The body of the Bonanno boss, Carmine Galante, cigar still in place, in a Brooklyn garden July 12, 1979.
Mob Family's Undoing, a Turncoat at a Time
For Baldassare Amato, a Sicilian immigrant who came to this country more than 30 years ago, traditions seem to die hard. But they are dying nonetheless.
Over the last five weeks, Mr. Amato, a slender, hard-eyed 54-year-old, has listened intently in Federal District Court in Brooklyn as prosecutors and Mafia turncoats have told stories of gangland murder in rich detail, stories that could land Mr. Amato in prison for life.
But in the process, they have also told another story, about the decline of the Bonanno family, which in the last four years has seen its ranks decimated and its traditions crumble as a literal mob of defectors has rushed into the open arms of the government, not least among them the boss, Joseph Massino.
On the first day of the trial, the prosecutors surveyed the wreckage that is the crime family as Mr. Amato sat stoically. An assistant United States attorney spent more than an hour projecting individual mug shots and surveillance photographs of nearly four dozen Bonanno mobsters on a wall-size screen over the heads of Mr. Amato and his two co-defendants. The pictures were annotated for the jury by an expert witness, who, under questioning by a prosecutor, described their roles in the crime family.
It was a grim tally. Twelve are dead, 26 are in prison — half of them cooperating with the F.B.I. and prosecutors — with the rest on the street. Brooklyn prosecutors say that over all, in the last four years, they have won convictions against roughly 75 mobsters or associates in a crime clan with fewer than 150 made members.
Prosecutors say Mr. Amato has devoted most of his adult life to the crime family, and the scope of the government's assault did not seem lost on him.
A dour man who still speaks with a thick accent, he was 18 when he came to Brooklyn with his parents from Castellammare del Golfo, a fishing village on Sicily's rocky northern shore known for the mob giants it has sent to Brooklyn over the last century.
In 1979, when he was just 27, he was present — and some argue complicit — in one of the most infamous mob killings in New York history, the slaying of Carmine Galante, the Bonanno boss. Galante was gunned down on a humid July day after a late lunch in the rear garden of a Brooklyn restaurant. A famous photograph shows him dead amid the toppled tables and chairs with a cigar still clenched between his teeth.
Mr. Amato, who is known as Baldo, never rose above the rank of soldier, prosecutors say. But he has long been a respected — and feared — power in the family, particularly among its Sicilian-born members, who seem to hew more closely to mob tradition than those born here.
In fact, the fear that he instilled was apparent in the courtroom two weeks ago. When a cooperating witness took the stand and saw Mr. Amato sitting at the defense table, he balked, at first refusing to testify moments after he was sworn in by the presiding judge, Nicholas G. Garaufis.
"You may be seated," Judge Garaufis told the witness, Francesco Fiordilino, a 36-year-old Bonanno associate who also came to Brooklyn from Castellammare del Golfo and knew Mr. Amato from childhood.
"Your Honor, I ain't testifying," Mr. Fiordilino suddenly volunteered.
"What's that?" the stunned judge asked.
"I ain't testifying," he repeated.
The defense and prosecution agreed to break for lunch. The lead prosecutor, John Buretta, said that during the recess, the government would speak to the witness, who had testified without reservations in 2004 against Mr. Massino, then the family's boss.
After the break, Mr. Buretta explained Mr. Fiordilino's reticence: "The witness is scared of Baldo Amato."
And before the jury returned, Judge Garaufis gave a warning to Mr. Amato's family members in the gallery: "If anyone in the audience is passing glances at the witness, the person will be excluded from the trial henceforth, and I don't mean maybe."
From the witness stand, Mr. Fiordilino gave the jury his own explanation for his earlier refusal.
"I was a bit nervous," he said. "I know the defendant, and his family knows my family a long time."
His reluctance probably did not help Mr. Amato, who is charged with racketeering conspiracy and the murders of two Bonanno associates in 1992.
Mr. Fiordilino was just one of a half-dozen Bonanno family defectors who testified in the trial, which is expected to wrap up with closing arguments this week. Another witness was Salvatore Vitale, the family's underboss when Mr. Amato went to prison in 1999 on federal robbery conspiracy charges. Mr. Amato has been in prison ever since and thus did not see firsthand as a virtual army of Bonanno figures became turncoats over the last four years.
During much of the testimony, Mr. Amato remained impassive, as he watched his former confederates detail the history and mores of the crime family.
Mr. Vitale's testimony was damning. He discussed a meeting he had at a diner in Queens with another Bonanno family figure whom he had previously asked to arrange for gunmen from Canada to kill a family associate. But the man, Gerlando Sciascia, known as George from Canada, arrived at the meeting instead with Mr. Amato, and suggested Mr. Amato be the gunman.
