Tuesday, August 25, 2009

My On Crime & Security Column: Preventing Embezzlement and Other Economic Crimes

The web site Businessknowhow.com posted my On Crime & Security column today.

The column covered preventing embezzlement and other economic crimes.

Below is the link is to my column.


Friday, August 21, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: The Philly Mob Files: Mobsters, Molls and Murder

In 1976 The Philadelphia Inquirer sent reporter George Anastasia (seen in the below photo) to Atlantic City to cover the beginning of the casino gambling era in the state. In addition to reporting on what he calls the “unique form of urban renewal” brought about by the building of casinos in an economically depressed city, Anastasia was also told to keep an eye on the Philadelphia mob.

The debate in Atlantic City prior to the approved referendum over casinos included the fear that legalized gambling would bring in organized crime. But, as Anastasia notes in his book, Mob Files: Mobsters, Molls and Murder (Camino Books), the mob was already there.

Anastasia, a veteran crime reporter and author of several good books on organized crime, such as Blood and Honor and The Last Gangster, has complied some of his best and most interesting newspaper and magazine pieces on the mob in this book.
The grandson of Sicilian immigrants who settled in South Philadelphia, Anastasia began to cover Philly's Cosa Nostra crime family more and more after the 1980 shooting death of Philly mob boss Angelo Bruno.

Bruno (seen in the below photo) ran a quiet, highly efficient organization that controlled crime in Philadelphia and South Jersey. Bruno's murder set off a mob war that left bodies in the street and grabbed public attention. Anastasia writes that Bruno's death was a seminal event in the demise of the Philadelphia crime family.
The mob became Anastasia's "beat" in the 1990's. He tells a remarkable story about a mob guy who complained to a young woman who worked with the reporter. The complaint was that Anastasia always took the government's side in his reporting. Anastasia told the woman to heave the mob guy call him.

He did.

Anastasia began juxtaposing the comments of an "underworld source" alongside those of law enforcement in his pieces. The mob guy loved it and more mobsters started calling, including Joey Merlino, who rose to be the reputed underboss of the mob.

The mob guys after Bruno were not like Mafioso of old, who kept low profiles befitting members of a secret criminal society. Anastasia reports that the new breed were South Philly "corner boys." They were third-generation Italian-American, the sons and nephews of the previous generation of mobsters. They were loyal to each other but not to a centuries-old tradition of crime.

They were media-savvy and they liked the publicity. When Merlino (seen in the below photo) was asked by a journalist about a reported $500,000 contract out on his life, Merlino shrugged and said "Give me the half-million and I'll shoot myself."
I'm part Italian and a former corner boy raised in South Philly a decade ahead of most of these new mob guys. I can attest that very few Italian-Americans are involved in organized crime, but I believe that Anastasia's coverage of those who are, is first-rate.

His mob stories are brutal, tragic and funny. They read like Philly's equivalent to the New York hoods in Martin Scorsese's great crime film Goodfellas.     

"Goodfellas don't sue Goodfellas," a mob diplomat informed a mob associate and potential litigant in a business dispute with another mob-connected businessman over garbage collection. "Goodfellas kill Goodfellas," he added succinctly.

This was one of the more interesting quotes from the FBI tapes of the Philadelphia-South Jersey Cosa Nostra crime family members, who were speaking in what they believed was a bug-free zone. This conversation, and many more like it, was reported by Anastasia in the Philadelphia Inquirer and repeated in Mob Files. 

Believing the FBI could not plant microphones in a lawyer's office, the Philadelphia-South Jersey crime family under the leadership of John Stanfa (seen in the below photo), freely discussed mob business with each other in their attorney's office. But the FBI legally wiretapped the bent lawyer's office, and the wiretapping produced more than a hundred secretly recorded conversations from October 1991 to September 1993.
The attorney, who took the name "criminal attorney" a step too far, was indicted, along with Stanfa and other mob guys. They were prosecuted based on the tapes as well as the testimony of several mob guys who became federal witnesses.  

“You can’t argue with tapes,” one mob guy told Anastasia.

In his book, Anastasia recalls speaking with his editor about writing an Inquirer story at about the same time the Inquirer was competing with the rival but now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin.

“We zig when everyone zags,” the editor told him.    

