By David Amoruso for Gangsters Inc.
Mafia hitman or crazy serial killer? Every so often people ask this question when they come upon a very capable and active mob assassin. A murderer like Bonanno crime family soldier “Tommy Karate” Pitera brings up the same discussion. Was he just very good at his job or did he enjoy the art of death a little too much?
Thomas Pitera was born on December 2, 1954, in Gravesend, Brooklyn, New York. His father was a candy salesman and was an honest, hard-working citizen, who did his best to provide and care for his wife and two children; his son Thomas and his daughter Theresa.
Growing up, Tommy Pitera was bullied relentlessly. He had a high-pitched voice that made him a laughing stock of the neighborhood. Both boys and girls would laugh in his face. He was frequently attacked – slapped, kicked, and spit on. The bullying killed something inside the younger Pitera.
It also lit a fire that would turn him into a deadly killing machine.
Becoming “Tommy Karate”
After watching Bruce Lee’s Kato character kick ass in television series The Green Hornet, Pitera was certain he had found his calling: He would become a martial artist! After persuading his mom and dad, he joined a karate school in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn and quickly became one of the class’ best students.
His teacher noticed his pupil’s progress. To prove his skills, Pitera signed up for a big martial arts tournament. He beat seven opponents to win the championship. Along with the accolades, came a cash prize and a ticket to live in Japan and learn martial arts from the local masters. He went to Tokyo and studied under sensei Hiroshi Masumi. He ended up staying in Japan for 27 months.
When Pitera returned to New York in 1976, he came back as a man. He had confidence, walked tall, and held his chin up high. His hands now were, to use a cliché, deadly weapons. Gone were the days that anyone could hurt Tommy Pitera.
Making his bones
But people might still smirk when they heard his voice. In order to totally silence everyone around him, he had to go beyond a black belt. He had to hook up with a shadowy, secretive organization that ruled Gravesend and many parts of New York, the United States, and beyond. He had to join the Mafia, La Cosa Nostra.
- READ: A personal table at Rao’s: Bonanno mobsters chat about loot from Lufthansa heist at famous East-Harlem restaurant
It wasn’t hard for a guy with Pitera’s skillset to be welcomed by the Mafia. Especially since they all knew him from the neighborhood. He had grown up around them and they trusted him. Now it was time to see if he had what it took to be one of them.
He became close to Bonanno family mobster Anthony Indelicato, the son of “Sonny Red” Indelicato, a powerful capo in the Bonannos. Bruno was known as a stone-killer with a bad cocaine habit. Because of who his father was and also his capabilities as a hitman, the Mafia chose to ignore his drug use.
After hooking up with Indelicato, Pitera became immersed in the Bonanno family and its various players. He showed they could count on him when it came to executing murder contracts or getting rid of bodies. Besides being a skilled martial artist, Pitera had become an expert on how one can hurt, kill, and dispose of the human body. He read countless books on torture and killing and was eager to put his new knowledge in practice.
- READ: The Hook: Life and bloody crimes of feared Chicago Mafia enforcer Harry Aleman
Things were going according to plan, but then Mafia politics almost blew apart Pitera’s mob career and ended his life along with it.
After Bonanno family boss Carmine Galante was gunned down in the summer of 1979, various factions within the family began vying for the top spot. Pitera, being Indelicato’s right-hand man, was part of the faction that ultimately lost the power struggle. Indelicato’s father and two other captains were killed in one swoop and Indelicato’s life was only spared after he promised not to seek vengeance. Knowing how the world of Cosa Nostra worked, he backed down and promised to toe the line.
A “Made” Man
Pitera’s mentor had lost a lot of clout. But he had no problem finding new mentors. The new powers - men like Joseph Massino and Anthony Spero - could put his deadly talents to good use, and frequently did. They found that when they handed Pitera a contract, he would take care of it immediately and exactly as ordered.
As a result of his stellar track record, in the 1980s Pitera was initiated into the Bonanno crime family and became a “made” member of the Mafia. Now the days of smirks and disrespect were officially long gone. Whenever he walked the streets or sat down in a restaurant, people would know who he was and who he was with. No one would dare look at him funny. Pitera finally had achieved what he always wanted.
- READ: Murder at the Drive-Thru: Bonanno family mobster shot in the head while getting coffee at McDonald’s
Pitera’s mob connections gave him a direct in with some of the country’s biggest narcotics traffickers. Drugs became his primary racket and source of income. He invested some of the money in two bars; the Cypress Bar and Grill and the Just Us Bar, which he used as his headquarters.
His unique selling point, however, was his ability to kill and dispose of bodies. His reputation grew to such an extent that even other families began asking him to take care of certain jobs. Like Gambino crime family capo Edward Lino, who himself was a capable hitman, who allegedly approached Pitera to help him whack one of Gambino mob boss John Gotti’s longtime associates, “Willie Boy” Johnson.
Johnson, it turned out, was an informant. When Gotti found out, he went ballistic and ordered him killed. He handed the contract to Lino, who then called on Pitera. Johnson was shot to death on August 29, 1988, precisely as ordered. Pitera once again came through for his friends.
