The Tall Guy
"He's a very sharp guy. You have to be careful."
A suave and debonair fashionista, Cesare Bonventre was also a ruthless and dangerous criminal responsible for as many as twenty mob slayings. As a caporegime and made man, he was an influential member of the Bonnano crime family, one of the five families of the New York City Cosa Nostra. Hailing from Sicily, Bonventre arrived in American during the 1960’s, and became a bodyguard to then Bonnano boss Carmine Galante. In order to gain further power, he betrayed Galante and was rewarded by the new family leadership. But his days were numbered. Bonventre was becoming too powerful and wealthy and he soon earned the enmity of Joseph Massino, the Bonnano underboss, who orchestrated a purge of all rivals within the family. His disappearance in April 1984 was believed to be the end result of this internal power struggle between different factions of the family. It would take almost twenty years for the Bonventre family to get justice for his death.
At around mid-day on July 12, 1979, five men sat down to lunch on an open patio at Joe and Mary’s Italian-American Restaurant at 205 Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Amongst them was the acting boss of the Bonanno crime family, Carmine Galante. He was dining with Leonard Coppola, a Bonanno capo, and restaurant owner/cousin Giuseppe Turano, a Bonanno soldier. Galante’s Sicilian bodyguards, Baldassare Amato and Cesare Bonventre, were also present. Unusually, the two men were wearing leather jackets, despite the fact that it was a hot summers day. At 2:45pm, three men wearing ski-masks entered the restaurant, walked onto the patio, and opened fire with shotguns and handguns. Galante, Turano, and Coppola were killed instantly, while Amato and Bonventre were left unharmed. Galante had been taken by surprise, with his cigar still in his mouth. The gunmen then ran out of the restaurant.
The hit had been organized by the Mafia Commission, who had sanctioned Galante’s murder and arranged for Bonventre and Baldo to betray him. A week after the Galante murders, Bonventre was arrested by federal agents, but he was soon released and was never charged with the crime. As the unofficial underboss of the Bonanno family Sicilians, Bonventre held significant influence within the family, and with Galante’s death he would go on to become a powerful capo or made man. Born on January 1, 1951, Cesare Bonventre grew up in Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, and as a young man he was invited to move to New York. It was during the 1960’s that the American Mafia began to import young men from Sicily to the United States to work as drug traffickers and hitmen. These Sicilians were known among their American cousin as “Zips” due to their fast speech.
As a member of the Sicilian faction of the Bonnano family, Bonventre worked as a bodyguard for the unofficial boss Carmine Galante. Several members of his family were involved with organized crime, including his uncle John Bonventre, a former Bonanno underboss and his cousins Baldassare “Baldo” Amato and the first family boss Joseph Bonanno. The lean and handsome Bonventre was known as “The Tall Guy” because he stood close to six feet seven inches tall. He was often seen with his shirt unbuttoned with a gold crucifix hanging from his neck. Bonventre was described by one author as having something about him that made him stand out from the other ethnic Italians. He wore stylish clothing, aviator sunglasses and carried European made man purses that embodied Italian couture and frequented clubs such as The Toyland Social Club and the Knickerbocker Avenue area with other Sicilian mobsters.
He was also a regular patron of a deli owned by his cousin Baldassare Amato and run by hus family, located at Second Avenue and Eighty-fourth Street in Yorkville, New York. The deli would later burn down not long before January 1984, and the Amato family established an apartment building in its place with a sleek Italian café and restaurant called Biffi. In 1979, shortly before the execution of Carmine Galante, Cesare and his cousin Baldassare were arrested for carrying illegal firearms in their car after being stopped by police at the Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, New York. Galante had an intense rivalry with Carlo Gambino, and had ordered the deaths of at least eight members of the Gambino family, in order to take over a massive drug-trafficking operation.
Galante, who had seized control of the family in 1976, had also angered members of his own family for his refusal to share the proceeds from these lucrative narcotics deals. His death was ordered by the official Bonnano boss Philip “Rusty” Rastelli, who relayed the order to Joseph Massino, a loyal soldier, who passed the request on the Mafia Commission, the controlling board of Mafia leaders, who sanctioned the hit. Such was the power of the Sicilian faction of the family, Rastelli was required to get approval from the Zips for the murder to go ahead. After the Galante killing, Philip “Rusty” Rastelli became boss of the family once again, despite being incarcerated at the time, while Joseph Massino became underboss. For his part in the Galante murder, Bonventre was promoted from soldier to capo and joined Salvatore Catalano’s Brooklyn crew.
