Joseph Anthony "Joe" Colombo, Sr. (June 16,1923 – May 22, 1978) was an Italian-American crime lord, Mafia boss, underworld kingpin, organized crime boss, mobster, racketeer, businessman, extortionist, loan shark, hitman, enforcer, political fixer, and civil rights leader and was also the boss of the Colombo Crime Family, one of the Five Families in New York. Colombo is considered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to be one of the most powerful and influential crime bosses in American history. Colombo was a famous and powerful civil rights leader and he is compared to the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X in terms of changing the course of history. Like Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr., Colombo has been described by many as a "fierce and fearless leader" and "an honorable man that tries to help people and fight for what he believes in" and he was loved and admired by so many people. Colombo's civil rights organization was very successful for many years, and he had hundreds of thousands of people all over the country come to see him and hear him talk. He also had thousands of people in his civil rights organization. Colombo was considered by the FBI to be "the Martin Luther King Jr. of the Mob". He was unarguably the most powerful mob boss in America. Over the years, Colombo gained enormous political power, wealth and influence, and by the late 1960s he was already a multi-billionaire, he was worth a jaw dropping $10 billion in 1969, making him one of the richest and most powerful people in the world.
Mafia Journalist/expert/investigative reporter Selwyn Raab said of Colombo, "Joe Colombo's reach within politics, law enforcement and the government was extraordinary and endless, he had the kind of enormous power to shut down major cities, remove law enforcement officers and politicians, shut down companies, labor unions and large businesses, he had a lot of Law Enforcement Officers, Detectives, Police Chiefs, Government Officials, State Judges, Federal Judges, District Attorneys, U.S. Attorneys, Mayors, Governors, Senators, Congressmen, Councilmen, Legislators, Assemblymen, and even Federal Agents in his pocket. Colombo was a very, very powerful man, he had a lot of very powerful friends within politics, law enforcement, the government all over the place. He was friends with many politicians, mayor's, movie stars, singers, and famous celebrities. In the 1960s, he was always seen hanging out with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Rocky Marciano, Jake LaMotta, and many powerful politicians. He had a bunch of police, judges, federal prosecutors, senators, and congressmen in his pocket, He had the power and wealth of a king, he had unlimited wealth, he was an extremely rich man, he was a billionaire, worth over $10 billion in the late 1960s which is amazing, and he was unquestionably one of the most powerful people in the world, he ruled a multi-billion dollar criminal empire, he ruled his own gigantic crime family, he controlled a massive army of ruthless killers, he had a lot of people that would kill in a heartbeat for him, and would die in a heartbeat for him, hundreds of thousands of people loved him, and admired him, and even worshipped him. He was many things, he was a mob boss, a civil rights leader, a multi-billionaire, a philanthropist, a genius, a playboy, a celebrity mob boss, and a vicious killer. Colombo was far more powerful and influential than Al Capone and John Gotti. He made them look like boy scouts."
In 1970, Colombo created the Italian-American Civil Rights League. Later that year, the first Italian Unity Day rally was held in Columbus Circle to protest the federal persecution of all Italians everywhere. In 1971, Gallo was released from prison, and Colombo invited Gallo to a peace meeting with an offering of $1,000, to which Gallo refused, instigating the Second Colombo War. On June 28, 1971, Colombo was shot three times by Jerome A. Johnson, one being in the head, at the second Italian Unity Day rally in Columbus Circle sponsored by the Italian-American Civil Rights League; Johnson was immediately killed by Colombo's bodyguards. Colombo was paralyzed from the shooting. On May 22, 1978, Colombo died of cardiac arrest.
Joseph Colombo, Sr. was born into an Italian American family. His father, Anthony Colombo, was an early member of Cosa Nostra who in 1938 was found strangled in a car with his mistress. Joe Colombo attended New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn for two years, then dropped out to join the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1945, he was diagnosed with neurosis and discharged from the service. His legitimate jobs included ten years as a longshoreman and six years as a salesman for a meat company. His final job was that of a real estate salesman.
Colombo owned a modest home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and a five-acre estate in Blooming Grove, New York. Joseph Colombo's five children include sons Christopher Colombo, Joseph Colombo Jr., and Anthony Colombo.
First Colombo War
Colombo became a top enforcer and hitman in what was originally the Profaci crime family and soon became a capo, and became one of the families biggest moneymakers and deadliest assassins.
In 1961, Joey Gallo and his crew kidnapped Colombo and other members of the Profaci leadership. Gallo was demanding a more equitable split of income from Joe Profaci, who had incensed many family members with his opulent life style and high family taxes. After several weeks of negotiation, Profaci and the Gallo brothers reached a deal. Colombo and the other hostages were released. Later in 1961, Profaci reneged on the deal and the First Colombo War started.
On June 6, 1962, Profaci died and Joseph Magliocco succeeded him as boss. Magliocco was soon drawn into a plot with Bonanno crime family boss Joseph Bonanno to murder Lucchese crime family boss Gaetano Lucchese and Gambino crime family boss, Carlo Gambino. Magliocco wanted to retaliate against the two bosses for their support of the Gallos, and supported Bonanno's bid to take over Mafia Commission. Magliocco gave the contract to Colombo, who promptly revealed the plot to Lucchese and Gambino. The Commission forced Magliocco to retire and named Colombo as the new boss.
At the age of 41, Colombo was one of the youngest crime bosses in the nation. Unlike his fellow bosses, he wasn't shy about confronting law enforcement. For instance, when he was called in for questioning about the murder of one of his soldiers, Colombo appeared without a lawyer and dressed down the detective who called him in, Albert Seedman (later the NYPD chief of detectives). "I am an American citizen, first class," he snapped. "I don't have a badge that makes me an official good guy like you, but I work just as honest for a living."
