John Riggi: The DeCavalcante Boss Who Soared Like an Eagle

Giovanni (John) Riggi, Sr. – aka “John the Eagle” – was born in 1925 in New Jersey.

He would reside most of his life at 1115 West Henry Street in the Linden section of Northern New Jersey and would finish out his years at a small home in the town of Edison.

He was the son of an original member of the borgata named Emmanuel (Manny) Riggi.

John would also welcome several sons to join him in “the life” – Vincent, Emanuel, and John, Jr., would all become inducted soldiers under their father’s guidance.

FBI # 979891, SBI # 359718

Riggi’s activities included union racketeering, shakedowns and labor extortion, shylocking, gambling….. and by virtue of his longtime position as a caporegime and eventually boss of the entire Family, Riggi would have his hand in every racket engaged in by his rank and file.

He was inducted very early in his career, with his father Manny sponsoring his membership.

He served for years as a loyal soldier active in street rackets until being tapped by Sam DeCavalcante himself in early 1965 to serve as a “business agent” for Local # 394 – Hod Carriers & Common Laborers Union (AFL-CIO), based in Elizabeth.

He would later rise up to be the “business manager”, essentially the top controlling position of a labor union, holding this post for over 22 years until 1987.

In 1986, he was also appointed president of LIUNA District Council 30, in Union County, NJ.

Side Note: In 1987, he would be indicted on labor extortion and subsequently removed from all union offices. But before he was, Riggi had installed numerous family members and mob associates over the years in cushy jobs as key union officials and office staff.

The DeCavalcante’s domination over Local #394 and its affiliated labor union entities would be total and complete:

>> Emanuel (Manny) Riggi – John’s son and a Family soldier was appointed director of LIUNA Building and Training Center in Jamesburg, NJ.

>> A DeCavalcante “capo di decina” became the auditor for Local # 394.

>> A mob associate and relative of a Family capo was appointed business manager of the Laborers Welfare Fund of Union County, NJ.

>> Riggi’s wife was appointed the clerk of the Local # 394 Pension Fund.

>> And Riggi’s father Manny, had been an official of this union years prior before he too was removed for impropriety and illegality.

Riggi took over the position from former union official Joseph (Joe Tiger) Sferra, who had previously served in that post and oversaw all union rackets for DeCavalcante.

Sferra had been ousted by the boss for his mismanagement of the local because he had not performed to DeCavalcante’s satisfaction.

Sferra had ignored repeated requests by Sam to keep all “friends of theirs” gainfully employed at ongoing construction projects.

Sam was also dismayed and had been embarrassed in front of New York boss Carlo Gambino by Sferra’s refusal to keep Gambino Family “amico nostri” and other New York-based mob associates in good-paying and easy-lift construction jobs as promised by Sam.

Simultaneously, Sam also advised Riggi that he was being bumped up to a “captain’s” position – that which had previously been held by Sferra.

So, for John, it was a double kiss, and for Joe Sferra. it was a double kick in the ass.

Sferra was promptly notified by the boss that for his insubordination, he was being demoted down to a “soldier” post and would lose his lofty labor union job.

Sam advised Joe Sferra not to show his face anymore at the union hiring hall and to make himself scarce…

…that he was still a member (soldier) in good standing and would be respected, but that it was best if Sferra heeded the advice to keep himself in “check” and not cause any more trouble or he would suffer consequences.

After that meeting with his Family boss, Joseph “Joe Tiger” Sferra went out the door, reduced to a “pussycat”.

He was reported to have become so emotional at the bad news that he started to cry in front of Sam, confirming for DeCavalcante the unstable nature of his former capo.

From that day forward, John Riggi’s underworld stock would go up tenfold….. and Riggi would never look back.

“John the Eagle” would soar into the Mafia sky…. It seemed he could do no wrong in Sam the Plumber’s eyes.

After DeCavalcante was indicted on federal gambling charges, and subsequently convicted and jailed for 5 years for heading a huge $25,000,000-a-year policy betting network with over 50 operatives, Riggi was tapped to act in his boss’s stead while Sam served his federal jail bid.

John Riggi became the official underboss of the entire borgata and served as Sam’s eyes and ears on the street.

After Sam was granted parole, he wisely chose to relocate from the mob hotbed of New Jersey down to the tranquil, quieter South Florida area.

And although DeCavalcante would maintain his official position as the Capo Famiglia, he named John as the day-to-day official “Acting Boss” of the Family.

