By David Amoruso for Gangsters Inc.
Family is everything. It is how La Cosa Nostra, the American Mafia, managed to dominate the New York underworld for over a century. But in the underworld, family is no match for greed. Vultures and sharks are everywhere, ready to take what’s yours. The Zottola family knows this all too well.
The Zottolas are a close-knit unit. They need to be. Father Sylvester and his sons Salvatore and Anthony operate in the murky region between the underworld and the one above. Law enforcement has Sylvester listed as an associate of the Bonanno crime family and the Lucchese family. When dealing with such families it helps when you can present a strong united front.
The father and his sons all live near each other in a compound of homes in the Locust Point section of The Bronx. Located on the waterfront next to the Locust Point Yacht Club, the compound was dubbed “Zottola’s Court”. Two plaques hang on the homes. One says: “Our foundation is built from love — our strength keeps us together”. The other: “Our walls are built thick — our love for each is thicker.”
In short: If one decided to come at this family and take what was theirs, there’d be hell to pay.
A $45 million fortune
The Zottolas would be right in presenting such a strong front, too. Because they indeed have a lot that is worth taking. Sylvester is involved in illegal gambling and runs “Joker Poker” video games for the New York mob.
The Mafia installed these machines in social clubs, cafes, bodegas, and coffee shops. They’re a huge money maker generating hundreds of thousands a week in profits. Overseeing this racket, Sylvester Zottola took his illicit income and invested it in real estate. This eventually turned into a $45 million real estate empire in the Bronx.
Sylvester’s residential real estate portfolio consisted of multi-family rental properties. His son Anthony helps manage his father’s business by maintaining the properties, collecting rent, and helping to run A&S Maintenance, a company jointly owned by Anthony and his brother Salvatore.
As an associate of the New York Mafia, Zottola and his sons are protected. No other crime group can touch them. If they do, they will face repercussions from La Cosa Nostra.
Sylvester is especially close to Bonanno crime family boss Vincent “Vinny Gorgeous” Basciano, a charismatic wiseguy known for his intellect, charm, and ability to kill anyone who stands in his way. Basciano is respected by both his friends and his enemies. Having him as a close associate places an invisible, but very thick layer of protection around Sylvester.
Imagine his surprise when, suddenly, he is being attacked by unknown guys. He’s threatened and beaten. Then, days after Christmas, on December 27, 2017, three men break into his home and go completely ballistic on him.
They hit him in the head with a gun, stab him multiple times, and slash his throat. His attackers leave him for dead, but Sylvester survives. A belated Christmas miracle perhaps. Yet no one is laughing or happily ever after. His attackers hadn’t been found and the Zottolas have no clue who is targeting their patriarch or why.
By the summer, Sylvester is out and about again. Having recovered from his wounds. On June 12, 2018, he is standing in front of one of his properties in the Bronx when he spots a suspicious man across the street.
“Don’t come any closer!” he yells to the man, who is indeed armed and there to whack Sylvester.
Before the hitman can get a shot off, Sylvester pulls his own pistol and fires several shots.
The hitman tries to return fire but his gun jams. He then scrambles and flees back to the getaway car with the driver eagerly awaiting his return so they can get the hell out of there. Both men are later arrested by police. They are Ron Cabey and Himen “Ace” Ross, known gang members linked to the Bloods.
They finally have a name for those behind - some of - the attacks. But why does the Bloods gang want to kill Sylvester Zottola? Before the family can put some feelers out on the streets and discuss possible theories, they are attacked again.
On July 11, 2018, Salvatore Zottola is getting out of his minivan in front of his home in Locust Point when a car with a New Jersey license plate drives by and a man sitting in the passenger seat begins shooting at him. Salvatore is hit in the chest, falls, and rolls behind the van.
The gunman immediately gets out of the car and, with his arms stretched out, aims his gun at his target. The hitman keeps his cool despite his victim rolling around trying to dodge the bullets. He bends over to finish Salvatore off from close by. (Watch video footage here.)
One of those bullets grazes Salvatore’s head, but doesn’t penetrate his skull. “It was like, lights out,” he later says about the failed attempt on his life. “I tried standing. I fell to the curb. I couldn’t run. Rolling was the best thing I could do.”
