For "Big" Ron Previte, crime paid — big time.
Between the days of Lucky Luciano and Carlo Gambino, when "omerta" (the mafia code of silence) meant something, and today's mafia dons like the late John Gotti and the imprisoned Ralph Natale and "Skinny" Joey Merlino, where celebrity trumps ancient code, there lurked a corrupt cop-turned-made-man named Ron Previte, according to the just-released "The Last Gangster" (search) (ReganBooks 2004), by journalist George Anastasia.
By all accounts, Previte (pronounced Prev-ity) is the last gangster. He pulled off one of the greatest disappearing acts in the history of the mob, and he did it "legally," with the FBI's blessing and $1 million of taxpayer's money — but not before handing the feds enough evidence to essentially shut down some of the biggest players in the Philadelphia mob.
"If it's a chess game, then Previte wins," says Anastasia, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer (search) who has spent more than two decades covering the mob in and around the City of Brotherly Love. "Most of these guys are either dead or in jail. Previte managed to get by on all levels. He avoided getting killed and he avoided being prosecuted."
In "The Last Gangster," Anastasia takes readers on a joyride through the hapless Philadelphia organized crime families who fancied themselves mafia, and illustrates why the American mob is a mere shadow of its former self.
"It describes why La Cosa Nostra is no longer a factor," says Anastasia. You see it a little bit in 'The Sopranos,' but what went on down here is the perfect example of why it's over."
Like the movie "Donnie Brasco" (search), starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino, the portrayal of the Philadelphia mob in "The Last Gangster" is not unlike "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight."
They hired people who could be characterized as "bumbling idiots" for some of their "jobs," (i.e. hits), and their greed for cash even had these so-called mafiosi out on the streets peddling cases of stolen baby formula.
"If the mob of Mario Puzo's ("The Godfather") imagination ever existed, it was two generations ago," says Anastasia. "This book is not just an interesting story about a wiseguy, but you come away with some knowledge about why it's over."
Playing Both Sides
Previte wore an FBI wire during high-level mafia meetings where "hits" were discussed. He fenced stolen goods for wiseguys, served as middle-man on drug deals where the buyers were federal agents and tipped off the feds whenever a mafia event (like a Christening or wedding) would take place, allowing agents to set up shop with cameras and bugs to capture their own Polaroid moments.
Previte played both sides like a violin.
As for his fellow mobsters, Previte told Anastasia he never respected them. "The secret to being a smart guy is realizing just how smart you are and what your limitations are," he is quoted in the book as saying. "These guys never realized their limitations... I knew they were dumb and I knew they were easy," he said.
Previte called his relationship with the feds a win-win situation. In one instance, when he sensed he was being set up by his mob buddies to take a loss on a gambling book, he said, "I didn't care. The FBI was backing my book. It wasn't my money. I couldn't lose.
"If they were gonna guzzle anybody, it would be the FBI," he said.
The criminals of note who operated in Philadelphia are mostly behind bars. Merlino is in his third year of a 14-year sentence on a RICO conviction, stemming in part from Previte's cooperation in the investigation.
Natale, another one of Previte's associates and a high-ranking Philly mobster, began cooperating with federal authorities after facing a possible life sentence on drug charges in 1999. He is currently in a federal prison.
As for Previte, he's basking somewhere with a golden parachute from his life in crime. He's got a new identity and has been relocated. He admits in "The Last Gangster" that his life has been far from exemplary. But many in law enforcement characterize his work for the feds as unprecedented.