Life as a Criminal
Joseph Valachi began his criminal life as part of a small gang called the Minutemen. They got that name because they used to finish their “smash and grab” burglaries and escape within a minute. He soon garnered a reputation in the New York City criminal underworld for his skill to make a fast getaway.
In 1921, he was apprehended on grand larceny charges. Two years later, the police caught him following a botched robbery. After submitting a guilty plea, he was given an 18-month sentence but was freed after nine months.
When he came back, he discovered that he had been substituted as a driver by the Minutemen. He subsequently set up another burglary group.
Valachi started working with the Italian-American Mafia, or Cosa Nostra, in the early 1930s. Not long after, he joined the Reina family, now known as the Lucchese family, as a soldier. Gaetano Reina served as its leader at that time.
During this period, the Castellammarese War was in full swing. Two factions of the mafia, led by Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano, were at war with each other over control of operations in US.
After Reina left Masseria for Maranzano, he was killed in February 1930. Valachi was active as a soldier for Maranzano during the war. On April 15, 1931, Masseria was killed, which effectively ended the war.
Maranzano subsequently became the self-appointed capo di tutti capi ("boss of all bosses") in the Italian-American Mafia, and Valachi began serving as one of his bodyguards. That did not last long, as Maranzano himself was murdered on September 10, 1931, by an alliance of his subordinates, who were led by Charles "Lucky" Luciano.
After Maranzano’s assassination, Valachi began working for Luciano as a soldier in his Genovese family. He was part of a crew led by Anthony "Tony Bender" Strollo.
Arrest & Testimony
Joseph Valachi kept working for the Genovese family until his arrest. In 1959, he was found guilty of narcotics violations and given a prison sentence of 15 years.
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Historically, most people had no idea about the existence of the Italian-American Mafia. Those who did, did not have much knowledge about it. However, for the Italian-American community, law enforcement agencies, and numerous associates and victims, they were an open secret.
The reason behind Valachi’s decision to become an informer has been debated for some time. According to Valachi, he did it as a public service and because of his desire to unmask a powerful criminal organization that he accused of destroying his life.
It is also likely that he accepted the government’s offer as there was a $100,000 bounty out on him. There was also a plea bargain in place in which he received a life sentence and not the death penalty for a murder he committed.
While he had been serving his sentence for the narcotics violations, one of his fellow inmates was Vito Genovese, Luciano’s close accomplice and the “Boss of all Bosses” from 1957 to 1959.
Genovese was in jail for heroin trafficking as well, and Valachi had somehow discovered that Genovese had issued an order for his assassination. On June 22, 1962, he killed an inmate with a pipe after he erroneously believed him to be Joseph DiPalermo, a Mafia affiliate who he thought had been hired to murder him.
Valachi later informed his FBI handlers that Genovese had kissed him on the cheek, which he thought was the “kiss of death”. He subsequently chose to collaborate with the U.S. Justice Department.
Attorney William G. Hundley served as Valachi’s protector and later revealed that they used to disguise Valachi with glasses and wigs during their visits to the Roma restaurant. According to him, Valachi was “a hell of a guy” and the Cosa Nostra “was the most overrated thing since the Communist Party”.
While Valachi’s revelations did not result in convictions of any Mafia leaders, the information he provided shed light on the details of the history of the Mafia, operations and rituals. It helped the authorities solve several cold cases and revealed the names of many members of the clandestine group.
In October 1963, Valachi gave his testimony in front of Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations and confirmed the existence of the Mafia. This was the first time anyone in history had exposed the Italian-American Mafia this way, and it proved to be catastrophic for them.
Valachi was also the first person to commit a major violation of omertà, a strict code of silence and honour that Italian organized crime syndicates use to prevent any cooperation with government agencies.
Broadcast on radio and television, the Valachi hearings caught people’s fascination. Although the authorities initially supported the publication of Valachi’s memoirs, they later blocked it.
In 1968, journalist Peter Maas put out the book, ‘The Valachi Papers’, based on his multiple interviews with the man. The book inspired the 1972 film of the same name, with Charles Bronson portraying Valachi.
Family & Personal Life
According to city records, Joseph Valachi exchanged wedding vows with Carmela "Millie" Reina, the oldest daughter of his former boss, Gaetano Reina, on July 28, 1932. However, Valachi stated that the marriage took place on 18 September.
They had a son named Donald. After being married for 25 years, Valachi left his wife for another woman in 1958.
Death & Legacy
On April 3, 1971, Valachi passed away due to a heart attack while he was still incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution, La Tuna, in Anthony, Texas. He was 66 years old at the time. He is interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Lewiston, New York.
According to director Francis Ford Coppola, the scenes involving the senate committee interrogation of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) in ‘The Godfather Part II’ (1974) are inspired by Valachi's federal hearings. He also stated, in his director's commentary on the film, that Pentangeli is like a Valachi figure.