The Genovese family lived up to its reputation of the "Ivy League of the underworld" in the late 1980s when it tapped a tough, savvy and quite young wiseguy to take over as acting boss. Liborio "Barney" Bellomo was only 30 when he stepped into the shoes of aging veteran Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno after Salerno's conviction and 100-year sentence in the historic Commission case.
Today, at 50, Bellomo is still relatively young. And despite two federal raps and more than a decade in prison, he has proved his mob mettle and is giving the feds fits in their never-ending efforts to nail him for murder and put him away for life.
Charged with a 1998 mob rubout the Justice Department thought long and hard before opting not to seek the death penalty as well as racketeering and obstruction of justice, sources say Barney was recently offered an unheard of three-year plea deal by the feds for the obscure crime of misprision of felony. (Gang Land here expands your legal lexicon: Essentially it's knowing that a crime has been committed and not reporting it.)
Most wiseguys, even one like Bellomo, who is due to be released from prison next year, would take that deal in a New York minute even if they were innocent. But sources say Barney, who has already served 11 years for two earlier plea deals, has tired of what his attorney calls "life on the installment plan" and has rejected the sweet offer.
His first plea deal in which he took 10 years for two bid-rigging charges came after he passed three polygraph exams in which he denied taking part in a 1991 murder that he had been charged with.
In recent days, after Gang Land began asking defense lawyers and the feds about the matter, sources say the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office decided to up the ante and hit Bellomo and his brother-in-law, Gerald Fiorino, with extortion charges going back to the 1980s. A revised indictment is expected to be unveiled today at a status conference before Judge Lewis Kaplan.
"He's like a folk hero in the MCC and the MDC, telling the feds to shove it," one mob lawyer said, referring to inmates at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, which Bellomo has called home since his indictment 16 months ago, and the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.
Barney's bravado is based in large part on a decided lack of evidence against him. He was incarcerated two years before the murder victim, capo Ralph Coppola, was killed, and the main government witness turncoat mob lawyer Peter Peluso has made numerous conflicting statements about Bellomo's alleged involvement in the slaying.
As Gang Land reported six weeks ago, Peluso was tape-recorded several times absolving Bellomo of any role in the slaying during a long FBI investigation, once stating that if Barney had been out of prison, "he would have saved Ralphie he would have tried."
Peluso, a longtime mob associate who for years served as a messenger for Salerno and other family leaders, has told authorities that he met Bellomo when the young mobster was 17 and had been arrested on a gun possession charge, for which he ultimately received three months' probation, according to an FBI report obtained by Gang Land.
Bellomo's father, a reputed Genovese soldier who was close to Salerno and would die from natural causes about a year later, had retained Peluso to represent his son, according to the report, a summary of a Peluso debriefing by agents and federal prosecutors.
Before he passed away from a lingering illness, the elder Bellomo asked "Fat Tony to look out" for his boy because he had no one "on the street other than his father" to watch out for him, Peluso said, according to the report.
"Salerno informed Bellomo's father that nothing would happen to Bellomo," said the report, which noted that the budding gangster was placed in the crew of an East Harlem capo who was close to Salerno and would later serve briefly as a family underboss, Saverio "Sammy Black" Santora.
"Barney remained Barney" until Santora died in 1987. Then, Barney began "doing what Sammy was doing, acting like he was running the show," Peluso said, adding that "it was a shock" to other wiseguys that young Barney "was calling the shots. Talk on the street at the time was that Chin [Vincent Gigante] put Bellomo in charge of the family."
Peluso's account of Barney's early years jibes with earlier reports, including information from turncoat mobster Vincent "Fish" Cafaro, who cooperated in 1986. In a 1990 court affidavit, six years before Barney's first federal indictment and three years before Gigante was hit with charges that would lead to his conviction in 1997 noted federal mob investigator Kenneth McCabe named Bellomo as the family's acting boss.
When Gang Land asked how such a young gangster Bellomo was 33 at the time could reach the top of the powerful family, Mr. McCabe said simply, "He's the real deal."
Bellomo's attorney, Barry Levin, blamed his client's current legal problems on "Pete Peluso's story-telling abilities." He declined to discuss any details of his client's plea negotiations, stating: "He's not interested in accepting life on the installment plan from the government. The only thing on Barney's mind, other than his family, is to leave this country when he gets out so the FBI will leave him alone."
Still, Bellomo's taking a big gamble. If convicted of the murder at trial, he faces life.
Thus far, his tough stand seems to have emboldened his brother-in-law's resolve. Fiorino, who was overheard numerous times during the lengthy FBI probe in allegedly criminal discussions with Peluso and an indicted capo who died of cancer last year, John "Buster" Ardito, has rejected a plea deal of six to 12 months in prison, sources said.
Fiorino, 52, who faces racketeering charges that include extortion and money laundering, could get 20 years if convicted at trial. Fiorino's attorneys, Michael Rosen and Jean Graziano, also declined to discuss any plea talks, saying only that they were preparing for trial.
Sources said the new extortion charge against the brothers-in-law stemmed from a tape-recorded conversation in May 2004 during which Fiorino was overheard threatening the wife of a mob capo who refused to make good on a debt after her husband was incarcerated in an unrelated case.
Assistant U.S. attorneys Miriam Rocah, Eric Snyder, and Jonathan Kolodner declined to discuss the case.
In addition to Bellomo and Fiorino, capo Pasquale "Scop" DeLuca and soldiers Arthur Nigro and Ralph "The Undertaker" Balsamo also await trial in the case. DeLuca, 75, is charged with Coppola's murder and faces life. Nigro, 62, and Balsamo, 36, are charged with racketeering and face up to 20 years.
Twenty-nine other wiseguys, mob associates, and drug dealers have pleaded guilty to a variety of charges or have agreed to plea bargains yet to be carried out calling for sentences ranging from probation to 10 years.
This column and other news of organized crime will appear today at ganglandnews.com.