My Dad (lower right) and his crew back in the day
Mickey Z. -- World News Trust
September 29, 2020
Preface: I must’ve been about thirteen or so. My family was still living in a fourth-floor walk-up. School was closed for a Catholic holiday and I was hanging out in my room with my best friend Robby — playing Puff basketball and talking about the girls in our class.
Robby’s Dad was a made man who owned a mobbed-up restaurant in our old neighborhood. Every so often, me and Robby would stroll into the joint for a free meal at the bar with our paisans. Plenty of ’em knew what my father did for a living, but no one seemed to care. For an hour or so, we were the big shots, treated like royalty and loving it. And, yeah, the food was excellent.
Anyway, back to Puff basketball. That afternoon, as we practiced our Dr. J dunks, my Dad came home unexpectedly from work. My Mom called me and Robby into the kitchen. When we got there, laid out on the floor was about a dozen machine guns on a heavy blanket. My Dad had just been out making a buy and, for some reason, he had to stop by the house before bringing the illegal weapons in to be registered as evidence. My mother had convinced him to give the boys a look first.
As Robby and I stared at the mini-arsenal, I sort of smiled to myself. Being the son a Special Agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, this was not unusual. I mean, my Dad carried a .357 Magnum everywhere he went.
In his own way, I think Robby understood, too. When your Dad has an “unusual” job, you learn to expect anything and after a while, nothing surprises you.
Not even machine guns in the kitchen.
Photo Credit: Titusville, FL Police
October 1, 2020 marks eight years since my incredible Dad passed away. I could not possibly do him justice in a single article but here’s a tiny glimpse at his professional life:
He was a man who rode shotgun on 747s as a sky marshal and was prepared to take a bullet for Ronald Reagan during Secret Service duty (major disagreement there). A man who witnessed the Nazis occupying his town and saw battle in Korea. He turned down million-dollar bribes and stared down the barrel of a gun that miraculously jammed. My Dad has dealt with rogue CIA agents, was cross-examined by F. Lee Bailey, and hunted for the Son of Sam. He did all of this, by the way, with a G.E.D. and quiet self-confidence.
Despite that ^ (and much more), my father was not the type to tell war stories (or any kind of story, for that matter). Even his closest family members were left guessing about all the details of his career. That said, I did get him to agree — one time — to sit down for an interview in the hope I could get a book deal out of it. We talked in the early 2000s, I put together a proposal, but my agent had no luck selling the idea. Little did I know that would be my only shot at it.
So, in light of another October 1st approaching, I thought I’d cobble together some of that interview to create the following article of sorts in his honor.
Michael Zezima, Sr.
We were poolside at The Woodlands, Texas. My parents had retired there to be closer to my sister and their granddaughter.
I was reading one of my Dad’s wiseguy books, Gangbusters: The Destruction of America’s Last Great Mafia Dynasty by Ernest Volkman, when I decided to share with him the author’s theory on the origin of the term “mafia.” Here’s sort of how it went:
Volkman believes that the roots go back as far as the eleventh century when the Saracens ruled Sicily. He cites the term “mafiusu,” a word that translates roughly as “beautiful” or “excellent,” and explains it relates to the word “mafia”— which meant “place of refuge” — and was similar to an Arabic expression. When the Normans eventually conquered Sicily, Volkman explains, small landholders waged guerrilla warfare from caves (the aforementioned places of refuge) and came to be known as “mafioso.”
This brought a smile to my Dad’s face. “Well, that’s one theory,” he said, before revealing a far more dramatic source.
It seems that after the French conquest of Sicily in the thirteenth century, the locals were not treated well. The occupiers, while carrying out the task of exporting Sicilian livestock back to France, abused the Sicilian populace, driving them to covert action. Organizing behind the slogan of morte ai Francesi Italia anela (“death to the French, Italy cries”), farmers began to kill French soldiers and stuff them into the barrels that were designated for the purloined supplies.
When those barrels reached France and the contents discovered, it sorta had the same effect of waking to find a horse’s head in your bed. The abuse of the Sicilians came to an abrupt halt.
Now, if you go back and check out the first letter of each of the words in that Sicilian slogan, they spell out “mafia.” I have no idea if it’s true, but I definitely liked my Dad’s theory better.
Old law enforcement photo of the Gambino Family hierarchy (found in my Dad’s belongings)
MZ Jr.: When did you first learn about the Mafia? Was it something you knew about while growing up in Italy?
MZ Sr.: I heard of them when I lived in Italy, but I wasn’t really interested yet. I heard the stories about what they did in Sicily and I remember that Mussolini tried to eliminate the Mafia when he was in power. In the part of Italy where I was from, not many people talked about the Mafia — except for an uncle of mine who was a big boss in the Carabinieri. He worked out of the Rome office and used to tell us some stories about the Mafia.
