“A street guy like T is a different kind of person. Everything for a guy like that, for, a member, is different. They’re in that private world of their own and that’s all they want to know. They’re in it all their lives. They’ve got fathers and uncles and cousins inside. They’re many inside and, believe me, they love it. They’re like gypsies, all by themselves with their secrets. They love to sit around and make deals with each other. Make their moves. When you and I are in bed, they’re making their moves.
“You should see them go through the papers in the morning, sucking their fingers and turning the page, sucking their fingers and turning the page, and then, when they get to something they like, they say, ‘Questo ca e una Cosa nostra,’ and that means, ‘This is something for us,’ you know what I mean? Believe me, when they go to church, because most of them are so religious they got saints hanging all over the walls of their houses, when they go to church they pray to God, ‘O Jesus, Mary and Joseph, give me the strength to rob again.’
“Even when they get arrested, and for them that’s no disgrace, they’re making their deals. They sit with each other in the cafes and with their lawyers. ‘Can we reach this guy?’ ‘Can we do it this way?’ ‘If we take a plea, can we make a bargain?’ That’s what they love. Always dealing. With the cops, the D.A., everybody. It’s like playing pinochle with prison sentences.
“I remember near the end of the war when T got drafted. In six months he was back on the street with a psycho discharge and 100 per cent disability from the Government. He was no more crazy than I am, but he kept yelling and banging his head on the floor and eating newspapers until they gave up. See what I mean? Always scheming. Not enough to be back on the street, he comes out with $350 a month clear for the rest of his life. I remember when he got out we had some birthday party for him. It was one of the only times I remember that he laughed, but he was still pretty young.”
Frank Mari, alias Frankie T, alias Frank Russo, alias T, kissed his wife goodbye the morning of Sept. 18, shoved his forearm into the playful jaws of his white German shepherd, handed a small overnight bag to his bodyguard and drove away from his Searington, L.I., home for what many of his Mafia contemporaries feel was the last time. Within two weeks a story appeared on page 30 of The New York Times that read, in part:
Frank Mari, a gunman who survived three years of the Mafia’s “Banana War,” vanished more than two weeks ago and is now believed by Nassau County police to have been murdered, along with Michael Adamo.
But what is puzzling the police is whether the double killing—if that is what happened—marks renewal of the underworld war by friends of the exiled Joseph (Joe Bananas) Bonanno, or was the work of some of Mari’s associates jealous of his rapid rise as an underboss to Paul Sciacca, Bonanno’s successor ….
“Until we find the bodies, either dead or alive, we’re not sure of anything,” said a high New York police official. “It could be murder, and it could be that these two fellows had a reason for disappearing.”
Marl’s wife, Jane, and Adamo’s wife, Grace, did not report their husbands’ disappearance to the police immediately.
At 43 years Frank Mari was not one of the city’s most prominent mafiosi. He rarely found his name in the newspaper, and when he did it usually appeared midway down a list of multisyllabic surnames, most of which were either misspelled or followed by phony addresses. Frank Mari had never been arrested at any of the prestigious Apalachin‐style meetings, had never testified before a Congressional committee or had to duck the television crews and newsmen who waited outside police stations and legislative hearings. Joseph Valachi’s naming him a “soldier” in the Mafia family of Joseph Bonanno attracted no public attention and very little interest among the most ambitious prosecutors. Even his criminal record, which dates back to 1945 and includes eight arrests for a variety of charges from felonious assault to conspiracy to violate Federal narcotics laws, has only one conviction. In May of 1968 Frank Mari began to serve a three‐month jail term for illegal possession of a gun.
Frank Mari was just one of 4,500 Federally certified Cosa Nostra members, and his life, like the lives of the majority of those pathologically defensive men, was inbred and insular. Mari’s father‐in‐law is a captain in the Bonanno family; his brother‐in‐Iaw is a soldier in the Genovese family, and 17 months before his disappearance he was credited with encouraging the marriage of his niece to the son of Paul Sciacca, then the boss of the entire Bonanno family. Like most mafiosi, Mari did not associate with anyone who was not either a member or related to a member of that exotic sub culture. Outsiders—all outsiders—are considered prey who can be lied to, cheated, frightened, robbed and murdered.