On May 9, 1966, Colombo was sentenced to 30 days in jail for refusing to answer questions from a grand jury about his financial affairs. This would be Colombo's first and last jail sentence.
Italian-American Civil Rights League
In the spring of 1970, Colombo created the Italian-American Civil Rights League. On April 23, 1970, Joseph Colombo Jr. was arrested on extortion charges. In response, Joseph Colombo Sr. claimed FBI harassment and sent pickets to the east side offices of the agency. Colombo's actions generated a massive response from many Italian-Americans who felt demeaned by the federal government and the entertainment industry. Colombo then formed the League to serve as their action group. On June 29, 1970, over 150,000 people showed up in Columbus Circle in New York City for an "Italian-American Unity Day" rally to see and hear Joseph Colombo speak. The participants included hundreds of police officers, state and federal judges, federal prosecutors, senators, congressman, mayors, and dozens of prominent politicians all over the country, and dozens of prominent entertainers, such as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., George Raft, James Cagney, Tony Bennett, Don Rickles, Dean Martin, Frankie Valli, Muhammed Ali, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano, Joe DiMaggio, Joan Shawlee, Ann Dvorak, Jane Bryan, Raquel Welch, and among other famous, iconic actors, actresses, singers, supermodels, and sports figures attended Joseph Colombo's rally to see him and hear him speak. Around 10 million people all over the country was watching Joseph Colombo's rally on television as he was speaking.
Under Colombo's guidance, the League grew quickly and achieved national attention. Unlike other mob leaders who shunned the spotlight, Colombo appeared on television interviews, fundraisers, and speaking engagements for the League. In 1971, Colombo aligned the League with Rabbi and political activist Meir Kahane's Jewish Defense League (JDL), claiming that both groups were being harassed by the federal government. At one point, Colombo posted bail for 11 jailed JDL members.
In the spring of 1971, Paramount Pictures started filming "The Godfather" with the assistance of Colombo and the League. Due to its subject matter, the film originally faced great opposition from Italian-Americans to filming in New York. However, after producer Albert Ruddy met with Colombo and agreed to excise the terms "Mafia" and "Cosa Nostra" from the film, the League cooperated fully. Colombo's political power was so strong and immense, where he was able to get the Justice Department to banned the use of the word "Mafia" on the Godfather film.
In early 1971, Joey Gallo was released from prison. As a supposedly conciliatory gesture, Colombo invited Gallo to a peace meeting with an offering of $1,000. Gallo refused the invitation, said he had never agreed to peace between the two factions, and said that he wanted $100,000 to stop the conflict. At that point, acting boss Vincenzo Aloi issued a new order to kill Gallo.
On March 11, 1971, after being convicted of perjury for lying on his application to become a real estate broker, Colombo was sentenced to two and half years in state prison. The sentence, however, was delayed pending an appeal.
On June 28, 1971, Colombo was shot and seriously wounded at the second Italian Unity Day rally. As Colombo was approaching the podium to address the crowd, Jerome Johnson, an African American street hustler, approached Colombo. Wearing press credentials from the league and disguised as a photojournalist, Johnson fired three shots from an automatic pistol into Colombo's head and neck. Colombo's son and several others wrestled Johnson to the ground. At that point, a second man (possibly Richard Kuklinski) stepped out of the crowd and shot Johnson dead. The second assailant then escaped without being identified. The crowd quickly dispersed, although some made a feeble attempt to continue the festival.
Years as invalid and death
Colombo remained paralyzed for the next seven years. On August 28, 1971, after two months in a coma at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, Colombo was moved to his estate at Blooming Grove. he was a shadow of his former self because he was in a vegetative state In 1975, a court-ordered examination showed that Colombo could move his thumb and forefinger on his right hand. In 1976, there were reports that he could recognize people and utter several words. On May 22, 1978, Colombo died of cardiac arrest at St. Luke's Cornwall Hospital in Newburgh, New York.
Colombo's funeral was held at St Bernadette's Catholic Church in Bensonhurst and he was buried in Saint John Cemetery in the Middle Village section of Queens.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) eventually concluded that Johnson was a lone gunman. Since Johnson had spent time a few days earlier at a Gambino club, one theory was that Carlo Gambino organized the shooting. Colombo refused to listen to Gambino's complaints about the League, and allegedly spit in Gambino's face during one argument. However, the Colombo family leadership was convinced that Joe Gallo was the prime suspect. Gallo had just recently indicated his willingness to continue the family feud. In addition, since Johnson was African-American, the family assumed that Gallo had recruited Johnson through his African-American friends from prison.
After the Colombo shooting, Joseph Yacovelli became the acting boss. However, Yacovelli was just a front man for Carmine Persico, who took official control of the family. Colombo's shooting would start the Second Colombo war with the Gallo crew.
In popular culture
- Colombo features in the first episode of UK history TV channel Yesterday's documentary series Mafia's Greatest Hits.
- In "Christopher", an episode of The Sopranos, Silvio Dante claims that Colombo was the founder of the first Italian-American anti-defamation organization. However, the American Italian Anti-Defamation League was founded before Colombo's Italian-American Civil Rights League.
- In 2015, Joe Colombo's oldest son, Anthony Colombo, authored Colombo: The Unsolved Murder, a biography/memoir with co-author Don Capria
Colombo's assassination attempt is featured in the 2019 Martin Scorsese film The Irishman.