Mike Pizzi is a prime example of what you can achieve with hard work and dedication. Starting out on the streets of New York, lacking a formal education, Pizzi went on to join the Marines as a teenager followed by a long and distinguished career as a U.S. Marshal. Now, he sits down with Gangsters Inc. to discuss his days hunting down the most notorious fugitive mobsters.
When it comes to hunting down fugitives, you have those who are elusive and those who are an easy catch. When the U.S. Marshals are contacted, the fugitive usually isn’t willing to go down easy. For Mike Pizzi two men stood out when it came to their ability to evade capture and outsmart the law.
One such man was mobster Alphonse “Allie Boy” Persico, the brother of Colombo family boss Carmine “The Snake” Persico. It took Pizzi and his fellow US Marshals seven years to catch him. “My office was the lead investigation of the case,” Pizzi tells Gangsters Inc. “Persico had an organized crime family behind him and a ton of money to spend hiding. We also suspected that the New England mob was running an underground railroad for fugitive wise guys and something similar to a witness protection program for their members who were on the run. We eventually found him in Hartford, Connecticut.”
The arrest of Alphonse Persico was huge for the US Marshals. “His arrest was the biggest of an organized criminal at that time and brought us national recognition,” Pizzi explains. “I was also embarrassed by the fact that I had told the prosecutors that mob guys don’t jump bail and run away,” he adds, referring to Persico’s decision to go on the lam instead of reporting for prison. “I was wrong but I made it right,” Pizzi concludes.
Another arrest that continues to make Pizzi proud is that of William Arico. “He had escaped from Rikers Island in New York and many believed he drowned in the rough waters of the East River,” Pizzi says. “Arico was an assassin who was believed to have killed a high-level banker in Italy on behalf of Michele Sindona who had been a financial advisor to the Vatican. Arico was an escape artist who knew how to hide himself and he did not need to be in the New York area to survive. He was a master criminal who had little or no contact with his family and or friends. We eventually found him in a small town in Pennsylvania.”
Mike Pizzi and Bobby Zambardi showing off their identical tattoos. Bobby was lured into the mob life by Gregory Scarpa, the Colombo mobster and FBI informer. Bobby came from a well-respected, good, hard working family and died in Federal prison after serving more than 20 years. Bobby was and will always be my friend, Pizzi writes in his book.
Though it may seem as if Mike Pizzi was born to be a U.S. Marshal, things couldn’t be further from the truth. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1941, Pizzi had a rough and tumble start, one he details in his book Adapt & Overcome.
“My friends and I would not have been considered a gang, but it was known that if you came by 77th Street and 13th Avenue looking for trouble you were going to get it,” he writes in his book. Their antics frequently got the boys in trouble – with other youngsters, their parents, the police, and sometimes with the mob.
When he was 15 years old, Pizzi and some of his friends bumped into an older man on the street. The man was drunk and began asking them all kinds of questions about a guy they didn’t know. After listening to the intoxicated man for a short while, Pizzi’s friend told the man to, “Get the fuck out of here.”
The man then pulled out a gun “the size of a cannon” which he began pointing at each of the youngsters. “You little punks, I’ll kill all of you!”
Not one to take such disrespect lightly, the young Pizzi grabbed a gun from his home – “which was fixed so it wouldn’t shoot”- and ran back to the scene of the crime and began chasing the drunk through the streets until he disappeared.
A few days later, a car appeared on Pizzi’s street. It was filled with several mobsters asking about the incident involving “a friend of theirs.” They asked Pizzi and his friends to go for a ride, but, knowing the mob’s reputation for murder, they declined and lived to tell their story.
After spending a couple of days in jail as a teenager for a foolish theft one of his buddies was involved in, Pizzi worked several menial jobs to get by and make a legitimate living. The street life, however, was never far away. At age 16, Pizzi met the man that would alter the course of his life and steer him away from the streets.
“Joe Sorrentino was a tough guy and a good fighter,” Pizzi writes in Adapt & Overcome. “My friends and I had been in a few fights on Joe’s side against a gang that “Sammy the Bull” Gravano claimed he had been in. Joe had been kicked out of the Marines, but he suggested to me that I enlist because it was obvious I was going down the wrong path.”
It was advice that would take Pizzi off the streets and into a new career in service of his country. In the Marine Corps, he learned about life and how to overcome obstacles. Asked now, how youngsters today could escape gang life, Pizzi has some sound insight.
“Several of my friends found their way out of the streets by getting married or starting a business while some simply moved or went into the military,” he tells Gangsters Inc. “The few who never learned the lesson about that way of life either died in prison or were killed by their own gang. People in general want to belong to something, I remember when for me it was the ‘block’ that you lived on or hung out on. One of the worst things that could happen to you if you did not stand up to a bully or backed down from a fight was to be ‘kicked off the block,’ which meant you could no longer hang around.”
