Feature Articles

January 2002

New York Stories

Part II

By John William Tuohy

    On March 13, 1951, Frank Costello began his testimony before the committee in Manhattan. He had been forced to appear by subpoena and his attorney insisted that TV cameras present in the room did not focus directly on his client. Instead, he insisted, they were to be trained onto Costello's hands. The committee agreed and an estimated 30 million Americans watched in fascination, as Costello's hands danced across the screen, hour after hour.

    There is no evidence that Vito Genovese provided information to the committee on Frank Costello, but the fact is, Kefauver seemed to have an awful lot of inside information about the Prime Minister of the Underworld. Costello was grilled on his name change, on his arrest background, on his naturalization proceedings, his bootlegging years. The Godfather more or less answered everything, but when asked for a complete financial statement of his assets, he invoked the Fifth.

    The committee's grilling of Costello went on until March 15, when Costello, complaining of a bad throat and laryngitis, walked out of the courtroom. When the hearings resumed on the March 19, the committee dug into Costello's considerable political connections, and his close friendship with former New York Mayor O'Dwyer who was then the US Ambassador to Mexico.

    At one point in the hearings, Kefauver asked Costello, "How can we curb gambling in this country?"

    "Senator," Costello answered, "if you want to cut out gambling there's just two things you need to do. Burn the stables and shoot the horses."

    When asked how he raised the money to finance the purchase of his three office buildings on Wall Street, he explained he had borrowed it from gamblers.

    The final day that he appeared, March 21, Senator Halley asked about Costello meeting with Lucky Luciano in Havana. The Godfather didn't deny he was there, and explained he had been in Miami on business and had gone to Cuba for a brief vacation and bumped into Charlie Lucky by accident. Halley tried desperately to connect Costello to Meyer Lansky and Jimmy Blue Eyes but Costello avoided any direct connection to them.

    Although an enormous number of mobsters appeared before the committee, it was Frank Costello who emerged as the best-known gangster in the nation and as a result he became a major target of the Justice Department and Vito Genovese couldn't be happier.

    Willie Moretti also appeared before the committee. As Genovese knew, Willie was also a womanizer who had a thing for low-cost hookers, the darker the skin, the better. Eventually, he developed syphilis which went untreated and began to advance to the gangster mind and into his nervous system. He began to act strangely, doing and saying things that troubled the boys, but not too much because in a world where mental illness is almost an asset, no one discussed Willie's odd behavior, or at least they didn't until the hood was called before the Kefauver committee.

    Under oath, Willie admitted that he was a gambler, that he knew Costello, Genovese and Adonis and every other big name gangster in the country and that he was proud of it. He finished his testimony by inviting the committee to visit him at his home down on the Jersey shore. After that, Willie became something of a media celebrity, holding spur of the moment press conferences, inviting reporters to make the round with him and giving his opinion about the state of the world and how to curb the growing power of the mob. Willie was becoming an embarrassment to Costello and a minor danger to what would become the Genovese family, but nothing to worry about. That very thinking gave Vito Genovese the opening he was looking for.

    Genovese quietly and cunningly began to spread rumors within the family and the ever-paranoid mob as a whole, that Willie Moretti was a security risk for everyone and said that Frank Costello was wrong to protect Moretti just because he liked him. But the real reason Genovese wanted Moretti dead, aside from ruining Costello's position within the family, was to take control of his lucrative gambling assets, a move he had readied for by positioning one of his best men, Jerry Catena, to take over as soon as Moretti was killed. With control of the gambling rackets, Genovese would have enough money to fight Costello for control of the family.

    Costello fought it, but the National Commission approved Willie Moretti's execution. At nine a.m. on October 4, 1951, Albert Anastasia, who lived in Fort Lee, New Jersey, telephoned Willie at his home and said that he had back troubles, and needed to go for x-rays but his chauffeur wasn't available. He asked if he could use Harry Shepherd, Willie's driver and ever faithful bodyguard, and Moretti agreed.

    Later that morning, Willie, alone and unarmed, drove to Cliffside to Joe's Elbow Room Restaurant where three men were waiting for him. Moretti joined them at their table and the group spoke in Italian. Suddenly one of the men drew a revolver and shot Willie Moretti twice in the forehead, leaving his body sprawled on the patterned linoleum, between two tables.

    After the success of the Moretti power play, Vito Genovese decided that the time had come to go after Frank Costello himself. Following his appearance at the Kefauver hearings, the Federal Government went after Costello with a vengeance and charged him with a contempt of the Senate charge following his walk-out in the Kefauver hearings.

    Costello eventually went before two juries; the first ending in a hung jury, but the second resulting in an eighteen-month sentence that he began in August of 1952 and finished in October of 1953.

    While Costello was in prison, in the summer of 1952, the IRS mounted a full-scale investigation against him. Agents checked every bank he and his wife went to, they interviewed his tailor, his barbershop, the restaurants he used. They traveled the country from Miami to New Orleans looking for leads but came up empty handed, unable to find a trace of any substantial undeclared income.

    Then, following one of his wife's checks, the agents found a shop that had supplied flowers to St. Michael's Cemetery in Astoria, Queens. There, on a plot purchased for $4,888, they found a marble mausoleum owned by Costello and built for his family for a total of $23,503, paid in cash through a friend named Amilicare Festa. The IRS was able to prove, eventually, that the money for the plot and the mausoleum came from Costello and in April of 1954, Costello went on trial for tax evasion. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison and fined $30,000, the maximum penalty the law allowed. Costello fought the sentence all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction and Costello was returned to prison on May 14, 1956. But, the following year, he hired the brilliant Edward Bennett Williams, and in April 1957, Williams secured Costello's release on parole. However, the Immigration department moved in and started denaturalization proceedings against him, which he fought for years.

    All of this, Costello's jail time and endless legal problems, gave Genovese all the time he needed to plot and plan Costello's overthrow on May 2, 1957, when the Godfather's world crashed down around him. That evening, as Costello returned to his apartment, a young thug named Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, who was working for Vito Genovese, walked up behind the Godfather, standing less than ten feet away, pointed a pistol at him and said: "This is for you Frank," and then fired one shot at Costello's skull.

    But remarkably, he missed. The bullet tore into the skin behind Costello's right ear, ricocheted around the nape of his neck and slammed into the wall behind him. Gigante was long gone by the time Costello fell on the floor. He had run through the lobby and leaped into a waiting black Cadillac and disappeared into the night.

(To be continued)

Mr. Tuohy can be reached by writing to

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