The idea was to find a different way, a more entertaining and readable way, to tell the same story everyone else was telling, Anastasia said. It was more about quality and sophistication, and it included assuming the readers had the wit an intelligence to get it, to appreciate it, and eventually, to come and expect it.

“Organized crime is a great topic for that approach,” Anastasia wrote in Mob Files. “The stories are rich in detail. The characters are full-bodied. I came away again and again shaking my head and mumbling about my good fortune. You can’t make this stuff up any better than it is.”

Anastasia writes that the Philadelphia branch of Cosa Nostra is the most dysfunctional mob family in America. He notes that there have been six mob bosses since he started writing about organized crime: Angelo Bruno, Phil Testa, Nicky Scarfo (seen in the below photo), John Stanfa, Ralph Natale and Joey Merlino. (There are now seven, counting Joseph Ligambi, who reputedly became boss after Merlino was sent to prison).
Anastasia writes that Bruno and Testa were killed and Scarfo, Stanfa, Merlino and Natale are in prison. Natale (seen in the below photo), however, is in the protected witness wing. Natale has the dubious honor of being the first sitting boss to turn on his own organization. It was an odd situation, in which the mob boss was given a deal to turn on his underboss, Merlino.
Anastasia notes that the Philly mob has more cooperators per capita than any other mob family in the country.

“Omerta is like the famous Liberty Bell,” Anastasia wrote. “Cracked and inoperable.”

Anastasia interviewed mob guy’s wives, girlfriends and female accomplices who are or were attracted to the life-style, the money and the notoriety of the mob world.

“Forget the movies,” the wife of an imprisoned mob underboss told Anastasia. “Forget the glamour and the hype.”

She told the reporter that mob life is no way to live, as you will inevitably end up in one of two places, jail or the cemetery.

Anastasia also tells the story of a young couple who were indistinguishable from other young couples in the mid-1990’s, yet this mob hitman and his former go-go dancer wife were involved in the bloody power struggle that left bodies strewn across South Philadelphia.

The couple, who are now in the witness protection program, told the reporter an incredible story. The hitman confessed to being involved in a number of mob murder conspiracies and to being the trigger man in the murder of a rival of then-mob boss John Stanfa.

Although she was not formally charged, authorities say the wife was implicated in a bizarre plot to poison Stanfa’s rivals by placing cyanide in the drinks of the mob guys as they partied at Philly nightclubs. Like many of the mob’s outlandish plots, this one was never carried out.

Anastasia also wrote about plots and counterplots as the young South Philly corner boys took on the Sicilian-born Stanfa.

“They included ambushes that fizzled, car bombs that failed to go off, drive-by shootings that missed their targets and one-point-blank shotgun assassination attempt that was botched when the weapon failed to discharge,” Anastasia wrote in the book.

“Some of this is so crazy it would be funny if people weren’t getting killed,” Anastasia quotes then-Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Richard Zappile.

Anastasia had access to the many hours of federal recordings of mob guys as they discussed crime, tradition and philosophy. The conversions shine a light on the thinking and actions of organized crime members.

Cosa Nostra is a beautiful way of life if we respect it,” a mob philosopher said to another mob guy as the FBI listened in and recorded the conversation. “The way it’s supposed to be, it’s not an instrument to only make money.”

Yet, as Anastasia noted in his book, making money was the dominate topic of conversation heard in the many FBI-recorded conversations.

Anastasia wrote that the mob’s demise was due to its indiscriminate use of violence and lack of self-discipline, a lack of leadership, a loss of “family values,” narcotics and the sophisticated an coordinated investigations of the mob by federal, state and local law enforcement.

If you’re interested in organized crime, Mob Files is a book you should have on your shelf.

Note: The above column originally appeared at GreatHistory.com in 2009.       

Sunday, August 16, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: Black Hawk Down Revisited

A friend told me he has finally seen the film Black Hawk Down on DVD and that he liked the film very much.

I liked the Ridley Scott film as well. I believe it is one of the best war films made in recent times.

The 2001 film, based on Mark Bowden’s book of the same title, portrays American soldiers at their best, despite overwhelming odds, during the 1993 mission to capture key lieutenants to the top warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Bowden, then a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, first serialized the story in the newspaper. Bowden tells the dramatic story of what he calls the biggest single gunfight since the Vietnam War.

