Photo: Gregory "The Grim Reaper" Scarpa, Sr.
The Colombo family killer stopped counting after 50 murders. A deal with the feds helped him get away with it all
Gregory Scarpa Sr. was a study in complication. A peacock dresser, he carried a wad of $5,000 in cash at all times. He wore a seven-carat pinky ring and a diamond-studded watch. He made millions from drug dealing, hijackings, loan sharking, high-end jewelry scores, bank heists, and stolen securities. He owned homes in Las Vegas, Brooklyn, Florida, and Staten Island, and a co-op apartment on Manhattan’s exclusive Sutton Place. He was the biggest trafficker in stolen credit cards in New York and ran an international auto theft ring. A single bank robbery by his notorious Bypass Gang on the July 4 weekend in 1974 netted $15 million in thirteen duffel bags full of cash and jewels. His sports betting operation made $2.5 million a year. His crew grossed $70,000 weekly in drug sales. And yet, fifteen years after becoming a “made” member of the Colombo crime family, while he was a senior capo, Scarpa was arrested for “pilfering” coins from a pay phone. He simply couldn’t resist a chance to steal—even a handful of change from the phone company.
Five foot ten, two hundred and twenty pounds, Scarpa was described by one of his FBI contacting agents as
But Scarpa was also a homebody with three separate families. In 1949 he married Connie Forrest. They had four children, including Gregory Jr., who started doing crimes for his father at the age of sixteen. Then, while still married to Connie, whom he shipped off to New Jersey, Scarpa moved in with Linda Diana, a gorgeous brunette nineteen years younger, who had been dating wiseguys since her mid-teens. Scarpa had two children with Linda, but in an effort to hide the fact that they were Greg’s, she married a man named Schiro, who believed the kids were his own. Then, in 1975, while still married to Forrest and living as Linda’s common-law husband, Scarpa ran off to Las Vegas and married Lili Dajani, a thirty-five-year-old former Miss Israel. Years later, Dajani’s lover, an ex-abortion doctor named Eli Shkolnik, was murdered on Scarpa’s orders. Yet in 1979 Scarpa agreed to let Linda carry on a torrid sexual relationship with Larry Mazza, a handsome eighteen-year-old delivery boy—and later made Mazza his protégé, schooling him in the crimes of loan sharking, bank robbery, and homicide.
“I started out one way and ended up with the devil,” Mazza later said. The former grocery worker expressed shock when Scarpa once suggested to him that they kill the mother of a mob turncoat in order to demonstrate “what happens to rats.”
Still, Scarpa, who bragged that he “loved the smell of gunpowder,” had no compunctions about killing women. When he heard that Mary Bari, the beautiful mistress of the family underboss, might talk to authorities, he had her lured to a club, then shot her in the head point-blank and dumped her body in a rolled-up canvas two miles away. Later, when the dog of one of his crew members’ wives found a piece of the dead woman’s ear, Scarpa joked about it over dinner. “He was just a vicious, violent animal,” said Mazza. “Unscrupulous and treacherous . . . just a horrible human being.”
And yet Scarpa’s daughter, “Little Linda” Schiro, described him as “incredibly loving—the kind of dad who was there for us every night for dinner at five o’clock. Whatever he was on the outside, he was really gentle at home.” Like a true sociopath, Scarpa was apparently capable of shifting at will from brutal murderer to loyal dad. After one bloody rubout, when Mazza and Scarpa shot a rival in the head, they went home to play with Greg’s infant grandson, drink wine, and watch Seinfeld on TV.
“He could transform himself,” says Little Linda. “He could go kill someone and five minutes later he’d be home watching Wheel of Fortune with my brother and me.”
The Grim Reaper ruled Thirteenth Avenue in Bensonhurst with an iron fist. He was responsible for more than twenty-five separate homicides between 1980 and 1992. With Mazza’s help, Scarpa killed three people in one four-week period. He shot one of his victims with a rifle while he was stringing Christmas lights with his wife. He killed a seventy-eight-year-old member of the Genovese family because the old man happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then, a few weeks later, after FBI and NYPD surveillance had been pulled away from a Mafia social club, he rolled up next to Colombo capo Nicholas Grancio, and when his own rifle jammed, he ordered him shot. Grancio’s nose was blown off and one of his teeth was later found in a nearby building At another point, tipped that Cosmo Catanzano, one of his crew members, might talk to the Feds, Scarpa ordered his grave dug in advance of the murder, but Catanzano escaped when DEA agents arrested him before the execution could take place.
