by Dennis Griffin
I write books about organized crime. Invariably, when I give a talk one of the questions from the audience is, "What makes these guys become mobsters?" I don't have a "one size fits all" answer. But there is a rather common scenario I've come across over the years that may explain why at least some young men turn to a life of crime. And I think the case of Andrew DiDonato is a good example.
Andrew was influenced by his environment and neighborhood wiseguys as a young boy, and took to thievery before reaching his teens. In 1980 the teenager became an associate of the Gambino crime family and lived "the life" until he flipped and became a government witness in 1997.
In 2010, I agreed to write Andrew's biography titled Surviving The Mob. I believe by sharing some of Andrew's story here, readers may come away with a better understanding of the circumstances that contribute to the making of a criminal.
Learning the Trade
In 1980, Andrew DiDonato was living with his mother and step-father on East 55th Street in Brooklyn. At that time the minimum wage in the United States was $3.10 per hour. Assuming a 14 or 15-year-old boy like Andrew could get a job flipping burgers 20 hours a week after school, he’d gross $62 for his labor. Although Andrew worked when he wasn’t in school, he didn’t toil in a hamburger stand or anything similar. He did his work on the streets; and made substantially more than a minimum wage worker. In fact, his weekly income was sometimes in the neighborhood of $1,400 cash. How did a kid his age generate that kind of money? As Andrew explains, it took hard work and nerve.
“I had two main sources of making money in those days. I stole and sold parts like wheels, tires and radios, from expensive cars. And I shook down the kids selling marijuana in the neighborhood. I told them they’d either pay me a couple hundred bucks a week or I’d break their head.”
But Andrew knew that if you wanted to be respected on the sidewalks of Brooklyn you couldn’t just talk the talk. Out there actions truly spoke louder than words; and verbal threats alone weren’t enough to prove you were a person to be reckoned with. That was a lesson of the streets Andrew learned early. And he learned it well.
“My family was Mob-connected. My uncle Paddy Macchiarole was a capo in the Genovese family. I was twelve when he was murdered in a Mob hit. A few months later his son Johnny Boy was also murdered. The killings of my uncle and cousin devastated my family. It was the first taste of the reality of how brutal that life can be. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was a lesson that ultimately saved my life many years later.”
Andrew’s own capacity for violence became obvious as he advanced his extortion plans.
“When I started shaking down the drug dealers I began with an act of violence, like a severe beating or a few shots with a baseball bat. I let them know there was worse to come if my demands weren’t met.”
Andrew wasn’t a physically imposing figure. He stood three inches or so under six feet and weighed around 160 pounds. He was thin and athletic. Some of the dealers he wanted to move in on were bigger than he was. And some were as tough, or maybe even tougher. But that didn’t deter him. To overcome deficiencies in size or strength he used the element of surprise to get the upper hand on his victim.
“I’d sneak up behind the guy and whack him with a ball bat. When he went down I’d hit him again to make my point. They knew then I had something most of them didn’t. I had the balls to do whatever it took to impose my will. So it really didn’t matter if they were bigger than me. They knew if they fucked around with me I’d get 'em with my fists, or a bat, or a tire iron. And they’d never even know it was coming. They were afraid of me, and that’s the way I wanted it.”
Did Andrew ever feel guilty about the beatings he administered?
“You gotta remember I knew most of these dealers from school or the neighborhood. Some of them I didn’t like and enjoyed beating them up. But I wasn’t just a bully. I was liked in the neighborhood and gave respect to those who deserved it. This was business though, and I had to rough up the ones I liked too. I was making a statement that if you were in the drug game I wasn’t playing favorites.”
Andrew’s tactics worked. In addition to the dealers falling into line, word circulated that there was a new kid out there who needed to be taken seriously. In fairly short order he had most of the young drug dealers in Bergen Beach paying him a street tax.
Extorting drug dealers was primarily a one-man operation for Andrew. But when stealing car parts he often worked with other neighborhood youths.
“Some of the kids I stole with were already associated with organized crime crews. And several more of us got involved later. I made many good friends back then and I thought we’d be friends for life. But shit happens, and in some cases it didn’t work out that way. And some of those I was closest with died before their time.”
In those early days Andrew and his buddies weren’t proficient at stealing whole cars. Instead they robbed parts such as radios, tires and wheels from expensive vehicles that could be sold for good money.
“Mercedes Benz used Becker digital radios. They were a hot item. We’d smash in a window, rip out the radio and run. My next door neighbor Rocco Corozzo [nephew of Gambino capo and Andrew’s future boss Nicholas Corozzo] had a buyer for the radios. The guy would take all we could get him and pay us between a hundred fifty and two hundred a set. We didn’t have a steady buyer for the tires and wheels, so it took a little more time to move the stuff.
“We were having fun and the guys in the street crews left us alone. We were just kids and they didn’t make us kick anything in to them. Whatever we made was ours. It was all coming in and nothing had to be paid out.”
But even criminals like Andrew can experience economic tough times. In the case of him and his friends, youth, inexperience and greed were contributing factors, as well as unanticipated business interruptions.
“Sometimes when we had a lot of money in our pockets we’d get a little lazy. We’d stop stealing for a while and blow what we had buying stuff and partying. We were young and weren’t thinking about saving or retirement. When we realized we were almost out of cash we’d get off our asses and go back to work.
“I even screwed myself by taking so much from the dealers I was shaking down that I put some of them out of business. By the time they made their payment to me and bought product they weren’t making enough profit to stay in business. When one of 'em went away it might be a few weeks before someone stepped in to take his place and I could get to the new guy to explain the cost of doing business.
“And then there were supply interruptions sometimes. When the dealers didn’t have anything to sell they weren’t making any money and they weren’t paying me. Depending on the reason for the interruption it could last days or weeks. That meant I had to steal more to get through the dry times.
“But I learned a lot and knew I needed to make some changes. I had to work smarter and expand my criminal activities to make more money. Instead of shaking down the dealers for money I’d start shaking them down for product and set up my own network of dealers. And instead of just stealing parts off a car I’d take the whole thing. I wanted to get into the chop shop business and start making some real money.”