The air was thick and the temperature had already shot up to the upper eighties by noon on Thursday, July 12th, 1979. It was another hot summer day in Brooklyn, as old Italian men played bocce in Bushwick Park and paid little attention to the brown Lincoln limousine cruising by on Knickerbocker Avenue.
The vehicle rolled down the street until it reached number 205, a simple Italian joint called Joe and Mary’s, and pulled over. A few men got out of the car and walked into the restaurant to grab lunch. One of them was short, hunched over with gray hair, a cigar clenched between his teeth. His name was Carmine Galante, one of most infamous mobsters to ever operate in the New York City underworld, and he would be dead in less than three hours.
Up until then, Galante led a long life as a fearless criminal, driven by his ambition to one day control the Bonnano crime family. He started working for the mafia as teenager and muscled his way through the ranks to serve as the family’s de facto street boss from 1974 on. Many of Galante’s operations were planned in the cafés and restaurants along Knickerbocker, and he is credited with bringing the New York mafia into the heroin trade — a move that would eventually lead to his downfall and flood Bushwick’s streets with an ocean of hard drugs.
"He created the business practices of modern drug trafficking and his methods were later copied by other groups," said Adam Schwartz, a Bushwick historian. "So the system was already set up by the time crack came around in the ’80s — and all hell broke loose."
Galante was born on February 21, 1910, in an East Harlem tenement, and that seems to be the only legal thing he ever did. The son of a fisherman from Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, Galante sunk into the world of crime when he was only eleven years old, forming a juvenile street gang in the Lower East Side. By age 14, he was slapped with his first arrest for stealing trinkets from a store counter, but was not incarcerated because he was too young.
The hot-headed Galante quickly gained the respect of his peers when he became an associate mafioso during the Prohibition era. He was in and out of prison throughout his entire life, serving long sentences for crimes ranging from petty larceny to assault, robbery, and homicide. By the 1950s, he had made a name for himself in the Bonanno family, showing his dedication by keeping his mouth shut, and became the trusted driver for Capo Joseph Bonanno.
Friends called him "Lilo" and others nicknamed him "The Cigar" because he was rarely seen without a fat cigar in his mouth. Cute names aside, he was a dangerous man. Some speculate Galante killed up to 80 people including the Italian anti-Mafia journalist Carlo Tresca. But this is nothing compared to the chaos he would unleash upon his prison release in 1974.
Only two days after being out on parole, Galente had the bronze doors on Frank Costello‘s Greenwood Cemetery tomb blown off their hinges. Costello was a legendary mobster who had died a year earlier, and was one of Galante’s most hated rivals. The act was Galante’s way of telling the underworld he was back and ready not only to assume leadership of the Bonanno family, but become the boss of all bosses in the City.
To achieve his goals, Galante took a heavy hand in orchestrating mafia control over the North American heroin trade. He had set up a network of Sicilians to replace and operate the supply lines that had been broken by the police in smashing the "French Connection" drug rings. Galante liked the loyalty and toughness of Sicilian goons so he actively imported them to serve as his bodyguards, having them settle in and around Knickerbocker Avenue — a major stronghold for the Bonnano family at the time.
Locals called the new Sicilians moving into the area "Zips" because they spoke their native language so quickly, but obviously not all of this new wave of immigration was here to work for the mafia. Msgr. James Kelly, pastor at St. Brigid’s Church for more than 30 years, said there was a second wave of Italian immigrants after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and many of them settled in the Greater Bushwick area. He said even those who took part in mafia activities weren’t necessarily seen as bad people by locals back then.
"There was this aura that they were the protectors of the neighborhood and nobody at the time would have associated them with drug dealing," Kelly said. "Knickerbocker was very safe and the large mafia presence gave everyone a sense of security."
But as neighborhood demographics began to change in the ’70s, there were increasing racial tensions between Italians, incoming Puerto Ricans, and African-Americans. Parts of Bushwick had changed so drastically after the 1977 blackout riots that Italians began moving out of the neighborhood and mobsters started dealing their products right on Knickerbocker.
"Traditionally, you’re not supposed to sell in your own backyard," said John Dereszewski, who served as board manager for Community Board 4 in the late ’70s. "But I think the mafia knew that Bushwick’s days as an Italian neighborhood were coming to an end so they started not caring about what happened here."
"Before the seventies, Bushwick was a very stable neighborhood, but after the drugs started coming in things went down hill," he added.
