Burke and Hill were losing their minds in Florida hunting for Eaton. Up north in New York Tommy DeSimone was dressing for his acceptance into the Mafia. He donned his double-breasted black Bill Blass suit, a starched blue shirt, and beige silk tie. His hair was trimmed and coiffed, and he could’ve passed for a Hollywood star nominated for an Oscar. Vario’s son, Pete Jr., was en route to DeSimone’s house; he’d been chosen to chauffeur the made man candidate to the secret hideout where he’d be initiated into the Lucchese outfit. DeSimone lived in Ozone Park, an Italian neighborhood crawling with underworld figures. Many of them, DeSimone included, dwelled in unkempt residences built in the spawning 1900s. Despite the squalor they lived in, they bought new Cadillacs every two years.
Pete Vario Jr. rang the bell, and DeSimone’s wife, Angela, let him in. DeSimone came out of his room and gave Pete Jr. a high sign. He kissed Angela good-bye and left with his friend. Angela, a gum-chewing, hard-core woman with a permanent of plastered blonde hair, waved to her husband. “Good luck, Tommy. Hope it all goes well. Lemme know if you’re coming home for dinner tonight.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll call you after it’s over.”
Pete Jr. shifted the black Caddy into drive and accelerated moderately. DeSimone fidgeted with his tie, and Pete Jr. glanced at him. “You look a bit nervous, pal. Relax, it’s gonna be all right.” Pete Jr. steered toward the northbound lanes of the Cross Island Parkway, heading for the Throgs Neck Bridge. They crossed over Long Island Sound, the Cadillac then stopped at the tollbooth, and Pete Jr. paid the $1.25 fee. As if it were riding on air, the automobile floated along the rutted streets of the South Bronx and in twenty minutes crossed Arthur Avenue.
Blue-collar masses and factions of outlaws were scattered throughout the Bronx. Three-story tenements built in the late 1800s landscaped the residential blocks. Rusting wrought-iron fire escapes attached precariously to the flaking mortar on the brick walls of the housings were an all-too-familiar sight. Cooking flavors spilled into the streets, and drying laundry flapped at the windows— as did the mouths of tenants who frittered time chatting with neighbors on bordering balconies. Clashing and screeching music squawked from everywhere, and Jerry Vale and Jimmy Rosselli recordings blared twenty-six hours a day.
In the flats, you’d run into bragging Italian Americans, the sort who spoke of an uncle or a cousin who was “connected.” (Strangely, though, no one ever clarified to what or to whom.) These charlatans bragged of belonging to the Mafia, but in actuality those who do are forbidden to publicize it. And if a made man disobeys this rule, he’s subject to severe punishment—a hollow-point .38 into the temple.
Pete Jr. parked the ocean liner–like Cadillac, and he and DeSimone went into an Italian restaurant, Don Vito’s. The handful of tables were covered with red and white plaid tablecloths, and one wall was painted with a mural of the Bay of Naples, a plume of white smoke billowing in the foreground from the peak of Mount Vesuvius. In a throwback to the early twentieth century, sawdust was sprinkled on the wooden plank floors. Music played loudly from speakers in the dropped ceiling panels; Luciano Pavarotti’s unwavering tenor was belting out a vintage Italian song, “Mamma.”
A tanned Dean Martin look-alike wearing a glittering silvery gym suit greeted Pete Jr. and DeSimone. He motioned for the two wise guys to follow him into a stairway leading to a dimly lit basement, where three older men that, in similarity to wax statues, sat motionless around an octagonal card table.
DeSimone smelled chicken pizzaiola, the bistro’s specialty. After the ritual, he’d feast on a bear-size portion of this dish, washing it down with a bottle of red wop. As was customary at the Mafia christening of a made man, candles glowed on the walls and everywhere. DeSimone, edginess in his look, peered tentatively at those seated. He didn’t recognize the faces, and it rippled his nerves. “Is this where I’m gettin’ christened?” he asked, caution in his voice.
The elderly gentlemen, their hands wrinkled and dotted with freckles bowed their heads in unison. Unexpectedly, at least to DeSimone, from a doorway materialized the silhouette of a man. Despite the low candlelight, DeSimone identified the figure. It was John Gotti. Everyone was still and silent, except one of the gray-haired men seated at the table. He had the air of a rough, weathered patriarch with savagery in his eyes, and his clan called him the Cardinal. With his hand, thinly and etched with blue veins, he pointed to an empty chair in the center of this crypt-like chamber.
In a gruff voice, the Cardinal saluted, “Welcome, Tommy. Congratulations! Pull a chair up to the table and sit comfortably. This is not an ordinary day in your life, I want you to know.”