- WATCH: Bonanno family mobster shot in front of his Bronx mansion – Salvatore Zottola in critical condition
A friend and a relative yell at him to stay down. Salvatore drifts in and out of consciousness. When awake, he tells the witnesses to take $1,200 in cash he has stashed in his sock so the assassins can’t get it.
He also asks them to pass on a final message to his loved ones: “Tell my wife and my kids and my father that I love them.”
Miraculously, despite being shot 7 times - in the head, chest, and hand - Salvatore survives. Just like his father Sylvester (left) did after being stabbed and slashed. While recuperating in the hospital, he is surrounded by his loving family. His brother Anthony can’t come, he tells Salvatore, because he has a soccer game with his kids.
At some point, Salvatore sits down with Anthony and asks him if he has any idea where these attacks are coming from? “He didn’t know where it was coming from, either,” Salvatore says later.
The Zottolas are absolutely clueless as to who is trying to take them out. And despite all the attacks, they continue moving around the city without extra precautions. It is an indication, perhaps, of their role in the underworld. Rather than being an active part of the violence associated with organized crime, they are more active in the money making part of the enterprise. And even then, not as made men, but as associates on the fringes.
71-year-old Sylvester Zottola needs a coffee. A medium, he tells the person on the other end of the line at the McDonald’s drive-thru on Webster Avenue in the Bronx on October 4, 2018. While he waits in his SUV around 5 p.m., another car pulls up and blocks his escape. A second car blocks the other side.
A man gets out of one of the cars and fires five closely placed shots through Sylvester’s car window. Zottola is hit in the head, chest and shoulder. He dies right there in his car. The hitman flees right after.
In the days following the murder, rumors swirl about who is behind it. One group that might be capable of such a brazen hit and also has a motive to remove Zottola from the underworld is the Albanian Mafia. The Albanians have a strong presence in the Bronx and are also involved in the Joker Poker business.
Are they behind all this violence?
A week after the murder of Sylvester the investigation goes into overdrive when authorities arrest Bushawn “Shelz” Shelton and charge him with murder-for-hire conspiracy and murder-for-hire in connection with the attempted murder of Salvatore and the murder of Sylvester.
Shelton (right) did 3 years in prison for criminal possession of a weapon in Queens after cops found a .38-caliber handgun in a hidden compartment of his Lincoln Navigator SUV. He got out in 2012 and was thinking big. As he tried to up his street cred, he frequently got into trouble.
Being charged with plotting a murder at McDonalds wasn’t his first crime tied to the fast food place. Shelton and some fellow gang members beat up a man and his pregnant girlfriend because, according to them, he stared at them funny. When 2018 rolled around, he was the leader of a Bloods gang comprised of 30 members.
And ready to make some money killing mob guys for money.
GPS and a rat
Now, he is charged with exactly that. A week after the slaying of Sylvester. How did investigators catch him so quickly? Well, the hit squad used a GPS device to keep track of Sylvester’s movements. They hid it under his car, but failed to remove it after the assassination.
FBI agents recovered the device and went through the locations recorded by it. It had been activated on September 29, days before the murder, at an unspecified address. Surveillance footage of that address showed five alleged members of the Bloods gang coming and going that day.
Also, remember Ron Cabey, the wannabe hitman with the failing gun? He’s willing to talk about the man who hired him to whack Sylvester Zottola.
Cabey told police that he was approached by Shelton after he had just gotten out of jail. He agreed to do the killing for $10,000. He actually tried and subsequently failed to murder Sylvester and Salvatore Zottola on at least six occasions in 2018. Using a total of four different getaway drivers.
The final nail in Shelton’s judicial coffin was that his DNA was found tying him to one of the crimes. On November 26, 2017, a van forced Sylvester’s car off the road. A masked man got out and pointed a gun at him. The van and mask were later found by police and Shelton’s DNA was found to be in the mask.
Besides Shelton, authorities also indicted Himen “Ace” Ross, Herman “Taliban” Blanco, Arthur “Feddi Bossgod” Codner, and Kalik McFarlane and charged each man with murder conspiracy. Several more gang members would be indicted at a later stage.