Galante was a fearsome drug dealer. He expanded the Canadian arm of the mafia to spread out his heroin ring and was an international businessman, fluent in French, Spanish and several Italian dialects. Galante is also credited with creating the "black man test," a supposedly foolproof experiment to determine the purity of heroin. Black addicts would be kidnapped off the street and injected with a "double-bag." If the victim became comatose within a specific time frame, the heroin was declared to be of the correct purity.
With his "Zips" at his side and wads of drug money in his pockets, Galante thought he was unstoppable. There was only one man in his path to the top of the Bonnano family, Philip "Rusty" Rastelli, who was filling in the role of Capo after the former boss, Natale Evola, died in 1973. As far as Galante was concerned, Rastelli’s promotion was temporary — he had Rusty’s stepson killed to force the Capo to quit.
Galante’s brash and greedy moves were upsetting local mafia bosses — he was suspected of withholding more and more drug money for himself, and his antics were becoming a growing problem in the organized crime community. To this day, few know the exact motives behind what happened on that hot summer day in 1979, but one thing is clear: Galante got what was coming to him.
After walking into Joe and Mary’s, Galante headed toward the back of the restaurant with two bodyguards to the small courtyard where he would have his last meal. The restaurant was nothing special: dingy yellow curtains in the window, formica counters, and cheap food, said Dereszewski, who had eaten there a few times.
Galante dined in the courtyard over several hours that day, meeting a number of partners, before one of his bodyguards, complaining he was "sick," went home. Around 3 p.m., he was eating a big salad and enjoying a jug of wine when a blue Mercury Montego pulled up in front of the restaurant. The driver got out first wearing a red-striped ski-mask, a hefty .3030 M1 carbine in hand. Two other men, also wearing masks, jumped out with sawed-off shotguns, and all three of them bolted into Joe and Mary’s.
The mobster didn’t have time to say a single word before the gunmen began blasting away in the back courtyard. Shotgun pellets tore into his chest, hitting him in the left eye and blowing apart the cigar he held in his mouth. His remaining bodyguard’s head was blown to pieces and Joe Turano, the restaurant’s owner, was killed in the crossfire.
The assassins ran back out to the Mercury, sped down Knickerbocker and took a right on Jefferson Street. The vehicle was later found abandoned a few blocks away on Ingraham Street near Gardener Avenue.
The "hit" became an instant media sensation. Albert Davila, a Daily News reporter at the time, was sent to cover the story and was one of the first reporters at the scene. Police wouldn’t allow him to enter the restaurant so he climbed onto the building’s rooftop to get a bird’s eye view of the courtyard where New York’s most notorious mobster lay dead.
"The first thing I noticed was the cigar in his mouth," Davila wrote in a column a few days after the incident. "How odd, I thought, he still has the damn cigar in his mouth. He was looking up at the sky, one eye blown away and flies covering his face. Not even Hollywood could think of a better ending."
Dereszewski said few people were aware of what was really happening on Knickerbocker before Galante’s assassination. The neighborhood was shaken up a bit, but he said he was more upset over restaurant owner’s death than anything else.
"There was a general feeling throughout the community that Galante was a really nasty guy and got what he deserved," Dereszewski said. "It’s too bad that Joe had to get caught in that mess though, he was a hard-working guy and that was one of the few restaurants I liked in Bushwick."
By the time of his death, Galante had accumulated a long list of enemies. When asked about the risk of assassination, he boldly replied, "No one will ever kill me, they wouldn’t dare." In the end, Bruno Indelicato was the only gunman convicted for killing Galante because his palm print was found on the getaway car.
Galante’s legacy would leave Bushwick in shambles, drowning the neighborhood in the crime that comes with large scale drug trafficking. Most Italians moved out of the area as newer immigrants like Dominicans and Puerto Ricans inherited the local drug market. By the mid-1980s, Knickerbocker Avenue became known as "The Well" for the seemingly bottomless supply of drugs available there, and addicts crowded the streets around the park that would in time bear the name of the murdered anti-drug campaigner María Hernández.
Though Galante was known as "The Cigar" throughout his lifetime, he will go down in local history as the grandfather of "The Well" — his former home base is, to this day, still recovering from his tumultuous presence.
Adam Schwartz contributed to the research for this article.
Bringing Down the Mob: The War Against the American Mafia, by Thomas Reppetto
A Drug Ran Its Course, Then Hid With Its Users