“Yeah, sure. Thanks.” DeSimone’s fearsome stance was suddenly reduced to the pose of a timid lamb. His eyes had lost their gape of insanityand now had a hollow gawk, a strange submissiveness for a man whose temper ignited as easily as gasoline vapors.
DeSimone sat, and everybody regarded him with somberness. Gotti, slowly stepping closer and closer, his shoes clacking on the tiled floor, stood behind the subject of this ceremony. The presence of the Gambino captain distressed DeSimone. Gotti does not belong to the Lucchese family. Why is he at this Mafia ritual? The moment of enlightenment came within the span of three seconds. Gotti pulled out a silencer-equipped .38 Colt magnum from his inner breast pocket and drilled three bullets into DeSimone’s cranium. PAH . . . PAH . . . PAH. DeSimone’s head blasted forward, and with the thud of a ten-pound boulder slumped onto the card table, blood seeping and leaching onto the green felt tabletop.
Gotti buttoned his camel cashmere overcoat, straightened the lapels, and with casualness walked out of the room with a vaunting stride. The three geriatrics, as if their witnessing of this execution was mandatory, stared at the forever immobilized DeSimone. Not a word was spoken.
A combination of conflicts had come to a head, provoking the elimination of Tommy DeSimone. The chief reason for the hit was an unsettled beef that had been grating between the Gambinos and the Luccheses. Furious over DeSimone about to be granted his button, Gotti had asked for a sit-down with Paul Vario.
“Paulie, I kept quiet all this time, but now I gotta speak up.” Palms at chest level, Gotti tilted his head and looked into Vario’s eyes. “Not for nothin’, Paulie, but this fuckin’ DeSimone whacked two of my top earners, and I let it go for a long time. Now he wants to be made, and I’m not gonna sit quietly. I mean, that’s as bad as putting a cactus up my ass. Understan’ what I’m sayin’, Paulie?”
“John, what do you suppose I should do?” Vario asked, already knowing the answer. Gotti planted his left forearm on the tabletop and stared at the Luccsese capo.
“Paulie, all I want is what’s fair. I wanna whack the bastard, and I want you to give me the green light.”
It was not a tough call for Vario. Besides DeSimone’s past disregard for a Mafia code of honor—taking it on his own to kill two made men— it was a matter of time before the Lufthansa detectives would soon be shadowing his doorstep. Unmasking his face during the robbery, and now known to the investigators as one of the gunmen, the noose was tightening.
More troubling, as Vario anticipated, was an outstanding hazard: If DeSimone had to face spending the duration of his sexual prowess in a federal prison, he might negotiate a plea bargain and “rat out everybody.”
Lastly, when Hill was imprisoned for the Florida assault charge, Vario had looked after Mrs. Hill, in more ways than one; he had an affair with her. DeSimone interpreted it as if Karen Hill were free meat for the taking. On a summer morning, he must’ve waked with a burning libido. He went to Karen’s home and made advances to her. She rebuffed DeSimone, and he waved his penis at her. Karen ran to Vario with this, and he swore to her that DeSimone’s remaining days would not outlast the life of a mouse. So Gotti’s request to murder him was timely and well received.
“I see where you’re coming from, John.” Vario lay back in the armchair, his humongous belly inflating and deflating in rhythm with his heavy breathing. He quieted and tipped his head up and down for effect, pretending to be between a rock and a hard spot. Vario lingered a while longer, and ultimately slapped his knee. “All right, Johnnie Boy.” This was Gotti’s nickname. “Do what you gotta do. You got my OK, kid. Mi capisci?” You understand?
“Sicuro che ti capisco.” Of course, I understand.
DeSimone had vanished, and his wife drove to the 113th Precinct, and reported him missing. The NYPD belatedly informed the FBI, and Carbone could’ve kicked himself. He’d had grounds to arrest DeSimone, and he damn should have. Two Lufthansa employees had identified him from police mug shots.
Carbone speculated that maybe DeSimone had gone on one of his philandering binges with another woman, and his wife might’ve been overreacting. The agent reporting to Carbone squashed that supposition. “I’m afraid not, Steve. Rumors from fairly reliable street informers are saying DeSimone was murdered.”
“Are there leads? I mean, who might’ve done it?”
“According to a recently updated dossier, the shooter had to have been John Gotti.”
“OK, thanks.” Carbone threw his head back and joggled the phone receiver, as though it had the answer of where to go from here. I should’ve had him locked up.
*Author of The Lufthansa Heist Daniel Simone.