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Memories of a mob girl. The fast life and wild times of Island's 'Malafemina' Terry Dee.
September 10, 2000
By ROBERT GAVIN
To his young daughter in Concord, John Dalessio was a good father who loved baseball and owned a vending business.
But to the rest of Staten Island, he was "Johnny Dee" -- one of three notorious brothers renowned for decades as the borough's illegal gambling kingpins.
Theresa Dalessio Mirabile stumbled upon the family secret at age 14 after reading newspaper clippings identifying her father as an organized crime figure.
Now, some 50 years later, Ms. Mirabile is talking about her life in the shadow of what was allegedly an original Staten Island crime family -- a tumultuous ride that included a shootout with gangsters in the Poconos and her witnessing the bloody executions of two of her lovers.
It was a ride so dangerous, it would eventually send her to prison. Before she got her act together, the woman known as "Terry Dee" wound up doing a stint in federal prison for her role in a million-dollar stolen check-cashing ring in the early 1980s.
Now 63 and living in Manhattan, Terry Dee is working on a book called "Malafemina" -- Italian for bad woman -- to explain her life tale. In past years she has talked about her life on talk shows, and now she wants someone to help her complete the book and help sell the story for TV and the silver screen.
Terry Dee speaks freely about "The Life," detailing her journey from sheltered mob daughter to unwed teen-age mother, young widow, tavern owner and then a criminal who served up lasagna and steak dishes for jailed wiseguys in a Manhattan slammer.
But Terry Dee does not divulge everything.
"There's certain secrets you never tell -- or you will die," she said.
In recent interviews, she recalled her youth in the days before the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connected Staten Island to Brooklyn.
Her father and his brothers co-owned the Dee's cigarette and vending company in Concord from 1939 until 1979, but authorities said their real business was bookmaking, loansharking and numbers running.
Johnny Dee's first arrest was recorded in Advance files in 1932, when he and his brother, Michael (Mikey Dee) Dalessio were charged with putting a beating on a man. The brothers, however, were not convicted of that crime.
Another brother, Alexander (Pope Dee) Dalessio, is a bookmaking legend. And the Dee's uncle, Alex DiBrizzi, is said to have controlled the Staten Island waterfront as head of Local 920 of the International Longshoremen's Association, based on Bay Street in Stapleton. He was also vice president of the ILA's Atlantic Coast District.
An Oct. 9, 1963, Advance story reported that DiBrizzi and the three Dee brothers were listed as members of Carlo Gambino's crime organization on charts before the U.S. Senate.
The four men figured in investigations by the Crime Committee chaired by U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver, who was once quoted as saying "unusually bad" crime conditions existed on Staten Island. They were also probed by the state Crime Commission and then-Staten Island District Attorney Herman Methfessel.
The family matriarch, Terry Dee's grandmother Marie DiBrizzi, moved to Staten Island at the "request" of mobster Dutch Schultz. By the time she was growing up, the Dees owned several houses on Britton Street, near DeKalb Avenue, in Concord.
"They were doing it as if it were a business. Their business, their thing -- La Cosa Nostra," said one former Staten Island law enforcement official, who requested anonymity.
Johnny Dee's reputation was such that parents kept their children away from his daughter.
"I was hurt by that because I always pictured my father as a businessman," Terry Dee said.
Not that he ever raised a hand to his daughter. In fact, Terry Dee's philosophy was that you can't believe everything you read. The man portrayed by authorities in the newspapers was not her dad.
She provided snapshots of trips to the bustling South Beach amusement strip. Movies at the St. George Theatre. The Paramount in Stapleton. They dined in the Island's fanciest restaurants, at the time the Riviera Chateau in Oakwood and Tavern on the Green in New Dorp. Manhattan's Little Italy.
Terry Dee's mother, the former Ruth Croker, was a "very, very glamorous" woman who accompanied her husband to Manhattan's hottest nightspots, which not surprisingly were also mob haunts.
"When [Mrs. Dalessio] went into the Copacabana, heads would turn," Terry Dee said proudly.
