NEW YORK—Federal authorities orchestrated one of the biggest Mafia takedowns in FBI history Thursday, charging 127 suspected mobsters and associates in the Northeast with murders, extortion and other crimes spanning decades.
Past investigations have resulted in strategic strikes aimed at crippling individual crime families. This time, authorities used a shotgun approach, with some 800 federal agents and police officers making scores of simultaneous arrests stemming from different mob investigations in New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
They also used fanfare: Attorney General Eric Holder made a trip to New York to announce the operation at a news conference with the city's top law enforcement officials.
As of late Thursday, 125 had been arrested, including four who were already behind bars.
Holder called the arrests "an important and encouraging step forward in disrupting La Cosa Nostra's operations." But he and others also cautioned that the mob, while having lost some of the swagger of the John Gotti era, is known for adapting to adversity and finding new ways of making money and spreading violence.
"Members and associates of La Cosa Nostra are among the most dangerous criminals in our country," Holder said. "The very oath of allegiance sworn by these Mafia members during their initiation ceremony binds them to a life of crime."
In the past, the FBI has aggressively pursued and imprisoned the leadership of the city's five Italian mob families, only to see ambitious underlings fill the vacancies, said Janice Fedarcyk, head of the FBI's New York office.
"We deal in reality, and the reality is that the mob, like nature, abhors a vacuum," she said.
However, the FBI has gained a recent advantage by cultivating a crop of mob figures willing to wear wires and testify against gangsters in exchange for leniency in their own cases.
"The vow of silence that is part of the oath of omerta is more myth than reality today," she said.
In the latest cases, authorities say turncoats recorded thousands of conversations of suspected mobsters. Investigators also tapped their phones.
In sheer numbers, the takedown eclipsed those from a highly publicized assault on the Gambino crime family in 2008, when authorities rounded up 62 suspects. All but one of the arrests resulted in guilty pleas.
The deluge of defendants Thursday forced the FBI to move processing -- normally done at its lower Manhattan headquarters -- to a gym at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. The defendants, most arrested in raids at dawn, stood in line in handcuffs while waiting to be photographed and fingerprinted.
In Brooklyn, three judges in three separate courtrooms were needed to enter pleas and decide bail for dozens of defendants. Normally, one is on duty.
Among those arrested Thursday were union officials, two former police officers and a suspect in Italy. High-ranking members of the Gambino and Colombo crime families and the reputed former boss of organized crime in New England also were named in 16 federal indictments unsealed Thursday.
The indictments listed colorful nicknames -- Bobby Glasses, Vinny Carwash, Jack the Whack, Johnny Cash, Junior Lollipops -- and catalogued murders, extortion, arson and other crimes dating back 30 years.
One of the indictments charges a reputed Gambino boss, Bartolomeo Vernace, in a double murder in the Shamrock Bar in Queens in a dispute over a spilled drink. Another charges an alleged Colombo captain, Anthony Russo, in the 1993 hit on an underboss during the family's bloody civil war.
Russo, 49, and Vernace, 61, pleaded not guilty in federal court in Brooklyn and were ordered held without bail.
Outside court, Vernace's attorney, Gerald Shargel, said his client was facing charges similar to those he beat in a state case in the 1990s. He also questioned the splashy way the charges were brought.
"It seems there was a public relations aspect to it," he said.
Luigi Manocchio, 83, the reputed former head of New England's Patriarca crime family, was arrested in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He has long denied having mob ties.
A judge on Thursday ordered Manocchio sent to Rhode Island to face charge he collected protection payments from strip-club owners.
Also arrested was Thomas Iafrate, who worked as a bookkeeper for strip clubs and set aside money for Manocchio, prosecutors said. Iafrate pleaded not guilty Thursday in federal court in Providence, R.I.
Other charges include corruption among dockworkers in New York and New Jersey who were forced to kick back a portion of their holiday bonuses to the crime families. Members of the Colombo family also were charged with extortion and fraud in connection with their control of a cement and concrete workers union.
If convicted, the defendants face a wide range of maximum sentences, including life in prison.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Providence, R.I., and Curt Anderson in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. contributed to this report.