Around strangers Mari was silent, remote, and expressionless. His life was as narrowly prescribed as that of a Supreme Court justice. Reclusive, quiet and even dull, Mari lived with his wife and two daughters in middle‐class suburban community where he was considered a polite, if remote, neighbor. Mari’s son, a 21-year‐old law student, was away at school most of the time. Mari’s hobbies were limited to training his dog and collecting rare coins. His neighbors, who had heard of Mari’s Mafia connections, either refused to believe it or said it made no difference since he was more desirable than some of their other neighbors. Even a New York City patrolman who lived nearby said there was very little about Marl’s home life to criticize.
“He was always a gentleman,” the patrolman said. “Only time I ever saw him was when he was playing with his kids or when he was in the backyard on Saturday morning teaching his dog to be vicious.”
Away from his home, Mari’s life appeared just as uneventful. During the day he always ate before or after the lunch and dinner hours to avoid being seated next to strangers, and he never ate in a restaurant where he did not know personally the owners and waiters. Despite the fact that both police and Mafia informers swear that Mari could be a cruel, ruthless killer, equally adept with gun, garrote or knife, he never acted precipitantly. Like millions of other Americans he was treated rudely by retail clerks; restaurants and bars sometimes padded his bills, and he had to wait in line to see first‐run films with his wife on Saturday night.
On occasion he did exercise his power as a member of the Honored Society in personal matters, but not often. Once a very close friend asked him to see what could be done about a narcotics pusher who was selling drugs around a Bronx school. The police, Mari’s friend said, could or would do nothing. Selling narcotics to strangers is business to the mafiosi, except when it threatens their homes. Therefore, when Mari had determined that the pusher was not connected with any Mafia family, or “mobbed up,” he ordered two goons sent to the school, where they mercilessly beat the man. The man fled the neighborhood and never returned.
On another occasion, Mari found out that a rare coin, worth $1,500, which he had intended to buy for his $19,000 collection, had been stolen from a coin dealer. According to several of his friends, Mari was agitated enough by the theft to dispatch some of his men to question fences all around the city. When they discovered who had done the job, Mari had the burglar’s Brooklyn house staked out as though the burglar were being set up for a hit. When the man got home and was confronted by four, tight‐lipped gunmen in two cars, he screamed that they couldn’t possibly want him, that there had to be some mistake. He was even more bewildered when his abductors took him before a Mafia coin collector who gave him $500 for the coin and sent him back to Brooklyn in chauffeured car with two bodyguards.
On still another occasion a local priest asked Mari if he could help the Christmas collection for the children of the poor. A few days later a truckload of toys was delivered to the church along with several racks of new children’s clothing and a cash gift of $2,000. Mari’s only stipulation was that he be acknowledged as the donor.
As a Mafia soldier, Frank Mari knew that his telephone was tapped, his house was bugged and that three or four days every month he was the subject of a routine 24‐hour surveillance by either local or Federal agents. These, as well as thousands of other inconveniences, had long ago been incorporated into his life, just as they have become a part of the lives of other mafiosi. He knew that telephones were to be used sparingly and for only the briefest and most cryptic messages. Conversations about the brotherhood or indictable crimes were invariably held out of doors, usually while walking through crowded city streets with bodyguard or “shooter” near by. During such walks Mari employed the old jailhouse technique of using a news paper, handkerchief or even his hand to cover his mouth in an attempt to thwart lip readers.
