Boss Behind Bars

NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 15: ***EXCLUSIVE*** Carmine Persico, boss of the Colombo Crime Family, poses for a portrait September 15, 1986 at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City during the Commission trial. Persico is also known as “Junior” and “The Snake.” (Photo by Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images)

Carmine “The Snake” Persico was a gangster’s gangster. A stone-cold killer who maintained his position as boss of NYC’s Colombo Crime Family despite being sentenced to 139 years in prison in the 1980s. 

Carmine “The Snake” Persico’s status in the American Mafia is something of an anomaly. He’s still alive, not a rat, and was even powerful enough during his multiple decade reign to call shots from prison after being convicted in the infamous Commission Trial. The Brooklyn Don has become possibly one of the most polarizing mob figures of the last fifty years, both in the underworld and in mainstream pop culture. The last real mob boss of our time, a certified old-school OG, who some have labeled  “The Immortal.” 

But others argue with equal passion that Persico was only ever out for one person- himself- and that persona led to him being called, “The Snake.” A vicious and cunning mobster that betrayed his comrades to get ahead. He ranks in the upper echelon of American mob bosses in the late 20th century and beyond. The legacy he’s built for himself in underworld circles is massive. To be able to keep power that long from inside prison speaks to the respect he and his family command on the street. When Persico dies, so to will the days of the real American Mafia.

Just A Kid From Brooklyn 

“His rise in the criminal underworld had a very atypical origin.” Christian Cipollini, the author of Murder Inc.: Mysteries of the Mob’s Most Deadly Hit Squad, tells Real Crime.Persico’s family had it pretty good. His youth didn’t bear the earmarks of poverty. That said, Persico grew up in an era where legit business folks had nothing on the ‘respect’ that a lot of Brooklyn kids may have sought, and found in the wiseguys who basically ran the show so to speak.”

Persico, like many other kids from New York in the mid-20th century, looked at the mob guys with a gleam in their eyes. To the Brooklyn kids the mobsters were the rock stars of their neighborhood. They represented a way of life that defied the law and did things their own way. Persico came up through the streets real young. He was a hot-headed, tough little guy who dropped out of school and joined a local gang, The Garfield Boys, where he made his mark while still just a teenager. Upping the ante when he allegedly killed a rival during a brawl.

“In 1950, Carmine’s Garfield Boys had a rumble with the Tigers in front of the boathouse in Prospect Park, a fight over a girl just like in West Side Story.” Michael Benson, the co-author of Carmine the Snake: Carmine Persico and His Murderous Mafia Family, tells Real Crime.When it was over, one Tiger was dead with bullets in his guts and another writhed on the ground clutching stab wounds. No one remembers a time when Carmine wasn’t a gangster. In grade school he shook down kids for their lunch money. He was the kid who, for a price, promised to watch the car for you, so nothing bad could happen to it while you were away.”

The street brawl incident earned Persico major street credibility, particularly piquing the interest of a Profaci Family capo. From there on he moved up the ranks as a good earner and, when needed, a guy who could bring the muscle. By the time he turned 20, he’d already been arrested for murder twice. When he got old enough he started working his way into the Profaci Family, who were already controlling the Red Hook area of Brooklyn. With a reputation as a street-tough guy, Persico found that his talents were in high demand.

“That’s how he got started,” Frank Dimatteo, who co-wrote Carmine the Snake: Carmine Persico and His Murderous Mafia Family and was a Mafia associate himself during the era, tells Real Crime. “Him and his brother, Allie Boy, started moving up the ladder.” Persico was a gangster’s gangster. A man whose life served as the inspiration for not only West Side Story, but The Godfather too. “He was cocky and blunt, an immovable object, the guy who was in charge, his every word and gesture designed to enhance his own wealth and control.” Benson says. “Persico acquired power the way other men breathe.” 

The Colombo Wars and Prison Time

“Persico’s rep for being merciless in his mob affairs goes all the back to the first Colombo Family War of the 1960s where he earned his alternate nickname ‘The Snake’ for his treachery.” Scott Burnstein, the author of Mafia Prince: Inside America’s Most Violent Crime Family and the Bloody Fall of La Cosa Nostra, tells Real Crime. “His heavy lifting on the front lines in that conflict got him bumped to a capo post, which put him in position to take the boss’ chair in the years to come.” 

Historically, Carmine and Crazy Joe Gallo, all came up in the streets together. They were very close and in the same crew at one time. What happened was that Gallo and his brothers wanted to pull away from the Profaci’s because they didn’t like Joe Profaci. They didn’t think Joe Profaci was a good boss. They accused Profaci of stiffing the rank and file from a fair share of the family profits. The Gallo brothers were renegades and when they were plotting and trying to get the other captains to go on their side to make this move to break away, Persico was with them.

“At one point, Profaci got to Carmine and offered him something lucrative.” Dimatteo says. “Persico invited Larry Gallo to a meeting and Larry, not knowing that Carmine already went back with Joe Profaci, went to see him. When he arrived Persico tried to kill Larry. That’s when the first war started and it started getting hotter and hotter after that.” Carmine’s old running partner Larry would have been dead that day in 1961 at the Sahara Lounge in Brooklyn if a beat cop hadn’t wandered in, wondering why the door was open on a Sunday morning. The attempted barroom hit became fodder for a scene in The Godfather.

