How Do You Become the “Acting” Head of a Crime Family?

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April 26 2012 6:16 PM

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How do you become the “acting” head of a crime family?

Mobster Anthony DiNunzio was arrested yesterday.
Mobster Anthony DiNunzio was arrested Wednesday.

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Boston mafioso Anthony Dinunzio was arrested for extortion and racketeering on Wednesday. Law-enforcement authorities referred to Dinunzio in the indictment as the “acting boss” of the New England La Cosa Nostra. What does it mean to be an “acting” mob boss?

The real boss is working from prison, usually. The head of a crime family can maintain his position after getting pinched by the feds, provided he still has strong support from his underlings and can participate in major decisions from his cell. The rank-and-file mafiosi wouldn’t explicitly refer to his temporary replacement as “acting boss,” as police and prosecutors do, but they know the new head is only a caretaker, managing day-to-day operations until the boss returns. An acting head might eventually seize permanent control by promoting his own loyalists to important jobs like underboss (second-in-command), consigliere (chief adviser), or caporegime (unit captain). He could also convince the old boss’s supporters to change allegiance. A quicker, but riskier, route is to kill off the holdovers from the last regime. Sometimes, the jailed boss ends his own reign by collaborating with law enforcement.

Prosecutors won’t say why they believe that Dinunzio is merely the acting boss of the New England La Cosa Nostra. The prior boss, according to mob observers, was Peter Limone, aka “Chief Crazy Horse” or “The Camera Guy.” Limone has a colorful history. He was convicted for a 1968 murder that he didn’t commit and spent 33 years in prison. Despite receiving a $26 million payout from the government for the wrongful incarceration, he is said to have immediately resumed his mob activities and later taken the helm of the crime family. After pleading no contest to extortion and other charges in 2010, Limone didn’t do any time, but the judge ordered him to stay away from his old Mafia buddies. Anthony Dinunzio may be considered an acting boss on account of that order, which was intended to keep Limone from doing the job. It's worth noting that Limone’s name is curiously absent from Dinunzio’s indictment, even though prosecutors repeatedly mention Limone’s predecessor, Louis Manocchio, aka “Baby Shacks,” “The Professor,” or “The Old Man.” (Read an Explainer from 2005 on how mobsters get their nicknames.)

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There are a couple of other possible explanations for Dinunzio's "acting" status. In the mafia’s heyday, at least, the would-be heads of local branches had to seek the blessing of more powerful leaders in New York. Despite several decades of contraction, New York remains the epicenter of mob authority. According to the federal indictment, Dinunzio tried to curry favor with Big Apple mafiosi after Limone was sidelined. It's possible the power players in New York were unimpressed and failed to support him for permanent leadership.

It could also be that Dinunzio’s temporary title was merely a ruse. Mob bosses sometimes want police and prosecutors to think they’re just caretakers, because they believe it makes them less appealing targets for wiretapping or surveillance. His title notwithstanding, it’s pretty clear that Dinunzio considered himself the permanent head of the family. According to the indictment, he told an emissary from the Gambinos in December, “If I go to the can, I’m still the boss ... No matter what.”

The hazy leadership situation in the New England family over the last several years is another reminder that, for all their organizational know-how, organized crime families haven’t yet figured out how to ensure a tidy transfer of power. When legendary gangster Carlo Gambino died, many high-ranking members of his crime family opposed his hand-picked successor, Paul Castellano. Castellano ruled the family for a few rocky years, but eventually John Gotti gathered support among the mafiosi and assassinated the unpopular don. Newly anointed mob bosses in Sicily also regularly face challenges to their power both from within the organization and from outsiders.

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Explainer thanks Rick Porrello, author of Kill the Irishman.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.