The Bonanno Family

Joseph Bonanno, also known as Joe Bananas, died in 2002 at the ripe old age of ninety-seven in the dry sunny climes of Arizona. He was the first Mafia don to violate the sacred code of Omerta. The way he did it was a little different than the so-called “rats” who sang for the feds. He never testified to any grand jury or prosecutors. Rather, he wrote a memoir, detailing his life as a mob boss. But since he wasn't that active after his move to Tucson, much of what he wrote about was ancient history. But his recollections of Commission meetings gave the then U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani the idea to use Joe Bananas's memoirs to try and get the aging don to talk under oath. Joe refused and spent a year in jail for contempt. Sometimes “wise guys” are not very smart. Ego has been the downfall of more than one Mafia don.

Courtesy of AP Images

Joe Bonanno leaves a courtroom in San Jose, Calif. in this Jan. 13, 1981, file photo. When Bonanno, then eighty, retired and living in Arizona, was summoned in 1985 to testify at a federal prosecution, his lawyer William Kunstler said his client was definitely too ill to take the witness stand. The stress of testifying, Kunstler insisted, was too much for the octogenarian mobster. Bonanno died at the ripe old age of ninety-seven. Kun-stler had died seven years earlier at seventy-six.

Leading the Family

It was a small family, but Bonanno ran a tight ship. His was a presence that commanded respect. He was a natural leader of men, one of many Mafiosi who could probably have done much good in the world with their people skills had they been inclined toward the straight and narrow.

Though a long-respected Mafia family, the Bonannos were actually dropped from the Mafia Commission for a time due to their drug activities. Ironically, when the Commission met in the late 1990s, the Bonan-nos were the only ones with a boss who was not imprisoned.

Joe Bonanno ascended to power in 1931. The twenty-six-year-old Bonanno, handpicked by Lucky Luciano himself, was the youngest man ever to become head of a family. Bonanno made alliances with more powerful dons. He made his family's fortune through gambling, loansharking, and eventually drugs.

Though he kept a low profile and tried to steer clear of the troubles that plagued the other mob families, in the 1960s, Joe Bananas was fed up with the Gambino and Lucchese families. He plotted, with mob boss Joe Magliocco, to have the leaders of the other two families, as well as Joe's cousin, Buffalo boss Stefano Magaddino, taken out.

Gay Talese's book Honor Thy Father is an insider's look at the Bonanno family in the 1960s. It was written in cooperation with the Bonannos themselves, so the other four families had a beef with the way they were depicted in the book.

But to Bonanno's chagrin, one of the hit men assigned to the task, Joe Colombo, switched allegiances and spilled the beans to the opposition. The Commission summoned Bonanno and Magliocco to appear, but Bonanno refused and went into hiding. Magliocco was let off with a fine, but Bonanno was dethroned by the Commission and replaced by Gaspar DiGregorio.

After the Commission basically took control of his family, Bonanno vanished. After his surprise reappearance a number of months later, he said he was kidnapped by the Buffalo family, but skeptics thought that he was just avoiding a subpoena to appear before a grand jury, as well as any attempts on his life.

Going Bananas

Joe Bonanno emerged from his mysterious disappearance after nineteen months. He declined to say where he had been. Some believe he had been a prisoner of the Commission. It is thought likely that he was set free on the condition he would leave the crime scene quietly and permanently. He did no such thing. The Banana War, as the local news media liked to call it, was on. The Commission had replaced Gaspar DiGregorio with a hood named Paul Sciacca after DiGregorio botched a hit on young Bill Bonanno, son of Joseph Bonanno, and his boys. Sciacca's team was no match for the Bonannos. Nevertheless, the war went on for years during the 1960s. Bonanno suffered a heart attack and headed for Arizona and retirement. The Banana War ground to a halt, and Sciacca took control of Bonanno's Brooklyn rackets.


Brutal narcotics trafficker Carmine Galante took the reins of the Bonanno family. Galante was tough and fearless and more than a little sadistic. He was universally unpopular with the mobsters from all five families. The Commission had wanted Bonanno out of power so they could better control the unruly family, and in Carmine Galante they had a far worse and more reckless and violent loose cannon. There was a meeting of the Commission as well as Galante associates like Tampa boss Santo Trafficante Jr. They decided that Galante had to go. Carmine was gunned down at Joe and Mary's Italian Restaurant in Brooklyn. Though he fell to the ground after being shot, his cigar never even fell out of his mouth.

Galante was replaced by Rusty Rastelli, who returned to the role after an absence of many years. He brought the family into the video pornography business and an expanded role in drug trafficking that pushed the family to the brink of oblivion. Rastelli went to prison, where he died in 1991. He was replaced by Joseph Massino, who rebuilt the family to the third most powerful in New York. But after a series of successful prosecutions and the turning of Massino himself, the family was battered — but not totally down.

Under the don-ship of Rusty Rastelli, the events that formed the basis for the Mafia movie Donnie Brasco occurred. FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone infiltrated the family, lived the lifestyle, became friends with Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano and Benjamin “Lefty Guns” Ruggiero, and then betrayed them, sending several family members to jail and prompting the “disappearance” of Napolitano in the 1970s.

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