Feature Articles

January 2013
Behind The Book - Mob Cop by Richard Stanley Cagan

Mafia Cop:
The Two Families of Michael Palermo; Saints Only Live in Heaven

Mafia Cop: The Two Families of Michael Palermo; Saints Only Live in Heaven
(Skyhorse Publishing, Jan. 2013, ISBN 978-1-61608-857-6)

By Richard Stanley Cagan

      I was born into a life where the "Mafia", "La Cosa Nostra" and "The Black Hand", ("La Mano Negra"), were all around me. I grew up living in a sea of organized crime and I didn't know it.

      My first innocent realization was when my brother-in-law, Louis Anthony "Louie Capp" C., told me about how he had grown up in Little Italy in Manhattan, New York City in the 1930s where his youthful environs were on Mott, Mulberry, and Canal Streets. Lou told me that the apartment where he lived as a young boy was right across the hall from the apartment of the television actress, Rosemarie, who achieved fame as a child star and as a star on "The Dick Van Dyke" television show. The homogeneous population of the neighborhood was mostly of Italian immigrants who had come proudly sailing by the Statue of Liberty. She stood as a beacon of hope in New York City harbor welcoming them with her torch of freedom. They felt that she was glad to see them. And they were jubilant to see her and all of the promises of freedom and wealth that were waiting for them in their new home where they had been told that the streets were paved with gold. Unfortunately, for many of them, the gold of the streets soon began to rust, because for the most part, it was fool's gold that had been "salted" into their new world to fool them like the innocent "fessos" which Fate had destined them to be.

      These immigrants, from the widespread tyrannies of Europe and other parts of the world, were soon to discover that the natures of men and women never change as they move from one part of the world to another. They worked hard but never seemed to get anywhere until they "played ball" with the mafia and walked and worked under the protection of organized crime which stood waiting to help them, and then later maybe "clip", "hit", "waste", "snuff", or otherwise kill them if they stepped just a little bit out of the line which the big bosses had drawn on the pavement streets of their small immigrant enclave of Little Italy in New York City.

      Louie Capp used to tell me stories about how one day when he walked down the street called Mulberry, he saw some shoes sticking up from inside a garbage can. He walked over and when he looked more closely, he recognized the shoes, and the head with the black hair, and the face of his friend, Tommy DeStefano who had, as a kid, become a runner for the gambling operations of the mob. Tommy D. had hoisted himself up the ladder and finally had met the height of his fame and wealth inside of a trash can filled with garbage because somebody didn't like the way he looked at them, or how he spoke, or gestured, or some other real important thing that made one guy kill another in the murderous web of the mafia.

      Lou told me, that right then and there, he decided that he would make something of himself and get out of and steal away from the grasp of the mob and the "life" that so many of his friends and family had become intertwined with in its web. Instead, he put himself through New York University Law School and entered a new world of crime as a lawyer, this time mostly on the good side of the good-and-bad-line. In later years, he told me that his uncle Tony had been a member of the Vito Genovese mafia Family. But he had only been involved in making a lot of money for the big bosses in gambling, protection, and "business dealings"; and that he was never involved in anything bad like contracts to clip a guy or break his arms or legs for a debt gone bad, or for touching a "made man" or his wife or family who were all "untouchable" under mafia law at that time.

      Years later I find myself talking to my other brother-in-law, Warren G. who was a longshoreman on the Brooklyn docks which had been controlled by Albert "The Mad Hatter" Anastasia of "Murder Incorporated". Warren tells me that his childhood friend, Rocco "Rocky" M., would like to speak with me about some important business. Rocky owns and operates a high-end franchised jewelry store in one of the most luxurious hotels in New York City. I call Rocky and he tells me that a good friend of his is a former New York City police detective who was in the elite Special Investigations Unit (SIU) from which the stories from the best seller book, "The Prince of the City", were resourced in real-event-time. He says that he told this retired detective, Lieutenant First Class Michael George Sabella, that I write books and he said that his friend, Mike Sabella, would like to talk to me about writing his story about his life on the police force including his tour in the narcotics squad which started back in 1953 when the squad was first formed. I say to myself that this sounds like it could be a good thing for me and for this detective, so I go down to visit with Rocky; and then I go down to the garment district in New York City and I meet with Mike Sabella in his office in his women's accessories company which is called "Raindrop". We make the introductions and he sits behind his desk and I sit on a chair in front of him. He is a very polite gentleman who is relaxed and I can envision him as he had testified in court as the arresting officer in his two thousand plus arrests in the police department. We talk a bit about "Rocky the Jeweler", as Rocky is known in the finest circles and world of glitter and gloss of Hollywood celebrities with whom he "dances" in his legitimate business by selling them the finest jewelry in the world. Rocky's words are always carefully chosen and precise. He is "Savoir Faire" to the paradigm. We talk about Rocky and how he is friends with Frank Sinatra, and Burt Reynolds, and Vic Damone, and other celebrities.