Mari avoided telephones to such an extent that he would not use even the public phones in the immediate vicinity of his house. Mafiosi insist that the F.B.I. deliberately breaks most of the pay telephones in the vicinity of their homes, then taps the few that are left working. On the days when Mari was under surveillance he followed a common Mafia police practice, worked out for their mutual convenience, whereby his daily itinerary was shown to the lawmen so that if they became accidentally separated in traffic during the day, the police tail could always pick him up at the next stop. On such days, of course, most of Mari’s illegal activities were taken care of by his associates or relatives.
Until his disappearance, Frank Mari ruled a million dollar Mafia conglomerate from a chair outside a dingy, storefront social club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. As a soldier, or ranking member, Mari controlled certain illegal activities in a number of New York neighborhoods and had authority over dozens of bookmakers, loan sharks, policy bankers and street‐level thugs. He oversaw an elaborately diverse operation that assured smooth payoffs to corrupt police, the arrangement of bail bonds for employees arrested for bookmaking or policy and the protection of his rackets from the incursion of other Mafia soldiers. He also served as confessor and judge to some of the most incorrigible personalities in the world and peacefully adjudicated matters involving their income and pride. His authority was based on fear and respect for the organization he represented. “He was some butcher,” a local hood whispered. “He wasted a lot of guys.”
Frank Mari was also an ambitious man. He always wanted to better himself, say his friends, and he was often on the street 16 to 18 hours a day. Many say he worked so hard taking care of the bits and pieces of his scattered little empire, as well as performing chores for his own superiors, that he often fell asleep in his car late at night when his bodyguard drove him home. Every weekday morning, however, between 10 and 11 o’clock, his bodyguard and chauffeur would pick him up at his $45,000 house and drive him directly to his mother’s one‐family house in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. There, his bodyguard got out of the car first and rang the bell. Mari would not leave the car until the house door was opened. The driver remained in the auto mobile and the bodyguard watched the street from the living room throughout the visit. By noon, Mari was on his way to the social club and another day’s work.
On hot summer days he would take off his shirt and straddle a chair on the sidewalk in front of the club. In the winter he sat inside and sipped cup after cup of coffee squeezed from the club’s espresso machine. Whenever Frank Mari was at his club a score of restless men seemed to surround him, but rarely did any of them address him directly. Usually they could be seen wandering in and out of the club on pointless missions such as buying newspapers they never read and sandwiches they never ate. They would borrow automobile keys from each other, lounge against the fenders of parked cars, adjust their collars in front of the club’s dusty windows, which read “MEMBERS ONLY” and jingle loose coins in their pockets as they watched the movements of any strangers on the narrow, tenement‐lined street. Social clubs like Frank Mari’s are found in the Old World, southern‐Italian communities that dot most cities in the northeastern United States. These are communities in which the food, language and lifestyle have barely changed in almost 100 years.
“Down here,” a neighborhood merchant said, thumbing his finger out the window of his store toward Broome Street, “this is West Point for the wise guys. This is where everybody comes, where they’ve got all their clubs, where all the meets take place. The wise guys come here from all over. It doesn’t matter where they live now, they’ve got to come down to the neighborhood to stay tuned in.
“Even though you don’t know it, they’re aware of everybody in the neighborhood,” he continued. “They got nothing to do but hang around and look at faces. They know if they’re safe or if they’re not. They know from childhood who lives where, who works where, what time they go out, what time they come in. They know all the doors on the block. Which ones are locked, which are open. It’s a joke. Once in a while the police rent a room to take pictures and license plate numbers, and the wise guys know a week in advance from the landlord. Sometimes the young ones, to show off, make faces at the cameras and yell up at the cops who are hiding in the little rooms, ‘Ya want coffee?’
“You got to understand, down here a guy with a baby carriage, a legitimate guy in every way, grows up with mob guys. They went their way, he went his, yes, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t warn them if he sees a bunch of strangers poking around. By the same token that man never worries about his home, his family, nothing. There are houses down here that don’t even have locks they’re so safe with the wise guys hanging around. They caught one guy in a hallway on Elizabeth Street a couple of months ago who didn’t belong—he followed somebody home from the train. When they saw he had a knife, they took him up to the roof and threw him off. Down here it’s instinctive. They protect the neighborhood and the neighborhood protects them.”