Johnny Dee's bookmaking was just one side of the family. Brother Patrick Dalessio is the namesake for American Legion Dalessio Post #1310 in Concord. His name still appears on the neighborhood's welcome sign on Targee Street. Another brother, Dominick, was also "legitimate."
Such legitimacy was just not to be for young Theresa.
She admittedly started out as a sheltered mafia princess, but it didn't stay that way for long. When she discovered her family's true business, she gained a tough reputation of her own and christened herself with the "Terry Dee" moniker.
A "tremendous amount of respect came out of the name Dee," she said.
"My life just changed," she said. "I went from good girl to mobster's daughter -- complete tomboy."
A young man got a dose of Terry Dee's newfound toughness when he called her a "mafia daughter" one day and she went home crying to her dad.
"My father told me to go back and knock the hell out of him and 'don't come back until you do,'" Terry Dee said. "So I beat the hell out of him."
Terry Dee, who had two younger brothers, said she was forced to attend boarding school so she would not know when her father was away. But that didn't always work out either -- she was expelled from St. John's Villa Academy for spitting gum in the face of a nun.
Johnny Dee moved his family from Concord to Jumel Street in Great Kills in 1944.
As a teen who attended New Dorp High School, Terry Dee remembers talking her way into bars, such as Dutchman's in Oakwood, and drinking all night. She said she "rebelled with a large amount of anger" in her youth, once even crashing her father's car. And more than once, she said, cops brought her to the 122nd Precinct stationhouse in New Dorp until her father came to bring her home.
"I did things that were just crazy," she said.
At 17, Terry Dee became an unwed mother and was forced to leave New Dorp High. Her mother forced her to give the child up -- and kept the child's birth a secret from Johnny Dee.
"It was just another traumatic thing in my life," she said, adding she searched and found her lost daughter years later and her father was thrilled. "I thought of her all the time."
Not long after she gave birth as a teen, Terry Dee married a mystery man -- not the girl's father -- she only identified as Frank. She said he was not mob-linked.
As the years went on, Terry Dee became a wife three more times and gave birth to four more children. Her second husband was a man named Anthony Buttino, which she said made her an in-law to reputed Genovese crime family boss Vincent "The Chin" Gigante.
Terry Dee later married an Anthony DeLorenzo, and after that, Vincent Mirabile, her current husband. They have been separated for a decade, she said.
It was her common-law marriage to Thomas (Tommy Edwards) Ernst that Terry Dee said was her true love. It also brought her a brush with death.
Ernst, who had a criminal record dating back to 1953, was having friction with two Island mobsters over money and agreed to meet with Mikey Dee near the Dalessios' summer home, Terry Dee recalled. It was 1971 and the meeting was to be at a place called "Wild Acres" in the Poconos, near Dingman's Ferry.
Terry Dee said she was not supposed to be in the car. But as she and Ernst rode from the country mansion, on their way to the meeting, they were sideswiped by three men in a car. They opened fire on Terry Dee's car, gunning for Ernst. She reached over into the back seat, picked up a semi-automatic rifle and blasted back as they were chased, she said.
The couple sped about 80 mph down a narrow hill in a 1971 Caddy riddled with bullets until it was clear the men were out of sight. On the main road, Pennsylvania troopers pulled the pair over.
Ernst reported the attempted hit to state police in Milford, Pa., Sept. 2, 1971.
Two days before the Poconos shootout, another murder attempt on Tommy Ernst's life occurred in a Grasmere diner, said Terry Dee. And he lucked out again when another hit was botched at the couple's Clove Road home, she said.
But he was not nearly so lucky on April 6, 1972.
Just after 10 p.m. that night, as Terry Dee and her common-law husband left her father's house on Jumel Street and approached their car, she spotted a figure emerging from behind a hedge. According to Advance files, she yelled for her husband to "look out" and they both ran for the house.
It was too late. Tommy Ernst was shot to death and there was nothing his wife could do about it. The shooter ran toward Giffords Lane and was never apprehended.