"Baldo turned around and says to me: 'Mr. Sal, I'll take care of it, don't worry about it, ' " Mr. Vitale testified, adding that Mr. Amato continued: "You bring the guy, and don't worry about it. I'll take care of it. I'll kill him."
Mr. Amato's lawyer, Diarmuid White, acknowledged in his opening statement that his client had "made a wrong turn" as a young man and he promised the jurors that he would not "present him to you as a man who has led an admirable life." But he also told the panel that the evidence they would hear linking his client to the murders was "thin" and the witnesses "not trustworthy."
Last week, he said that if Mr. Amato were acquitted, "he plans to spend the rest of his days on an island off the coast of Sicily, engaged in the trade of his ancestors, fishing."
Prosecutors, however, contend that the evidence is anything but thin. They have nonetheless turned to a bit of stagecraft to make sure that Mr. Amato never leaves prison, going so far as to wheel in a model of a full-size skeleton and stand it in front of the jury box to help with the testimony of a forensic pathologist during the fourth week of the trial.
The pathologist, Amy Mundorff, used the skeleton to explain the injuries to the body of the man prosecutors say Mr. Amato had volunteered to kill: Robert Perrino, who oversaw the newspaper delivery operation at The New York Post until he was shot to death in 1992.
Prosecutors have charged that Mr. Amato shot him several times in the head in a social club run by one of his co-defendants, Anthony Basile, 36. Mr. Basile, identified at the trial as a Bonanno associate, is charged with providing the location for the murder and being part of the clean-up crew that disposed of the body.
After the murder, Mr. Perrino's corpse was buried in a heavy equipment yard on Staten Island. But prosecutors said it was moved several years later when Mr. Basile was arrested on an unrelated case and some of his accomplices feared that he might lead the authorities to the grave.
The F.B.I. found the body nonetheless and dug it up on Dec. 12, 2003, Ms. Mundorff testified. She spent a grisly afternoon on the stand, taking the jury through photographs of Mr. Perrino's skeletal remains, which had been wrapped in a rug, explaining how flesh decomposes, where the bullets had entered and how to differentiate between bones broken before and after death. She placed small round red stickers on the right side of the back of the skeleton's skull to indicate the bullet entry wounds, and blue stickers on the front and sides to show where the bullets exited as the rapt jury looked on. She used a green sticker to indicate where a bullet fragment had remained inside the skull.
She also testified that there was a small hole consistent with a sharp object being jammed into the side of Mr. Perrino's skull.
That matched testimony later from another Bonanno turncoat, who said a member of the clean-up crew had noticed that Mr. Perrino was still alive as they prepared to dispose of the body and had jammed an ice pick into his head.
Under questioning by another prosecutor, Jeffrey Goldberg, that witness, Frank Lino, a former capo, said he complained to Mr. Vitale, who had directed him to oversee the killing and cleanup, saying that the gunman had done a shoddy job. "Next time you send somebody to get killed, make sure the guy is dead — when we walked up there, the guy was alive, he could have shot us," Mr. Lino said he had told Mr. Vitale.
Mr. Basile's defense in the case, put forward by his lawyer, Gail Laser, has presented a striking contrast to Mr. Amato's. The two men, sitting at opposite ends of the defense table, separated by the third defendant, Stephen Locurto, could almost be seen as representing the mob's old world and new.
The old-world Mr. Amato shows little emotion and speaks little to his lawyer, Mr. White. Mr. Basile, on the other hand, often shakes his head during testimony, sometimes rolling his eyes, scribbling on a notepad and whispering to Ms. Laser.
Mr. Locurto, 45, who prosecutors have said is a soldier in the family, also seemed to take a path that veered from the more traditional world of Mr. Amato. He testified in his own defense, an unusual violation of Mafia protocol, though it was unclear whether he had sought permission from the family hierarchy to do so.
But it was Mr. Basile's case that seemed to present the most stunning departure from the old-world Mafia mores. His lawyer, Ms. Laser, sought to portray him in her opening statement as a young man swept away by the romance of the gangsters he saw in his Bensonhurst neighborhood, men with money, cars, women and respect. As a result, she said, he made a mistake and associated with the wrong people.
Perhaps because she did not want the jury to confuse her client with a tough guy, let alone a killer, she painted a picture of him that must have rankled the traditional Mr. Amato.
"He is terrified," she told the jury, "that he finds himself in this enormous, intimidating courtroom with all of these lawyers, with these F.B.I. agents, with the court and, of course, all of you, judging him, as he sits here, fighting for his life, for what will be for him the rest of his life."