Mafia families are essentially administrative in nature and have very little to do with geographic boundaries, partnerships or even the nature of their members’ illegal activities. Certain Mafia families and crews do tend to be concentrated in specific neighborhoods and specialize in particular illegal activities, but family interests overlap and the entire operation is far more decentralized than organized‐crime reports make it appear.
Mingling with the hangers‐on, the musclemen and the social club regulars who surrounded Frank Mari at his club were his trusted aides. Each had been given a specific aspect of Mari’s illegal operation to guide. One concentrated on Mari’s loan sharks around the city, kept tabs on how much of Mari’s money was “on the street” and how much interest it was accumulating every week. Another supervised bookmakers who operated under the umbrella of Mari’s Mafia franchise. Still another was in charge of the card‐and‐dice games he operated out of midtown Manhattan, a phase of the business that many of Mari’s contemporaries shun because of its complexities. He was able to profitable card‐and‐dice games in several midtown hotels because he was adept at handling the dangers of such an operation—police protection, the hotel’s cooperation, the inevitable risk of introducing sore losers to the game.
“He always knew to respect the edicts of the older guys. He always showed them his respect,” a local ex‐convict said of his friend. “As a kid I seen him kiss a lot of hands, and he always bowed when he was with them. The old men knew he was brought up right. His mother was proud. But, you see, T was moving. In his head he knew be had no hook. You got to remember, T wasn’t Sicilian. He was from Reggio di Calabria, and so he didn’t have any uncles or grandfathers who could help him get inside. That’s why sometimes I think he always had to do a little bit extra.
“If an old Don wanted somebody straightened out, T was the first there and he’d put the guy away for six months. He took open contracts on anybody they said. He was looking to earn his stripes because he knew he wasn’t going to inherit them like a lot of punks. T was a rough kid and everybody gave him a wide berth. In a fight, when it was all over, T always turned around and gave you one more shot.
“At the neighborhood feast one year—he was still a kid—he went in to a funeral parlor and he told them he was taking their folding chairs. He got some of his kids—they were selling protection to the Jew pushcarts then—and they set up the chairs in front of the bandstand, and they charged anybody who wanted to sit down 25 cents or 50 cents, I can’t remember. He left a relative there with the apron to make the collection. Don Zaza—that’s the Sicilian for Salvatore — gave his permission, and to show his respect, T kicked in to the old man. You could see they were going to groom him. I hear they kept him out of a lot of trouble. You know, a word here, a word there. They were grooming him. His mother was proud.
“I don’t even think he went to high school. He teamed up instead with another kid in the neighborhood who was related to mob guys, and they had guys selling a little junk for them on Ridge and Stanton and Rivington Street. Remember, they’re not inside, but they’ve got permission. By the time they’re 19 years old, they’re doing $20,000 a year each from junk alone, and Mari’s still got the protection thing he built up with the paper‐waste guys on Cherry and Water streets. He and his partner even started Shylocking to the workers in that area.
“They worked out of a little sandwich shop on Rutgers and Cherry Streets. T set a guy up in the joint, and he made delicious heroes. Frank would be in the shop every day. It was dilapidated and the floors slanted. There were 12 to 15 tables in the place with a counter in the rear, and it was a place for truck drivers, paper handlers, working guys. T would show up in the morning. Who needed money? He would loan it. His collections went on all day long. He would meet with guys in that store between 11 A.M. and 3 in the afternoon. In those days his mother was his banker. Everything he made went to his mother.