"We both ran. I said, 'Run, Tommy!," Terry Dee said. "We got ambushed."
To this day, despite strong suspicions, Terry Dee is not 100 percent sure who killed her husband. Shortly after Ernst was killed, well-known mobster "Crazy Joe" Gallo, who Ernst knew, was gunned down in a Little Italy eatery. Other mob executions took place that week as well, Terry Dee recalled.
That Ernst reported the Pennsylvania incident to cops was fresh in his wife's mind. Not long after his death, she found a slain cat in her new Cadillac -- an underworld message telling her what could happen to a female with loose lips.
It was a warning no one ever needed to send.
"I would never have anybody arrested," Terry Dee writes in her book manuscript. "I would never rat anybody out -- never. That's the code. I'd die for that honor."
Following Ernst's death, Terry Dee opened a bar in Stapleton called Bill Bailey's. It was topless during the day, a gay bar at night. Through her years as a bar owner, Terry Dee became an alcoholic. To his day, she still helps out with Alcoholic Anonymous.
By 1982, Terry Dee was close to becoming engaged to 39-year-old Vincent Rizzo, when tragedy struck again. Someone shouted Rizzo's name in a parking lot in the Arlington Terrace Apartments in Mariners Harbor, where he lived. Then, two gunman shot him to death -- one blast in the head, his former girl friend remembers.
Rizzo ran an auto repair shop in Rosebank and operated a Brooklyn social club said to be a mob haunt. At one point, his murder was linked to internal warfare in the Bonanno crime family over control of drugs and pornography. Staten Island cops cast doubt on that theory, leaving the shooting a mystery.
"Whoever did it really wanted him dead," Terry Dee said, adding that Rizzo was "someone I really cared for."
Terry Dee's problems were far from over. The next year she was busted as the driver for a crew of five crooks who were cashing stolen million-dollar checks.
As she explained in the book text, they would swipe the checks from the mail in brokerage houses, and cash them with phony identifications. The crime landed Terry Dee a six-month sentence -- three in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, where she became a cook.
Her description of prison life is straight out of the classic 1990 Martin Scorsese film, "Goodfellas," where wiseguys dined on delicacies. For her, jail included whipping up pasta and steak dishes.
"It was going to a salumeria," she said in the book manuscript.
The last three months of her sentence were spent in a West Virginia jail.
After prison, Terry Dee said she "tried to steer clear of everybody."
She moved with her father to Hollywood, Fla., spent some time selling used cars, and straightened herself out.
Johnny Dee, who she says "everybody liked," died in November 1994. Long before that point, he and another brother were said to have switched their affiliation to the Genovese family, according to Advance files.
For Terry Dee, decades of exposure to mob life brought her to meet several of the most prominent names in the history of organized crime.
She said she knew Paul Castellano of Todt Hill, the former "Boss of Bosses" whom she referred to in her book manuscript as "quiet, soft-spoken, an old-style, gentlemanly mobster."
The manuscript also devotes much time to Castellano's driver, Tommy Bilotti, a reputed Staten Island mobster who she knew all her life. Both Bilotti and Castellano were rubbed out by John Gotti loyalists in December 1985 outside Sparks steak house in Midtown Manhattan.
And around the late 1970s, Terry Dee occasionally spotted future uber mob turncoat Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano in Brooklyn bars on 86th Street. She said she wasn't particularly impressed and "never really wanted" anything to do with him.
"I just got bad vibes," she said of the former Graniteville resident and hitman whose testimony put John Gotti away for life.
Today, Terry Dee said she runs a house-keeping business, in addition to her work with Alcoholics Anonymous. She also writes to prisoners and helps their children around the holidays.
She hardly speaks glowingly of today's mobsters, saying "they're all cowboys" who are trying to make a name for themselves.
The mob is a different age for her today.
"I think it was a road of destiny that led me on that path ... there was good and bad and happy times and sad times," she said. "There are memories that I'll just never forget."
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