The Colombo Crime Family

Civil Rights League Rally

On June 28, 1971, tens of thousands of people converged on Manhattan’s Columbus Circle for the second annual Italian-American Civil Rights League rally. Police barricades rerouted traffic away from the event. On an outdoor stage festooned with red, white, and blue fringed streamers, prominent politicians and local celebrities gathered to lend their support. Red, white, and green flags of Italy were unfurled beside the Stars and Stripes.

Television cameramen and newspaper photographers shouldered their way through the crowd to get as close to the podium as possible. Proud Italian-Americans from all over the New York metropolitan area gathered to voice their opposition to what they considered government prejudice against their people. They had a particular beef with the FBI.

They felt that all Italian-Americans were being tarred with the Mafia brush. Just because a few Italians had established La Cosa Nostra, they certainly weren’t all criminals, but the FBI, they claimed, treated them that way.

Joseph Colombo

Colombo had started the league the year before to retaliate against what he considered unfair harassment from the FBI. On April 30, 1970, Colombo’s son Joseph Jr. had been arrested for melting down quarters, dimes, and nickels for their silver content, hoping to earn more than the face value of the coins.

As mob expert Jerry Capeci points out, the arrest was a “pressure tactic” aimed at the young man’s father, but Joe Colombo cried foul and impetuously struck back by sending a gang of his men to picket FBI headquarters in Manhattan .But picketing alone wasn’t enough for Colombo. He soon declared that he was forming the Italian-American Civil Rights League to address the issue of discrimination against his people.

To the amazement of law-enforcement officials, thousands of law-abiding Italian-Americans took up the cry, sending in their ten-dollar membership fees to the organization in droves. Fearing reprisals from Italian-American voters, local politicians voiced their support. Within a matter of weeks, the league became a force of nature.

Fifty thousand people attended the first rally at Columbus Circle on June 29, 1970. The mob ordered the docks closed for the day so that union members could attend. Stores in Italian neighborhoods around the city also closed in honor of the occasion. The huge outpouring of popular support for the league had its effect. United States Attorney General John Mitchell and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller declared that the term “Mafia” would no longer be used within their jurisdictions.

The league named Joe Colombo its Man of the Year in May of that year, even though in March he had been slapped with a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for lying on his application for a real-estate broker’s license. The sentence was delayed pending appeal, and Colombo stepped up his efforts to promote the League. He even appeared on the Dick Cavett Show, a popular late-night television talk show, to discuss anti-Italian-American discrimination. Some of the bosses of the other families were not pleased. This kind of deliberate self-exposure was unheard of for a Mafia chief. Not even the egomaniacal John Gotti would have considered this kind of publicity during his reign as boss of the Gambino Family in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

By the time the second annual rally rolled around, Joe Colombo, the self-appointed civil rights leader, was walking on thin ice. As he made his way through the crowd on that summer day in 1971, he undoubtedly realized that he had ruffled some feathers, but apparently he didn’t know how badly he’d ruffled them. The knives were already out.

Colombo in a Comma – “Vegetabled”

After the first Italian-American Civil Rights League rally in 1970, Joe Colombo was able to convince many of his fellow bosses and their capos to contribute to his cause. How else would he have gotten the docks to close down for the event? But on December 16, 1970, FBI agents arrested Colombo soldier Rocco Miraglia and searched the briefcase he was carrying. According to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Mafia, the special agents found “a list of names or nicknames and dollar amounts.”

Colombo, who was with Miraglia when he was arrested, appeared before a federal grand jury and was questioned about the list. Rather than pleading the Fifth the way a gangster normally would, Colombo, the civil-rights leader, declared that these dollar amounts were contributions he’d raised for the league. “Carl,” he testified, was boss Carlo Gambino. Next to his name on the list was written “30,000.” No doubt Gambino and all the other mobsters on that list wished Colombo hadn’t been so forthcoming. The mob’s initial support for Colombo’s league soon dried up. The bosses felt that he had become too public, and in the mob, that was never good for business.

Joe Colombo also faced serious opposition within his own family. The Gallo brothers – Larry, Albert, and the notorious Crazy Joey – had been chafing under the family’s leadership for years and had already tried to take over the family in the early sixties. Joey Gallo had just been released from state prison in February 1971 after serving a nine-year stint, and his bitter feelings about the family leadership hadn’t changed.

Gallo and his brothers had long felt that they deserved a bigger piece of the pie for their efforts, and they’d proven in the past that they were ready, willing, and able to go to war to get what they wanted. The brothers also had a powerful ally in Genovese capo Vincent “Chin” Gigante, who would one day become boss of his family.

Joe Colombo shot by Jerome Johnson

As Joe Colombo muscled his way through the crowd in Columbus Circle to get to the stage, three gunshots suddenly rang out. People ducked, yelled in panic, and ran for shelter. Police officers fought the stampede to get to the source of the trouble. They found Joe Colombo lying on the pavement, blood streaming from three head wounds. A black man holding a pistol stood over him. Joe Colombo shot by Jerome Johnson. The police grabbed the man, but as they attempted to restrain him, a loyal Colombo retainer pulled a gun and put three bullets into the man’s back, killing him on the spot. Police later learned that the man who shot Colombo was a “street hustler”.