When The Mob Gets a Podcast
Brooke Gladstone: Hi, this is Brooke. Welcome to our midweek podcast. True crime represents an unbelievably popular genre in, well, any medium. Books, movies, TV shows, podcasts, they all pull in the audiences by playing to our deepest fears, our most sensational imaginings. The genre also exploits our misconceptions and biases about crime, and some argue can even make them worse? But at its best, true crime can make us an offer we can't refuse, the chance to try and understand a master criminal mind. Rachel Corbett stumbled upon that phenomenon while working on an upcoming book about criminal profiling. The former F.B.I agents she called up, kept talking about these podcasts they were listening to, where the mobsters of a bygone era speak for themselves. Corbett is the author of a recent article in The New Yorker, called Why the F.B.I. Loves Mob Podcasts. As it turns out, they are having quite a moment.
Rachel Corbett: They've all started in the last few years, Sammy the Bull is one of the fan favorites.
Brooke Gladstone: That's Salvatore Gravano, the Gambino family underboss in the late '80s, who you wrote was involved in at least 19 murders during his tenure as John Gotti's enforcer.
Rachel Corbett: Exactly. He was the underboss, which means he was second in line. If anything should have happened to Gotti. He was a hitman, rose his way through the ranks, and he was involved in19 murders, meaning he either executed them personally or he directed them. Now he tells the tales of these crimes and many others from the Phoenix suburbs where he lives to be near his grandkids.
Brooke Gladstone: You wrote, "He spent 17 and a half years at a supermax prison", but he's not still there. He turned on Gotti, right?
Rachel Corbett: Exactly. He flipped on Gotti. Gotti got caught implicating Gravano in a series of murders and family was angry that he wasn't the one who got pinched. Gotti did, but Gotti wanted him to do the time. He flipped and went to the F.B.I and got Gotti put in prison for the rest of his life.
Brooke Gladstone: I wonder why he wasn't afraid to be murdered. Is it because he was with Gotti so long he knew exactly how and when I could come?
Rachel Corbett: There was a hit out for him. There's been several hits out for him, I believe since he ratted on Gotti. It's not like he went scot-free but he was in witness protection for a while. He was safe then, and now I think he feels relatively safe because the guys he was running with at the time are now in their 70s and they're retired. It's really the Russian mob now, apparently, that's taking over. I think they're all grandfathers or there they're gone themselves.
Brooke Gladstone: What's his show like?
Rachel Corbett: He tells war stories basically. He's got this very slow voice and he's, like I said, in the 70s.
Salvatore Gravano: When I think back about my past, I feel like I have lived three lifetimes. I grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I had loving parents, a great family. I was a happy kid.
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Rachel Corbett: He recounts his greatest hits basically, when he ordered the execution of mob boss Paul Castellano, which was, at the time, a huge colossal undertaking, no one killed one of their own bosses.
Brooke Gladstone: Right. He's, he was Gotti's predecessor.
Rachel Corbett: Exactly. Then he tells this case of the DEA agent that was killed by a mafia associate, which was one of the biggest cases in F.B.I history, one of the biggest manhunts in F.B.I history. He just goes through basically, all the crimes he's involved with and is very happy to lay them outplay by play. Sometimes cases that he wasn't involved with, but his associates were, and he just tells it in this very slow, very cinematic way.
It's like watching a gangster movie. He's the real deal. He sounds like a gangster. He talks like a gangster and still is one of course.
Brooke Gladstone: Different stylistically is Jimmy Calandra, who was an enforcer for the Bonanno family, which you say is reportedly the most brutal of the five families who controlled organized crime in New York. His style in his YouTube series is very different.
Rachel Corbett: Yes. He's a lot of airing of old grievances, score settlings, and gripes about people. There's a lot of technical difficulties he's having with using YouTube, which is pretty funny. He's always asking his subscribers to help him out with technical difficulties, but usually, it's a lot of scumbags and losers.
Brooke Gladstone: That's his language is what you're saying or those his guests.
Rachel Corbett: That's his language. That's who he's talking about.
Jimmy Calandra: You are not gentlemen, I could tell you that. No gentlemen, nobody likes you. You got these kids, you got hoody and the other drug addict attacking me, and if they did it to my face, they get dropped kicked in the jaw. I tell you straight out.
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Rachel Corbett: He does a YouTube show. You can see him and he's often in a basement somewhere. He still wears the Adidas tracksuit.
Brooke Gladstone: Sounds more like Wayne's World than Goodfellas.
Rachel Corbett: Yes. It's not very high-tech.