After the attempted hit Persico was dubbed “The Snake” for switching sides during the internal mob war, which has come to be known as the first Colombo War. This was the first of many times that Persico used deception and double-crossing to make his move and climb the ladder. In the Mafia treachery is rewarded. Friends kill friends to become the top dog. Frank “Punchy” Illiano, a Genovese capo was the one who dubbed Persico “The Snake.” Carmine was going to court with his guys, Punchy was coming out, they had a confrontation and Punchy told Persico, “You’re a fucking snake.” 

“That’s how it stuck.” Dimatteo says. “The Gallos always referred to Carmine as The Snake. That’s how it started. It started from the Gallo crew doing it. After Profaci, Joe Colombo took over. He made the peace in 1964 with the Gallo brothers. At the time Carmine was in jail for another short bid. Joe Colombo was the boss between 1964 and 1972. Carmine was a skipper. His crew was very strong. They ran all of one side of South Brooklyn. Even intermingled with the Gallos at the time. The Gallos were part of the Profaci’s. They were still part of the Profaci’s, which then turned into Colombo’s.”

Even after the war the crews weren’t separated. They were shylocking in the same neighborhood. These guys, before the shooting started, had clubs together. Then in between the war, they had to hide because they were shooting at each other because of the beef. Then after it was all over, they had to figure out what to do. Who’s taking the club? Who’s not taking the club? Who’s taking the numbers? That’s why it was a big headache. It wasn’t just one gang fighting another gang. It was an internal battle. After the shooting stopped, everybody had to go back together again. 

“The dudes that shot each other, were hiding from each other.” Dimatteo says. “A very difficult situation. Carmine had a strong crew. He had Hugh McIntosh, Gerry Lang, he had Scarpa. You get a deadly crew around you, it makes you look good. They all earned. When Joe Colombo got shot, Carmine was the front runner. He was in line to take over. That’s why he became acting boss, at the time, until the Commission okayed it. That’s how Carmine got that position. He was in jail and had to leave Joseph “Joe Yac” Yacovelli, who was under him, in charge.”

Crazy Joe Gallo was doing his own bid and when he got out in 1971 Persico put a hit on him. This started the second Colombo War. Persico put an open contract on him. There was no love lost there. They blamed a Gallo for the Joe Colombo hit. An open hit is an open hit. It means anybody can hit him. When Joey was executed, the Persico’s became kings of the Colombo hill. Carmine was acting boss at the time because Joe Colombo was a vegetable. Carmine was in jail again, but Yacovelli was running things for him in the streets. 

“When there was a challenge to his leadership with the Colombos, all-out war broke out.” Benson says. “Carmine loved wartime. He was always on the winning side, even when he had to stab his so-called friends in the back to do it.” 

The Commission Trial 

“The Persico’s were a large family, with an ominous presence within the Colombos.” Larry McShane, author of Chin: The Life and Crimes of Mafia Boss Vincent Gigante, tells Real Crime.  “Carmine’s brothers Alphonse and Theodore joined the Profaci-led family while young, and a second generation followed. The Persico’s took over following Joe Colombo’s shooting. The Snake’s son Little Allie Boy became his voice in the family, and another son, Michael, became a powerful figure.” But that power didn’t stop the law from continuing to convict Persico of crimes relating to his Mafia leadership. 

In 1986 the Mafia Commission Trial began. Five mob chieftains were indicted as the federal government with lead prosecutor Rudy Giuliani tried to take down the mob’s hierarchy by going over the bosses who resided on the commission. Big Paul Castellano, Fat Tony Salerno, Tony Ducks Corallo, Rusty Rastelli, and Persico were all facing time for being the heads of New York five families. At the trial Persico decided to represent himself. He had been through so many cases that he thought he was the best person to defend himself against the charges. A big mistake. 

“He’s a smart guy.” Dimatteo says. “He’s the one that looks for the money. Hundreds of thousands of dollars for attorneys. He thought he was smart enough to do it himself. A lot of guys wouldn’t do that. Carmine just had the balls to do it. He really thought they had nothing on him. He really felt that it was all hear-say and bullshit. He thought he was gonna win that. He put a good argument up, Even the judge said, he put a great argument up, but you ain’t gonna win against the feds.”

Rudy Giuliani’s war on the mob stirred such a panic across New York’s five families that a meeting of the bosses was called, wherein the suggestion of having the zealot prosecutor whacked came up. “Three of the five bosses gave the idea a thumbs down,” Cipollini says. “But two others- John Gotti (who came into power after killing Castellano) and Carmine Persico argued for killing Giuliani. Majority ruled however and Rudy’s life was spared.”

