Frank Cali, 53, was killed in front of his Staten Island home on Wednesday night
The killing was particularly brutal and, it was quickly noted, showed none of the ‘respect’ that should have been due to a Mafia Don.
On Wednesday night, Francesco Cali was fatally shot in a hail of bullets outside his suburban New York home as his young family were indoors.
Police believe the killer lured Cali out of his home by backing his vehicle into Cali’s silver Cadillac SUV and knocking off his number plate. The gunman handed the plate to Cali and shot him when he opened his car boot to store it. Cali then dropped to the ground and tried to hide under his car.
The city of The Godfather and Goodfellas was immediately dragged back into a bloodier era. ‘Gambino boss whacked’ was the headline on the front page of one of the city’s newspapers. ‘Rubbed Out’ cried another. Both were dusting down a gangster vocabulary scarcely heard since New York became one of the safest cities in the U.S.
Frank ‘Franky Boy’ Cali was the reputed head of the city’s Gambino Mafia family — once America’s largest and most powerful criminal group.
His ugly demise is the first time a New York Mob boss has been assassinated since 1985 and — organised crime experts fear — it could signal the beginning of a new Mafia war in the city.
Cali, 53, lived in the wealthy neighbourhood of Todt Hill, Staten Island, where Paul Castellano, another Gambino boss, once resided in a palatial home that resembled the White House.
The Corleone family compound in The Godfather was filmed in Todt Hill, too.
The Cali killing could have come straight from a movie. The Mob boss, who fell near the open boot of his car, was shot six times in the chest and head by a gunman in a blue four-wheel pick-up truck at around 9.20pm.
The hitman drove over his body for good measure before speeding off.
Family members poured out of the house. ‘Papa! Papa!’ wailed one man before lying on the grass, sobbing.
A woman yelled into her phone: ‘Why doesn’t the ambulance come? He’s not breathing!’
Another woman ‘was just making loud noises’, say neighbours who insisted they had no idea Cali was a mobster. He was still alive when he got to hospital but had lost so much blood doctors were unable to save him.
Neighbours say they had no idea of Cali’s Mafia connections, which isn’t surprising since he spent his life avoiding attention. He had only one, relatively minor criminal conviction, having served 16 months in prison a decade ago for attempting to extort a lorry driver.
The son of a household goods store owner from Palermo, Sicily, who had emigrated to Brooklyn, Cali had ties by blood and marriage to the Gambino family and rose rapidly up its ranks. He became its head in 2015 after his elderly predecessor was forced to retire.
Cali had deep links with mafiosi in Sicily and married a member of the Inzerillo, a powerful Palermo Mafia clan forced to flee Sicily in the Eighties after a war with other crime families.
Italian police say Cali was also a member of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra (‘our thing’), as the Mafia is also known, and became the contact in New York for visiting Sicilian mobsters.
An Italian mafioso was once overhead saying on a bugged phone line that Cali was ‘everything’ in New York.
Under Cali, the Gambinos have reportedly been heavily involved in trafficking cocaine from Latin America to Italy.
Hand prints, likely caused by officers dusting for fingerprints, is seen on the side of a SUV being pulled from the scene
Cali also brought in Mafia thugs from Sicily — known as ‘zips’ — and ramped up the Gambinos’ involvement in heroin and Oxycontin, the highly addictive painkiller implicated in America’s ongoing opioid epidemic.
However, unlike previous Gambino boss John Gotti, a flamboyant hood who craved the limelight and frequented expensive restaurants with bodyguards, Cali remained in the shadows. Aware that many of his predecessors were prosecuted after being bugged or betrayed, he kept personal contact with other mobsters to a minimum and forbade other Mafia captains from phoning him, insisting on meeting in person.
A law enforcement official who investigates the Mafia described Cali as ‘a ghost . . . you wouldn’t see him at social clubs or nightclubs or boxing matches’. Police say there have been no arrests and the investigation into Cali’s killer is ‘ongoing’.
Mafia experts and police alike were quick to note that whoever killed him had ignored the traditional rules of internecine Mob warfare by murdering him at his home with his family nearby.
‘Even Gotti had more respect,’ a police insider told the New York Post. ‘He did it out in Manhattan.’ The officer was referring to the 1985 murder of Gambino boss ‘Big Paul’ Castellano. He was executed on the orders of his lieutenant, John Gotti, outside Sparks Steak House in a crowded Manhattan street a short walk from the United Nations headquarters.
Gotti, who subsequently took over the Gambino family, was dubbed the ‘Teflon Don’ because police had such difficulty making charges stick to him. He had been upset Castellano had been appointed boss over another mobster, Aniello Dellacroce.
Gotti and other mafiosi also resented how Castellano had become a recluse in his Staten Island mansion, earning the nickname ‘the Howard Hughes of the Mob’.
Gotti was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1992 after being convicted of five murders, including that of Castellano.
Mafia experts believe one theory can be ruled out about the latest killing — it wasn’t any of New York’s other Mob families.
Despite the impression given by Hollywood, New York’s five Mafia clans — the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Colombo and Lucchese — rarely interfere in each others’ business. It is assumed instead that the ‘hit’ on Cali was carried out by a rival faction within the Gambino family.
Some suggested yesterday that the Gottis might again be involved. John Gotti died of cancer in prison in 2002 but last September his younger brother Gene was released from jail after serving 29 years for dealing heroin. Now 71, Gene was expected to demand a senior role once more in the Gambino clan.
Police responding to a 911 call about an assault in progress just after 9.15pm arrived to find Cali with six gunshot wounds to the torso. He was pronounced dead at a hospital soon after. (Above, the scene of the crime)
One possibility is that Gene Gotti got Cali before Cali got Gotti: Gambino clan insiders had warned months ago that the publicity-shy Cali wouldn’t welcome the return of the famously indiscreet Gotti family. With so many of its leaders in prison, often as a result of fellow Mafiosi breaking their ‘omerta’ or code of silence by giving evidence against each other, it’s been widely assumed the Mob is a spent force in New York.
However, both the FBI and Mafia experts insist the New York Mob is far from finished.
As well as drug trafficking and dealing, the Mob is still quietly involved in its old activities such as illegal gambling, extortion, controlling construction industry unions and loan-sharking, say investigators.
‘I don’t think the [New York] Mafia ever died and this murder shows they are still players,’ Professor Federico Varese, a criminologist at Oxford University, said yesterday.
Prof Varese believes the answer to who murdered ‘Franky Boy’ Cali may lie in Sicily where he had been involved in backing one Mafia family against another.
Whatever the truth, there are fears that his killing could be just the start of another bloody conflict.