This gave Riggi unprecedented powers within Cosa Nostra.

He was now in the top post of his organization and on equal footing to such men of the era as Frank Tieri, Paul Castellano, Anthony Corallo, Carmine Persico, and Carmine Galante.

Riggi was already a much-respected leader by the DeCavalcante rank and file membership.

And he had had enough interaction over the years with the top powers of the New York Families that he was immediately recognized and sanctioned as the accepted “Representante” of the New Jersey borgata.

Riggi’s power base soon extended from the borgata’s humble Linden-Elizabeth headquarters through the entire state of New Jersey.

He would soon also flex his muscles within metropolitan New York, especially the Brooklyn and Queens areas, and the western sector of Connecticut including Waterbury and Bridgeport where the Family had always maintained a presence, operating an 8 to 10 member regime captained by the LaSelva brothers and their associates.

During these early years, Riggi also backed the redesign and subsequent brand new construction of what had always been the Family’s de facto headquarters, the Ribera Club, a private “members only” social club that the borgata had utilized over the years as their home base.

A beautiful, professional architecturally designed brick multi-level structure was erected on the site of their former social club.

Upon completion, a formal ribbon cutting ceremony was conducted by a very proud DeCavalcante membership.

Side Note: Many of the borgata’s inducted membership, as well as their closer associates, originally hailed from the Sicilian town of Ribera. And whether born there or bloodlines traced to Ribera, there is tremendous pride toward their common bond.

While he was in power, among John Riggi’s closest associates over the years were:

• Samuel (Sam the Plumber) DeCavalcante – boss since 1964, Sam trusted Riggi as his proxy, becoming Sam’s eyes and ears with the membership.

• Emmanuel (Manny) Riggi – an original highly respected elder who proposed his son for induction. Manny had been a business agent with Local # 394 from 1946 to 1958 before being ousted and banned for labor law violations.

• Frank (Big Frank) Majuri – Sam’s former longtime underboss, later eased into a consigliere position as he aged. Majuri had gained notoriety as an attendee at the infamous 1957 mob bbq at Joe Barbara’s estate at Apalachin NY.

• Vincent (Jimmy the Gent) Rotondo – a top capo who oversaw the New York membership and later became Riggi’s underboss, longtime power and “organizer” in Local # 1814 – International Longshoreman’s Union.

• Steven (The Truck Driver) Vitabile – would become consigliere for 35 years after Majuri and a close aide to Riggi. Later, after Riggi was imprisoned, Vitabile served to hold the borgata together.

• Luciano (Fat Louie) Larasso – top veteran and highly-respected capo who held lots of influence. His perceived power would later get him killed. Attended the 1957 Apalachin Meeting with Majuri.

• Paul Castellano – Gambino Boss and equal (in theory) to Riggi. They would do a lot of deals together over the years before Paul’s murder. I believe Paul represented Riggi before The Commission.

• Carmine (Junior) Persico – Colombo Boss. His administration would maintain close relations with Riggi’s Jersey crew. They also allegedly shared some South Florida rackets together.

• Girolamo (Jimmy) Palermo – NJ based capo and Riggi confidante. He oversaw gambling operations in South Jersey for the Family.

• Samuel Caivano – a labor union official of LIUNA Local # 526 and the regional manager for the New York-New Jersey Region of LIUNA. A close Riggi associate with whom he was in cahoots with in labor rackets. His son, David, and nephew Daniel would rise to head these union entities in later years as his key assistants.

• Joseph La Sala – Elizabeth, low key NJ-based soldier who partnered with Riggi in a sports-bookmaking network and was a former official of Local # 394.

• Salvatore (Little Sal) Timpani – another NJ soldier and close Riggi aide. He was later indicted and jailed with the boss in a labor extortion case.

• Paolo (Paul) Farina – a long-serving NJ based capo trusted by Riggi to help run the Laborers Union # 394 and an extortionist.

• Joseph (Jake) Colletti – Elizabeth, NJ-based soldier who controlled Union County rackets for Riggi. Jake was also a union official with Local # 394.

John Riggi was a strong boss, firm in his dictates, but reportedly fair with his rank and file soldiers and capos.

He was a well-liked leader, held their respect, and was treated as an equal by the other NYC bosses.

This pretty much gave the DeCavalcante crew good position to operate unimpeded for years.