      I say to myself that I like this Mike Sabella, and if I handle myself okay, then maybe I can write his book as he tells me the facts and the stylizations which cops always make when they tell their stories "on" and "off the job" in cop bars and restaurants and parties and police "rackets". Then I go and make the biggest mistake of my whole fragile, short life up to this point.

      I reach into my business-style leather briefcase and I pull out a tape recorder and plop it on his desk right in front of his face and say, "You don't mind if I tape record this conversation, do you, Detective Sabella?" Well, the guy goes crazy, slams both his hands down on his desk, fills his face with his own blood which had been hiding and engorged under his swarthy Sicilian skin, bares his teeth at me, and yells at the top of his lungs, "I don't want any tape recorders anywhere within a thousand miles of me!"

      Now, I figure that I made a big, stupid, yet innocent mistake and that I may never get out of this place alive. I look at the door which I am now planning to knock down to get out of there, because I fear that he may have a remote lock on it and he won't let me out. I grab my little tape recorder which has the dubious distinction of just having been an unwitting and unwilling accessory to my now impending death through some very loud words, and I jam it back into the depths of my briefcase and smother it. I hope that it will now peacefully die and go away and leave me alone forever, and that I may be ever-more absolved from its and my own impending violent, black death of Mike Sabella. He is adrenaline-wide-eyed. He instinctively snaps his head from side to side, up and down, near and far, and then drills his steely black eyes into my forehead trying to get into my pitiful, mushy brain to find out what I'm thinking and if I'm a government plant.

      Then just as quickly as it had started, and as soon as my tape recorder has disappeared, Mike calms down and tells me that he has just gone through a real bad stretch of tape recorders with a local D.A. He lights up a cigarette, blows smoke across his desk and says, "Okay, so tell me a little about yourself. Rocky speaks very highly of you." And then, just like that, it is all over and I get a reprieve and a pardon from a man I begin to know as the "Mafia Cop". I think to myself that Rocky and his recommendation just saved my life. My stupid life that I had just almost thrown away. But more important than my life, I almost threw away my chance to write Mike Sabella's story; a story which could be good for the both of us.

      Mike and I get along real well like he is my big brother and that he will always protect me. He tells me that he has met Tommy Lucchese, for whom the Lucchese Family of New York was named. He also told me about his face-to-face meetings with the successor head of the Vito Genovese Family and other strong men in the New York mafia. The two of us will sit in restaurants and talk; and meet in his home which was just a few minutes away from my home at the time in Yorktown Heights in Westchester County in New York where I later wrote in his own words, the true crime biography of Yorktown Town Attorney, Arthur Selkin, called "The Death of a Lawyer".

      Michael and I became good friends and, like a good friend, Mike Sabella came to my aid at least two times that I know of when I needed help. The first time was when I had put down a two hundred dollar deposit to buy a new Lincoln Town car at a Lincoln Dealership in nearby Bedford Hills, New York. The salesman was a "clicky-heels", sharp-dressed, cafone-like, energetic young Italian guy who, after I signed the sales contract, stood up and proclaimed to the world with the pinnacled top of his vocal chords megaphoning, "I can sell anything! Bring on the buyers." I kind of felt like he might have just put something over on me.

      A week goes by and I see in the newspaper that this dealership has just gone out of business and is in bankruptcy, and when I call them up they tell me that my deposit has disappeared and "flown the coop", and that they don't know where it is and they are protected by bankruptcy. Now I do not like this, so I call up Michael Sabella and I tell him the story and I give him the information he asks for. Then he tells me that he will look into it. Two days later, my doorbell rings at my front door and there is a courier with an envelope for me. It has a check in it made out to me for my two hundred dollars. It is from a company that I never heard of. I call Michael and I thank him and he says that he didn't do anything at all, and that he is glad that I am happy, and that I should come down to his house for lunch and we can work on some new stories that he wants to tell me for our book.

      After that, I buy the new 1979 Lincoln from a dealer in Ossining, New York and I tell the owner of the dealership that I am not going to put down a deposit, and I tell him the story, and how my friend got me back my deposit, and he says okay, and I do the buy with no money down.

