nvestigators tie the murder of a hitman with a rusty Lincoln to a racketeering enterprise that also included extortion, loansharking, drug trafficking, and money laundering.
Jimmy the Jew.
Paulie Roast Beef.
The colorful nicknames jump from the list of 19 members and associates of the Lucchese crime family charged with racketeering in Superseding Indictment 17 Cr. 89, unsealed this week in Westchester federal court.
But the late, great Sgt. Joe Coffey, longtime head of the NYPD Organized Crime Homicide Task Force, had another name for all such gangsters.
“Vermin,” Coffey would say.
One of the many times Coffey used this term was back in November of 2013, following the murder that is at the center of the indictment. The victim was Michael Meldish, who with his brother Joseph once headed the murderous Purple Gang, named after a Depression-era Detroit outfit. Some have called his killing New York’s last bonafide Mafia hit.
If true, that may have been only fitting, for, by Coffey’s count, the Meldish brothers committed as many as 100 killings between them. Joseph Meldish was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in state prison in 2011 for striding into a Bronx bar in a black mask and executing a man who turned out not to be his intended target.
The police felt certain that Michael Meldish committed numerous murders of his own, but Coffey retired without being able to make a case against him.
“Michael was a stone-cold killer,” Coffey once told the New York Daily News. “We couldn’t get any witnesses. They had the people so terrified they just wouldn’t cooperate.”
On the night of November 15, 2013, a woman driving with her daughter on Ellsworth Avenue in the Bronx saw a parked Lincoln whose driver’s door was partly open. A man’s leg was extended toward the street as if he may have suffered a heart attack or been overcome with drink as he was trying to step out. The woman was preparing to offer assistance when she saw that he had a gunshot wound to the head and that blood was streaming from both his ears.
Police responded. Word soon reached Coffey in his retirement that what he would call “poetic justice” had caught up with 62-year-old Michael Meldish. Coffey had no doubt Meldish had been the victim of a gangland hit.
“Vermin killing vermin,” Coffee said.
What was remarkable about this particular hit was that it had happened at all. Such killings had once been routine, but the Mafia world had changed with the advent of the RICO statute and increasingly sophisticated surveillance and an ever-growing parade of ever more prominent rats. The Lucchese family’s first significant rat was associate Henry Hill of “Goodfellas” fame, followed by two acting bosses, an underboss, two captains and six soldiers.
The changing times were in keeping with one detail about Meldish’s car. Meldish had a mob-standard Lincoln sedan, but it had rust spots like he was some kind of working stiff.
By all accounts, Meldish had continued to comport himself like he was a bigtime hitman. That had certainly seemed to work for him back in the days when it was good to be a very bad guy.
“Some of the mob guys were afraid of them,” Coffey said of the Meldish brothers. “That’s how bad they were.”
But somebody had clearly wearied of Michael Meldish in these changing times, and he no longer had his brother around. Investigators spent 17 months after his murder piecing together DNA and cellphone records and license plate reader data and other evidence in an effort to determine who that somebody might be.
On May of 2015, the investigators arrested alleged Lucchese member Christopher Londonio and alleged Lucchese associate Terrance “T” Caldwell for the Meldish murder. Nobody imagined that the two were acting on their own. The investigators pressed on, seeking to establish that the killing was part of a larger racketeering enterprise that involved not only murder, but also robbery, extortion, loansharking, assault, witness intimidation, drug trafficking, money laundering, and gambling.
The result was the racketeering indictment that — along with Londonio and Caldwell — included the likes of Steven “Wonder Boy” Crea, Jr., Paul “Paulie Roast Beef” Cassano, James “Jimmy the Jew” Maffucci, and Joseph Datello, known variously as “Joey Glasses” and “Big Joe.”
There was also Matthew “Matty” Madonna, said to have risen to prominence in the heroin world after the French Connection bust and to have regularly supplied drug lord Nicky “Mr. Untouchable” Barnes. Madonna is now allegedly the street boss of the Lucchese family.
“Madonna managed the affairs so the family on behalf of the formal boss, who Is serving a life sentence in federal prison for murder, among other crimes,” the indictment says, the imprisoned boss being Vittorio “Vic” Amuso.
A hint of a possible motive for the Meldish killing comes as the indictment alleges that the killers carried out the hit “as consideration for the receipt of, and as consideration for a promise and agreement to pay, a thing of pecuniary value from La Cosa Nostra, and the purpose of gaining entrance to and maintaining increasing position in La Cosa Nostra.”
In other words, a Mafia contract.
The indictment also suggests that the Meldish killing might not have been the last bonafide Mafia hit had those now under indictment not been nabbed. The defendants are also charged with “the attempted murder of in or about October 2016 of a former witness against certain members of the Enterprise.”
Joey Glasses is said to have traveled to New Hampshire “to find, assault and kill [a witness] in retaliation for the decision by [the witness] to provide information to law enforcement.”
That sounds like a Sopranos episode, only it was real. And it was just eight months ago.
Meanwhile, retired Sgt. Coffey died from a heart ailment in October of 2015, six months after the first arrests in the hit he described as “vermin killing vermin.”
Were he still around, Coffey would no doubt welcome the news of this week’s arrests.
But he would also no doubt caution us that when it comes to vermin – no matter how colorful the nicknames — you can never be sure you have gotten rid of them.
Unless you stay vigilant, they are liable to reappear just when you are ready to say they are gone for good.