NEW YORK – A tough-talking New York City mobster who's already serving a life sentence for attempted murder was convicted Monday in a death penalty case accusing him of ordering a gangland killing to cement his rise to power in the Bonanno organized crime family.
A Brooklyn jury had deliberated over the course of four days before finding Vincent "Vinny Gorgeous" Basciano guilty of murder, racketeering, conspiracy and other charges.
The federal trial of the one-time owner of the Hello Gorgeous beauty salon featured testimony by former Bonanno boss Joseph Massino, the highest-ranking member of the city's five Italian organized crime families to break their sacred vow of silence and testify against one of their own.
Massino, 68, began talking with investigators after his 2004 conviction for orchestrating a quarter-century's worth of murder, racketeering and other crimes as he rose through the ranks of the Bonannos. The bloodshed included the shotgun slayings of three rival captains and the execution of a mobster who vouched for FBI undercover agent Donnie Brasco in the 1980s. Brasco's story became a movie starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino.
While imprisoned together in 2005, the former Bonanno boss agreed to wear a wire and betray Basciano, a gangster known for his meticulously groomed hair, sharp suits and hot temper. Before trial, Basciano won approval to have access to five different suits to wear to court — one for each day of the week.
Jurors heard one recording of Basciano boasting, "I'm a hoodlum, I'm a tough guy. Whatever happens, happens. Let's go."
The tape was evidence that the 51-year-old defendant is "a cold-blooded remorseless killer," Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Frank said in his closing argument.
Prosecutors alleged that Basciano — while seizing control of the Bonannos as acting boss in 2004 after Massino was jailed — orchestrated the killing of mob associate Randolph Pizzolo. The slaying was payback for a drunken tirade by Pizzolo demanding induction into the family.
On tape, Basciano confided that he gave the order to whack Pizzolo, explaining, "He's a dangerous kid that doesn't ... listen."
Another turncoat mobster testified that the killing was meant to send the message that Basciano "doesn't play around."
The defense claimed that Basciano took credit for the murder to protect the real killer — a friend in the Bonannos who acted without proper permission — "from the wrath of Joseph Massino." His lawyer described Massino and other turncoats who testified for the government as deceitful opportunists.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis asked the Justice Department to reconsider bringing a death penalty case — which at the time had already cost taxpayers more than $3 million — against a defendant who was already serving life without parole for a 2007 conviction. But prosecutors decided to press ahead anyway.
The same jury will decide whether Basciano should be put to death in the trial's penalty phase, which begins next Monday.
Massino is serving two consecutive life terms for eight murders. He testified his cooperation spared his wife from prosecution, allowed her to keep their home and gave him a shot at a reduced sentence.
By cooperating, he told jurors, he was violating a sacred oath he took during a 1977 induction ceremony to protect the secret society. It was understood, he said, that "once a bullet leaves that gun, you never talk about it."
He testified that when he took control of the family he gave strict orders to never utter his name — a precaution against FBI surveillance. Instead, his soldiers touched their ears to refer to him, earning him the nickname "The Ear."
Asked about his duties as boss, he replied, "Murder. ... Making captains. Breaking captains," lingo for promoting and demoting capos. He said he also had to assess talent.
"It takes all kinds of meat to make a good sauce," said Massino, the one-time proprietor of a Queens restaurant called CasaBlanca. "Some people, they kill. Some people, they earn, they can't kill."