      Then, after that and not knowing that there are still people around who can give me headaches, I go down to the New York Boat Show in Manhattan and I buy a Bayliner thirty-two foot long, fly-bridge cabin cruiser from a new boat dealer headquartered on the west side of Hudson River across from where I live. My family and I go across the Bear Mountain Bridge which leads to West Point where I was stationed when I was a captain in the United States Army, and I pay the $70,000 for the boat and then my family, two girls and a boy and my wife and I, take the boat out after getting instructions from the service manager. He tells us that the boat has been prepped, and tested and that it is fine and in perfect shape and condition. He also says that with any boat you have to be careful and wear your life jackets. This sounds wise to me. Then as he shakes my hand he says, "Good Luck" and I wonder why I will need "Good Luck". I think that it is just a figure of speech. As a parting advice he says, "And if the boat fills up with water in the engine compartment, don't hesitate--- just jump off immediately and into the water so it doesn't take you down with it as it sinks." Someone will rescue you." I think that this is strange but I am sure that this disclaimer is probably standard policy. Or maybe he's just trying to make a very bad joke.

      I sit in the fly bridge with my sunglasses on with my hat protecting my face from the sun radiation because I believe in safety. My hands are glued on the big stainless steel steering wheel. I look all around at my new water kingdom. We power up the river at about thirty miles per hour. I am now a fly-bridge cabin cruiser boat-racing driver and I can feel the raw explosion of the engine in my hands. We motor under the Bear Mountain Bridge as the cars speed by over our heads. I know that the water is deep here because we are in the center of the channel where all the big warships traveled during the Revolutionary War.

      Then I hear a sound that is sad and strangling. It comes from the engine compartment which is under the floor of the open cockpit where my wife and kids are standing with their life jackets on. My young son opens up the floor panels and there, in all its glorious water-graveness, sits the Hudson River along with my gasping engine which is surrounded in a sea of brown Hudson River brackish, muddy water. When the wake from a passing boat rocks our boat, my eldest daughter falls into the engine compartment with the Hudson River which is now swallowing her and my engine. We haul her out. We decide to leave the engine in place because it is a lot heavier than my daughter is. I call the dealership on the ship-to-shore radio. I tell them that we are now sinking and I ask if we should all jump off the boat into the river like the service manager told us to do in a case like this, and just like he recommended if this should happen to us, so that we will not go down with the ship, as any good captain and his family might be tempted to do, and follow the maritime rules that I heard somewhere that the captain must go down with his ship.

      The guy who answers the phone asks if this is a joke and I tell him that I am going to shoot him in the head when I get back, or I'll have somebody else do that for me if I do not get back in a breathing state. He says that he has no boat available to go out to rescue me and that I should try to power back myself as best I can, and that if I think I can't make it, then to call him again and he will call the Coast Guard for help.

      So then we "put-put" back to the marina with life jackets on our bodies and prayers on our lips. We go back slowly. It takes about an hour. The service manager looks at the engine compartment and says that he never saw anything like this and what did I do to almost sink the boat. I feel like shooting him in the head. I go to the sales manager and tell him I want my $70,000 back and he tells me that he can't do that but he will check the boat and fix it. I tell him I am not happy.

      I go home and I call Mike Sabella and he says that he will look into it. A few days later I get a check in the mail from the dealership for $70,000 with a note attached with instructions and a contract for the sale of the boat back to the dealership which still has the boat and which I think might still be afloat. I sign the sale document and I give the boat back to the dealer.

      It seems that the water exchange piping for the seawater cooling had a defect which, instead of pumping cold sea water through the radiator-cooling system and back out into the river, it pumped the Hudson River into the engine compartment of the boat as an alternate choice. We almost met both Davy Jones and Neptune in person on our inaugural trip. I wondered then if the reason that they called the boat company "Bayliner" was because their boats lined the bottom of the bay. But then, again, no one is perfect and this was probably just an isolated incident.

      I call Mike Sabella and thank him and tell him I got my $70,000 back. He says he didn't do anything and he is glad everything worked out okay, and that I should come down for lunch so we can work on our book over lunch at his favorite local restaurant. I know the place because we've been there before, and I know that he has there his special, favorite, private gunfighter seat with his back to the wall for safety. We eat and talk and put flesh and blood, and pain and joy on his story, which I later go home to write in our book which you are going to read or have just read.

      Mike Sabella-"Tough as a Bullet" and a "True Friend".



