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Colombo crime family boss Carmine Persico is seen in September, 1986, at the Metropolitan Correction Center in Manhattan.

CHESTER HIGGINS JR./The New York Times News Service

Carmine J. Persico, who emerged from gangland Brooklyn to become the unpredictable boss of one of the nation’s most powerful Mafia organizations in an era when the mob in New York was at the peak of its prosperity, died a prisoner Thursday in North Carolina, where he was a serving a 139-year sentence. He was 85.

His lawyer, Benson Weintraub, confirmed the death, at Duke University Medical Center in Durham. He said he did not know the cause. Persico had been incarcerated nearby at a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina.

Persico spent most of his adult life under indictment or in prison, and yet, even from behind bars, he managed to retain his status as the leader of a vast and violent criminal enterprise known as the Colombo family. Law-enforcement authorities believe he had a strong hand in the assassinations of mob bosses Albert Anastasia and Joey Gallo.

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The son of a middle-class law firm stenographer, he began his criminal career as a teenage enforcer and hit man in South Brooklyn. His first arrest, at 17, was for murder. But employing a keen intelligence, street-bred guile, an appetite for violence and a willingness to betray others, he quickly climbed the ladder to the top of the Colombo organization.

“He was the most fascinating figure I encountered in the world of organized crime,” said Edward A. McDonald, a former federal prosecutor who was in charge of a Justice Department unit that investigated the Mafia in the 1970s and ‘80s. “Because of his reputation for intelligence and toughness, he was a legend by the age of 17, and later as a mob boss he became a folk hero in certain areas of Brooklyn.”

Persico’s penchant for double-crossing his mob allies earned him an underworld nickname that he detested, the Snake. It was a name that none of his confederates dared to utter in his presence; they always addressed him by “Junior.”

Law-enforcement officials maintain that even when he was serving prison terms from the 1960s into the late ‘90s, he remained a potent force in two bloody mob wars and in running the Colombo family’s criminal operations. During his tenure, his gang reaped millions of dollars a year in illegal payoffs from labour racketeering, gambling, loan-sharking and drug trafficking, mainly in the New York region.

Detectives, lawyers and underworld associates described Persico as a moody man who could be alternately charming and vicious. Lawyers remembered his ability to grasp complicated criminal law procedures and make acute strategy suggestions at his trials.

But Mafia defectors and investigators, who listened to his conversations on electronic bugs and telephone taps, said he would become enraged over the slightest suspicion that other mobsters were cheating him. An informer who shared a prison cell with him testified that he had tried to hatch plots to murder prosecutors, including Rudy Giuliani, and FBI agents, all of whom he held responsible for his long prison sentences.

Mob turncoats said Persico had boasted that he had a hand in more than 20 murders, either as the actual killer or in ordering the slayings. He was once stopped from garroting Larry Gallo, an old underworld confederate turned foe, when a police officer accidentally walked into a bar and found Gallo, unconscious, with a rope around his neck.

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Mean Streets and 59 Acres

Persico is led into court in handcuffs in New York on Nov. 7, 1980.

The Associated Press

At the height of his power, from the early 1960s to the mid-’80s, Persico roamed Brooklyn, particularly the Carroll Gardens, Red Hook, Park Slope and Bensonhurst sections. Slightly built at 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighing about 150 pounds, he was usually accompanied by his favourite sidekick and bodyguard, Hugh McIntosh, a 6-foot-4 mobster with a frame like a tree trunk.

The extent of Persico’s influence and authority in the Mafia was exposed at a watershed federal trial in 1986 in Manhattan. He and the reputed bosses of the Genovese and Lucchese crime families were convicted of being members of the Commission, the body that resolved major disputes and set policies for the five New York crime families: the Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese factions.

At the trial, Persico, a high-school dropout, decided to represent himself, and he won the praises of lawyers and judges for his acumen in questioning witnesses, writing legal briefs and raising points of law.

His unorthodox trial tactics failed, however, and he was convicted, along with Anthony Corallo, the accused boss of the Lucchese family, and Anthony Salerno, a high-ranking member of the Genovese family. Each man was sentenced to 100 years in prison without the possibility of parole after being found guilty of conspiracy to commit murders, racketeering and leading a criminal enterprise, the Commission.

Carmine John Persico was born on Aug. 8, 1933, and grew up in Park Slope and Red Hook, which were then heavily Italian-American and Irish-American blue-collar neighbourhoods. Gangsters of his day typically came from impoverished backgrounds, but Persico’s upbringing was solidly middle class. His father, Carmine Sr., was a legal stenographer for Manhattan law firms, and his mother, Susan (Plantamura) Persico, was a strong-willed woman who tried to keep a tight rein on Carmine; his older brother, Alphonse; his younger brother, Theodore; and a sister, Dolores.

