By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
On July 26, 1999, at 5:01 p.m., 57-year-old Al Polito walked into Gold Coast Check Cashing, a squat, pink, concrete-block building on the corner of Margate Boulevard and U.S. 441, with an FBI microphone strapped to his body. He was there to meet John Mamone, a six-foot-two, 260-pound New Jersey native known as "Big John."
FBI agents believed that Mamone was a soldier in the Trafficante organized crime family and that he used the check-cashing business as a front for money laundering, loan sharking, and gambling. Polito's instructions were to lure Mamone into discussing Mob activity.
But that afternoon, Big John had more than the Mafia on his mind. "I want tickets for Ricky Martin," he told Polito, according to the FBI transcript. "That's what you got to get for me. Can you get me Ricky Martin?"
Polito was eager to please. He dialed his cell phone. "OK, listen," he said. "I already got tickets to Cher, but I may need to get some more tickets. And what about Ricky Martin?"
Then a pause. "He's putting them aside for me," Polito told Mamone.
"Backstage passes, OK?" Mamone said.
"Four to six for Ricky Martin, yeah," Polito said into the phone, then disconnected.
"And backstage passes?"
"Ah, I don't know about that," Polito answered. "I'm trying." They both laughed.
"And dinner with Ricky Martin after the show," Mamone said. They laughed again.
"You know, I did that with Bon Jovi."
"Yeah, Bon Jovi," Polito said.
By this point, the FBI operation had uncovered only a suburban dad hoping to fulfill his young daughter's desire to see Ricky Martin shake his bonbon. But then Polito's cell phone rang.
"Hello?" Polito said after answering.
The person on the line responded, and the voice was audible to Mamone. "Sounds like Fat Ralphie," Mamone said, referring to New York Luchese crime family member Ralph Lento. "You can hear his fucking voice right from here."
Polito handed the phone to Big John. "What do you like?" Fat Ralphie asked.
"Who do you like tonight?" Mamone then asked Polito, handing back the phone.
"Ah, Cubs. Oh, they should be about 150, 160," Polito answered.
"Favorite?" Fat Ralphie asked.
"Yeah," Polito said.
That's when Fat Ralphie, a convicted wise guy, talked about placing a bet for an unspecified amount on the night's Cubs- Expos game. Just like that, the FBI sting had implicated Big John in running an illegal sports-betting operation. But that was only the beginning. Seventeen months later, federal prosecutors would indict him and 18 other Trafficante soldiers and associates on racketeering charges alleging that the organized crime outfit pulled in millions through extortion and other illegal means.
Once pinched, Big John would violate the Mafia's secret code: He would flip, agreeing to provide the federal government with information on organized crime activity in exchange for a reduced sentence and protection from retribution. Now incarcerated under the federal Witness Security Program, Mamone has become one of a growing number of mobsters nationwide who have turned on their crime associates. In fact, Mamone was one of at least two Mob rats to provide information that led to a headline-grabbing federal indictment earlier this year of six up-and-coming Mafia associates who ran a South Florida marijuana smuggling ring that stretched from Mexico to the Northeast United States.
Yet there was more to Big John than organized crime. In many ways, he was the perfect example of the contemporary wise guy -- and his personal vulnerabilities reflect the decline of the once-powerful criminal organization. His neighbors in the gated subdivision of Eagle Point in Coral Springs, where he and his wife, Grace, owned a $413,000 house, describe him as a devoted husband and father to his sons, 11-year-old Francesco and 10-year-old Joseph Vincent. He coached his boys' peewee football team, and when federal authorities finally threw him in the slammer, 85 suburban parents petitioned a federal judge to release him temporarily so he could coach the playoff games -- alleged Mafia ties be damned.
"The people who know these guys always say they're really nice," said Scott M. Deitche, author of the recently published Cigar City Mafia, a history of the Trafficante crime family. "They'd see them in the neighborhood and wave."
The Italian-American Mafia has declined steadily in power and influence over the past half-century. Zealous prosecution in the 1960s and '70s weakened the Mob nationwide, tearing it permanently from the wealth of money and power it enjoyed in the early 20th Century. Today, the Mafia is one of several ethnic criminal organizations operating in the United States; among the others are the Russians, Mexicans, and Cubans. In fact, during the '80s, as South Florida became a hub for South American cocaine, the Sicilian Mafia operating in the area reportedly established a loose alliance with the Colombian cartel.
It isn't Al Capone's gang anymore, but the Mafia remains intact and significant. It consists of 24 units, often referred to as families, that operate throughout the United States. Their structure is rigidly hierarchal. Among the best-known clans are the five that divide New York City: Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Luchese. Each has operated in Florida, which has become something of the sixth borough of New York organized crime.