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In '81, when the Brasco mole surfaced and indictments fluttered like ticker tape around the Bonanno family, Massino lammed it to the Pocono Mountains. He lived out of a suitcase, using the alias Joseph Russo, and spent weekends with a mistress at lakeside resorts, court records say. After several years, he turned himself in and twice stood trial, in '86 and '87. At the first one, he was found guilty of labor racketeering, along with then boss Rastelli and Teamsters from Local 814, and spent five years in prison. It was while he was there, when Rastelli died of natural causes in '91, that he was promoted to boss of the Bonannos.
The convictions of so many family members made the FBI complacent. While the feds snoozed, Massino got out of prison in '92 and with Gotti's O.K., quickly rebuilt the family, set up rackets, installed new captains and established his power. And he was careful. According to the government, he closed down the social clubs (they were like flypaper to electronic bugs), stopped going to Mob funerals and weddings (enterprise evidence in a RICO case) and traveled as far as Mexico, France and Italy to meet with family captains and avoid surveillance. But Massino made one mistake. He believed that his men, including his brother-in-law, would honor omerta as scrupulously as he did. Massino was arrested on Jan. 9, 2003, the day before his 60th birthday.
In previous Mob trials, a defendant's attorney often performed handsprings in denying the Mob's very existence. "What Mafia?" the lawyer would ask, with the righteous nonchalance of a cigarette manufacturer disclaiming any harm in his product. Breitbart, who has defended Mob suspects for more than 20 years and wore a gun holster during a recent interview, says he will skip the denial: "If they are going to bring in 15 witnesses to say Joe's a father in organized crime, why beat my head against a wall?" Breitbart's plan is to beat the feds' heads instead. "It doesn't matter if you are the boss or the barber of the Bonanno family," he insists. "You have to be convicted of two underlying acts in aid of the enterprise that you're charged with. I'll concentrate all my efforts on disproving those underlying crimes."
For Breitbart, there are two villains in the case. One is Vitale. The defense will argue that Vitale is a Judas, ready to fabricate any accusation to save himself and ruin Massino. The other malefactor and here the attorney joins a chorus that includes civil libertarians, the baseball players union and Martha Stewart fans is Attorney General John Ashcroft. "He's been bitching and moaning lately that not enough people are seeking the death penalty," Breitbart charges. "Ashcroft is dying to stick a needle in some white guy's arm." The first Mob lord executed by the state was Murder Inc.'s Louis (Lepke) Buchalter, electrocuted in 1944. Massino could become the first Mob boss executed since the federal death penalty was reinstated in '88. His lawyer claims that Massino isn't sweating it: "He understands that he's accused of a crime that could result in the death penalty. But you wouldn't know that by talking to him. He is very charming. I go to the jail to be cheered up."