originally published November 15, 2013
As far back as he could remember, Gregory Scarpa always wanted to be a gangster.
And why not? He was born in Italy, moved to New York as a child, and his brother Salvatore was already a card-carrying member of the Colombo crime family. (I assume all crime families make use of the membership card system.) Scarpa came of age around the same time as Henry Hill in Goodfellas (or Henry Hill in real life, I suppose), but Scarpa was not ethnically sidelined from the real show; he was a made man, in the furnace-heat of the Italian mafia’s white-knuckle grip on organized crime in New York.
And somehow, amid the dice-tossing, drink-swigging, goomah-skronking lifestyle of the mob in its most cinematically glamorous era, Scarpa spent almost as much time punching the clock for another employer: the FBI.
These are not congruent career goals.
Draw a picture in your mind of the stereotypical mid-century Mafioso. Not Michael Corleone in a pressed suit and tie, I’m talking about the guys who dress loudly, laugh loudly, and slip the doorman fifty bucks for getting them a good seat. That was Gregory Scarpa. They called him the Grim Reaper – he was the guy who’d show up and break your legs if you were late with a payment. Or worse. Apparently his calling card was leaving the number 666 on his victims’ pagers.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back before people carried pagers, when there was a bottomless trough of money to be made through loansharking, extortion, hijacking, counterfeiting and gambling, Scarpa was made a caporegime in the Colombo family. He had his own crew. In addition to his homes in Vegas, Florida, and three of the five boroughs of New York, Scarpa also had power.
Then in March of 1962, he was pinched for armed robbery.
Not wanting to pull his magnificent lifestyle up the off-ramp of prison-time, Scarpa made a deal, signing on as an undercover informant for the FBI. In the summer of 1964, Scarpa was brought down to Mississippi for a special assignment, to help solve the mysterious disappearance of a trio of civil rights workers. The story goes – and the FBI never confirmed this – that Scarpa was there to utilize certain interrogation techniques and investigative skills that might fall into a ‘grey area’ of legality, one that law enforcement couldn’t technically enter. Scarpa allegedly pistol-whipped and beat a TV salesman (and secret Klansman) named Lawrence Byrd, cramming his gun in Byrd’s mouth until Byrd gave up the location of the three workers’ graves.
This strange snippet of Gregory Scarpa’s life was dramatized in the film Mississippi Burning, though Scarpa was never identified by name. Two years later, when Scarpa once again jetted down to Mississippi to help out with the murder case of Vernon Dahmer, a black store owner who had been murdered by the KKK, things didn’t end so well. Scarpa and his FBI contacts fought over his compensation, and he was quietly dropped as an informant.
Fast-forward to 1980, when Gregory Scarpa finally met someone whose mustache was as mighty as his own. That’s Lindley DeVecchio, the man who talked Scarpa back into the folds of the FBI. According to witness accounts on both sides of the law, DeVecchio positioned himself as somewhat more than an FBI contact. He allegedly received jewelry, cash, and even a hard-to-find Cabbage Patch doll as gifts from Scarpa, and in exchange Scarpa was provided with inside info about his enemies and an apparent immunity from arrest.
For both parties, it was a magnificent agreement. DeVecchio reaped the benefits (allegedly of course – my legal team is adamant about this) of mafia pay-offs, while Scarpa could conduct his affairs without fear of consequence, at least from the law. The problem was, some of DeVecchio’s cronies were getting suspicious at the flimsy information Scarpa was allowing to flitter across DeVecchio’s desk. Someone had to do something.
Scarpa was busted for a massive credit card scam in 1985. DeVecchio intervened with a quick memo to the judge, pointing out how beneficial Scarpa had been to the FBI. The judge handed out a mere five years’ probation and a fine. But Gregory Scarpa had bigger fears on the horizon, and I’m not talking about how that light sentence aroused curiosity among his Colombo Family brethren.
Scarpa needed emergency ulcer surgery in 1986, and he didn’t want blood from the hospital bank, fearing it might be tainted with African-American donors. All that work in Mississippi apparently had nothing to do with a sense of right and wrong for Scarpa; it was business. So he enlisted blood from his associates, including mobster Paul Mele, a bodybuilder who had been firing steroids into his bloodstream via shared needles.
That’s right. By the end of the year Gregory Scarpa was diagnosed as HIV-positive.
Around this time the Colombo family had shattered into a civil war. Because he was loyal to imprisoned boss Carmine Perisco, Scarpa was the target of an assassination attempt by the acting boss, Victor Orena. Two vehicles pulled up alongside Scarpa as he was driving behind his daughter and granddaughter in Brooklyn. The would-be killers leapt from their vehicles and flew at Scarpa, but he escaped.
In 1992, the disease was beginning to take its toll – Scarpa told those around him it was cancer. Not only that, but DeVecchio’s blanket protection from prosecution was gone and Scarpa got himself picked up on racketeering charges which involved three murders. He was on house arrest when he lost an eye in a shootout with Lucchese family members over his grandson’s involvement in a drug deal.
The cops felt that Scarpa might be a bit safer in jail. His family was in relatively good shape after the $300,000 settlement in his negligence lawsuit against the hospital where he’d contracted HIV. But the disease had become full-blown AIDS when Gregory Scarpa pleaded guilty to the racketeering charges in 1993. He was sentenced in December to life in prison, though it was reduced to ten years given his lousy health.
They may as well have made it six months. Scarpa died due to complications from his disease in June, 1994 at the age of 66. His status as an FBI informer leaked out the following year, and Lindley DeVecchio was forced to retire from the Bureau in 1996. The investigation into any wrong-doing on DeVecchio’s part was dismissed due to some conflicting testimony and a lack of solid evidence.
So what do we learn from the story of Gregory Scarpa? That crime doesn’t pay? That if one is in the mafia, one should never be a rat? Actually both crime and rat-finkery worked out really well for the guy. Ultimately the lesson is that being a racist bigot can trump both these life choices and kill you slowly and painfully.
Good to know.