“Scarpa had an action jones,” one former assistant district attorney recalled. Another investigator described the killer’s need to stay on the edge: “Capos ain’t supposed to be out on the street hijacking trucks, doing drug deals,” he said. “I mean, that’s why you have a crew. But Greg was there. He always had to walk point.”
And yet, even as he openly disparaged “rats,” Scarpa devoted more than three decades off and on to betraying his larger “family,” the Colombos.
More than eleven hundred pages of files, uncovered in the course of investigating Scarpa’s career, demonstrate that his relationship with federal law enforcement dates back to the Kennedy administration. More than two years before celebrated Mafia turncoat Joseph Valachi “sang” to the McClellan rackets committee in a historic series of hearings televised from coast to coast, Scarpa was already coughing up the family’s most intimate secrets to the FBI.
The detailed multi-page memos, called airtels (later designated as FBI 209 reports) show that Scarpa, whose code designation was NY 3461-C-TE, met two or three times a month with agents from the FBI’s New York Office. During these secret sessions, conducted in hotel rooms, automobiles, and Scarpa’s various homes in Brooklyn, he fed them the kind of inside-the-family dirt that J. Edgar Hoover craved. Every one of those airtels went straight to the Director himself, and as we’ll see, while many of the debriefings contained detailed intelligence on the organizational structure of the Mafia, “34,” as Scarpa was known, also gave the Bureau reams of disinformation.
A brilliant Machiavellian strategist, Scarpa not only stayed on the street for forty-two years, avoiding prison after fourteen separate arrests or indictments for his crimes, but he repeatedly “ratted out” his competition in the family—literally eliminating many of the capos above him along with the two family bosses: Joseph Colombo and Carmine Persico. He also succeeded in fomenting a series of internal conflicts or wars that tore the borgata apart.
It was Scarpa whose duplicity paved the way for the notorious assassination attempt on Joseph Colombo at an Italian-American Civil Rights League rally in front of fifty thousand people in 1971. It was Scarpa whose backdoor machinations ignited the second Colombo war between wiseguys loyal to Persico and the violent Gallo brothers in the early 1970s, and it was Scarpa who fueled the battle that led to the infamous rubout of Crazy Joe Gallo in 1972. Most important to the Feds, it was Scarpa who provided the probable cause that led to the Title III wiretaps in the historic Mafia Commission case in the mid-1980s, sending Persico and two other New York bosses to prison for life.
In 1989, Everett Hatcher, a decorated DEA agent, was gunned down by Scarpa’s nephew Gus Farace, who was a member of Greg’s Wimpy Boys crew. That cold-blooded shooting led to the formation of a five-hundred-man FBI/DEA task force and an international manhunt that lasted more than nine months. New evidence now suggests that it was Scarpa who set up his own nephew’s murder to take the heat off the other New York families.
Scarpa was such a master chess player that he used his position as a Top Echelon informant to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars, beyond the millions he made from racketeering. Not only did the FBI pay him $158,000 in fees and bonuses for his services, but his control agent from the mid-1960s to the early ’70s, Anthony Villano, brokered kickbacks from insurance companies for some of the high-end hijackings Scarpa was executing. Those “rewards,” amounting to tens of thousands of dollars, went back to Scarpa for his own thefts of “swag” ranging from liquor to negotiable stocks to gold bullion, jewelry, and mercury. Scarpa even got a cut of a reward for the return of the Regina Pacis jewels after a gang of junkies stole the coveted items from a Brooklyn church. That led to national headlines for the Bureau after Villano negotiated the recovery.
The Killing Machine also worked for the government in a series of “black bag jobs” that he performed off the books. The first was his well-known trip to Mississippi in the summer of 1964, when he tortured a Ku Klux Klan member in order to solve the mystery of the MISSBURN case—locating the bodies of slain civil rights workers Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney when FBI agents assigned to the probe came up empty.
After breaking a second civil rights murder in 1966 as an FBI “special” asset, Scarpa traveled to Costa Rica in the early 1980s to extradite fugitive Colombo capo Anthony Peraino, the notorious porn king who had made millions from the production of the film Deep Throat.
In return for his assistance to the Feds, Scarpa collected in spades, using his influence with the FBI to avoid prosecution on three separate indictments by organized crime strike forces over the years. Not only did he beat a 1974 indictment for stealing $520,000 in securities and conspiring to counterfeit, transport, and sell $4 million in IBM stock, but when Secret Service agents arrested him in 1986 for credit card fraud, on charges that could have led to seven years in prison and a $250,000 fine, the FBI intervened and helped him get his sentence reduced to probation and a $10,000 fine.