‘Made’ at Just 21

At 18, Persico was working for Frank (Frankie Shots) Abbatemarco, head of a crew in a Mafia group then known as the Profaci family. Joseph Profaci was the boss of the organization, which evolved into the Colombo family and became one of the original five New York mob families established by the Mafia in 1931.

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According to police intelligence reports, Persico advanced swiftly as a trusted, hardened member of the crew. He was “made,” or formally inducted as a soldier into the Mafia, at 21 – an unusually early age to be recognized by mob leaders.

Persico, who ultimately would be indicted in 25 separate cases, compiled more than a dozen arrests in the 1950s and early ′60s. The accusations included involvement in numbers betting, loan-sharking, assault, burglary, attempted rape, hijacking, possession of an unregistered gun and harassing a police officer.

Most of the felony charges were dropped or reduced to misdemeanours when the complainants and witnesses refused to testify or disappeared. As a result, Persico never spent more than a day or two in jail in those years; most cases ended with his paying insignificant fines.

His reputation for violent audacity increased after the murder on Oct. 25, 1957, of Albert Anastasia, the feared boss of the mob organization that was later called the Gambino family. Federal and city investigators suspected that Persico and the Gallo brothers were members of the assassination team later called “the Barbershop Quintet,” so named because Anastasia was shot dead while he was being shaved in a hotel’s barber shop in Midtown Manhattan.

According to underworld informers, the murder was initiated by Carlo Gambino, Anastasia’s underboss, and sanctioned by Profaci and other Mafia bosses who feared that Anastasia was trying to become the nation’s dominant mob leader. No arrests for the murder were ever made, but in a sentencing memorandum about Persico in 1986, federal prosecutors said he had admitted to a relative, “I killed Anastasia.”

A Killing in Columbus Circle

On June 28, 1971, in a spasm of violence that shocked New York, Joseph Colombo, the boss of Persico’s crime family, was shot in the head and paralyzed during an Italian-American civil-rights rally that he had organized in Columbus Circle in Manhattan. The shooting in front of thousands of spectators left Colombo unable to speak or communicate; he died in 1978. The man who shot him was himself gunned down almost immediately and died before he could be questioned.

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After Colombo was incapacitated, Persico took control of the Colombo family even though his appeals on his conviction in the hijacking case had been rejected. On April 7, 1972, shortly before Persico’s imprisonment began, his archrival Joey Gallo was shot down while celebrating his birthday at a late-night meal at Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy.

In June 1986, Persico was found guilty in Manhattan on charges that he was the leader of the Colombo family, which controlled union locals representing restaurant, concrete and cement workers, and that he had extorted millions of dollars from unions and construction companies in New York City.

Three months later, Carmine Persico went on trial in Manhattan on new federal racketeering charges that he was a prominent member of the Commission, the Mafia’s version of a board of directors.

The jury found him guilty along with the two other mob bosses. He was sentenced to 100 years in prison, raising his combined sentences for the Commission and Colombo family convictions to 139 years.

Clinging to Power

Although the two convictions left Persico with no hope of release, he refused to step down as the Colombo boss. Under Mafia tradition, a boss can be removed only by death or abdication. Organized-crime experts said that Persico wanted to retain his title and power until he could hand over the leadership to his son Alphonse, known as Little Allie Boy.

To safeguard his son’s succession, Carmine Persico appointed Victor J. Orena, a Colombo capo, or captain, as acting boss. But Persico apparently misjudged Orena’s willingness to obey him.

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In 1991, Orena tried to assume permanent control of the Colombo family as its new boss. Investigators said that Persico, confined at the Federal Penitentiary in Lompoc, California, directed his loyalists to eliminate Orena and his supporters.

Persico’s decision ignited another mob war in New York. Before the guns were lowered in 1993, at least 10 gangsters and a bystander had been killed.

Alphonse Persico pleaded guilty in 2000 to gun possession charges in Florida and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. He was convicted in 2009 of engineering a murder and is serving a sentence of life without parole.

In addition to Alphonse, Persico and his wife, Joyce (Smoldone) Persico, had two other sons, Michael and Lawrence, and a daughter, Barbara Persico Piazza. His lawyer, Weintraub, said Persico was survived by his wife, two children and 15 grandchildren. He would not identify the children.

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