      In my writing career of numerous biographies, novels, short stories, musical comedy and dramatic plays, song lyrics and musical compositions, this book has become a life's work of mine, having spanned decades of personal meetings with Detective Michael George Sabella; interviews of persons expositioned in his story; restaurant meetings with him where he used the at-table "gunfighter seat" with his back to the wall in story-reciting locales; meetings at Detective Sabella's home; my initial meeting with him at his "Raindrop" post-detective ladies garment and accessories business office in the garment center of New York City in which I sought to tape-record his remembrances, and where he went crazy when I told him I wanted to tape our conversation (little did I know at the time that taped conversations played a vital, pivotal and nefarious role in his life); his post-detective-day lounge meetings with me at an upscale New York City hotel where he was the chief of security and where I met and shared memory times with motion picture actors Burt Young, who was nominated for an Oscar Award for his performance in the "Rocky" movies; and with Harry Guardino of the "Dirty Harry" movies with Clint Eastwood; to "Rocky The Jeweler", who was a family friend who introduced me to Detective Sabella, and who walked by us and nodded as he brought singer and motion picture star Vic Damone by us; to the pictures of Frank Sinatra on the wall of "Rocky's" private inner sanctum office depicting him and Frank Sinatra and their friends embracing for a photo-shoot; to hearing "Rocky" as he spoke in his private office on his private telephone to Barbara Sinatra who wanted to buy her husband, Frank, a very special holy saint bracelet, necklace and ring.

      Rocky later asked me to deliver a cache of special sterling silver, western style belt buckles to Hollywood motion picture actor, Burt Reynolds, at Mr. Reynolds' ranch in Jupiter, Florida, after I told Rocky I was going to visit my sister there. That was quite a ride. Someday I'll tell you about that.



      People ask me why I write so many times about organized crime and how do I get to connect with people who are in law enforcement, and then also with people who are on the diametrically opposite side of the court on which this deadly game of life and death, and crime and honor, is played. In addition to this "Mafia Cop" book, I also connected with and just wrote the biography, in his own words, for Palm Coast, Florida resident, Joseph "Joey" Calco aka Joseph "Joey" Milano, who was a hit man, assassin, and enforcer for the Joseph Bonanno crime Family which was headquartered on Bath Avenue in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn; and with Yorktown Town Attorney, Arthur Selkin when I wrote the biography of his life in his own words which described his crime-ridden drug addiction. His story, "The Arthur Selkin Story- The Death of a Lawyer", is a riveting, spell-binding read.

      I can now tell you three things which may answer the questions that people ask me.

      First, I have an intricate knowledge of the subject matter of my writings. Second be yourself when you write and interview and speak with your resources. And finally and thirdly, understand that I was there at the right time, at the right place, and with the right people. A friendly acquaintance of mine who was a Grammy Award winning member of the music group, "The Blood Sweat and Tears" and leader of the brass section, once told me that, in his opinion, this famous group made it big because, not only were they good, but more importantly, their timing was right. You have to have the talent and you have to catch the break of the wave and "hang four" to "make it", otherwise you are a just another rudderless virtuoso whose voice is crying in the wilderness, or talking to yourself aimlessly behind the locked doors of your bedroom, or in your garage, or out in the vast, bone-dry, arid, wasteland of the desert sands. And if you don't catch the break of the wave; and if no one opens a door for you; then you will be all alone. And if you don't daily renew your enthusiasm and all of your strengths, you will wither away to become nothing more than a wisp of a memory of someone who could have been great; someone who could have been somebody; someone who could have been a contender and the next Champion of the World in your given pursuits.

      Never give up. Always look for the candlelight shining far or near in the pitch-black night and grab for your chance to "make it". But be very careful, because if your grasping hand moves too fast or strikes too quickly or too wildly without measured aforethought, you may snuff out the candle's flame of opportunity, and then for sure you will return to the loneliness of darkness, and you may never again find that perhaps one last chance for success. Stay alert and use all of your powers of tenacity. And once you get a foothold and a grab-point, hold on tightly and climb upwards to the stars. Never, never, ever give up.

      At any rate what you should gain from reading, "Mafia Cop- The Two Families of Michael Palermo- Saints Only Live in Heaven", is everything that I just imparted to you. Everything in the book is what I offer to you. And you should always have a new and residing respect and appreciation of your own self-worth, your talents, and your power to succeed.

I know you will enjoy the book. I know that I do every time I read it.

Richard Stanley Cagan




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