When he was 21, he married his partner’s sister, and you could see right away he was mobbed‐up perfect. ‘Lillo’ (Carmine Galente) and Don Zaza took a special interest in the kid. They were watching him move. He began to do more and more Shylocking and moved away from the protection. He organized a demolition‐union local in the neighborhood. He started to diversify. He got a bar on Second Avenue and ran card games in three neighborhood social clubs. He also had a stickup crew working for him, and they’d do mostly jewelry salesmen. Don Zaza would set them up, and Frankie would turn it over to his crew.
“His partner made a deal with a legitimate wholesaler, and they began supplying the legit guy with furs, hi‐fi’s, TV’s, tape recorders. They finally became partners with the guy, and they opened a couple of discount stores. The stickup crew had four guys, and T made between $20,000 and $40,000 a year from the heists and burglaries alone. You understand, he’s still doing junk, loan‐sharking and, just to keep his hand in, doing a couple muscle jobs himself. He’s got all this plus the legitimate discount place. You can see he’s beginning to make big money, but to show you his ways, he’s still living in Knickerbocker Village in five rooms for $120 a month. The old‐timers like that. It shows them he’s a solid kid.
“He was growing up more Sicilian than the Sicilians. He showed at christenings, funerals, weddings, confirmations, everything. He always brought a present and he was always generous. And he always went to funerals. For those people, you know, whether you hate a man or like him, even if you killed him, it’s only right that you’ve got to be there to pay your respects.
“Finally in 1956, at 30 years old, he made his bones. ‘Lillo’ was his sponsor. Local guys all gave their backing. He was one of the last to get in for a 10‐year period when they closed the books. It was in a basement in Elizabeth, N. J., in a private house. The table was presided over by Tommy Brown (Gaetano Luc chese), Albert Anastasia, Richie ‘The Boot’ (Ruggiero Boiardo) and a few from East Harlem. The initiation was jazzed up a little, but blood was mixed between the old and new members, and they drank it in the wine. ‘Lillo’ was cute enough. He knew T was a good earner. He demanded, as sponsor, that Frankie go in his crew—the Bonanno crew. Bonanno wanted T too, but so did Lucchese. He went with Bonanno, because the sponsor gets first choice. His partner went with the Genovese crew, but he really wanted to go to Lucchese. This didn’t mean that their partnership was ended, even though they are in different crews. The newspapers got the rules all mixed up about crews.
“With membership,” the man continued, “the whole world opens up. You get outlets. T got more Shylock locations. With O.K.’s from bosses he could get into lots of things, with the boss getting a piece. He got so much more business with his demolition line that the local he ran didn’t have enough men to handle the jobs. All of a sudden he was partners with Profaci’s brother in a Brooklyn dress business. He and his first partner became owners of a chain of beauty shops in New York and Brooklyn. He still had some crap games in midtown hotels. He was given a numbers operation in different garment factories, plus Shylocking. They go hand‐in‐hand.
“He got offers to go into legit businesses— some bars and 15‐cent pizza stands. The beauty shops and barber supplies. The owners need money. Eventually they become partners. The owner gives up a part of the action in the place to wise guys, and with them as partners you do well. T had his sisters, his mother, father, wife, uncles, everybody was on the pad in different corporations. He was doing so well he had to get a steady corporate lawyer to handle his legitimate business, plus a C.P.A. There are bunch of really top lawyers and accountants who specialize in the legit stuff for mob guys.”
It was at a time when things appeared to be going particularly well for Frank Mari that the Banana War began. In 1964 his family boss, Joseph Bonanno, was kidnapped by the Mafia’s “national commission,” a kind of board of directors, and threatened with death unless he retired immediately. He was kidnapped because the commission had learned that he was plotting to murder two other Mafia bosses in an attempt to take over Vito Genovese’s place as the “boss of all bosses,” and planned to elevate his son, Salvatore, to the head of his own family. Fearful for his life, Bonanno promised the commission that he would retire, but as soon as he was released Bonanno approached Frank Mari and asked him to side with him against the commission’s officers. “If we pull this off you’re a big man, but if count you out,” Bonanno said, “you’re the enemy.”
“To be a boss, believe me, it’s better than being President of States.”
