Joseph Massino, the low-key Mafia boss who stunned the world of organized crime in 2005 when it was revealed he had become a government witness, has died after a short illness, sources close to his family told Newsday.
Massino, once a trim and powerful man who would jump off the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge in Queens and swim for hours, battled a number of chronic health conditions including diabetes and obesity. He was 80 and lived until recently in Ohio. Massino died on Sept. 14 at a rehabilitation facility in the New York City area, according to the sources.
Massino’s youngest daughter Joanne, who asked that her last name not be published, confirmed his death but declined to comment further.
Over the years Massino navigated the treacherous world of the Mafia families in New York, all the while running legitimate businesses such as a sandwich shop in Queens, catering firms in Farmingdale and the CasaBlanca Restaurant in Maspeth, which he forfeited after a federal racketeering conviction in 2004.
“He ruled with an iron fist and kept order within the ranks,” said former FBI supervisory special agent Charles Rooney, who investigated the Sicilian faction of the crime family in the famous Pizza Connection drug case.
Through tribute paid to by fellow mobsters along with illegal and legal earnings, Massino amassed a fortune and after his conviction, had to turn over $10 million in cash — some of which he had kept in his Howard Beach home — as well as gold bars and other assets.
Massino actually wanted to cooperate within minutes after a Brooklyn federal court jury found him guilty in July 2004 of racketeering, including the orchestration of six mob murders, as boss of the Bonanno crime family. Massino immediately approached presiding Judge Nicholas Garaufis and said he wanted to cooperate, at which point Garaufis appointed him a special lawyer to negotiate.
After several months, it was revealed that Massino, who faced a federal death penalty trial in a different case, was cooperating against fellow mobsters. In 2005, Massino formally entered the federal witness security program. His life sentence was reduced to time served in 2013.
Born in Queens in January 1943, Massino was one of three sons of Anthony and Adeline Massino and lived close to Maspeth. Massino was an athletic young man who earned a reputation as being a street tough after dropping out of school in the seventh grade.
Massino took a number of jobs, including working as a lifeguard at Atlantic Beach on Long Island. As a young adult, Massino started a coffee cart business, serving businesses in the Maspeth area.
But it was in the 1970s that Massino became associated with Philip Rastelli, who rose to become boss of the Bonanno crime family. After Rastelli went to prison, investigators said, his trust in Massino grew.
Massino was inducted into the Mafia around 1977 and became a captain in 1979, according to the FBI. Two years later, in May 1981 according to federal court testimony, Massino helped engineer the killings of the three upstart captains — Philip Giaccone, Alphonse Indelicato and Dominic Trinchera — suspected of trying to gain control of the Bonanno family.
After Massino served time in federal prison in the 1980s, he was officially anointed as boss of the Bonanno family in 1991 upon Rastelli’s death.
Although Massino was a friend of his neighbor John Gotti, head of the Gambino family, he didn’t emulate Gotti's public stance and nightlife. Instead, Massino kept a low profile and closed down mob social clubs to frustrate FBI surveillance. To keep his name out of conversations that could be bugged, Massino asked that fellow gangsters refer to him only by tugging on their ears, a gesture that earned Massino the moniker “The Ear.”
But by 2000, the FBI again focused on Massino. The result was a federal indictment that led to his arrest on Jan. 9, 2003, along with his wife Josephine's brother, Sal Vitale. But soon after, Vitale became a government witness against Massino and testified at the mob boss’s 2004 trial.
After he became a government cooperating witness, Massino helped build a case against his former street boss, Vincent “Vinnie Gorgeous” Basciano. Massino also gave information to the FBI that allowed investigators to dig up the bodies of the captains killed in May 1981.