When Goodfellas grow old
It is always about the score.
When they were much younger men, the scores were always bigger in scope, the plans worked out months in advance, the steps repeated over and over until any potential for human error was eliminated. In 1980, when they were at the top of their game, Jerry “The Monk” Scalise and Arthur “The Genius” Rachel stole the 45-carat Marlborough diamond out of a London jewelry store in the light of day. They were eventually caught and convicted, but the boldness of the heist still is remembered.
Last week, 30 years later, the old fellas were at it again, this time at work on their Chicago turf. They had devoted many months to two large-scale heists. One involved an armored car; the other centered on the home invasion of Angelo “The Hook” LaPietra, their now dead former mob boss. They were joined in the planning of the jobs by Robert “Bobby” Pullia.
They studied the ins and outs of that armored car heist as if they were prepping for the Law Boards, the lift set for a Thursday morning when the truck always stopped for a cash pick-up outside of a bank in suburban La Grange. The second job, the home break-in, was to take place in Bridgeport, where the old hoods believed their former capo had several million stashed somewhere inside the well-fortified house now occupied by a lone female. The two jobs, if successful, would set them up for the rest of their days.
They worked their plan with patience and care, listening to the cops on scanners, switching cars and driving slow and then fast just to see if they were being tailed. It was a job right out of the movie “Heat,” which was directed by the great Michael Mann. Not surprising then is the fact that Scalise, now 73, had been hired by Mann to work as a technical consultant on “Public Enemies,” last year’s movie about legendary bank robber John Dillinger (portrayed by Johnny Depp). In his glory days, Scalise was a top-tier getaway driver, taking to the job because he didn’t want to risk being spotted inside a bank due to a deformed hand which could easily be ID’d by witnesses. This led him to acquire another nickname (they do love their nicknames), “The General,” since he often kept the hand buried inside a shirt, much like Napoleon.
If you rent the DVD of “Public Enemies” and watch the special features, you will see and hear Scalise part with some of the skill and expertise he often used to rob banks and jewelry stores of their cash and wares. He comes across as smart, savvy, relaxed, comfortable with who he is and what he has spent most of his life doing. And he never claims to be a saint. He is pure hood all the way.
So now they sit where they have sat for so many times over so many years–held without bond, in a cell, waiting for a detention hearing. Scalise, 73. Rachel, 71. Pullia, 69. FBI mob expert James Wagner said after their arrest last week, “These guys don’t have a pension. No matter how old they are, they’re still very dangerous.”
The FBI was on them from the start. Young fellas, middle-age fellas, old fellas, the habits and the MO’s stay the same. They tracked them until the old crew were ready to make their move and then swooped in and slammed on the cuffs. And while they have them in custody, the feds are also looking into their role in a 2007 robbery of another bank in La Grange. They have a getaway car and they have Scalise’s DNA splashed all over that car (DNA was not something Mr. Dillinger had to concern himself with; his problems were wrapped around a love of women and movies). Now, given the various charges pending against the Golden Boys, they could well spend the rest of their lives behind prison bars, eating their meals off trays.
Scalise has himself a pretty sharp lawyer, but it’s going to take more than smooth talk and a shake ‘n’ bake of the evidence to clear the trio. Their hour-glass may have finally run out.
I doubt these old men would want it any other way. They are career criminals, old school. They are not going to mug an old woman on a subway or toss a guy for his wallet and a paycheck he needs to feed his family. They may be ruthless and cold-blooded and they are indeed thieves but they hit the places where the scores are and they do their best to walk away from a job free of blood with pockets crammed with cash and jewels. In no way do I condone what they do, but if we are to have crime in our midst and we always have and will, I would prefer, as a great cop once told me, to have it be organized crime rather than disorganized crime.
On Easter Sunday, in Times Square in New York City, four people were wounded for no reason other than rival gang members were bored. In New Orleans over the weekend, seven people were shot and wounded because of a gang dispute. These thugs are criminals, too, they just don’t belong in the same cell block as Scalise, Rachel and Pullia.
Perhaps I come at this from a skewered perspective. I am the son of an ex-con. I grew up in the company of many men who served prison time or as they referred to it as “my college years.” They would tell stories of the hoods of their youth, from the street genius of Bumpy Johnson to the devotion and skill bank robber Willie Sutton brought to a job in place of a gun. They talked of famous shoot-outs they had either witnessed as young men or heard about through prison bar talk, including the all-night Upper West Side stand of “Two-Gun” Crawley which later became the basis for the classic James Cagney/Humphrey Bogart movie, “Angels with Dirty Faces.” They showed me the spot on 8th Avenue in the 20s, where, inside a shuttered phone booth, the short, violent reign of Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll was brought to an end, over 100 machine gun bullets sealing his deal. And I was often told the story of the set-up job done on Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, tossed out of his sixth floor room at the Half-Moon Hotel the night before he was to testify at a mob trial, a handful of police officers stationed outside the door. Many of these storytellers (my father included) worked the West Side docks, just a few short streets away, on cargo ships, in the hole of the ”Pistol Piers” run by ”Tough Tony” Anastasia, whose brother Albert helped form the notorious Murder, Inc.
These and dozens of other such stories were a part of my childhood, heard sitting around a tenement stoop on long, hot summer nights, johnny pumps open to full throttle, streets filled with people trying to catch a breeze and a break from the heat. Pulling a cold one from a nearby cooler or taking a long drink of home made wine from a jug, they would spin yarns well into the coolness of the early morning. Those nights–Italian music playing from someone’s radio, our mothers huddled around garden chairs sharing the latest in neighborhood gossip, and me and my friends sittings next to gruff men who had survived tough times on hard streets–are ones I will always cherish and hold close.
So, while I don’t appreciate the actions of “The Monk,” “The Genius” or “Bobby,” I understand who they are and why they tried to do what they attempted to do.
They are gangsters from a school whose doors have long been shutttered.
They are the last of a dying breed.
Somewhere, in some bar, in some city, late on a quiet night, many an old timer will raise a final toast their way.