MZ Jr.: So, when you got to America, that’s when you starting learning more about Italian organized crime?
MZ Sr.: Yeah, especially because where I lived when I first arrived, on 28th Street between First and Second Avenues in Manhattan, there was one particular family; the whole family was part of the Mob. They ran numbers and had something to do with horse racing. I also remember that when Vito Genovese would come to his favorite café on 29th Street, everybody would rush over to see him. The local kids would fight to get him cigars because he’d give a dollar tip.
MZ Jr.: What about you? Did you admire the wiseguys in any way?
MZ Sr.: No.
MZ Jr.: How about during your law enforcement career? Was there ever a point when you had even a grudging admiration towards any of the Mafia guys you dealt with?
MZ Sr.: I never admired them, per se. I just felt that some had more nerve than others, but they were nothing but a bunch of criminals and, on top of that, many of them were pretty stupid. It was more like a cat-and-mouse game to me.
Old law enforcement photo of the Genovese Family hierarchy (found in my Dad’s belongings)
In 1967, with only one year on the job, the government tapped my Dad for undercover duty on the newly formed Organized Crime Task Force. Thanks to his grasp of every conceivable dialect of Italian, he was a natural and quickly found himself working in the Magaddino family territory in Upstate New York cities like Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Syracuse, Rochester, and Albany. The Task Force was made up of agents from several law enforcement agencies, so my Dad was on the lookout for “anything and everything” he could learn.
“If I got information on smuggling, I’d pass it on to Customs. If it had to do something else, another agency would get it. My work was supposed to be for six months,” he told me. The assignment lasted almost four years and gave Dad a new identity: Mike Zorrelli, a troubleshooter for American Airlines.
“It turns out that I had an old Army buddy whose brother was in with the Magaddinos. He remembered me as Mike but didn’t remember my exact last name. ‘Zorrelli’ worked just fine,” my Dad explained. “He was doing some construction work for the Magaddinos and he asked me if I knew what a mobster was. I told him that I had an idea, so he showed off by bringing me to the big boss’s house for drinks, and he introduced me to everyone I needed to know.”
“Everyone” included family head, Stefano Magaddino, the big boss Dad’s Army buddy brought him to meet.
“Stefano was well-dressed, a little chunky, and he always had a driver ready to take him everywhere,” my father recalled. “Plus, he never had less than two guys, you know, enforcers, in the car with him at all times. Even the local police showed him respect.”
The elder Magaddino, at the time, ran Upstate New York along with parts of Canada and Ohio, and his brother Nino. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Canada? Ohio? We usually expect to hear gangster stories emanating from the New York metropolitan area. Names like Al Capone and Sam Giancana also put Chicago on the mobster map. Even goodfellas in Florida or New Orleans would come as no surprise to anyone who’s read about Santo Trafficante and Carlos Marcello — two names that pop up often in JFK conspiracy theories. But when was the last time you heard a Mafia story that took place in Rochester?
Anyway, back to the Magaddinos.
The idea in this undercover scenario was for my Dad to pretend to not speak Italian. This way, the boys would feel comfortable discussing business in their native tongue, even when Mr. Zorrelli was around.
“They tested me,” my Dad said. “To see if I really didn’t understand them, they’d curse me out, say things about my mother, stuff like that. I just sat there and grinned. They believed me.”
Take it from me, this was no stretch. My father was quite adept at sitting in a large crowd and saying nothing. As for an Italian man not responding to an insult, especially one about his mother, that’s where he deserved a friggin’ Oscar.
The Magaddino assignment did not go off without a hitch, however. When a family member was arrested shortly after Mike Zorrelli came into the picture, suspicions were aroused. Could this new guy be trusted? Was he an informant? They decided to find out.
“Nino Magaddino was Stefano’s younger brother, but he never dressed like a mobster. He dressed more like a typical old Italian man,” my father told me. “After the arrest, he came up to me and said we were going for a ride.”
As cliché as that sounds, it really happened. You know, it’s hard to figure what came first, the “we’re taking you for the ride” spiel or the B-movies that made it famous. If you ask me, mobsters watch way too many mobster movies, and one of the main reasons La Cosa Nostra has had more colorful personalities than the WWE is because Hollywood taught the younger wiseguys how to act and they’ve stopped learning from the old masters, as it were. Then again, the Mafia wouldn’t be as newsworthy if all of ’em were like Carlo Gambino.
