As Mob Warfare Rages, a Tough Ex-Prosecutor Fights to Keep Atlantic City Clean
07/13/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT
Money rolls into Atlantic City, N.J. like the tide. It arrives every day in the pockets of 50,000 tourists looking for action in the city's seven casino-hotels. When the tourists leave—most of them losers—the money stays behind: an estimated $500,000 a day. That influx of cash has created an upscale facade for the city's still festering slums, a glittering boom town on the Boardwalk where jobs are plentiful, pay is high and hotel rooms start at $95 a night.
But along with the money has come a new invasion of the Mob. For the past 16 months the New York and Philadelphia "families" have been engaged in a bloody war for pieces of the gambling bonanza. Six prominent organized-crime figures have been murdered so far—the latest, Philip "Chicken Man" Testa, in March—and there is no end in sight to the killing. Says G. Michael "Mickey" Brown: "We haven't seen such Mob activity in a casino city since the days of Bugsy Siegel."
Brown should know. As director of New Jersey's Division of Gaming Enforcement, he has the job of keeping the nation's organized-crime families out of Atlantic City's $1 billion-a-year casino industry. Brown heads a team of 450 lawyers, policemen and civilian investigators and works closely with city, state and federal authorities in his efforts to keep organized crime at bay. Many casino operators are curiously ambivalent about the hint of its presence in their midst. "People have a fascination about the Mob," says one. "They like the excitement of the idea hoods are around. It's good for business." Another agrees: "The more people that hear the Mob is in the casino business, the less likely it is that other states will go for casino gambling." But Brown, 38, a tense, driven former prosecutor, who has become a stranger to his wife, Sharon, and their three young daughters by putting in 12-hour days at his job, has an undiluted sense of mission—and a reputation for toughness. "When I walk into a casino," he says, "they treat me with fear and with respect." Says one associate: "Mickey is absolutely determined that the wise guys are going to be kept out of the casinos. It's an obsession with him."
That obsession, fueled by a heavy dose of ambition, drives Brown in a campaign of vigilance that reaches into every corner of the industry. He and his staff investigate the history—and the genealogy—of every prospective employee. They palnstakingly screen every contractor and vendor who does business with the casinos. They stand by in the counting rooms as the money is totaled, and they closely supervise the casinos' security forces. That scrutiny has made Atlantic City's gambling houses among the most tightly regulated businesses in the world. Casino operators, predictably, complain that the requisite paperwork is excessive, the regulations are wrapped in red tape and the expense of compliance is enormous. But Brown believes that the state's stringent regulations have kept organized crime out for now. Says he: "I think we're still winning."
Yet he readily concedes that, barred from direct control of the casinos, the Mob has tried to muscle into certain peripheral industries that provide indirect access to gambling booty. "I don't want to single out any one industry," he says, "but the ones that are historically vulnerable to organized crime are vending machines, meats, liquor, linen supplies, cigarettes and janitorial services."
Philadelphia Mob boss Angelo Bruno had claimed hegemony over Atlantic City long before legalized gambling raised the stakes. His abhorrence of the drug and prostitution rackets and his relatively restrained use of violence earned him the nickname "the Docile Don." But on March 21, 1980 a new order was ushered in with Bruno's execution—a gruesome hit that brazenly defied the etiquette of "respect" that usually guides the killing of a capo. Bruno was sitting in a car parked in front of his modest Philadelphia row home when someone stuck a shotgun under his right ear and pulled both triggers. Less than a month later two Bruno loyalists were found murdered in New York. Two more were shot that fall. On the night of Dec. 21 John McCullough, head of a Philadelphia local of the Roofers Union and reportedly Bruno's candidate to organize Atlantic City's casino guards, was shot six times in the head by an executioner posing as a florist's deliveryman. Early on the morning of March 15 Bruno's successor, "Chicken Man" Testa, was blown to bits by a bomb reportedly containing roofing nails. The next day, at an international gaming conference in Atlantic City, Brown became the first public official to speak out about the gang war. "The fact that there has been such a public display of violence indicates two things," he said. "First, that the Mob thinks Atlantic City is worth fighting over, and second, that no one's in control yet."
Today, according to law enforcement sources, the situation is still in flux as Mob families from Pennsylvania, New York and even Canada maneuver for openings in Atlantic City. The battle is largely for control of the unions representing casino employees, with their large pension funds and strategic power over casino operations. "The potential is there for payoffs," says one state police investigator. "Somewhere down the line, there are going to be deals—for concessions, maintenance, jobs in counting rooms, pit bosses." Atlantic City's 8,600-member Local 54 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International, for example, is reported by law enforcement officials to be Mob-infiltrated already. Each casino currently contributes 62 cents to the union's trust fund for every hour an employee works—a total of more than $11 million annually. A rate rise scheduled for next year could almost double that figure. Brown's report to the Casino Control Commission on Local 54 has not yet been made public. "I can't comment on it," he says, "but we objected to certain of their associations."
Potentially even more powerful than Local 54 would be a union of casino security guards. Under New Jersey law, no casino can open its doors for business until every guard's post is filled. "If security guards walk off the job, the casino must close," says Brown, "so they are crucial to the operation." Three unions with alleged Mob ties originally entered the contest for their allegiance. The first, Local 40B of the International Brotherhood of Law Enforcement and Security Guards, has virtually disappeared in the city since the murder of John McCullough. Local 7 of the National Union of Security Officers, which has been linked to murdered Philadelphia mobster Frank Sindone, remains in contention, as does Local 2 of the Casino Police and Security Officers, which according to state police is controlled by the Genovese Mob family of New York. Brown has his eye on both, and to be registered as the workers' legitimate representatives, they will have to pass muster with his investigators. "We're monitoring the organizing activities of all the unions," he says, "and their suitability for registration."
Despite the power struggles, the Mob maneuverings and the body count, Brown optimistically says, "I think it's realistic to believe it's possible to keep casinos free of organized crime." But he has no illusions that his war with the Mob—or their war with each other—is over. The two leading contenders for power in Atlantic City are from Philadelphia: Frank "Frankie Flowers" D'Alfonso, a diplomat in the Bruno tradition, and Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, who is described by one police source as "a hood of the old school, the kind of guy who wishes they still had running boards on cars so he could stand there with a submachine gun and blast away." But whoever emerges as Philadelphia's man on the Boardwalk must get along with the Genovese and Gambino families in New York, authorities say, and Scarfo's reputation for hotheadedness does not bode well for peace. "If I were Scarfo," as Brown puts it, "I wouldn't start reading any long novels."