POLITICS JANUARY 25, 2011
Some cities have all the fun. Last week, the FBI arrested 125 suspected Mafia members across the Northeast—the largest mob bust in history. New York was, as usual, well-represented in the Mafia round-up, with no less than 34 made guys from the city’s five crime families dragged off to jail. Also getting in on the action were Providence (83-year-old Luigi Mannochio, accused of shaking down local strip clubs) and Newark (various union officials charged with extorting longshoremen). But, once again, Washington, D.C., wasn’t in the mix. No mobsters here. So what gives? Is the nation’s capital just not good enough for the Mafia?
Apparently not. Back in 1976, Frank Browning, a writer for Washingtonian magazine, went searching for the Mafia in D.C. He didn’t have much luck. “We just don’t have an organized crime problem,” a visibly irritated Ted Zanders, the D.C.’s then-deputy chief of police, told Browning. “You just don’t have the right city. Why don’t you go to Philadelphia?” Zanders wasn’t totally right. As Browning discovered, the District certainly had its share of small-time shady operators and local kingpins. But what most people think of as the mob—La Cosa Nostra or its various offshoots—has never burrowed its way into D.C.
All sorts of campy theories have sprung up over the years as to why that is. A key premise of Nick Vasile’s 1993 novel A Member of the Family was that J. Edgar Hoover had struck a secret deal to keep the Mafia out of the District. In 1987, one attorney known for defending local crime figures passed along “the conventional wisdom” to The Washington Post that “organized crime thought moving [into D.C.] would just be pushing the FBI too far.”
Alas, most mob experts suspect the real answer is more prosaic: Washington, like many other Southern cities, just never had a significant Italian-American population—probably because it lacked the industrial base to lure immigrants in from Sicily and southern Italy. At the turn of the century, the Mafia only gained a toehold in cities with thriving Italian neighborhoods: New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, plus up-and-coming Miami and Providence. “You see this pattern throughout, with no exceptions,” says David Critchley, author of The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931. (Though, strangely enough, nearby Baltimore attracted Italian immigrants and the sorts of industries ripe for mob activity, like ports, but it never had a serious Mafia presence. In his tell-all book Wised Up, reformed Baltimore gangster Charlie Wilhelm offers this idiosyncratic theory: “From the time I was a teenager, I was told there were just too many rats in Baltimore for the Mafia to trust any of us.”)
The historical causal chain here seems clear enough: Italian-American neighborhoods gave Mafia organizations a healthy pool of new recruits. But that’s not the full story. Mike Dash, the author of The First Family: Terror, Extortion, and the Birth of the American Mafia, argues that, contrary to the myth of the Godfather films, the Mafia didn’t get its start as a protector of Italians against other ethnic groups (notably the Irish). Instead, the Mafia was able to grow mainly by preying on Italian communities; police weren’t all that concerned with intra-ethnic crime. “Where Italians did shift their operations into English-speaking territory,” Dash told me, “the police certainly did care, and took vigorous action.” (The New York Mafia’s foray into counterfeiting in the 1890s, for instance, brought about a ten-year Secret Service campaign to destroy the organization.) This helps explain why, say, the New York crime families couldn’t just mosey on down to Washington.
That’s not to say various mafiosi haven’t tried. In the late ’70s, D.C. was a tantalizing prize for any aspiring mobster: The city had a booming heroin and cocaine market, and—as Frank Browning discovered—the local cops didn’t know the first thing about dealing with organized crime. In came Salvatore Cottone, a native Sicilian and the closest thing D.C. has ever had to a real-life Godfather. Cottone, who had ties to La Cosa Nostra, set up a ring of pizzerias in D.C. and Northern Virginia that sold cocaine to go, torched his competitors’ restaurants (Cottone’s right-hand man, Alfredo “The Butcher” Toriello, later described how he used soda cans filled with gasoline), and ordered hits on associates who couldn’t pay their debts. But Cottone’s reign didn’t last long: The FBI—led by an obsessed G-man named James L. Glass, Jr.—launched a six-year investigation into Cottone’s crew. By 1990, Operation Infamita had put 28 mobsters behind bars, including Cottone himself. The Mafia’s glory days in the District were largely over.
Granted, even without Sicilian masterminds, D.C. has still had its share of colorful gangsters. In the 1930s, there was Emmitt “Little Man” Warring, known for his 5’4” frame and gaudy neckties. Warring and his brothers got their start paying Georgetown teenagers to smuggle in rye and corn whiskey during Prohibition and, later, moved into illegal numbers during the Depression—at one point their “commission brokerage business,” as they called it, had 56 employees. Then, there was Roger “Whitetop” Simkins, who, as a 1952 congressional investigation discovered, had dozens of local cops on his payroll. Most famously, there was Joe Nesline, who ran illegal gambling clubs all over the city—including, in the 1960s, a dubious million-dollar wig business on F Street. Nesline reputedly had ties to New York’s Genovese crime family—and, rumor has it, he helped set up casinos in Cuba for Meyer Lansky, the famed “Mob’s Accountant.”
But this is hardly the stuff of Mario Puzo novels. And maybe that’s for the best. After all, the city's police are busy enough dealing with ordinary crime and gang violence. Plus, D.C. already has its fair share of scams, shakedowns, bribes, and other schemes that sometimes bear an unnerving resemblance to mob tactics up on Capitol Hill and in the lobbying shops on K Street. We hardly need the Mafia, too.
Bradford Plumer is an associate editor of The New Republic.