At the age of 28, Bonventre became the youngest capo in Bonanno family history, and soon became involved in the importation and drug trafficking of heroin from Sicily into New York pizza parlours, known as the “Pizza Connection”. Whenever he was question by law enforcement Cesare would identify himself as “a pizza man from Brooklyn”. Although Rastelli was the head of the Bonnano Family, it was believed by many that Massino was the real power behind the throne and he began vying for control over the family with Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano, another Rastelli loyalist capo. Both Massino and Napolitano would eventually join forces against a bigger threat from another faction led by Alphonse “Sonny Red” Indelicato. When Massino got word that the Indelicato crew were attempting to take over the family, he decided to act.
The three capos, Indelicato, Philip Giaccone and Dominick Trinchera were invited to a meeting at a Brooklyn social club on May 5, 1981. But the meeting was a trap, and inside waiting for them was four gunmen, including Salvatore Vitali and Bonanno-affiliated Montreal boss Vito Rizzuto, who was hiding in a closet ready to ambush them. When the three men arrived along with Frank Lino, they were shot to death. Lino escaped unscathed by running out the door. Massino had consolidated his power and prevented another faction from assuming control of the family. Bonventre had originally supported the planned coup, but switched sides and joined the Rastelli/Massino faction. It is strongly believed that if Bonventre and the Zips had stayed loyal to Indelicato, he would have probably taken over the Bonanno family.
The ascension of the Rastelli and Massino leadership resulted in a period of discontent and rivalry within the Bonanno family. As a result, Rastelli and Massino started purging their opponents in the family. This situation was made worse by the “Donnie Brasco” situation, which led to many Bonnano members being marked for death. Massino had failed to kill Indelicato’s son, who vowed revenge for his fathers murder. Napolitano assigned Bonnano family associate Donnie Brasco, who he hoped to make a made man, to kill Indelicato. “Brasco”, however, was in fact an undercover FBI agent named Joseph Pistone, and shortly after the hit was ordered, his assignment was ended and Napolitano was informed of the FBI’s infiltration. Massino ordered the deaths of anyone associated with the induction of Brasco into the family.
There was a large fallout from the Brasco affair, and by March 1982, Massino was tipped off that the FBI were closing in on him and he chose to go on the run. In April 1983, Rastelli was paroled, and he and Massino put out a contract on Cesare Bonventre. While still a fugitive, Massino summoned Vitale, Louis Attanasio and James Tartaglione to his hideout and gave them the order for the hit. Despite Rastelli’s position as the official head of the Bonnano family, Massino was considered by most mobsters to be the family’s street boss and field commander in all but name, as well as Rastelli’s heir apparent. Vitale would later claim that Massino had ordered Bonventre’s murder because the Sicilian capo had given him no support when he was in hiding.
With Bonventre’s Sicilian pedigree, increasing wealth and fearsome reputation, he posed an increaing threat to Massino’s leadership. With his control of the Sicilians, the meanest killers in the family, Bonventre held an important position within the family, and was himself capable of outbursts of sadistic violence, being suspected of over twenty murders. Massino warned his fellow conspirators, “He’s a very sharp guy. You have to be careful.” In April 1984, Bonventre was called to a meeting with Rastelli at a glue factory in Wallington, New Jersey. He was picked up by Vitale and Attanasio and driven to a garage. On the way, Attanasio shot Bonventre twice in the head, but to their surprise he was still alive and began grabbing the steering wheel and trying to crash the car, forcing the two hitmen to fight him off.
As Vitale steered into the garage, Bonventre crawled out of the car, and Louis Attanasio killed him on the garage floor with two more shots. The task of disposing of Bonventre’s corpse was handed to Gabriel Infanti, who promised Vitale that Bonventre’s remains would disappear forever. His body was hacked to pieces and dumped into three 55-gallon glue drums, which were then moved by the killers to the fourth floor offices of a trading company in Garfield, New Jersey. Shortly after his death, Bonventre’s widow gave birth to their only son. Unaware that Bonventre was dead, he was indicted on April 9, 1984, by a federal grand jury along with twelve other Bonnano members on charges of distributing narcotics through the pizza restaurants—the so-called “Pizza Connection” case. Despite Infanti’s promise, the remains were discovered after a tipoff, on April 16, 1984, in a warehouse in Garfield, New Jersey.
Bonventre was later buried at Saint Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale, New York. For his part in the hit, Massino had Vitale initiated into the Bonanno family as a made man. Not long after the murder, a government informant claimed that one of Bonventre’s killers was Bonanno mobster Cosimo Aiello, who would himself be shot to death in the parking lot of a Clifton, New Jersey restaurant in October 1984. It would be nearly 20 years after the Bonventre murder when federal authorities arrested his killers, Louis Attanasio, Peter Calabrese and Louis’s brother, Robert Attanasio. By that time Vitale was a government witness and agreed to testify against them. On September 20, 2006, after being convicted of Bonventre’s murder, Louis Attanasio and Calabrese were sentenced to 15-years imprisonment, while Robert Attanasio, who had cleaned up the murder car, received a 10-year sentence.