Brooke Gladstone: Yet another style is one you mentioned, an interview show called the Sit Down with Michael Franzese.
Rachel Corbett: It's an interview show. He usually talks to actors who've been in various mobster movies.
Michael Franzese: This is the second edition of Mob Movie Monday, as you know we're alternating Mondays between Mob Movie Monday and Mob Story Monday. Today it's Mob Movie Monday. Today we're going to review Donnie Brasco.
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Rachel Corbett: I think he had the real Donnie Brasco on his show actually, once. He gives tips, mafia lifestyle tips, how to live your best life if you want to join the mob, and business tips. He gives investment tips sometimes. He's a motivational speaker, so he gives general of how-to-be-a-better-leader tips.
Brooke Gladstone: What qualifies him to do this? Does he live in a van down by the river?
Rachel Corbett: I think he's made a lot of money and he's living in Orange County having a pretty good life actually. He's the son of Sonny Franzese, who is a very famous mobster. He was a former capo for the Colombo family. He was pretty high ranking. He was more of a racketeer. Sammy would say he was a gangster, Michael Franzese was a racketeer. He was a big earner for the family.
Brooke Gladstone: Does every one of the five families have a representative in the podcast or media world?
Rachel Corbett: The ones I talked to were two guys from the Gambino, there's a Colombo. I didn't speak to anyone in the Lucchese or the Genovese families, but I would bet you there are. I spoke to maybe four of these guys and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Brooke Gladstone: You mentioned a famous case of the murder of a drug enforcement agency, undercover agent that Sammy the Bull discussed, which was of tremendous interest to an F.B.I agent that you spent some time with for this story. His name is Fitzgerald.
Rachel Corbett: Yes. He worked this case. This case was a huge deal because there was a sort of unspoken rule that the mafia didn't kill members of the F.B.I and the F.B.I didn't kill members of mafia. They didn't kill any federal agent. When this happened, it unleashed the biggest Manhattan, New York history at the time. The feds just cracked down on every aspect of the mafia, their gambling rings, their clubs, and they just really put on all the pressure to try to find this guy who killed one of their own. This just wasn't supposed to happen.
Brooke Gladstone: You mean they went into places and said, "Nice club you got here, it'd be a shame if something happened to it"?
Rachel Corbett: Think more or less. Yes.
Brooke Gladstone: Sammy the Bull said, "It made sense because this number one rule was broken", but then the mobsters and the F.B.I found themselves in a weird position over the death of this guy. Competing to figure out who'd get him first.
Rachel Corbett: Yes. The mafia was really angry that this guy, he wasn't a made guy, he was a low-level drug dealer. He's the one who killed the agent and they were angry because now suddenly all their clubs were raided. The feds were breathing down their back. They wanted to catch this guy too and just get rid of him that way the FBI would leave him alone, they hoped. They were both hunting the guy. The FBI wanted to catch him in order to flip him, put him in jail, maybe get some more information out of him. Mafia didn't want that either, so they just wanted to kill him. In the end, they're the ones who found them first.
Brooke Gladstone: Fitzgerald was very interested in this story as Gravano told it, because there were so many unanswered questions.
Rachel Corbett: Yes. He personally worked this case and of course, it was solved. They knew who killed the undercover agent, but they didn't know anything about him, they didn't know the circumstances. It fizzled, they didn't really get all of the details they were seeking. There were other murders associated with this case as well. Associates that died along the way that the murder of Gus Farace was his name, was staying with, the mafia killed that guy. All these questions about the circumstances were unanswered and Gravano really goes through those in his podcast.
Brooke Gladstone: Did that give Fitzgerald closure?
Rachel Corbett: He certainly found it interesting. He was able to find out how they think when this is going on. He was surprised to hear, for example, that Sammy the Bull thought the FBI wanted them to murder him.
Brooke Gladstone: It had a certain Beckett quality, will no one rid us of this meddlesome murderer.
Rachel Corbett: Exactly. Of course, they didn't want him to die, they wanted information, but the mob operates how the mob operates. It's not that he really found out material details someone knew they can prosecute, but it was a lot of color and context and understanding that they gather from just hearing it from the other side of the issue.
Sammy the Bull: My wife answered the door and she said, "Sammy, it's FBI by the door." I went to the door and I said, "What can I do for you?" He said, "Sammy, we want you to tell John Gotti that we want this guy found and we don't care how." The way they said it, I just had to ask the question, "Are you asking me to kill him?" "Oh no, no, Sammy, we're not going to, we don't give a fuck how he's found".
