When word broke out of New York that the FBI had gutted the Colombo mob family and rounded up 127 members and associates of organized crime, I couldn’t resist scanning the indictments for local connections.
Such ties have been known to occur. When it comes to mob investigations, Las Vegas has resembled a suburb of Brooklyn. Given all the Colombo characters, there was one name I was certain I’d see: former Las Vegas resident Charles Panarella, known on the street as Charlie Moose.
I read and reread the information provided by the Department of Justice. I found many familiar names, but no Charlie Moose.
I checked the New York newspapers, which called it the largest mob bust in New York City history. No trace of the Moose.
I was left wondering just how big a mob bust involving the Colombo family and other outfits could be without the Moose. It would be like having a Yankees reunion without Yogi Berra.
Some years ago, I ran into Panarella outside his Las Vegas lawyer’s office. He wasn’t hard to catch. He was pushing 80 and a walker and couldn’t make a fast getaway.
He had the gruff demeanor of a man who had no time for reporters, but he took a minute to provide a few colorful comments. When he shook my hand, it was like a pit bull clamping down on a soup bone. I kept most of my questions about his reputation as a mob enforcer to a minimum.
He did tell me he kept trying to retire, but the government wouldn’t let him. He left out the part about continuing to commit felonies until after his 80th birthday.
While there was no Charlie Moose on the government’s recent indictment list, there were plenty of other mobsters. Former Gambino family associate-turned-government witness Andrew DiDonato knew many and committed crimes with a few. Now DiDonato has authored with Denny Griffin a memoir called “Surviving the Mob: A Street Soldier’s Life Inside the Gambino Crime Family.”
This is what you do in today’s mob: Commit crimes, get caught, turn state’s evidence, put away your childhood pals and running mates, and start working on your memoir. Modern organized crime membership should come with a .38 revolver and a Roget’s Thesaurus. That rat-a-tat-tat you hear is the staccato report of typewriter keys.
The book’s lessons, that the mob mystique is a lie and crime doesn’t pay, have obviously been lost on DiDonato’s former pals.
“The thing is this, it’s a losing proposition,” DiDonato says. “Law enforcement has improved by leaps and bounds. Too many people believe in the fantasy. It’s nothing like guys see on television. There are no friends here. And loyalty don’t buy passage from getting killed. The respect goes up the ladder in today’s mafia; it doesn’t come down. They expect you to jump in front of the flames every time for them. In today’s world, when you go to prison they tell your family to apply for welfare. No one helps take care of them while you’re away. Nobody is going to send an envelope. Nobody cares. They really don’t care.”
That’s not much of a family. But even the concept that the new mob is somehow very different from the old mob is a lie. Traditional organized crime’s problem is it hasn’t changed enough while law enforcement’s investigative skill has evolved mightily.
That makes Charlie Moose a dinosaur and a turncoat like DiDonato one of the lucky ones.
A Vegas guy who has known the Moose a long time tells me the elder statesman really has retired. He has finally left the knee-crushing extortions and late-night grave digging to the younger generation.
From the look of those indictments, it’s a generation of slow learners.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.