Giuliani hated the Mafia and Persico in particular with a passion. He wasn’t pulling any punches and was on a mission to throw the book at Persico and the other Mafia leaders. Persico knew it was part of the game, but has often reflected on Giuliani. In prison he told Robert Rosso, a convicted meth dealer doing life, “I’ve been in prison almost 30 years and I’m still married, I talk to my wife every night, she comes and sees me, and I have kids that I love and adore whom I’m close to. Giuliani’s been married three times and his kids hate him so much they wont even talk to him. Whose the dog?”  

Maintaining Power

“His brother ‘Allie Boy,’ his son ‘Little Allie Boy,’ and his cousin ‘Mush’ Russo have all been acting bosses for Junior.” Burnstien says. “Mush Russo has kept the family dynasty going more recently. Little Allie Boy was convicted in the 1999 murder of underboss ‘Wild Bill’ Cutolo, the last true threat to Persico mob regime.” Persico wanted to do just one thing with his life. Be the leader of a gang. His dream came true as a teenager as boss of the Garfield Boys, the toughest and deadliest gang there was. And his dream came true again years later when he became the boss of the Colombo Crime Family.

“The reason Carmine stayed in power for as long as he did, was because he was smart.” Benson says. “Gangsters wanted him in charge. Even if he was behind bars. They wanted him in charge. Carmine fucked up less than the rest of them, by a lot.  After going away for good, he used his most trusted men, guys he’d known since the Garfield Boys days, to courier information to and from his federal penitentiary.” Alphonse “Little Allie Boy” Persico was eventually his successor. The Snake could deal directly with his son rather than using back channels. 

“He knew the best way to keep power from behind bars was by creating a blood family dynasty that ensured loyalty.” Burnstein says. “Empower close relatives, his son, brothers, nephews, cousins , to run the show on your behalf. He’s as crafty and resourceful as any American mob boss of his era. Persico is a rare blend of intelligence, charisma and lethality, the perfect combination of racketeer and monster. It’s served him very well in terms of being able to keep his mob empire intact without having been on the street in three and a half decades.” But there were always challenges to his authority and this led to the Third Colombo War.

“This is the point where things went a bit haywire,” McShane says. “While Snake was locked up, control of the family went to little Vic Orena, a highly regarded guy who became involved with the family as a teen. He had two sons in the Colombos, and they were all tight with the Persico’s. Orena took his seat with bosses John Gotti and Chin Gigante. But the Snake predictably turned on Orena, and the biggest and bloodiest war followed. Bodies piled up and turncoat rats came out. The family was decimated by bullets, defections and trials, with close to 60 members imprisoned. The Colombo clan never recovered from the mess.” 

Persico was able to maintain power for so long from behind bars because the same guys that spent their teen years terrorizing every neighborhood from Brooklyn Heights to Canarsie with him became the nucleus of his crew. “Some of those boys hanging out with Carmine as kids, taking joy rides and stealing hubcaps, were still with him, loyal and true blue, right up until the time the RICO laws nabbed them all.” Benson says. “As the years passed, his control slipped. One by one his couriers went away and he became a largely spiritual leader for what was left of the Colombos after the RICO trials.”

Prison Life for the Mafia Don

“Whoever wasn’t in jail in that crew took care for him.” Dimatteo says. “The boss is away, his guys were loyal and did what they supposed to do. They followed the rules. They kept him in power. Then he put his son in charge. Little Allie Boy is doing a life bid now. He was in the street. He took care of it for years. That’s why he’s doing 100 years now. Allie Persico Jr. was the boss. His father turned it to him. He’s the one that’s doing the life bid now and The Snake is doing 139 years.”

In prison, the staff treated Carmine with respect because that’s the way he treated them. He wakes up around 9 am and reads the New York Post everyday. In the afternoon, he goes to the yard and played bocci ball.On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sunday he cooked meals, the best was Linguini and white clam sauce in the Bureau of Prisons. He was a legendary gangster while still a teenager, and boss of a New York crime family longer than anyone. When he faced the music for his crimes, he stayed true to his vow, kept his mouth shut, and spent the last 35 years in prison.

“Carmine was a total gentlemen.” Rosso, who did time with the gangster, says. “I have been in prison 21 years, I’ve been around scores of mobsters, and never have I met nor been around anyone as classy as Carmine. Far from some mafiaos who act like their above everyone else, Carmine treats people with respect, hates to be referred to as a ‘Mob Boss’ or ‘Old Man,’ and is really a pleasure to be around.” 

Many inmates are star-struck around him and they either want his autograph or want to hear John Gotti-style bullshit stories. That’s not Carmine. To those inmates, he is polite but he has nothing for them. What Rosso misses most about the legendary mob boss are the long conversations they used to have. “About history, politics, you name it. I remember a family member of his sent him a bunch of photos that were taken way back when Carmine was a kid. To see Brooklyn with dirt roads, horses, and vegetable gardens in the neighborhood was incredible.”

Rosso remembers Persico getting a lot of visits from his wife, children, and grandchildren. “He called his wife every night for 10 minutes and when the corrlinks email system came online for prisoners, I taught him how to email and once he got the hang of it he loved it. He really enjoyed emailing his grandkids and keeping in touch with his family. The guy is almost 100 years old. I think that Carmine’s probably one of the last old school, real tough guys left. I really do.”

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