Pizzi: “Today’s young people can avoid these issues by belonging to something more than a block or group of young people hell bent on trouble by joining organized sports, a school, the military, or the work force, while learning how to read and understanding what life outside the block is like.”
For those of you reading this and thinking, “Well, that’s easy for Pizzi to say,” know that he had great difficulty with reading comprehension. Everyone has obstacles to overcome, for Pizzi it was a lack of discipline which he learned the hard way in the Marines. “Once I had self-discipline,” he explains, “I put that to use and learned how to read and understand what I was reading. I started by watching a movie I would like and then read the book. I realized that I had learned how to read and understand what I read when I started reading about subjects that were either boring or uninteresting to me.”
GETTING CLOSE TO THE MAFIA
While in the Marines, Pizzi traveled the world. He was stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Naples, Italy. In Naples, he would run in the one of the most legendary figures in the American Mafia: Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the New York mob boss who was deported from the United States after reaching a controversial deal with the American government during the Second World War in which he offered the Mafia’s cooperation in securing the ports against Nazi infiltration.
“Lucky Luciano loved American Servicemen and would go out of his way to be friendly with them in one or more of the establishments he had an interest in,” Pizzi recalls. “The California Bar in downtown Naples was one of his favorite places and it became one of the U.S. Military’s favorite hangouts. Lucky was a soft spoken and polite elderly man at the time I met him between 1959 and 1961. Lucky had a place named the Royal Art Studio that was run by a friend of his on the same street were the Marine Barracks was located and Lucky would come to the American Bar on occasion where we hung out.”
Despite his encounter with the drunk mobster during his teenage years, Pizzi respects the way some of these men carried themselves. “During my youth, the mob was truly a secret society and as kids we would always joke that the little old man in rags was the boss of the mob,” Pizzi says with a smile.
As a U.S. Marshal, Pizzi personally arrested Bonanno family mob boss Philip "Rusty" Rastelli. “I had a number of conversations with him,” Pizzi remembers. “He was an old timer who I thought was a man I could have been close to if he was not a mobster. Rusty had a sense of humor and appreciated anything that was done for him regarding his incarceration (even if it was his right) he was polite with all the Deputies and went out of his way to be respectful.”
According to Pizzi there is a distinction between the old mob and the one of today. “The old timers were good to the people in the neighborhood and if a woman became a widow she would get ‘stuff’ left on her door step or so the rumors spread even by legitimate people like my father. The mob kept street crime down, if someone stole from the church they got it back etc. Today, the mob guys don’t live in the neighborhood anymore and don’t respect the people like in the old days. I can’t tell you how many times mob guys I grew up with carried my mother’s groceries to her house for her without her asking for help.”
The reason for the Mafia’s decline is simple, according to Pizzi. “The greed factor will always be with the mob when it comes to crime. The mob is a protection racket for crooks. If you’re a bad guy and you are operating on a wiseguy’s turf you have to pay protection to him or you don’t operate anymore. The greed factor then kicks in and the mob wants more and more until it doesn’t pay for you to operate or you’re beaten and later even killed if you don’t smarten up. It has reached a point of extreme and is bad business for the mob but they don’t care.”
THE U.S. MARSHALS
Mike Pizzi and Sonny Grosso of the famed French Connection case. Sonny was Popeye Egan’s partner and a great detective in the NYPD. Pizzi and Grosso took this photo in Canada as Sonny put Pizzi on his “Top Cop” TV series with the arrest of Alphonse Persico.
Running an organization is hard. Be it the Mafia or a branch of law enforcement, the organization is only as good as its people. In his book, Pizzi details his rise within the U.S. Marshals, and how its organization grew exponentially in the last few decades. Pizzi played a big role in streamlining the organization and professionalizing its modus operandi. This professionalism is needed if good wants to triumph over evil.
“The sophistication of the criminals is now and in the future an issue that must be overcome by hard working people in the government who have the willingness and desire to stay at least one step ahead of the bad guys,” Pizzi tells us. “Information is out there for whoever wants to use it and even street level bad guys have it. The technology for law enforcement must always be ahead of the curve. For example, I am proud to say that I once answered a judge’s question regarding the method we were using to find weapons before they entered the courthouse. The judge then asked how does the x-ray machine see plastic explosives and I said: “We are not looking for the explosive, we are looking for a source of power and a detonator.” That was true then but not now, as the mixing of two liquids can cause an explosion, therefore law enforcement had to change how the search for weapons was accomplished.”
It’s a never-ending game of cat and mouse with the lives of innocent civilians and brave members of law enforcement at stake. With that in mind, it is good knowing there are men like Mike Pizzi who are there on the front line, keeping watch.
Get the latest on organized crime and the Mafia at Gangsters Inc.'s news section.
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