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Like a lot of other people, I've long had a weird fascination with La Cosa Nostra, the Mafia.
That widespread fascination existed long before "The Untouchables" hit the small screen in the late 1950s, or Mario Puzo published his American classic "The Godfather" in 1969.
It probably started in the 1920s and 1930s, when newspapers and radio stations began sensationalizing Italian gangsters with monikers like Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti, Salvatore "Lucky" Luciano, Giuseppe "Joe The Boss" Masseria, and most famous of them all, Alphonse "Scarface Al" Capone.
But Mafia stories don't seem to capture the public's imagination like they used to. John Gotti, aka the "Dapper Don," who was the boss of New York's Gambino crime family, recaptured some measure of national attention in the 1990s. But his notoriety never compared with that of his Italian-American predecessors and, since his 2002 death in prison, the Mafia hasn't received a lot of national press.
The lack of national media attention is probably why most Americans have never heard of Gregory Scarpa Sr., a mobster known as "The Grim Reaper." Scarpa died in a Minnesota prison in 1994, but he figured prominently in a case settled last week in New York City, when a retired FBI agent was exonerated of charges that he gave Scarpa confidential information between 1987 and 1992.
That wasn't the first time various arms of the federal government had gotten suspiciously cozy with the Mafia. Operating under the premise that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the Mafia has been asked several times to use its special talents to assist the government. Prime examples include the CIA's use of Chicago gangster John Roselli in a failed attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro in the early 1960s, and the U.S. militarys recruitment of Luciano to help deal with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in WWII.
In most of these off-record arrangements, the gangsters' decision to cooperate had little to do with a monetary reward, and it certainly had nothing to do with patriotism. Their payoff usually meant that the government would "forgive" their past indiscretions, including any number of murders they might have committed.
Scarpa was used as an informer off and on for about 30 years. During that time he committed numerous murders, including the three for which he was finally convicted and sent to prison in 1993. By most accounts, the FBI covered for him far beyond what would ordinarily be considered reasonable, even by its own twisted logic.
The G-men should have severed ties with the Grim Reaper after 1964, when he actually performed a valuable public service. That's when he was recruited by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to kidnap a Mississippi Ku Klux Klansman and use whatever means necessary to learn the whereabouts of three missing civil rights workers.
According to recently released documents, Scarpa was secretly taken to Mississippi to interrogate an otherwise respected appliance merchant in an effort to locate the bodies of the missing workers who were presumed to have been slain by the Klan.
The three, two white New Yorkers and James Chaney, a black Mississippian, had been missing for 40 days. But less than 72 hours after the merchant's meeting with Scarpa, the bodies of the young civil rights activists were found buried 17 feet deep in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Miss. The discovery led to the conviction of seven men, including the deputy sheriff who had arrested the three on a trumped-up charge of speeding.
Reportedly, to extract the location of the missing bodies, Scarpa gave the man he kidnapped an offer he couldn't refuse. Armed with an FBI-supplied pistol, he jammed the barrel of the pistol into the man's mouth and threatened to "blow his blankety-blank brains out."
The terrified merchant/Klansman quickly gave up the information.
Evidently he wasn't accustomed to being on the receiving end of such intimidation. Now there's poetic justice.