CRIME: New Mafia Killer: A Silenced .22

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The FBI had a surprise for urban and suburban dwellers fending off muggers, sluggers and druggers when it announced that for the first time in four years, the U.S. crime rate has not increased. The number of violent crimes in 1976 actually declined by 5%.

Now for the bad news:

It seems improbable that a brotherhood as violent as the Mafia is becoming still more savage. It also seems unlikely that teams of professional hit men armed with silencer-equipped .22-cal. automatic pistols are roaming the land, with at least 20 "executions" to their credit in the past two years. Finally, it seems unthinkable that the case of the .22 hits could be a direct challenge by the Mob to the U.S. Government.

But the FBI fears all this is true, with good reason. Two of the victims were FBI informants. Four others were potential prosecution witnesses. Two of the killings — five months apart — were committed with the same gun. Says an FBI agent: "Keeping a murder gun is risky business. The Mafia has a reason for doing that. They're giving us a message."

Mafia Hot Line. Detective fiction has it that the .22-cal. pistol with its tiny one-ounce slug is a gnat swatter, at its worst a woman's weapon snatched from a purse to dispatch an errant lover. No self-respecting all-pro killer would carry one. The facts, however, are otherwise. The CIA has long preferred the .22. The agency's predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, developed a silencer-equipped Hi-Standard .22-cal. automatic pistol during World War II. It turned out to be the only production-model handgun that can be effectively silenced, and it has been the favorite of spooks ever since. Now, says the FBI, the .22 has found new fans.

The Mob's change in execution methods is exemplified by February's killing of Mafia Consigliere Frank ("Bomp") Bompensiero, 71. Shortly before 8 p.m. on Feb. 10, Bomp walked from his San Diego home to a nearby public telephone booth, which he used as an office in order to avoid wiretaps. In his pocket was a notebook containing coded balance sheets of loan-shark usury payments and lists of coded phone numbers. The numbers turned out to be those of other public telephones scattered through California and Nevada. The phones constitute a West Coast Mafia hot-line system.

At designated hours on specified days, Bomp would call a San Francisco number to chat with a sidekick named Jimmy Fratianno; at other times he would dial a Las Vegas booth for messages from Tony Spilotro, a Chicago gang heavyweight. He also received calls at the booth. A Mafia member for 40 years, Bomp was a consequential figure in the Mob hierarchy. He was also an informant for the FBI, the highest-placed Mafioso in that role.

Popping Noise. The FBI has no idea whom Bompensiero telephoned that night, but they know one of his callers fingered him for execution. The old man was an easy target. As he walked away from the phone booth toward his home, he was dropped by a .22-cal. slug that entered his neck near the spine. The coup de grâce was a second shot near the right ear. No shots were heard.

When the body was found, the notebook was missing.

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