By that time, Scarpa had been infected with HIV after a tainted blood transfusion and was given only months to live. At least that’s what the government told the sentencing judge. If he’d gone to prison then, Scarpa would never have been on the street to foment his last great conspiracy: the third Colombo war. But he lived for another six years.
The man who vouched for him during the time was Roy Lindley DeVecchio, known in the Bureau as “Mr. Organized Crime” for his purported success putting wiseguys away. After officially reopening Scarpa in 1980 following a five-year hiatus, Lin, as he was known, quickly rose through the Bureau ranks, commanding two organized crime squads. He also taught informant development at the FBI Academy and became supervising case agent on the Mafia Commission case, due in large part to his “management” of Informant NY-3461-C-TE, a.k.a. “34.”
But defense attorneys would later allege that Lin’s relationship with Scarpa was an “unholy alliance.” In 1994, the FBI opened an Office of Professional Responsibility internal affairs investigation after four agents under DeVecchio effectively accused him of leaking key intelligence to the Mafia killer. DeVecchio, who refused to take a polygraph test, was nevertheless granted immunity during the probe, making it virtually impossible for the Justice Department to indict him. In 1996, he retired with a full pension. Later, he was granted immunity a second time, but he answered “I don’t recall,” or words to that effect, more than fifty times at a 1997 hearing as defense lawyers tried to peel back the layers on his clandestine dealings with Scarpa.
In March 2006, the Brooklyn district attorney unsealed an indictment charging Lin DeVecchio with four counts of murder stemming from his twelve-year relationship with Gregory Scarpa Sr. The following year, after an aborted two-week trial, those charges were dismissed. But not before Scarpa’s protégé Larry Mazza testified that his homicidal mentor had “stopped counting” after fifty executions. Said his own daughter, “Little Linda” Schiro, “It was like growing up with a serial killer.”
The Killing Machine’s most violent period came during that third Colombo war, which he incited. The death toll during that conflict was fourteen, and the evidence demonstrates that Scarpa was personally responsible for at least six of the hits. Each time he executed a significant rubout, Scarpa would punch the satanic digits 6-6-6 into the pager of his consigliere to let him know that the job was done.
A final murder he committed four days after Christmas in 1992 brought the number of homicides he’d ordered or executed on Lin DeVecchio’s watch to twenty-six. That figure amounted to half the murders Mazza says Scarpa committed before he quit keeping track. (Mazza later reaffirmed the number in a 2012 interview with the New York Post.) Those fifty homicides made the Grim Reaper perhaps the most prolific hit man in the history of organized crime and put him in the ranks of the world’s top serial killers. The fact that most of those deaths occurred while he was being paid as a virtual agent provocateur by the Feds is a testament to the FBI’s willingness to make “a deal with the devil,” as DeVecchio’s trial judge put it.
In more than forty-two years as a hyper-violent gangster, Gregory Scarpa Sr. served only thirty days in jail—and that was during the years when he was “closed” as an FBI source. The rest of that time, a series of FBI agents intervened to keep the so-called Mad Hatter on the street. But that wasn’t the most disturbing aspect of Scarpa’s relationship with the government. In light of the 1,150-plus pages of FBI files on Scarpa we’ve now accessed, it can be fairly argued that the FBI’s very playbook against “La Cosa Nostra” was defined and shaped by what Scarpa fed them—particularly in the years from 1961 to 1972, when J. Edgar Hoover himself was on the receiving end of “34”’s airtels. Given the Bureau’s relationship with Scarpa, it’s no surprise that a senior federal judge sentenced one minor Colombo capo convicted in 1992 to multiple life terms for crimes far less repugnant than Scarpa’s.
Even as he was being ravaged by the HIV virus—shrinking from 220 pounds to an emaciated 116 toward the end of his life—Scarpa beat the real grim reaper by many years, staying alive to commit multiple homicides as he schemed to take over the family in the phony war he’d engineered. Few figures in the annals of organized crime have operated with such tenacity, deviousness, and reckless disregard for human life.
Today, as suspicion of governmental ethics and competence runs higher than ever, the fact that the FBI used such a known murderer as its secret weapon against what Lin DeVecchio calls “the Mafia enemy” underscores the moral ambiguity that colors so much federal law enforcement in the United States. From the time J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI forged its alliance with Gregory Scarpa Sr., a young capo for the Profaci crime family, there was no turning back. “They enlisted a violent killer to stop much less capable murderers,” says defense lawyer Ellen Resnick, whose work helped to expose this unholy alliance. “It was the ultimate ends-justify-the-means relationship.”
Peter Lance is the author of three previous works of investigative journalism, "1000 Years For Revenge," "Cover Up" and "Triple Cross." He is a former correspondent for ABC News.