In later years, he would run head-on into the heavy-handed style of John Gotti.

The once mutually respectful friendship and affiliation enjoyed by Sam DeCavalcante in his interaction with both Carlo Gambino and his cousin and successor Paul Castellano became a thing of the past.

In short order, with his ascension to boss, Gotti, with his insecurity and ego on full display, started making demands of Riggi and the DeCavalcantes.

And it seems that Riggi was intimidated by Gotti and his minions.

Regardless of whether he was actually threatened or just “felt” threatened, he folded like an accordion….. and the results were telling.

In 1988, Gotti was suspected of having ordered the murder of Jimmy Rotondo – at that time, Riggi’s powerful New York-based underboss.

At the subsequent wake held for Rotondo in Brooklyn, Gotti was said to have showed up with a entourage of 20 hoodlums in an intentional and intimidating show of force.

Within a few minutes of exchanging pleasantries, Gotti ordered Riggi into the funeral parlor’s side room. They would not emerge for over an hour.

Upon exciting the office, it was said that John Riggi looked like he had just saw a ghost.

Later that evening in conference with his key men who had mostly all attended the wake, Riggi made the fateful announcement that from that night forward the DeCavalcante Family would run “under” the supervision of the Gambino Family….. basically making them subservient as a “Family within a Family”…… or a “glorified crew” instead of a separate borgata.

So, this proud 40 member Elizabeth-based Family, established for nearly 70 years… with another 200 years thrown in for good luck counting their Ribera, Sicily origins, had their balls cut off by John Gotti, the upstart Boss of the 250-member Gambino crew.

Is there any doubt that Gotti was hated by many mafiosi in the New York-New Jersey underworld?

This was one example of many violent and threatening incidents as Gotti attempted to assert his domination over perceived weaker associates of various crews in the New York Mafia.

John Michael Riggi would eventually be indicted, convicted, and jailed in 1990 on wide-ranging federal RICO labor rackets charges, which brought him a 12-year prison term.

Riggi made arrangements for the smooth succession of union leadership by installing his close associate and confidante Jerome Corsentino, a relative of Carlo Corsentino – a longtime veteran soldier of the borgata – as president of Local # 394.

Side Note: The Corsentino Family ran a well established funeral home by the same name that had been a DeCavalcante Family asset for decades.

It is mob lore that Carmelo Corsentino, the father, had been the innovator of the double-decker coffin, an ingenious underworld invention where two bodies were fit into one coffin through a false bottomed coffin.

While in prison serving his sentence, Riggi was again indicted on a second federal case brought by the FBI who had “turned” his own son-in-law Sean Richard.

Working in an undercover capacity for the Feds, and wearing a wire, this piece of garbage duly recorded his father-in-law and numerous mafiosi of several New York Families, including the Luccheses, whom he had worked very closely with in labor schemes approved by his father-in-law, corrupt union officials and business men in incriminating conversations discussing shakedowns, labor-union kickbacks and extortion, and various other labor racketeering violations of federal law.

More dominoes would soon start to fall.

Within several years time, another major case (and a body) was literally dropped at the mob boss’ doorstep.

Riggi was alleged by the FBI of ordering the murder of Fred Weiss, editor of a local newspaper named the Staten Island Advance who doubled as a corrupt businessman and real estate developer.

This contract killing was supposedly orchestrated as a favor to Gambino mob boss, John Gotti.

Weiss had been partners with several wiseguys in a Staten Island landfill they had purchased and were using as an illegal dump for medical wastes.

After the FBI started an investigation into the scheme and Weiss had been subpoenaed to give testimony, Gotti felt he was weak and had turned informant.

He requested that Riggi have a DeCavalcante hit team dispose of the potential problem.

It was the FBI’s theory, and later confirmed by on-site informants, that from his prison cell, John Riggi gave the order for his minions to coordinate what would turn out to be a high-profile daytime gangland hit on the corrupt newspaper man.

One September day, caporegime Vincent (Vinny Ocean) Palermo and soldier Anthony Capo, in tandem with several other carloads of New Jersey mafiosi, set out in a caravan of stolen surveillance and crash vehicles to stalk their prey.

Tracking their victim to his girlfriend’s condo, Palermo and Capo left their auto and set upon Weiss as he exited the building.

They emptied their pistol clips into his face and body as he attempted to enter his parked car…… it was over in seconds.

Mission accomplished.

