We all know how the mafia works, right? The cinema screen and the cathode ray have educated us in mob etiquette and protocol. Anybody who’s ever thrilled to The Godfather, Goodfellas or The Sopranos understands the mafia is a finely nuanced world of respect, fanatical honour amongst thieves and evangelical familial loyalties...
“That’s bullshit!” observes Dominick Montiglio, slamming a heavy fist onto the table of a New York pizzeria. “There is no loyalty in the mafia and there is no honour. Forget that crap in The Godfather - if you’re in the mob, you can’t trust nobody. The bottom line of the mafia is money and killing.”
In all fairness, Montiglio is a man who knows a little about money and killing. As a key figure in New York’s Gambino family in the 1970, he pulled in $250,000 per week in drug and extortion money and supervised the nefarious DeMeo crew, the most notorious contract killers in mafia history. In 1983 Montiglio was arrested, turned state evidence and sent 56 mobsters to jail before vanishing into the witness protection programme.
Twenty-two years later, Montiglio has emerged from anonymity to be the linchpin of a new four-part TV series tracing the history of the mob from its Sicilian origins to the current day. A stocky figure now nearing 60, he’s phlegmatic about the dangers that could face him on today’s rare return to New York: “Plenty of people still want me dead, but what can I do? The trick is not to be scared.”
Montiglio’s life story is a fascinating microcosm of mob life at the peak of the mafia’s 1970s powers. Aged five he was removed from the care of his alcoholic father by his uncle, Nino Gaggi, a Gambino family capo: “My father used to walk down the street and totally ignore me. My uncle had told him, if he talked to me, he would kill him.”
After killing 93 enemy troops as a sniper in Vietnam, Montiglio began to utilise his new transferable skills back in New York. Initially reticent to join the family business, he was soon seduced by the glamour of the wiseguy lifestyle. In 1976 he sealed his place in the Gambino inner circle by shooting dead Vincent Governara, a man whose sole crime had been to break Nino Gaggi’s nose a full 12 years earlier. Montiglio left his wife’s birthday party to whack Governara, returning an hour later to hand over presents and eat cake as if nothing had happened.
Montiglio is remarkably blasé today about Governara’s fate (“I guess he was unlucky,” he shrugs), but this initiation murder soon paled into insignificance when he was made the de facto head of the psychotic DeMeo crew. Operating out of a Brooklyn bar called the Gemini Lounge, this gang of Gambino-affiliated car thieves and drug dealers embarked on a killing spree that Montiglio claims he was powerless to control.
“The FBI reckon the DeMeo crew killed 200 people,” he says. “I reckon that’s a low-end figure. They would entice people there, stab them, wrap them in towels and shoot them through the heart. Then they’d cut their throats, hang them in the shower and eat pizza while they waited for the bodies to bleed dry so they could hack them into pieces. It was basically a crew of nine serial killers.”
Brando’s Don Corleone would struggle to recognise the DeMeo crew’s ethics. When they arrived at one hapless victim’s house to find him hosting a Sunday morning brunch for his neighbours, they machine-gunned the entire breakfast table. Seldom present at killings and inured to slaughter by Vietnam, Montiglio kept an amoral distance: “I saw the DeMeos as cartoon characters, and the people they killed were cartoons too. That was just how things were.”
National Geographic’s TV series takes a censorious tone on the mob’s activities. In interview, Montiglio cuts a far more ambivalent figure. Uneasy - but far from contrite - when forced to discuss the Gambino family’s violent atrocities, the retired gangster becomes positively nostalgic when invited to recall the good times when the mafia, by his own boast, “ran not just New York, but the whole country”.
“Our chief, Paul Castellano, sent me to see a congressman,” he says. “I had a request in an envelope; I have no idea what it was. The congressman called me a couple of days later and said, ‘Tell Castellano it can’t be done.’ Castellano sent a message back via me: ‘If it’s not done, I will make sure every single truck and ship in this country stops working.’“ He claims the congressman rang back the next day and told him the White House would take care of it. “That’s when I realised - this thing goes right to the top.”
As the mafia-dominated 1970s closed, Montiglio’s lifestyle made that of Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas look positively frugal. As his narcotics and extortion network pulled in hundreds of thousands of dollars per month, he dutifully acquired the archetypal wiseguy accessories of guns, girls and cars. The Gambino men took their wives out every Saturday night. The rest of the week was playtime.
“There were so many gangster groupies,” he recalls wistfully. “I took one girl back to my penthouse on Central Park. The next morning she was going to get a train home, and I said, ‘Don’t do that.’ I walked her to the Cadillac dealer, bought her a new $22,000 automobile with the cash in my pocket, and she drove off in it. I had absolutely no idea what her name was.”
Any good mafia story requires a fall from grace, and Montiglio’s playhouse came tumbling down in 1983 when he was jailed for racketeering. Fearful that he would talk, the Gambinos took out a $1m contract on his life. Montiglio took a decision that was “harder than doing three more terms in Vietnam”: he shopped Castellano, the DeMeo crew and the entire family.
Locked into the witness protection programme for the next decade, Montiglio’s family fell apart as his wife and children proved unable to cope with constant moves to cowboy hicktowns in Wyoming, Alabama and Colorado. Poverty-stricken and alone, he quit the programme in 1993: “I felt the risk had diminished, but the point was that it was a miserable life and I just couldn’t live like that any longer.”
Still living under a secret identity, Montiglio now makes a living painting lurid and disturbingly primal artworks (“It’s great therapy”). The recent discovery of Agent Orange around his lungs, an unwanted souvenir of Vietnam, has also made him more fatalistic about breaking cover for media appearances such as this. So what of the US mafia today? Has their peak inevitably passed?
“The Italian mob as I knew them are still around, but they’re more underground and doing more legit business,” he says. “Nowadays the Russian mob are moving in everywhere, and they will shoot anybody as soon as look at them.” There’s a pause, and a sigh. “You know the problem? They have no class.”
It’s a family thing:
Dominick Montiglio runs a wiseguy’s eye over screen mobs.
“It’s so romantic but no mob family is like that. That’s how we’d all love the mafia to be - it makes us the good guys.”
“It’s good, but I get pissed off with the Henry Hill character. Henry never did nothing in real life. He was our coffee boy, our gofer.” [That’s the point.]
“The most realistic mafia movie of all. I gotta say, respect to Joe Pistone - he had some nerve to be undercover in the mob for as long as he was.”
“The Sopranos is a joke. A mafia boss seeing a psychiatrist - are you kidding me? He’d get whacked as he walked out the door!”
Growing Up Gotti [US reality show following the fortunes of late don John Gotti’s law-abiding but spoiled offspring]
“Jesus Christ! I knew John Gotti’s kids when they were little. Now they’re whining about not having enough diamonds? I want to smack the lot of them.”
The Mafia, starts Sunday, 9pm, National Geographic channel