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Rachel Corbett: They closed cases, but they live on in their minds. I think that the curiosities go on, even if it's in the past and the books are closed.
Brooke Gladstone: Does Fitzgerald have a podcast?
Rachel Corbett: He does.
Brooke Gladstone: What do you think of it?
Rachel Corbett: It's great. It's a different tone for sure, but he also goes through the biggest cases of his career. He's one of the agents who was on the Unabomber task force, he did the linguistic analysis. He talks about huge cases that he's worked and you get a lot of insight into those as well.
Brooke Gladstone: He's a profiler.
Rachel Corbett: Exactly.
Brooke Gladstone: You mentioned that these mafia guys have different styles, but is there more of an emphasis on graphic storytelling or of romanticizing the days of the wise guys in the mafia code?
Rachel Corbett: I think it's very much both. They would tell you they're not romanticizing the wise guy spirit, but it's hard for me to see how they're not in a way. It's telling stories about all the money they had, and the women they had, and all the lifestyle and of course the gruesome violence too. One of the guys I talked to, John Alight says specifically to me that he does not want to glamorize the lifestyle. In fact, his whole purpose is to teach kids not to join gangs and to stay away from a life of crime.
Brooke Gladstone: John Alight was also a hitman for Gotti.
Rachel Corbett: Exactly. The next generation after Sammy the Bull. At the same time, he sells signed baseball bats on his website because he was very notorious for using the baseball bat in his jobs.
Brooke Gladstone: Of all of the performers you've encountered, who's your favorite?
Rachel Corbett: I have to say Sammy the Bull, just because there's something very charming about his style. He's got this just slow voice and it's soothing in a way. He sounds like he could be in a movie. He really transports you. If you like mobster movies, which I happen to, it feels like you're watching one. Of course, it's the real thing. I guess that's maybe why these guys have been so successful because they are often charming. One of the agents told me he had to always remind himself when he's hanging out with them in the club that they would not hesitate to kill him in another situation. They're smiling and laughing and they actually like each other, but there's another side, of course.
Brooke Gladstone: It's just business.
Rachel Corbett: Exactly. That's what podcasts are too. I think they found another way to earn on the other side.
Brooke Gladstone: How does the FBI segment of the mafia podcasts demographic listen differently from just a regular person? Are they trying to decode these things?
Rachel Corbett: I think so. They're not just listening for a wild ride of a story. They already know the story. I think they're listening for details that they didn't know. One agent told me that he was really interested in the psychology of the mafia. These guys are known for not speaking, of course, they take a code of silence. It was always very hard to get them to talk, and now suddenly they're opening up about everything. In some cases, about how they feel and what they were thinking at the time and what motivated them. Then the other agent told me he was really listening for clues about old cases, just to shade in what actually happened, put pieces together.
Brooke Gladstone: Is he the guy who also listens for what's being left out?
Rachel Corbett: Yes, Fitzgerald said that because in that Sammy the Bull episode about the DEA agent, he doesn't mention a murder that happened. One of the men who was housing, Gus Farace, who killed the agent was also killed. Fitzgerald thinks that Sammy very likely knew who did it, if not was involved in it himself. Because they can talk about anything that they confess to. They have legal immunity to any crimes that they confess to, but if they didn't confess to a crime, then of course they really shouldn't be talking about it. If they're not talking about something on their show, one might infer that maybe that's something they were involved in.
Brooke Gladstone: Part of the beauty of podcasting is it's an open medium. Anyone can give their side of the story. How much trust do you think one should put into the words of even retired mafia bosses?
Rachel Corbett: You should probably be skeptical, I think that's safe to say. I think there's a lot of aggrandizing that goes on of oneself and one's legacy as they look back. They watch mobster movies too. I think that everyone wants to live up to a certain image and retell the story the way they want to, and who's going to know the truth?
Brooke Gladstone: Are you a true crime fan yourself?
Rachel Corbett: I am. I'm writing a book about criminal profiling right now, so I confess, I consume a lot of this media myself. That's probably rock for your brain [chuckles].
Brooke Gladstone: We'll call you when we do our full hour on true crime podcasts, but thank you very much for this.
Rachel Corbett: Please do. Thank you so much.
Brooke Gladstone: Rachel Corbett is deputy editor at Art Net News, author of You Must Change Your Life about the poet Rilke and the sculptor Rodin. She pinned the recent New Yorker article, Why the FBI Loves Mob Podcasts? Thanks for listening to the midweek podcast. You can check out the big show on Friday. It's going to be interesting and new. Always check out our newsletter, it's always really cool. Bye.
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