- READ: Trafficking drugs and dismembering bodies with the Graewe brothers, associates of the Cleveland Mafia
As the years progressed, Pitera added more notches to his belt. He had no hesitation when it came to pulling the trigger. He would shoot a guy in the head and not think twice about it. Matter of fact, he would then strip the body naked, pull it into a bath tub and dismember it. Afterwards he would put the various body parts in different bags and bury them at one of his favorite burial grounds in Staten Island. Before he would get in his car, he would step into the bloody bathtub and clean himself until no trace of the gruesome job was left.
It was just a part of work.
Or was it?
Hitman or Serial Killer?
Killing is part of the Mafia underworld – or any underworld for that matter. But most mobsters draw a line when it comes to killing those outside of their criminal world. Be they civilians, cops or women and children.
Pitera did not draw those lines. When the love of his life, a woman by the name of Celeste LiPari, died from a drug overdose, it became clear that Pitera was an equal opportunity murderer. LiPari was beautiful, but she was also a junkie.
LiPari went out clubbing and used cocaine and heroin to have a good time. She was usually accompanied by her good friend Phyllis Burdi, who was similar to LiPari in that she was another pretty neighborhood girl who had gotten addicted to the product peddled by many of the area’s mobsters.
Though both women had chosen this lifestyle, Pitera blamed Burdi for having a bad influence on LiPari. When she OD’ed, Burdi’s days were numbered.
Burdi was close to Frank Gangi, a member of Pitera’s crew. Pitera had ordered him to let him know when he saw Burdi, but Gangi could not bring himself to hand over the woman he had such a special relationship with.
Like LiPari and Burdi, Gangi too was a junkie. He snorted cocaine to get high and drank booze to fall asleep. After hanging with Pitera and being present when “Tommy Karate” killed people and dismembered their corpses, his drug use only increased.
- READ: “I chopped him up so bad” - Profile of DeCavalcante Mafia family soldier Anthony Capo
After running into Burdi, Gangi succumbed to her charm and the pair went on a cocaine binge. At one point they ran out of coke and Gangi phoned an associate asking him whether he could come get some more stuff. He and Burdi then went the associate’s apartment. The man in question, an Israeli drug dealer, was also an associate of Pitera. While Burdi and Gangi were there, Pitera called the man.
But the Israeli was out on a morning run and Gangi picked up the phone. He was unable to lie to Pitera, purely out of fear, and told him Burdi was with him. Pitera told him to keep her there and that he would come right over.
Pitera arrived, walked into the bedroom where Burdi was sleeping and pumped three bullets into her. He then moved her body into the bathroom and began dismembering her body in the jacuzzi. He placed her severed head on the edge of the tub, creating an image that would haunt Gangi for the rest of his life.
Killing a woman is not that much of a stretch for a Mafia assassin. But it did put Pitera in a select group of Mafiosi. What sets Pitera apart from most of them, however, is that he would take certain things off the body of his victim – jewelry etc. – and keep it at his home. This behavior is usually seen in serial killers and it clashed with Pitera’s modus operandi of a secretive, careful mobster, who tries to erase any proof of his crimes.
Because despite this foolish behavior, Pitera was known among both fellow mobsters and members of law enforcement as a man who was very aware of his surroundings and did his best to evade the eyes of police and federal agents. He would cover his mouth when he went on walk talks with other gangsters, would use evasive tactics when driving his car to a meeting, switch cars, wear disguises, and he never talked on the phone.
Of course, all of that does not matter when your own people stand up to testify against you. Pitera’s murders had a profound effect on his underling Frank Gangi. After seeing his close friend Burdi killed and beheaded by Pitera, he cracked and told authorities all about his boss’ deadly activities.
Authorities pounced on Pitera on June 4, 1990, when they arrested him and several crew members and charged him with drug trafficking and seven murders – though prosecutors believed him to be involved in over sixty gangland killings. During a search of his home in Gravesend, federal agents found all sorts of tools of his trade: from automatic weapons to knives and Samurai swords, as well as countless books about assassination techniques, torture and the dismemberment of cadavers.
Prosecutors demanded the death penalty for Pitera. His life was hanging in the balance during his trial. If that bothered Pitera, he didn’t show it. After a short but eventful trial, he was convicted on June 25, 1992, of six murders and operating a large-scale drug ring. He was acquitted of murdering “Willie Boy” Johnson.
As the jury deliberated on Pitera’s sentencing, he turned to one of the DEA agents who had been hunting him. “I bet you they don’t have the balls to kill me,” Pitera told the agent. Whether it was about “balls” is up for debate, but the jury indeed rejected the death penalty and Pitera was sentenced to life in prison, instead.
Pitera continues serving his sentence and has remained loyal to the code of silence. Inside prison, he has taken up drawing. He sells his drawings online via a website. You can also find his work on Instagram where he has an account.
- Back to the Bonanno crime family section on Gangsters Inc.
Get the latest on organized crime and the Mafia at Gangsters Inc.'s news section.
Copyright © Gangsters Inc.