“The battle in Mogadishu was a 15-hour-long gunfight pitting 120 American soldiers against thousands of Somali irregulars,” Bowden wrote in response to a question asked on the newspaper’s website.

The Philadelphia Inquirer still has the series and additional material on their web page at http://inquirer.philly.com/packages/somalia.

After interviewing the father of a soldier who died in Somali, Bowden became interested in the battle. He was later surprised to learn that there was so little coverage of the amazing battle.

Although he did not have a military background and he was not a seasoned military journalist, he set out to report on the battle.

He said his first interviews were with Rangers from Fort Benning and pilots from Fort Campbell. As many of the active duty troops kept in touch with former servicemen, Bowden learned the names and telephone numbers of former servicemen and he interviewed many of them as well.

“Eventually my list of men who had fought that day in Mogadishu was too long for me to keep up,” Bowden stated.

Bowden went on to state that he interviewed more than 70 soldiers and airmen and he also interviewed the brass from General Colin Powell (who was then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) on down. He also read official battle accounts and timelines and he was able to watch videotapes and listen to audiotapes of the battle.

One notable person Bowden did not interview was Lieutenant General William G. Boykin, who was then the commanding officer of Delta Force.

When I interviewed the retired general for Counterterrorism, I asked him why his role had been omitted from the book and film.

“When Mark Bowden was writing that book he started out by writing in The Philadelphia Inquirer. I knew where he was getting his information and at that time everything was still classified,” Boykin told me. “He was getting his information from a former Delta noncommissioned officer who had a personal axe to grind with Captain Mike Steele, who was the Ranger company commander.”

Boykin went on to say that the soldier’s personal vendetta against Captain Steele was quite a problem for him.

“When I realized that he was the one who was providing the information to Mark Bowden, I decided that I would have nothing to do with Bowden’s effort to write this book. Bowden called me. I didn’t talk to him. I had my lawyer and public affairs officer talk to him,” Boykin said.

“He wanted me to help him write the book. Number one, I’m not going to help you, and I don’t want you to indicate that I did help you. And Number two, I do not want to be mentioned in your book. He honored that,” Boykin said. “Mark Bowden later wrote about operations against Pablo Escabar and he liberally used my name and never checked with me or talked to me about how I felt about it.”

I asked the general if he read Black Hawk Down or saw the film and he replied that he hadn’t read the book, but he went to the preview of the film when it was shown to the troops who fought in the battle.

“I thought that the movie was surprisingly accurate,” Boykin said. “But there were a number of things that were not correct, starting in the beginning of the movie when Osmon Atto was smoking cigars and talking.”

In the film the captured Somali is seen smoking a good cigar defiantly and making rude remarks about the cheaper cigar General Harrison, the commanding officer of Task Force Ranger, was smoking as the two were in an interrogation room.

Boykin explained that the captured Somali was the number one financier and closest ally of Adid, the Somali warlord. Without Osmon Atto, Boykin said, Aidid was in serious trouble. Boykin said that they knew that if they captured him they would deal Aidid a severe blow. So they went out and captured him.

“After we captured him, it was not like it was portrayed in the film,” Boykin told me. “There was only one person guarding him and that was Captain Steele himself. There were no discussions with Osmon Atto. There were no cigars being smoked. None of that nonsense. He was scared to death.”

Boykin recounted how he walked in and asked the Somali if he were Osmon Atto and he said yes. Boykin thought that Atto figured he was going to kill him.

In response to a public comment Atto made earlier about God being on the Somalia side, Boykin told him “Mr. Atto, you underestimated our God.”

“That was the entire discussion,” Boykin said. “So none of that stuff in the movie was true.”

I told General Boykin that I liked actor Sam Shepard’s portrayal as General Garrison. Did he nail the general?
Boykin said that Shepard was close, although there is no other General Garrison.

“Garrison is a great American and sadly, he took the fall for the whole thing,” Boykin said.

I mentioned that Mark Bowden has written other books about Delta Force and that General Boykin was mentioned in those books.

“Bowden obviously has some pretty good sources there that are giving him some very detailed information,” Boykin said. “When he wrote Killing Pablo he has some direct quotes from conversations I had with people like Ambassador Busby and the commander of the Southern Command at that time, so obviously he talked to them. I think he does a very good job.”

