Corrections & clarifications: A previous version of this story misstated the last time a made man in the Gambino crime family was murdered.
Mobsters and ex-mobsters - even those who have been exiled to the Witness Protection Program - gossip like schoolgirls. So when Gambino crime family boss Frank Cali was shot dead Wednesday night in front of his Staten Island home, the stunning break in decades of relative mob peace set phones of members and alumni of La Cosa Nostra alight with speculation as to the actors and motive behind his murder.
"Is it buzzing?" former Gambino captain Michael "Mikey Scars" DiLeonardo asked rhetorically about the current state of the mobster rumor mill. "It's on fire!"
DiLeonardo, 63, was a powerful figure in the crime family who lived in a Staten Island manse of his own before he testified against former associates, including John A. "Junior" Gotti, and temporarily entered government protection. DiLeonardo says he knew Cali when the future crime boss was only the broke young son of a Brooklyn store owner and "a kid who hung around the Gambinos."
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DiLeonardo recalled how he used to give him high-interest loans every week. He also took credit for Cali getting "straightened out" - or "made" - and elevated to captain status on his way to the crime family's highest rungs.
DiLeonardo, confessed former Gambino hitman John Alite and convicted Genovese killer Anthony Arillotta, all mobsters-turned-informants, in interviews with USA TODAY expressed shock over Cali's murder considering he was known as a nonviolent mob boss who ran his crime family like a corporation.
The ex-gangsters, each of whom have firsthand experience in responding to mob crises, said that while authorities attempt to solve the murder, wise guys associated with Cali are likely conducting their own investigation. The result could be a lasting return to the violence of a flashier, more trigger-happy era of organized crime.
"If this is still the Mafia, that guy's got to get killed that did the shooting," mused Alite, 56, who has confessed to involvement in several murders and has since authored books including "Darkest Hour II," his second mob tell-all. "And anybody that helped them. Anybody who was associated with this murder, whether it was mob related or not, a couple of guys got to get killed now."
Arillotta - a Massachusetts gangster who confessed to two murders, testified in New York City mob trials and spent eight years in prison - echoed Alite's assessment.
"It could be a freak thing, wrong place, wrong house, wrong time," Arillotta said. "They'll kill that guy. Either way there's going to be more violence."
Retired FBI supervisor Bruce Mouw said that rampant speculation among mobsters follows every hit and was likely even stronger this time because Cali's murder was the first rubout of a Gambino made man in decades.
Mouw called mob-related murders "the hardest cases to investigate," and cautioned that the public might never learn who was behind Cali's death, or only after a cooperating witness comes clean about it years from now.
"I can't really remember one that they solved in a traditional way in 20 years, because nobody sees nothing, especially in Staten Island," Mouw said.
He downplayed the idea that revenge was imminent and recalled advice he used to give: "I always told my agents, don't speculate - find out."
The ex-mobsters USA TODAY spoke with didn't follow that discipline. Drawing from spare details released in early news reports and the grist of fellow chattering gangsters, they discussed the possibilities that the hit was a sanctioned killing, a "personal matter" gone wrong (like an illicit affair) or even a road rage incident completely unrelated to Cali's organized crime status. They also said there were rumors that Cali was involved in the drug trade.
But they acknowledged that each of these motives are unsatisfying in that they clash with Cali's reputation as a buttoned-up gangster who tried to move the crime family away from the attention-grabbing violence of its former patriarch, the elder John Gotti.
Cali was reportedly shot six times, and neighbors saw a pickup truck fleeing the scene. The ex-mobsters leaned on their expertise to deduce that the number of vehicles involved could reveal whether this was a true gangland hit.
"Until I find out how many cars there were, I won't know," said DiLeonardo, speculating that a true mafia murder plot would involve hit men in multiple vehicles.
Alite used the same logic: "When you hit a boss there are three cars - two on each corner and one in front," said the former Gambino gunman. "He's not getting away."
Alite said that the fact that Cali was apparently alone and unguarded outside of his Staten Island home was an indication of how much the mob had changed. Gone are the days when regular violence necessitated fortified compounds and armed entourages for its bosses.
DiLeonardo partly credited Cali's own management style for the recent peace. He said Cali took a foothold in the family in the 1990s because of a power vacuum created when its top figureheads, including Gotti, were imprisoned or dead. Following Gotti's murder conviction in 1992, DiLeonardo said, "we didn't have one sanctioned hit," though "there was a couple of sneak things" resulting in murders without official permission.
FBI supervisor Mouw, who said he first met Cali when the future top mobster was a young grifter involved in an alleged calling card scheme, took issue with the postmortem chorus declaring him the Steve Jobs of crime.
"He was a mobster, pure and pure," Mouw said. "He was Sicilian, very smooth, a moneymaker and a good businessman, so he's smarter than your average mobster. But you can dress him up, buy him a nice house in Staten Island, he's still a mobster."
Mouw credited the long lull in violence not to Cali but to tougher organized crime statutes with devastating sentences for those convicted of mob-related murder. Mouw also stated that though multiple news outlets have referred to Cali as the reputed boss of the family, his information is that Cali was underboss, and the top job belongs to another Gambino, Domenico Cefalu.
DiLeonardo suggested that jostling at the top of the crime family could determine the response to Cali's killing. He said that Cali's close confidant, Lorenzo Mannino, will likely be handling the de facto sleuthing of what happened to Cali. Mannino, who could not be reached for comment, was previously sentenced to fifteen years in federal prison for racketeering and a mob rubout that occurred in the late 1980s.
"Lorenzo's in the Frank Cali mold," DiLeonardo said. "Very smart, low key. But Lorenzo's a killer. Where Frank wasn't a killer, Lorenzo is a killer."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gambino murder sparks Mafia rumor mill: 'A couple of guys got to get killed now'