Published August 11, 2016
NEW YORK – In a recent conversation with an undercover FBI agent wearing a wire, a reputed mobster from Connecticut named Eugene "Rooster" O'Norfio proclaimed himself the new boss of the "Mulberry Street Crew" in Manhattan's Little Italy.
New Yorkers could be forgiven for responding: Rooster who?
"I didn't even know he existed," said Joseph Scelsa, who has run the Italian American Museum out of a storefront on Mulberry Street for the past eight years.
The obscurity of O'Norfio, the vagueness of the allegations against him contained in a new federal mob indictment and an absence of fear in Little Italy reflect how a tourist destination with its shrinking cluster of Italian restaurants and gift shops has changed since the days when it was the turf of marquee Mafia bosses like John "Dapper Don" Gotti and Vincent "Chin" Gigante.
Though the indictment suggests organized crime still has at least a toehold in the neighborhood, visitors to Mulberry Street would have a far better chance of dropping $400 on designer shoes than spotting a preening gangster.
"The colorful names remain the same. Some of the scams and the shakedowns remain. But the vice grip on businesses and others is not the same as it used to be," said Randy Mastro, an attorney who once served as a mob-busting point man under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
In the 1990s, authorities used electronic surveillance at Gotti's Little Italy headquarters, the Ravenite Social Club on Mulberry Street, to help bring down the mercurial boss of the Gambino crime family. They also removed the stranglehold Gigante's Genovese crime family had on the annual Feast of San Gennaro street festival, where it once ran gambling games, imposed a "mob tax" on vendors and raided donations at a neighborhood church. Both bosses died in federal prison.
Yet, forces far more powerful than the FBI may have had a bigger impact.
The Ravenite is now a boutique for "handcrafted" shoes in a gentrified part of Little Italy that was long ago rebranded as Nolita (North of Little Italy).
Art galleries, brunch spots and upscale clothing stores are steadily encroaching on what remains of the old neighborhood.
But the mob investigations have continued, resulting in an embezzlement conviction in 2000 of a former San Gennaro organizer, testimony at a 2004 trial that another feast leader was a made man, and a 2013 guilty plea by a Genovese capo in a case accusing him of trying to extort the festival.
In the current case, court papers quote O'Norfio recounting how the capo told him, "I want you at the helm" of the Mulberry Street Crew while he was in prison.
The new indictment accuses the 74-year-old O'Norfio, of East Haven, Connecticut, of loansharking, but it doesn't go into specifics. He has pleaded not guilty to racketeering conspiracy charges that also accuse him of being in charge of another crew in Springfield, Massachusetts.
His lawyer, Thomas Nooter, declined to comment.
News coverage of the recent cases has rankled Little Italy boosters.
The nonprofit that runs San Gennaro each September complained in a 2012 letter to The New York Times that the coverage was overblown and "rekindled old, derogatory stereotypes" about Italian-Americans while ignoring the festival's charity work.
The new charges "really disgust me," said Scelsa, whose museum focuses on the accomplishments of Italian-Americans, evidenced by a copy of a platinum record for Billy Joel's "The Stranger" perched in the front window. He believes the case represents an invisible vestige of a bygone era when the so-called Black Hand extortion racket terrorized the neighborhood.
"I wouldn't have opened up on Mulberry Street if I thought it was still there," he said.
Still, today's organized crime networks need to be seen as "a struggling business that's trying to survive by diversifying," said James Walden, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, citing the credit card and health care fraud charges in the indictment.
Mastro cautioned that even with the modern serenity of Mulberry Street, law enforcement must stay vigilant."Trying to eliminate La Cosa Nostra," he said, "is like trying to kill a vampire."