Colombo crime family boss Carmine "Junior" Persico is led into...

Colombo crime family boss Carmine "Junior" Persico is led into court in handcuffs in New York on Nov. 7, 1980. Credit: AP

Carmine J. Persico Jr., the legendary Mafia boss who clung to the role of head of the Colombo crime family while serving a life prison term, died Thursday afternoon. He was 85 and died at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, said a family attorney. 

Persico, born and bred in Brooklyn, was serving a term of 139 years at the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina when he died.

Persico, known for his signature long face, became something of a folk hero in 1986 when, as boss of the Colombo family, he acted as his own attorney in the fabled Commission Trial, winning compliments from a federal judge for the way he handled himself in court.

“Carmine was an old-school gangster; he was really liked by his crew, through all the bad times and his being away,” said author Frank Dimatteo, who with co-author Michael Benson penned the biography "Carmine the Snake: Carmine Persico and His Murderous Mafia Family." 

According to Persico family attorney Benson Weintraub of Florida, Persico had suffered from a serious leg infection since October. Doctors had suggested amputation, but Persico, who also suffered from heart and kidney disease, refused such treatment, Weintraub said.

Persico was put on a course of antibiotics, but his medical treatment in prison was interrupted by the recent federal partial work stoppage and may have hastened his death, Weintraub said. Federal prison officials confirmed Persico’s death but didn’t respond to Weintraub’s claims.

Known to his friends as “Junior” and to adversaries as “the Snake,” Persico began life as a street gang member in Brooklyn in the early 1950s, once being accused of killing another teenager in a case that was ultimately dropped. 

In the 1950s, police believe, Persico became aligned with the Mafia family run by Joseph Profaci. Persico also worked with the Gallo brothers, a rebellious faction that tried to challenge Profaci, prompting a mob war. But Persico shifted sides and stayed aligned with the more powerful Profaci.

 Investigators believe Persico and others had a role in the infamous assassination in October 1957 of mob moss Albert Anastasia. In the 1960s and '70s, Persico became involved with hijacking and was sentenced to a stint in federal prison. By then, the Profaci family had become known as the crime family of Joseph Colombo.  

 In 1985, after having gone on the lam because of looming federal charges, Persico was captured at the Wantagh home of relative Fred DeChristopher, who was actually working as a federal informant. Persico was convicted in the Commission Trial in 1986 and sent to prison for what would prove to be the rest of his life.

Yet even in prison, investigators said, Persico orchestrated a mob power play in 1991 in which his faction beat back a challenge by a group led by mobster Vic Orena, a battle that left over a dozen people dead.

But as the years passed and Persico lost his allies on the street, it seemed that his power waned, even though the FBI listed him as the official boss of the Colombo family.

 “To me, he was pretty tragic,” said Dimatteo of Persico. “He got what he wanted but spent most of his time in jail. He couldn’t reap the fruits.”

 Weintraub said Persico is survived by his wife, Joyce, and two sons, Alphonse and Michael. Funeral arrangements were pending, the attorney said.

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