Joseph Michael Valachi
September 22, 1904
New York City, New York, United States
|Died||April 3, 1971 (aged 66)|
Anthony, Texas, United States
|Resting place||Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Lewiston, New York|
|Other names||"Anthony Sorge", "Charles Charbano", "Joe Cago", "Joe Cargo"|
|Known for||First Italian-American Mafia member to acknowledge its existence publicly|
Carmela Reina (m. 1932)
|Allegiance||Genovese crime family|
|Conviction(s)||Drug trafficking (1959)|
|Criminal penalty||Life imprisonment|
Joseph Michael Valachi (September 22, 1904 – April 3, 1971) was an American gangster in the Genovese crime family who is notable as the first member of the Italian-American Mafia to acknowledge its existence publicly. He is credited with popularization of the term cosa nostra.
In 1963, Valachi testified before a U.S. Senate committee, known as the Valachi hearings, and disclosed previously unknown information about the Italian-American Mafia including its structure, operations, rituals and membership. His testimony was the first major violation of omertà, the mafia's code of silence, and the first concrete evidence that the Italian-American Mafia existed to federal authorities and the general public. Valachi died in 1971 while he was serving a life sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution, La Tuna.
Valachi was born on September 22, 1904, in the East Harlem area of New York City, United States, into an impoverished Italian immigrant family. His father was a violent alcoholic, and Valachi would later blame his background for his turn to organized crime.
Valachi's criminal career began with a small gang, known as the Minutemen, which was so called for carrying out smash and grab burglaries and escaping within a minute. Valachi was the driver for the gang, and his ability to make a quick getaway earned him a reputation as a rising star in the New York City criminal underworld. In 1921, Valachi was arrested on grand larceny charges, and in 1923, Valachi was arrested in the aftermath of a botched robbery. He pleaded guilty to attempted burglary and was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment but was released after he had served only nine months. Valachi returned to discover he had been replaced with a new driver by the Minutemen and so he formed a new burglary gang.
In the early 1930s, Valachi was introduced into the Italian-American Mafia, also known as the Cosa Nostra, through his contact, Dominick "The Gap" Petrilli. He soon became a soldato (soldier) in the Reina family, now known as the Lucchese family, led by Gaetano Reina. Valachi joined during the height of the Castellammarese War, a violent power struggle within Italian organized crime between the factions of Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano over control of operations in the United States. Reina was assassinated after he had switched allegiances from Masseria to Maranzano. Valachi fought as part of the Reina family on the side of Maranzano, which eventually emerged victorious after Masseria's assassination, on April 15, 1931. Maranzano proclaimed himself capo di tutti capi ("boss of all bosses") in the Italian-American Mafia, and Valachi became one of his bodyguards. That position was short-lived, as Maranzano himself was assassinated five months after the end of the Castellammarese War by a coalition of his subordinates, led by Charles "Lucky" Luciano. Valachi then became a soldier in the family headed by Luciano, eventually known as the Genovese family, in the crew headed by Anthony "Tony Bender" Strollo. In July 1932, Valachi married Carmela Reina, the eldest daughter of Gaetano Reina. Valachi remained in his position as a soldier in the Genovese family until he was convicted of narcotics violations in 1959 and sentenced to 15 years.
Historically, the existence of the Italian-American Mafia had long been not believed by or unknown to most of the American public, but it existed as an open secret to the Italian-American community, law enforcement agencies, and various associates and victims. J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had even publicly denied the existence of the Mafia although he had investigated it for years. That continued until 1957 when the Apalachin meeting, a summit of international Italian organized crime figures in Upstate New York, hosted by Joseph Barbara, was raided by police. The raid resulted in the indictment of 58 Cosa Nostra bosses, and the aftermath confirmed the existence of the Mafia to the public.
Valachi's motivations for becoming an informer had been the subject of some debate: Valachi claimed to be testifying as a public service and to expose a powerful criminal organization that he had blamed for ruining his life, but it is also possible he was hoping for government protection as part of a plea bargain in which he was sentenced to life imprisonment instead of the death penalty for a murder, which he had committed in 1962 while he was already serving in prison for his narcotics violation. Valachi murdered a man in prison that he had feared mob boss Vito Genovese, and fellow prisoner, had ordered his death. Valachi and Genovese were both serving sentences for heroin trafficking. On June 22, 1962, using a pipe left near some construction work, Valachi bludgeoned an inmate to death after he had mistaken for Joseph DiPalermo, a Mafia member who he believed had been commissioned to kill him. After time with FBI handlers, Valachi came forward with a story of Genovese giving him a kiss on the cheek, which he took as a "kiss of death." A $100,000 bounty for Valachi's death, had been placed by Genovese.
