Big Billy said no thank you.
“I didn’t want to put a target on my back,” D’Elia said by way of explanation.
It was the smart move. But then D’Elia was nothing if not smart. By that point, he had been schooled for more than 30 years in the ways of the underworld by one of the masters of that universe. It was an apprenticeship like no other and he came away much the wiser.
D’Elia has now put it all on the record in an intriguing and entertaining new book written by journalist Matt Birkbeck.
The Life We Chose comes out this month. It’s the story of D’Elia’s coming of age in an underworld that was coming undone. The situation in Philadelphia in the 1990s was a prime example and it was captured perfectly in one of the most succinct and telling lines written by Birkbeck… D’Elia watched the murder and mayhem that racked the Philadelphia crime family for years and that reached a crescendo during the war between old-world mob boss Stanfa and the young and precocious Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino.
D’Elia’s thoughts, according to Birkbeck: “The propensity for violence there reminded him of spoiled children with guns.”
But that’s getting ahead of the story.
The Life We Chose is as much about D’Elia’s mentor, the late Russell Bufalino, as it is about D’Elia. Operating out of the Scranton-Wilkes Barre area, Bufalino was a major, but often underrated, mob boss who traveled in the highest circles of the American Cosa Nostra.
The mob’s foray into Cuba in the 1950s, the infamous Apalachin meeting (Bufalino was one of the organizers), the clash with Fidel Castro, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the CIA and the mob, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, the making of The Godfather movie (Bufalino coached Marlon Brando and helped smooth away opposition from Joe Colombo’s Italian-American Civil Rights League) all are part of Bufalino’s curriculum vitae.
The book describes Bufalino as “arguably the most powerful and important organized crime figure of the twentieth century” and backs that claim up with back-handed testimonials from some of the period’s top crime busters.
Robert F. Kennedy, while serving as counsel to a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating organized crime (Bufalino t ook the fifth dozens of times and refused to answer any questions at a committee hearing) would describe Bufalino as “one of the most ruthless and powerful leaders of the Mafia in the United States.”
Kennedy called Bufalino a “very important figure” who had “made the arrangements and appointments for the meeting at Apalachin” and had “great contacts throughout the United States and the underworld.”
Big Billy D’Elia maintained many of those contacts as he rose up the underworld ladder. He started out as a “gofer” and driver for the much older Bufalino who eventually began to introduce him as “my boy.” Later it would be “my son.”
Bufalino and his wife were childless. D’Elia was estranged from his own father. The father-son relationship between them solidified D’Elia’s standing in the mob and offered him a chance to be an eyewitness to American underworld history.
And in that respect, The Life We Chose is a one-of-a-kind historical document.
D’Elia’s role as Bufalino’s heir apparent and successor takes up the second half of the book and provides a snapshot of Cosa Nostra’s demise. He was, in many ways, a throwback. An expediter and fixer, he embraced the role of Mafia problem solver, adopting the old school “make money, not headlines” philosophy as he traveled around the country wheeling and dealing.
Entertainers like Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra, pop stars like Fabio and movers and shakers like Donald Trump and Roy Cohn make appearances as the story unfolds. Violence, from D’Elia’s perspective, was a negotiating tool of last resort that often created more problems than it solved.
The hit on Jimmy Hoffa was a prime example. And D’Elia got a clear view of the repercussions that in many ways marked the beginning of the end of the American Mafia. The high-profile elimination of the erstwhile Teamster boss remains one of the great unsolved underworld murders.
But if Hoffa had just listened to Bufalino, it never would have happened.
D’Elia was on hand when Bufalino tried to convince Hoffa to back down, to give up his attempt to reassert himself as boss of the union after a stint in prison. They met at a bar in South Philadelphia along with then mob boss Angelo Bruno.
D’Elia said Bufalino tried to convince Hoffa to walk away.
“He says, ‘Jimmy, you have to stop this. There are some people who don’t want you to do nothin’. You have to watch your back,’” D’Elia explained in the book. “Jimmy isn’t having any of it, so Russell says, ‘We’ll give you a local, you’ll make three hundred thousand a year, you have your pension. Go relax and play with your grandkids.’”
It was an offer Hoffa refused.
And that led to his “disappearance.”
D’Elia, like many other underworld figures, puts the lie to the notion that Frank Sheeran, a long-time Hoffa ally and Bufalino associate, was the one who shot and killed Hoffa. He calls Sheeran’s account of the Hoffa murder “fiction” and relates a story of how he and Bufalino were with Sheeran at a meeting at Vesuvio’s in New York shortly after Hoffa went missing.
Sheeran, D’Elia said, was brought to meet with Fat Tony Salerno and Tony Provenzano, two Genovese crime family leaders who were behind the Hoffa hit.
“They wanted to meet with Frank to make sure that he doesn’t come after them for Hoffa,” D’Elia said. “They knew Frank was very close to Hoffa and was very angry, and that he knew that they were behind it and was going to kill them.”
Under pressure from Bufalino, D’Elia said, Sheeran agreed not to seek revenge. Later, D’Elia would note, Sheeran began to fabricate stories about the Hoffa hit while trying to promote a book. D’Elia said he read four or five different versions of the ending, including one in which Sheeran blamed CIA-backed Vietnamese hitmen and another in which he said the Nixon administration was behind Hoffa’s disappearance. Sheeran would eventually settle on a version in which he, himself, was the hitman, a version that D’Elia dismissed as “bulls—.”
But then it seems there was a lot of “BS” whenever D’Elia dealt with Philadelphia.
During the bloody Stanfa-Merlino war, D’Elia said he was able to maintain relationships with both factions. He called Stanfa “tough and sincere” and said the Sicilian-born mob boss blamed the media in general (and me in particular) for fomenting the animosity between him and Merlino. (Hundreds of secretly recorded FBI tapes would seem to indicate otherwise.)
D’Elia also had kind words for Merlino.
“I liked his style and the way he acted,” he said. “But his eyes would f—ing burn a hole in you like the devil.”
D’Elia portrayed himself as an intermediary and expediter who would pop in and out of Philadelphia during that turbulent period. He solidified his standing with Stanfa by shaking down a record industry bigwig and sharing the $250,000 take with the Sicilian mob boss, he said.
But violence, not money, seemed to be the driving force in Philadelphia.
“It was like the f—ing wild, wild west,” he said. “Every week I was asked to solve a problem there and I met some sick people.”
One of his biggest problems might have been a contract on his own life that the FBI told him had been put out by Ralph Natale and Merlino after they had taken over the crime family.
D’Elia said he was told the plan was to shoot him as he left The Saloon, a popular South Philadelphia eatery that he frequented.
When he confronted Natale, D’Elia said, Natale denied the allegation.
“Are you crazy?” he said Natale told him “You’re my guy. I love you.”
Love, in Philadelphia, can be fickle.
Natale was soon to become a government witness.
D’Elia eventually became the target of federal and state investigators but like the threats of violence and the wheeling and dealing, being targeted by law enforcement came with the territory.
It was all, he readily acknowledges, part of the life he chose.