Meanwhile, in the backseat of Nino Magaddino’s immense Caddy — since the family owned a funeral home, it was actually a hearse — I’ll bet my Dad probably wasn’t contemplating the role of MGM or Universal in the shaping of the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of organized crime figures. He was more likely trying to push thoughts about the bottom of Lake Erie out of his mind while he tried to stay calm and answered questions. Lots of questions.
“We got in a car,” he told me. “Me in the back with Nino and two large guys with crooked noses in the front. We drove around for more than two hours, talking. To this day, I still don’t know what I said or what question I answered the right way, but whatever it was, I passed the test with flying colors. In fact, we drove straight to a Mob-owned club where Nino informed the bartender that from that moment on, my money was ‘no good in this joint.’ I was suddenly a very well-liked guy.”
So much so, that shortly after that backseat baptism, a member of the family asked “Mike Zorrelli” to be godfather to his newborn child. As my Dad said earlier, a lot of these guys were pretty dim.
Roughly four years later, the successful assignment ended with “a couple of dozen or so” mobsters doing time and my Dad moving on to more family business — and more notorious characters.
MZ Jr.: What was [infamous Mafia don] Joe Columbo like?
MZ Sr.: He was something else, a real character. A little guy. Always dressed in a nice suit. I can remember one specific time we were tailing him and our car broke down on the corner of 14th Avenue and 86th Street in Bensonhurst.
MZ Jr.: So you lost him?
MZ Sr.: At first, but while we’re standing there, trying to figure out what we’re gonna do, we see Columbo’s car returning to find us. He gets out with one of his boys.
MZ Jr.: What did he say?
MZ Sr.: “Having some problems, Agent?” One look is all it took for him to see that I was tailing him and not only wasn’t I a cop, but I was a federal agent.
MZ Jr.: How did he know?
MZ Sr.: I think some of these guys have a sixth sense when it comes to that. Anyway, he tells me that his associate would fix the car and, in the meantime, he gives us his itinerary for the rest of the day so we can find him when we’re done. The whole time, he’s got a big smile on his face. He’s loving this.
MZ Jr.: Besides the obvious one-upmanship, why would the head of one New York’s five crime families want you to know where he was going?
MZ Sr.: As strange as it sounds, we sometimes provided these guys with protection. In a roundabout way. If he was having trouble, which he was with the Gallos, he knew he wouldn’t have to worry about a hit with a couple of federal agents a few feet away. The funny thing is that I was there the day he got shot in Columbus Circle, but I wasn’t in the immediate vicinity.
Joseph Colombo, after being shot three times at an Italian-American Civil Rights League rally in New York in 1971. (Courtesy of Christian Cipollini)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention John Gotti before I wrapped up. While my Dad had very little contact with him, there was one humorous encounter he loved to recount.
The boss of the Gambino crime family was walking through a courthouse one day, as was my father. My Dad didn’t even notice the Mafia don without the typical media circus that surrounded any of his judicial appearances. As a result, he accidentally stepped on a rather expensive Italian shoe. He looked up and there was the so-called Teflon Don.
“Excuse me,” my ever-polite father said.
“Aw,” Gotti grinned, “don’t worry about it, Agent.”
How did he know my father was an agent and not a cop? Chalk it up to that Mafia sixth sense Dad mentioned earlier.
1990 mugshot of John Gotti (public domain)
MZ Jr.: Did you resent the Mafia for giving Italian-Americans a bad name?
MZ Sr.: Oh yes, definitely. Whenever you go somewhere, people say things like “he’s one of the boys.” Who needs that?
MZ Jr.: But then, why do you like the movies so much? They promote that stereotype.
MZ Sr.: Because of the work that I’ve done, I like to see what the movies show. A lot of it is, in plain English, bullshit. They make them look like heroes and they’re not. There’s no admiration on my part, I just like to see how they tell the story — to see what they leave out.
MZ Jr.: Any thoughts on the film Goodfellas?
MZ Sr.: Well, one of the “Goodfellas” featured in the movie wouldn’t talk to anyone but me when it came time to be questioned. It wasn’t because I was easy on him, he just knew I would be square. That’s very important to these family types. [Note: Dad was talking about Paul Vario, Sr. who was played by Paul Sorvino.]
MZ Jr.: In your opinion, has anyone gotten the story right yet?
MZ Sr.: Plenty of movies have done a decent job, but there are still some things that haven’t been told. The real story is what they leave out.
You could say the same about my Dad.
Mike Zezima: December 10, 1932 - October 1, 2012
Mickey Z. can be found here. He is also the founder of Helping Homeless Women - NYC, offering direct relief to women on the streets of New York City. To help him grow this project, CLICK HERE and make a donation right now. And please spread the word!