When Valachi decided to co-operate with the U.S. Justice Department, Attorney William G. Hundley became his protector and later stated, "We'd put dark glasses and wigs on him and take him to the Roma restaurant. He was a hell of a guy.... My days with Valachi convinced me that the Cosa Nostra was the most overrated thing since the Communist Party." Although Valachi's disclosures never led directly to the prosecution of any Mafia leaders, he provided many details of history of the Mafia, operations and rituals; aided in the solution of several unsolved murders; and named many members and the major crime families. His testimony, which was broadcast on radio and television and published in newspapers, was devastating for the Italian-American mafia, which was still reeling from the Apalachin meeting in 1957. Following Valachi's testimony, the Italian-American Mafia was no longer the organization invisible to the public that it had been for almost a century.
In October 1963, Valachi testified before Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations, known as the Valachi hearings, stating that the Italian-American Mafia actually existed, the first time a member had acknowledged its existence in public. Valachi's testimony was the first major violation of omertà, a code of silence and honor practiced by Italian organized crime syndicates that strictly forbids any cooperation with authorities, and it was also the first concrete evidence to federal authorities that the Italian-American Mafia existed. Valachi described several inner mechanics of the Mafia, including its structure, operations, rituals, and membership.
After the Justice Department first encouraged and then blocked publication of Valachi's memoirs, a biography, heavily influenced by the memoirs as well as interviews with Valachi, was written by journalist Peter Maas and published in 1968 as The Valachi Papers, forming the basis for a later film of the same title, starring Charles Bronson in the titular role.
On April 3, 1971, Valachi died of a heart attack while he was serving his sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution, La Tuna, in Anthony, Texas. He was buried at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Lewiston, New York.
In popular culture
Francis Ford Coppola, in his director's commentary on The Godfather Part II (1974), mentioned that the scenes depicting the Senate committee interrogation of Michael Corleone and Frank Pentangeli are based on Valachi's federal hearings and that Pentangeli is like a Valachi figure.
- Valachi hearings
- Buster from Chicago
- Joseph Massino
- Phil Leonetti
- Sammy Gravano
- Tommaso Buscetta
- Vincent Palermo
- "Their Thing, Time, August 16, 1963". webarchive.org. Archived from the original on 2009-05-14. Retrieved 2019-02-27.
- Maas, Peter (1986). The Valachi Papers. New York: Pocket Books. pp. 35–36. ISBN 978-0-671-63173-4.
- Maas, p. 16.
- Maas, pp. 38–42.
- Maas, pp. 42–43.
- "History of La Cosa Nostra". fbi.gov.
- Jerry Capeci. (2002) "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Mafia", Alpha Books. p. 200. ISBN 0-02-864225-2
- Rudolf, Robert (1993). Mafia Wiseguys: The Mob That Took on the Feds. New York: SPI Books. p. 41. ISBN 978-1-56171-195-6.
- Dietche, Scott M. (2009). The Everything Mafia Book: True-life accounts of legendary figures, infamous crime families, and nefarious deeds. Avon, Massachusetts: Adams Media. pp. 188–189. ISBN 978-1-59869-779-7.
- "The rat who started it all; For 40 years, Joe Valachi has been in a Lewiston cemetery, a quiet end for the mobster who blew the lid off 'Cosa Nostra' when he testified before Congress in 1963". buffalonews.com. October 9, 2011.
- Adam Bernstein (June 14, 2006). "Lawyer William G. Hundley, 80". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 21, 2015.
- "Killers in Prison", Time, October 4, 1963. Archived May 16, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
- "The Smell of It", Time, October 11, 1963. Archived May 16, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
- His Life and Crimes, Time, January 17, 1969. Archived July 13, 2012, at Archive.today.
- "Mobster". Independent Press-Telegram. Long Beach, California. April 4, 1971. p. 2. Retrieved October 8, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- "Valachi buried Upstate". nytimes.com. May 8, 1971.
- "Director commentary". The Godfather Part II. 1974. ASIN B00003CXAA.