In General Boykin’s memoir Never Surrender: A Soldier's Journey to the Crossroads of Faith and Freedom (FaithWords, Hachette Book Group, USA), he tells of his meeting with the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and their discussion of the battle in Mogadishu.

Rumsfeld questioned why people believed the battle was a U.S. failure, when U.S. troops killed and wounded 1, 100 and lost 18 Americans and 76 were wounded. In my Q & A with the general for the journal I asked him about this conversation.

“It was a great media event and they turned it into a failure rather than acknowledging that we had succeeded in our mission and we had done a lot of damage to the Habr Gidr clan,” General Boykin replied.

“The second thing was we had an administration of neophytes," Bokin said. "Bill Clinton had a bunch of folks in there that had no idea of what that environment was like, the difficulty of the task, and they were totally unprepared to accept any kind of casualties. I blame that administration largely for the perception of failure there. If you are going to commit the military into an environment that is as hostile as that was, then you got to be prepared to deal with the issue of casualties and you got to be sure that it’s worth the cost.”

The perception of failure was also no doubt cast by the television images of slain American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The same was true of the TV scenes of the Viet Cong Tet Offensive in 1968. Although American and South Vietnamese forces quickly defeated the Viet Cong, the TV images of Viet Cong attacks made a great and lasting impression on the American public.

Walter Cronkite, the popular TV news anchor famously declared that the war was lost, although in truth, the resounding defeat of the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive eliminated them as a major fighting force in the following years of the Viet Nam War.

American troops entered Somalia in 1992 to deliver humanitarian aid to a country that Boykin describes as torn by civil war and drought. In his memoir, Boykin explains that U.S. forces landed with 19 other nations as part of Operation Restore Hope, a mission to provide secure distribution of food and relief supplies.

Aidid not only hindered the peace talks between more than a dozen warring factions, his Habr Gidr militia ambushed and killed 24 Pakistani peacekeepers in June 0f 1993. A week later the United Nations issued a warrant for his arrest.

In my view, had the Pentagon given Task Force Ranger the armored vehicles, Spectre gunships and the other equipment they requested, we might not have lost the 18 men to the “Sammies,” which is what our guys called the hostile Somalis.

But Boykin said the Clinton administration did not want to look “provocative.” And although General Colin Powell advocated “overwhelming force” as a military war-fighting philosophy, he allowed Task Force Ranger to go to Africa with a total force of only 450 men.

Yet what those few men did was truly amazing. In Black Hawk Down we were made aware of the bravery and camaraderie of the American Rangers, the Army Delta and Navy SEAL operators, the Air Force parajunpers and the pilots, and for that we should thank author Mark Bowden and film producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Ridley Scott.

We should also be thankful that we have the high caliber of military people like General Boykin and the troops of Task Force Ranger who fought in Mogadishu, as well as the troops who fight today in the ongoing war on terrorism.

Danger Man: A Classic Spy TV Program from the 1960s

A web site dedicated to all things James Bond, http://www.mi6.co.uk/, is offering an interesting piece on one of Bond's competitors, Danger Man.
Danger Man, which aired on TV in the 1960s, starred Patrick McGoohan as secret agent John Drake.

Drake was a cool, tough agent like Bond, but he didn't carry a gun, shoot anyone or seduce women.
I was and am a big fan of the early James Bond films in the 1960s and the Ian Fleming thrillers, but I also liked Danger Man, or Secret Agent, which was what the program was called in the United States.
I like McGoohan's next TV program, The Prisoner, even better. It was a clever, interesting program way ahead of its time.
Sadly, we recently lost Patrick McGoohnan. He was a talented man.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My On Crime & Security Column: A Q & A With PA District Attorney On White Collar And Economic Crimes

Businessknowhow.com, a national web site for small business people, published my On Crime & Security column today.

The column offers my interview with Mike Green, the Delaware County, PA District Attorney.

In the Q&A he alerts business people to the white collar and economic crimes being committed today and he offers some good crime prevention tips.


Thursday, August 6, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: Hemingway On Crime

In Ellery Queen's Book of Mystery Stories, first published under the title The Literature of Crime, the crime stories presented in the collection are written by writers generally not recognized as crime, mystery or thriller writers.