The question remained, however, why is the Bloods gang trying to eliminate the Zottolas? What beef do they have with them? Do they want to take over? Are they working on orders from the Albanian Mafia?
The final answer comes when investigators find text messages on Shelton’s phone to the person who had ordered the violence.
“Can we party today or tomorrow,” Shelton texted this person after the hit.
“Tomorrow. It’s my little man’s bday. I’m taking him to his favorite place, McDonald’s. Then to a movie. LOL like I eat that stuff,” the man replied.
The identity of the person on the other end of the conversation shocked investigators. It was Anthony Zottola.
It was the son who had his own father killed. The brother who had his own brother shot.
Anthony Zottola and Shelton exchanged over 1,000 text messages about threats and attacks on Sylvester and Salvatore. The whole thing began more than a year before Sylvester was murdered.
After the successful murder of his father, Anthony discusses payment with Shelton, texting him: “I have the cases of water in a day or so.” A photograph later recovered from one of Shelton’s phones shows a cardboard box of bottled water, as well as over $200,000 in banded currency.
“What I felt was heartbreak”
On June 18, 2019, prosecutors indict Anthony (right) and charge him with ordering the murder and attempted murder of his father and brother. He pleads not guilty. Several of his, alleged, partners in crime feel no need for a trial and plead guilty.
Among them 38-year-old Bloods gang boss Shelton, who pleads guilty in August 2022. With his DNA all over a crime scene, Cabey as a witness against him, and over a thousand incriminating text messages, he probably doesn’t like his chances.
Oh, and then he has the issue of the $45,000 in cash and a loaded handgun found by the FBI at his Brooklyn home where he lives with his grandmother. With his grandma telling the feds that “he came into that money very recently,” most notably after the murder.
Yeah, going to trial doesn’t sound like a great idea.
Herman Blanco, Arthur Codner, Jason Cummings, and Branden Peterson also plead guilty and are sentenced to 20 years in prison, 19 years in prison, 17 years in prison, and 16 years in prison, respectively.
Anthony Zottola doesn’t have that option. He needs his day in court and he needs to be cleared of these heinous charges that will make him a pariah in the underworld run by La Cosa Nostra, which values family above all else.
So, he goes to trial. Alongside 37-year-old Himen Ross, the alleged triggerman in the murder of Sylvester, and Alfred Lopez, who allegedly was the getaway driver.
His lawyer argues that Sylvester Zottola had made plenty of enemies in the underworld. Anthony wasn’t the one. The Albanians wanted to take what Sylvester had. The Bloods gang smelled “blood” and decided to sweep Sylvester off the board and take over his operations. Anyone but Anthony.
Prosecutors are crystal clear in who they determine was responsible for all the violence. It was Anthony, they tell the court. He wanted to get rid of his father and brother so that he could take over his father’s $45 million real estate empire.
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He enlisted the help of Shelton and his Bloods gang to take care of the violence, while he sat by and watched. The prosecutor points the jury to the text messages between Anthony and Shelton, saying: “The texts are not just evidence of the crime, they are the crime. The texts are conspiracy in action.”
On October 19, 2022, the verdict is in. Alfred Lopez is acquitted. Himen Ross is found guilty of shooting Sylvester “Sally Daz” Zottola dead. Anthony Zottola is found guilty of the murder-for-hire plot against his father and the attempted hit on his brother.
Upon hearing the verdict, Anthony’s wife can be heard crying. She is later comforted by her brother-in-law, Salvatore, the man her husband wanted dead and who had testified against him after being granted immunity.
The sister of Salvatore and Anthony tells reporters: “I remember my brother for the man that he was. I remember my father for the man he was. I was looking at both of my brothers during the verdict. What I felt was heartbreak.”
On April 14, 2023, Anthony Zottola Sr. and Himen Ross receive a prison sentence of life plus 112 years. The number comes from the ages of father and son Zottola at the time they were attacked. Sylvester was 71 when he was killed. Salvatore was 41 when he was shot.
Anthony is 45 years old when he knows he will be spending the rest of his life behind bars. All because of his greed.
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