Trial opens window on Mafia betrayal, family drama
Turncoat killer is star witness in NY murder case
NEW YORK -- The trial was billed as a real-life sequel to the movie "Donnie Brasco." It starred a turncoat killer called "Good Looking Sal" who resembled a paler version of actor George Hamilton.
But at times, the case has sounded more like an episode of "The Sopranos."
Salvatore Vitale, a trim 56-year-old with immaculately combed-back salt-and-pepper hair, has related tales from the witness stand of murder and betrayal -- as well as family therapy, hurt feelings, a rebellious son, and an almost comically botched hit.
Vitale is the government's star witness at the murder and racketeering trial of "Big Joey" Massino, Vitale's brother-in-law and the reputed boss of the Bonannos, one of New York's fabled five Mafia families.
The ties of loyalty in the Bonanno family unraveled after the undercover FBI agent known as Donnie Brasco infiltrated their world in the late 1970s in a story told in the movie "Donnie Brasco," which starred Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. Vitale, the family's underboss, agreed to become a government witness last year.
During nearly a week of testimony in federal court in Brooklyn, Vitale exposed some of the darkest secrets of the Bonanno family and the dysfunctional relationships of those who ran it, running through a cast of characters that included "Big Louie," "Petey Rabbit," "Monkey Man," and "Louie Bagel."
Massino has presented himself publicly as a simple caterer from Queens. But Vitale testified that Massino, 61, ran a ruthless syndicate that killed for even minor transgressions, such as selling a bogus Rolex watch to a family capo.
Other slayings were aimed at consolidating power or punishing serious violations. Vitale offered a minute-by-minute account of the bloody execution of three rival captains in a Brooklyn social club, and the systematic elimination of other mobsters who allowed Brasco into their confidences.
He told of how he and Massino also would carry out killings in apartments and automobiles, and how they would lure compatriots to meetings where they were gunned down. The bodies then were dumped in empty lots and abandoned cars.
He said Massino got rich on tribute. There were Christmas envelopes fat with subordinates' profits from crimes as diverse as smuggling Persian rugs from Canada and loan-sharking at interest rates of more than 75 percent a year.
Massino is charged with seven murders, racketeering, and other offenses, and faces life in prison if convicted. The prosecution is expected to rest its case Tuesday.
Vitale, an Army paratrooper turned catering truck driver, said he was inducted into the Bonanno family by his brother-in-law in the early 1970s. As Massino consolidated his power with a series of assassinations, he brought Vitale up the ranks of crime, Vitale said.
"Who taught you everything you needed to know about organized crime?" prosecutor Greg Andres asked on Vitale's last day of testimony last week.
"Joe Massino did," said Vitale, who has confessed to 11 murders.
Defense attorney David Breitbart has said Vitale is lying to save himself from the death penalty. He said Vitale is using federal prosecutors to bring down Massino. Breitbart said Vitale once planned to assassinate Massino in a plot with "Dapper Don" John Gotti.
Vitale said he became a turncoat after his relationship with Massino fell apart following Vitale's arrest in 2001.
Vitale's court appearances infuriated his own family. His sister, Massino's wife, Josephine, sat in the front row during his testimony, refused to rise with other spectators when the judge and her brother entered the court, and scoffed under her breath as he testified.
Vitale also detailed a series of problems with his son, some apparently hashed out in family therapy sessions.
Vitale was enraged at his son for not showing up at a job his father said he got for him at the New York Post. "I flew over the coffee table, and I was strangling him on the couch," Vitale said.