Several years later, Riggi was also accused of complicity in the 1992 murder of John D’Amato, another high-level member who the DeCavalcante administration (Riggi included) were accused of killing for two major indiscretions.

One was for attempting to seize the boss “seat” without an approved Family vote — and the more embarrassing accusation that D’Amato was a closet homosexual.

Riggi was alleged to have signed off on his killing.

Side Note: John D’Amato was alleged to have been encouraged and pushed by Gotti as his hand-picked choice to lead the Family, giving Gotti de facto control over the DeCavalcantes through his “puppet boss” D’Amato.

There had been others clipped through the years that were attributed to Riggi by his giving a “thumbs down” Roman-style including John Suarato in 1978, associate Joey Garofano in 1989, and veteran one-time underboss Louie Larasso in 1991…. to name a few.

And this didn’t include many additional murder conspiracies that for one reason or another were never carried out.

As the dominoes fell for the DeCavalcante borgata, several key members and associates jumped ship to Team America.

First they were the hunters…then the hunted.

In addition to Sean Richard was Family captain Anthony Rotundo (Jimmy’s boy), Acting Boss Vincent Palermo, soldier Anthony Capo, and proposed associates Victor DiChiara and Frank Scarabino.

There were others, too, all of them flipping, pointing a damning finger from the witness stand in federal court and then quietly slipping into the Federal Witness Protection Program.

In a plea agreement worked out with federal prosecutors, Riggi agreed to serve 8 years and 10 years more respectively
(to run concurrently) for the D’Amato and Weiss murders and various other racketeering counts.

……. in short, John Riggi got buried!

And he wasn’t lonely for long!

With the devastating testimonies of these informants, prosecutors soon brought down the entire “House of DeCavalcante”….

…consigliere Stefano Vitabile, underboss Charles Majuri, top capos Philip Abramo, Giuseppe Schifilliti, Rudolph Farone, and Girolamo Palermo, and various soldiers including Louis Consalvo, Anthony Mannarino, Virgil Alessi, Joseph Sclafani, James Gallo, Charles Stango, Gregory Rago, Frank D’Amato, and Gaetano Vastola…. among others, were soon indicted, tried and convicted of multiple racketeering counts, murders and various attempted murder conspiracies, and more.

Practically all would be sentenced to serve long prison terms.

John would serve over 22 years in federal prison without a complaint.

He did his bid like the tough old bird and WWII veteran he was…. with a quiet pride and resolve.

Side Note: During part of his prison stay, Riggi shared a cell and became close with infamous Sicilian Mafia chieftain Gaetano (Tano) Badalamenti of “The Pizza Connection” fame. The two mafiosi, representing either side of the Atlantic Ocean, comforting each other in their waning days.

Released from jail in 2012, Riggi passed away several years later, in the comfort of his home with his loving family, whom John had always doted on as a very loving dad…. they were close by his side.

After serving approximately 22 straight years in various federal lockups, John Michael Riggi, Sr. – aka “The Eagle” – died at the ripe old age of 90 in August of 2015….. the old mafioso was said to have served his time with his chin up and with a smile on his face like the man that he was!

He had been the official recognized “Representante” of the New Jersey crew since at least 1980, maybe earlier…35 years at the helm as the boss.

And John had served variously as an underboss and “Acting Boss” to Sam the Plumber for at least five years before that.

In truth, looking back on his underworld career, Riggi was one of the longest serving Mafia bosses in underworld history – a fact many mob historians fail to notice.

He ruled in a low-keyed fashion for many years guiding his soldiers and key associates through some rough waters.

Until the federal assault on all Cosa Nostra of the late-1980s, he and his brood had survived and thrived…. but his time came, as it had for most of his New York Mafia contemporaries……as it usually does.

Today, the old DeCavalcante Family of Elizabeth, New Jersey is but a shell of its former self.

Never a large borgata to begin with – at their height they were said to only have a membership of 30 to 40 goodfellas – the repeated assaults by law enforcement, key informants, and through sheer attrition over the years, has whittled away at a once proud membership.

They have hobbled along through a succession of interim acting leaders and “panels” comprised of whatever veteran members are left that they feel are capable enough to help lead them forward into the year 2020…. but their bench is getting very shallow!

They are a far cry off from the days of Nicky Dell, Sam the Plumber, and John the Eagle! ….. who I’m sure are rolling in their graves at what’s become of their beloved borgata!

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