Edited by Ellery Queen, the pseudonym of the writing team of Frederic Dannay and James Yaffe, as well as the name of their fictional detective character, the book offers crime stories by Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson and a dozen other writers.

Included in the collection is a classic crime story by Ernest Hemingway called The Killers. The short story is one of my favorites and it is perhaps Hemingway’s best short story.

“Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers is one of the best known short stories ever written and no volume dedicated to the literature of crime would be complete without it,” the editors wrote in the introduction to the story.

“It is revealing nothing new about Hemingway to point out that essentially he is preoccupied with doom - more specifically, with death. It has been explained this way: ‘The I in Hemingway stories is the man that things are done to’ - and the final thing that is done to him, as to all of us, is death. No story of Hemingway illustrates this fundamental thesis more clearly than The Killers; nor does any story of Hemingway’s illustrate more clearly why he is a legend in his own lifetime. Here, in a few pages, is the justly famous Hemingway dialogue - terse, clipped, the quintessence of realistic speech; here in a few pages, are more than the foreshadowings of the great literary qualities to be found in A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Hemingway covered crime as a young reporter for the Kansas City Star in 1917. The following year he volunteered to be an ambulance driver on the Italian front during World War I after being rejected by the U.S. Army due to poor eyesight.

He was wounded, returned home and he soon after began covering crime and other subjects for The Toronto Star Weekly. Hemingway credited his sparse, tough style of writing to his working for those newspapers with their quick deadlines. By-Line: Ernest Hemingway offers a good collection of his newspaper and magazine pieces.

In his journalism, novels and short stories, Hemingway covered crime, love and war, hunting, fishing and bull-fighting. In addition to The Killers, he wrote other short stories about crime and he also wrote a good, tough crime novel called To Have and Have Not.

Humphrey Bogart portrayed Hemingway’s tough-guy hero, Harry Morgan, in the film version of the novel. Bogart, of course, also portrayed crime fiction’s iconic characters Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

I heard Elmore Leonard, one of our best contemporary crime writers, tell his audience at the Philadelphia Free Library a few months ago that Hemingway had been a main influence on him (although he lamented that Hemingway lacked a sense of humor). Many other crime writers, as well as writers of all stripes, list Hemingway as a major influence. I do as well.

I devoured crime fiction and thrillers as a teenager. I read Ian Fleming, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ed McBain, to name but a few. I also read literary fiction and Hemingway’s novels were a favorite of mine.

After serving two years on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, I was stationed on a Navy tugboat at the U.S. nuclear submarine base in Holy Loch, Scotland for two years. I was in my early 20s then and I discovered Hemingway’s short stories, which I liked even better than his novels. I was pleased that some of them, like The Killers and The Battler were first-rate crime stories.

I traveled throughout the United Kingdom and Europe during those years. I visited Italy, France and Spain, which were the settings for many of Hemingway’s stories. While traveling across Europe I always carried what we called in the Navy an “AWOL” bag. In the small carry-all bag, among my toilet articles and a change or two of clothes, were several Penguin paperbacks books.

I loved those classic orange and white paperbacks and I still have many of them today. I bought and read Penguin’s Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Burgess novels, Mark Twain’s travel books, and many other classic books. I carried several of these paperbacks in my AWOL bag, along with Hemingway’s Penguin paperback short story collections, such as Men Without Women and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. I read and reread these great stories.

Except for his tragic end, Hemingway led what many writers consider the ideal writer’s life. He was successful, wealthy and popular. He had the freedom to travel the world and hunt and fish, drink and talk in bars, and cover what interested him.

Hemingway covered wars, crime, sporting events and other happenings - and then returned home to write about his adventures.

Hemingway truly loved the sea and he lived near the ocean in Key West, Florida and later in Cuba. I visited his home in Key West some years back and I hope to one day visit his home in Cuba once the communists are finally kicked off the island.

Hemingway died by his own hand in 1961, but he lives on with his novels and stories. His family is releasing a newly-edited version of A Moveable Feast and there are two major film productions in the works about his work and his life.

Hemingway is influencing yet a new generation of writers and readers.

“Courage is grace under pressure,” Hemingway once wrote.

He also wrote “A man can be destroyed but not defeated."