In the TV show “Lilyhammer,” New York mobster Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano gets into some serious trouble with the feds and rats out his boss in return for a witness protection relocation to Lilyhammer. It’s a city chosen based on his memories of watching the ’94 Olympics, with a picturesque setting and beautiful women. So Frank is shipped off to his new life, as Giovanni “call me Johnny” Hendriksen, setting the stage for this Netflix black comedy. In reality, this type of sweet second chance does actually exist as an option for mobsters-turned-informants, though the whole process is likely much grittier, complicated and tumultuous than the comedy implies.
Often, the gangsters have worked with the cops from behind bars, and their cooperation didn’t always give them a get out of jail free card. If protective relocation was on the table, it wasn’t necessarily unconditional, and sometimes they were forced to start a new life at their own risk. Those that worked with the cops or FBI did so under very precarious conditions, and some of those relationships in themselves were convoluted and dishonest, like the case with James “Whitey” Bulger. Boston’s notorious gangster had been on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List, alongside Osama bin Laden, since 1995 and was captured in 2011. Late last year he received two life sentences plus five years. Before they carted the 84-year-old off to the slammer, the judge gave him a thorough dressing down for all the lives he had ruined as he ran rampant through Boston under the protection of a corrupt FBI for so many years. The relationship he had with these cops back in the day eventually dissolved when Bulger skipped out on a racketeering indictment, and subsequently managed to dodge the law for nearly two decades.
Here, we’ve put together a list of 10 other mobsters over America’s gangster history who’ve cut deals with the po po to gain some leniency for their criminal actions and protection from those they once served. But as is life – and especially a life of crime – it’s never quite as cut and dry, or as neatly packaged, as in the movies.
10. Joseph “The Animal” Barboza – 1967
Arguably the shiftiest informant mobster on the list – and that’s saying something – Barboza was known as one of East Boston’s most feared mobsters for his vicious style as a hit man, under the thumb of the Patriarca crime family. He became an almost mythical figure after a story went around about how he’d chewed off a victim’s ear. He also had a reputation for exaggerating the facts, and it’s unclear if his boast of 29 murders is true, but regardless, he was a cold blooded killer and a man hungry for the wrong kind of respect.
When he was incarcerated in the late 60s, he pointed a finger at a number of his cronies although it was discovered that, typical to his style of chatter, he’d made up much of the evidence to frame those who had rubbed him the wrong way. Unsurprisingly, he was shot to death by his former associates. On a side note, Barboza was involved in one of the biggest prison breaks of Massachusetts history when, in 1950, he and six inmates popped amphetamine pills and out powered the guards, fighting their way out of prison. He was eventually captured causing mayhem in the streets less than 24 hours later.
9. Frank Lucas – 1975
Lucas was immortalized by Denzel Washington in 2007’s “American Gangster,” and was known in the 60s and 70s as the head of Manhattan’s biggest heroin ring. Smuggling the drugs into the US from direct Asian connections, Lucas was a millionaire many times over before he was eventually arrested in the mid-70s and sentenced to 70 years. As a result, he offered information in exchange for a reduced 15-year sentence. His revelations exposed dozens of Mafia members and crooked New York cops.
8. Henry Hill – 1980
Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” depicted the life of one of Brooklyn’s most well-known gangsters, Henry Hill, portrayed by Ray Liotta. The famous mobster, who was involved with the Lucchese crime family for many years, helped lead a number of big heists including almost half a million in cash from a JFK International Airport terminal in 1967. When he was eventually arrested in 1980, the mobster was paranoid enough about an execution by his associates to give up information to the cops on several of his former colleagues.
It was no small admission – his damning words led to 50 convictions and Hill entered the Witness Protection Program in a real life Lilyhammer twist, but was kicked out for continuing his illegal activity. He spent the next 20 years hiding from the mob successfully, though doubtfully stress free with a $1 million bounty on his head. Hill died in 2012 from an undisclosed illness.
7. Ken “Tokyo Joe” Eto – 1983
When Japanese-American born Eto moved to Chicago after World War II, he became an intrinsic part of the Outfit crime syndicate with his enormously successful illegal gambling racket. The only thing Eto was more known for was his survival of a mob hit in 1983, when he managed to escape death from several bullets aimed at his head through a silencer. During this time, Eto had pled guilty to charges from the FBI for running an illegal lottery, and the Outfit was worried about a soon-to-be rat in their midst. The botched snuff was enough for Eto; he testified against many of his associates and entered the Witness Protection Program. He died in Georgia in 2004, where he was living under an assumed identity.
6. Tommaso Buscetta – 1983
This Sicilian Mafia Boss turned informant on his Gambino crime family and gave details on the inner workings of their organization. After moving to Brazil to start a drug trafficking ring, Buscetta was arrested and sent to Italy for a murder conviction he held there.
