NEW YORK – A jailed former Mafia boss who once ordered a payback killing in the infamous "Donnie Brasco" case made gangland history Tuesday by becoming the highest-ranking member of the city's five Italian organized crime families to break their sacred vow of silence and testify against one of their own.
Joseph Massino took the witness stand at the Brooklyn trial of Vincent "Vinny Gorgeous" Basciano, who served as one of his captains in the Bonanno crime family. Prosecutors say that Massino secretly recorded Basciano admitting he ordered a hit on an associate who ran afoul of the secretive Bonannos.
"You will hear the defendant did not tolerate being disrespected or disobeyed and that the penalty for both was death," Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Argentieri said in opening statements.
Moments after being sworn in, Massino pointed across the courtroom and identified Basciano — "the guy sitting in the gray suit" — as the crime family's former acting boss. The defendant stared back at the government's star witness, steadily chewing on a piece of gum.
In clipped tones, Massino gave the anonymous jury a colorful tutorial on the Mafia.
By cooperating, he explained, he was violating a sacred oath he took during a 1977 induction ceremony to protect the secret society. It was understood, he said, that "once a bullet leaves that gun, you never talk about it."
He testified that when he took control of the family he gave strict orders to never utter his name — a precaution against FBI surveillance. Instead, his soldiers touched their ears to refer to him, earning him the nickname "The Ear."
Asked about his duties as boss, he replied, "Murder. ... Making captains. Breaking captains" — lingo for promoting and demoting capos. He said he also had to assess talent.
"It takes all kinds of meat to make a good sauce," said Massino, the one-time proprietor of a Queens restaurant called CasaBlanca. "Some people, they kill. Some people, they earn, they can't kill."
Massino, 68, broke ranks and began talking with investigators after his 2004 conviction for orchestrating a quarter-century's worth of murder, racketeering and other crimes as he rose through the ranks of the Bonannos. The bloodshed included the shotgun slayings of three rival captains and the execution of a mobster who vouched for FBI undercover Brasco in the 1980s. Brasco's story became a movie starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino.
While imprisoned together in 2005, the former Bonanno boss agreed to wear a wire and betray Basciano.
The understudy "told me that he killed him," Massino said in recounting a conversation about the 2004 slaying charged in the current case. "He said (the victim) was a scumbag, a rat, a troublemaker, a bad kid."
In his opening statement, defense attorney George Goltzer told jurors that Basciano took credit for the coldblooded murder to protect the real killer — a friend in the Bonannos who acted without proper permission — "from the wrath of Joseph Massino." The lawyer described Massino and other turncoats slated to testify for the government as deceitful opportunists.
"The United States government needs to make deals with the devil. ... You don't have to accept what they say," Goltzer said.
Prosecutors say Basciano, the one-time owner of the Hello Gorgeous beauty salon, rose to his leadership role after a series of Bonanno defections and successful prosecutions in the 2000s decimated its leadership.
The 50-year-old defendant, known for his explosive temper, could face the death penalty if convicted of racketeering, murder and other charges. He already is serving a life term for a conviction in a separate case in 2007.
Massino is serving two consecutive life terms for eight murders. He testified his cooperation spared his wife from prosecution, allowed her to keep their home and gave him a shot at a reduced sentence.
He said he hoped "one day maybe I'll see a little light at the end of the tunnel."
And what about Donnie Brasco?
Massino said he had never met the real-life undercover. Asked whether the movie was accurate, he started to move his hand in a dismissive way before the judge cut him off.
"Jurors, disregard this," the judge instructed while making the same motion.
(spotlight photo: Al Pacino 66)