The 1986 Mafia Commission Trial dismantled the notorious five "families," dealing the mob a blow it hasn't recovered from

By Greg Hanlon
July 21, 2020 11:27 AM
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Courtesy of Netflix / 2020

Federal authorities investigating the New York City Mafia in the 1970s had a problem: The big bosses seemed untouchable. The street crimes that could lead to prosecution were committed by low-level foot soldiers, but the mob’s code of silence protected the upper ranks.

Consequently, the notorious five “families” that had run the New York mob since the Prohibition era — the Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese families — strengthened their grip on the city, with their tentacles in key industries like high-rise construction, garment manufacturing and restaurants.

All the while, crime in New York was skyrocketing amid high unemployment, a shrinking tax base and cuts in services, and law enforcement was overwhelmed. This ominous era, and the effort of FBI agents to dismantle the Mafia, is the subject of Netflix’s three-part documentary, Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia, directed by Sam Hobkinson, which begins streaming Wednesday.

The documentary shows the turning point in the investigation, which took place in an unlikely place: Cornell University, where a law professor G. Robert Blakey taught, and where FBI investigators were grudgingly sent in 1980 for a week-long crash course into a then-arcane law Blakey had help draft a decade before.

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — which later became known as RICO — went into effect in 1970. Essentially, it allows for prosecution of crimes performed as part of a criminal organization, thus closing a loophole that allowed high-ranking mobsters to evade charges.

The problem, according to the documentary, was that law enforcement didn’t understand the law well enough to use it. Enter Blakey’s seminar at Cornell: By the end of their week with him, New York’s FBI agents left with a weapon they hadn’t known they had.

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"We were able to focus our work in a way that targeted the upper echelon," FBI Special Agent Joe Cantamessa tells PEOPLE. RICO laws, he says, allowed the FBI to "identify upper management, and [recognize] what this is all about."

Joe Cantamessa
Courtesy of Netflix / 2020

Electronic surveillance was a vital part of the effort. Cantamessa’s job was to bug the homes and cars of mob bosses, giving his colleagues hours of footage of mobsters in intimate settings — and some of those recordings are featured in Fear City.

Cantamessa’s daring undercover work gives the documentary, at times, the feel of a caper movie. In one of the most entertaining scenes, he gains entry to the home of Gambino family boss Paul Castellano after creating interference on Castellano’s TV while he’s watching CNN. Cantamessa, posing as the cable repairman, inserts at bug into the boss's TV — which among other revelations exposes that Castellano is having an affair with his housekeeper.

Ultimately, Cantamessa says, surveillance allowed the FBI to piece together the structure of the five families and capture incriminating statements from key players on tape. The series culminates in 1986 with the Mafia Commission Trial, which led to eight convictions of top mob figures, including the bosses of three families. (Castellano was indicted but famously murdered before facing justice.) The trial, prosecuted by a then-U.S. attorney with political ambitions named Rudy Giuliani, dealt a blow the five families haven’t recovered from.

By the mid-‘80s, New York was a different place: With a booming financial sector and real estate market, the city was on firm financial ground after having been left for dead a decade before (although austerity policies ensured that the city’s poor wouldn’t see most of these gains). And the mob no longer had a stranglehold on it.

The Mafia wasn’t entirely wiped out. John Gotti, the most famous mobster in recent memory who ordered the 1985 murder of Castellano, remained a powerful figure until he was convicted of five murders in 1992.

The five families still exist, but as Cantamessa says, "They’re not nearly as organized as they used to be. Or nearly as big."

Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia, a three-part documentary, begins streaming on Netflix Wednesday.