the wheels on the bus go round and round” kind of stuff. And so they use that as leverage to get into other unions and into the pockets of officials.
A tasty bite of union trivia: Apparently, Frank Sinatra acted as a liaison between the leader of Chicago’s mafia and the Kennedy family during the ’60s primarily in order to get union backing. When Kennedy reneged on his promises after being elected, Sinatra was punished by having to play 8 straight nights at the crime boss’s club.
Gah, it seems like such a mess. Who extorted who and when and was violence necessary? Or did a smattering of good old-fashioned fear do the trick? And who the hell is keeping it all straight?
Doug: They have the nickname of organized crime, but how organized are they really?
Elie: To some extent, not organized at all. I mean, you’re not going to see like their ledger sheets and that kind of thing, if they’re doing business off the books, but they do have their own internal controls. It’s well known who has what mob union, who has what business.
I always found this so fascinating. If they run into problems, and they do a lot, both internally, within, let’s say, the Gambino family. And externally between, let’s say, the Colombo and the Bonanno families, they have their own legal system, shadow legal system, where they work out beefs, as they call them, through what they call sit-downs. And it’s almost like many civil court cases were.
So let’s say two different guys, let’s say a new butcher shop opens up in Queens, and the Lucchese think it should be theirs, but the Bonannos think it should be theirs because they were extorting the prior guy, hence, they inherited it. But the Luccheses say no, he’s someone who we were doing business with before, they’ll do a sit-down. It’s a meeting between representatives, they even have almost like lawyers, usually, the actual principals don’t sit down, they get representatives. And it has to be equal rank to equal rank, meaning mob rank. So if one side has a captain, which is a high rank, the other side can’t send a soldier which is a lower rank, it has to be captain to captain, soldier to soldier, and then they make their arguments.
It’s easier within the family, because then the boss can just go he wins, he loses. But they have to try to work out a solution. And if they can’t within the mob families, that’s when you start to get into escalated conflicts of the ultimate form. That is when you get into a war where they’re killing each other. But they’ve been smart enough to work out shit like that for the last two decades or so.
Doug: TV shows and movies about the mafia are violent, and they seem to be never-ending. Why do you think the mafia captures our collective imagination?
Elie: It’s a little bit of a chicken and an egg thing, right? Are we fascinated with the mafia because of the Godfather and Sopranos and Goodfellas? Or did those shows and movies succeed because we were already fascinated with the mafia?
I think just the stories are so good. I mean, it’s part of the reason I wanted to be a mafia prosecutor was because the stories are so outrageous, the personalities of these guys, the murders are terrifying, and they make for good TV, right? The most memorable scenes in those movies are the murder scenes.
I do think about sometimes it’s important that we not glamorize it. And I used to always be concerned about this when I was arguing a mafia trial to a jury. There is such a thing as the jury becoming charmed by the mafia defendant. It’s the same way you sit there and you root for Tony Soprano, the anti-hero.
Which brings us back to what the mafia, at their core, really wants.
Elie: Fundamentally, there are two things that the mob cares about and wants to achieve. One is they want to make money. Two is they don’t want to get pinched. They don’t want to get arrested and thrown in jail. And murders really run against both of those goals.
One of the things about being a part of the mob is you don’t really have to kill that many people to scare people. They’ve heard of one or two murderes, or they’ve seen it on the news. And that’s plenty enough to scare people.
There is such a thing as the jury becoming charmed by the mafia defendant.
Doug: Is the mafia really that violent?
Elie: So it’s a great question. And the answer is not as much not anymore. There’s been a major decline in the number of mob hits over the past couple decades. If I had to boil down why that’s the case to a one-word answer, it would be business. Just business.
For the most part, they’ve traded in their piano wires and pistols “legitimacy” via good ol’ union and business extortion. They’ve swapped actual violence with the fear of it.
In the new age where the mafia counts on old tales of violence to continue lining their pockets with cash, they might be providing a path of power to other shadowy organizations. The kind that won’t hesitate to get their hands bloody—and bury the Italian Mafia as we know it in a shallow grave.
Elie: I think they’ve made, whether consciously or not, a cost-benefit calculation that murder and other acts of violence are no longer worth it. I wonder at what point people stop being afraid of them or start becoming more afraid of some of the rising criminal groups that I started to see towards the end of my time as a prosecutor. The Albanian mob, Russian mob, Chinese mob which is based in Chinatown right around the corner from my office in Manhattan.
I wonder if there comes a point where those mobs start becoming more feared than the old-school Italian mob and as a result, start moving in on their business of extortion and other fear-based enterprises. I wonder how long they can survive.