Shortly after that conversation Mari told a friend, who was associated with another crew, that he was siding with the commission against Bonanno. “I’m not going to war against the world,” he said.
“T gets his shooters together, six or more, and now he’s at war,” his friend continued. “He’s not living a scheduled life. He’s got a couple of apartments around town. All day and night he’s with at least two guys, Jimmy Legs and Kenny Lazinsky. He had men in and around the clubs and wherever he had business. He curtailed visiting, and when he went anywhere he had spotters on the street. The club was an armed camp, and the apartment upstairs had guns and rifles stashed all over the place. Business had to be done, but almost nobody could come to see him. In a war everybody is on edge, everybody’s in trouble. You’ve got a hundred guys running around scared. Business suffers. Guys are living all around, and they got changes of clothes all over town. Messages are all going through the family, because who else can you trust?”
The shooting war began on a spring day in 1966 when Frank Mari at the direction of his new, commission‐appointed boss, Gaspar Di Gregorio, attempted a daylight ambush against Salvatore Bonanno on Troutman Street in Brooklyn. The ambush failed and revenge was swift. In July Mari was shot in the left shoulder and grazed on the temple while just a few blocks from his mother’s house. The war escalated in November, 1967, when three of Mari’s men were killed in a burst of sub machine‐gun fire as they were eating in the Cypress Gardens restaurant in Ridgewood.
Four months later an ally and close friend of the Bonannos, Sam Perrone, was standing in front of his trucking company offices in Brooklyn when two men walked up to him and shot him dead. Police, who began to worry about all the shooting, suspected Mari and his bodyguard, James (Jimmy Legs) Episcopia, of having killed Perrone in revenge for the murder of their own three men. A few days later Mari and Jimmy Legs were arrested outside a bar on Forsyth Street in downtown Manhattan and charged with the illegal possession of firearms. Police said they were lying in wait to finish off another Bonanno loyalist when they were seized. It was for this arrest that Frank Mari received his first and only prison sentence—three months. The murders and disappearances continued, and upon his release Mari found himself devoting all of his time to the war.
“T is getting sick and tired of all this,” his friend continued. “The old guy may have been the boss, but T was doing all the work. I think he had something to do with getting the commission and Carlo Gambino to tell Di Gregorio to step down and turn the family over to Paul Sciacca. T, remember, is right next to Sciacca. His niece is married to the old man’s son, and it looks like the minute those Bonanno cowboys stop shooting, T becomes a boss. You know what that means? To be a boss, believe me, it’s better than being President of States.”
As a result of the current Banana War many of the city’s mafiosi have gone underground. Therefore, when Frank Mari and Michael Adamo, his consigliori (adviser), disappeared Sept. 18, many of their associates and relatives thought they, too, had simply gone into hiding. A few days later, when Mari’s bodyguard could not be found either, rumors began to circulate in Mafia and police circles that the three of them had been “taken off.”
There were no bodies, however, no funerals and no commiserating among Mafia wives. Uncertainty continued among everyone associated with Mari for more than a month, until the time that his widow, in the traditional manner, let it be known her husband was dead. By the simple act of distributing her husband’s personal effects among his business partners, Mafia associates and relatives, Mrs. Mari declared her husband had been killed. In Sicily the widow of a mafioso gives his lupare and boots to his heir. Here the custom remains, but instead of a shotgun and boots, the widow oversees the orderly distribution of bowling alleys, discount stores, restaurants, beauty parlors and assorted parcels of real estate. The Honored Society itself took over Mari’s illegitimate operations and distributed them among his peers, perhaps, as is its Byzantine way, even among his murderers. Mari’s policeman neighbor thinks that perhaps Mari is actually in hiding.
“The way he kissed his wife goodbye,” the patrolman said, “his suitcase, everything about the way he left that morning looked like he was going away on a trip. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he was hiding somewhere. What the hell, I hope he’s not dead.”