Not wanting to get involved in the gang war that was engulfing the Mafia in Italy, Buscetta became the eyes and ears for authorities and helped in dozens of major arrests both in his home country and in America – including Gaetano Badalamenti, one of the leaders of what was known as the Pizza Connection. The $1.65 billion heroin distribution ring used pizzerias as a front to distribute drugs for almost ten years, starting in 1975. Two judges Buscetta helped, with convictions in Italy, were later murdered by the local Mafia. Buscetta escaped the same fate with a Witness Protection Program that returned him to the US. He died of cancer in New York City at the age of 71.
5. Max Mermelstein
Involved in the Medellin drug cartel with his Colombian wife, Mermelstein smuggled an estimated 56 tons of cocaine into the US, equal to $350+ million, throughout the 70s into the mid-80s. Mermelstein heralded in the “Cocaine Cowboy” era of South Florida that was the backdrop to “Scarface,” and many episodes of 80s cop show, “Miami Vice.” He also nearly singlehandedly welcomed the Colombian drug trade into America. Ironically, when he became a federal witness in 1985 after the law caught up with him, he nearly singlehandedly brought it to its knees.
Mermelstein made an unprecedented deal for Witness Protection – not only for himself but 16 members of his family – in return for a bounty of indictments. If the storyline sounds familiar, it’s because his life was played out by Johnny Depp on the big screen in “Blow.” Mermelstein died of cancer at 65, about six years ago, having evaded cartel boss Pablo Escobar who had been on an unrelenting hunt for Mermelstein until his own death in 1994.
4. Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano – 1980s
Known to be a hit man, and a good one, Gravano was a feared mobster who climbed the crime ladder and was eventually promoted underboss to John Gotti, head of the Gambino family, in the 1980s. He and Gotti were both arrested in a raid of their social club in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York, and following his charges he agreed to become an FBI government witness against his boss for a reduced prison sentence.
At the time, he was the highest ranking mobster to break his Cosa Nostra oath, otherwise known as “the code of silence.” Sammy the Bull became known as Sammy the Rat, and he went under witness protection, reportedly undergoing plastic surgery to hide from the mob. However, witness protection didn’t last long as he seems to have packed his penchant for bad behaviour with him when relocating to his new home in Arizona. He has been arrested and sent to jail for 19 years for ecstasy trafficking. His daughter, Karen Gravano, is featured in the TV series Mob Wives and wrote a book called “Mob Daughter,” about growing up under her father’s fearsome shadow.
3. Ralph Natale
After spending more than half his life in jail, 77-year-old former mobster Ralph Natale was released from prison in 2011 and promptly sued the government. The story began when he became Philadelphia’s mob boss after getting out of prison after a 15 year sentence in 1995. Four years later, he was indicted for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and violating probation due to his associations.
To avoid life in jail, Natale offered up information on Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, who’d seceded him as boss and became his enemy over struggles for power. For his cooperation, Natale received a 13 year sentence. As soon as he was out, a few years ago, he filed suit against the government for poor treatment that caused him partial blindness. It’s unclear what kind of treatment he was expecting in jail, but his argument was based on the violation of eighth amendment rights due to cruel punishment while incarcerated. His lawsuit was rejected in 2014.
2. Joseph “The Ear” Massino – 2004
In a rat-rats-out-a-rat scenario, this mob boss turned in his gangster family after his underboss and brother-in-law, Salvatore Vitale, turned on Massino in 2004. Trying to avoid the death penalty on subsequent charges of several murders the mobster, who was at the time leader of the Bonanno crime family, agreed to a deal with the feds. It’s believed Massino was the first boss of a New York crime family to turn state’s evidence.
He was outfitted with a wire for a number of conversations with his successor, which led to many of his associates being implicated as well as revealing the notorious “mob graveyard” site to the feds. “Time” magazine dubbed him “The Last Don,” referring to the fact he was the only mob boss not serving life in prison. Massino managed to avoid death by lethal injection but was sentenced to life in 2005. However, in 2013, due to his cooperation on a number of other mobster-related cases and his failing health, he was granted a resentencing request to time served, and supervised release for the time he has left.
1. Burton Kaplan – 2004
The Jewish mobster from Brooklyn became famous for his damning testimony regarding the “Mafia Cops.” As a middle-man between gangster Anthony Casso and NYPD detectives Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, he passed confidential information between the three and was a hit man for the Luchese crime family. It was his cooperation with authorities that provided full disclosure on the crooked cops to the US attorney’s office and their organized crime section.
The two bad cops were convicted of eight murders and are both serving out life sentences without parole. Kaplan was re-rooted under the witness protection program and he passed away from natural causes at the age of 75, in 2009.
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