Joseph Michael "Joe Cargo" Valachi (September 22, 1904 – April 3, 1971) was an American gangster, notable as the first member of the Italian-American Mafia to publicly acknowledge its existence, and credited with popularization of the term cosa nostra.
In 1963, Valachi testified before a committee of the United States Senate, known as the Valachi hearings, disclosing previously unknown information about the Italian-American Mafia including its structure, operations, rituals and membership. Valachi's testimony was the first major violation of Omertà, and the first concrete evidence that the Italian-American Mafia existed to federal authorities and the general public. Valachi died in 1971 while serving a life sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution, La Tuna.
Joseph Valachi was born on September 22, 1904, in the East Harlem area of New York City, United States, into an impoverished Italian immigrant family. His father was a violent alcoholic, and Valachi later blamed his background for his turn to organized crime.
Valachi's criminal career began with a small gang known as the Minutemen, so called for carrying out smash and grab burglaries and escaping within a minute. Valachi was the getaway driver for this gang, and his ability to make a quick getaway earned him a reputation as a rising star in the New York City criminal underworld. In 1921, Valachi was arrested on grand larceny charges, and in 1923, Valachi was arrested in the aftermath of a botched robbery, subsequently pleading guilty to attempted burglary and was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, but was released after serving only nine months of his sentence. Valachi returned to discover he had been replaced with a new driver by the Minutemen, and formed a new burglary gang.
In the early 1930s, Valachi was introduced into the Italian-American Mafia, also known as the Cosa Nostra, through his contact Dominick "The Gap" Petrilli. He soon became a soldato (soldier) in the Reina Family, now known as the Lucchese Family, led by Gaetano Reina. Valachi joined during the height of the Castellammarese War, a violent power struggle within Italian organized crime between the factions of Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano over control of operations in the United States. Reina was assassinated after he had switched allegiances from Masseria to Maranzano. Valachi fought as part of the Reina Family on the side of Maranzano, which eventually emerged victorious after Masseria's assassination on April 15, 1931. Maranzano proclaimed himself capo di tutti capi ("boss of all bosses") in the Italian-American Mafia, and Valachi became one of his bodyguards. This position was short-lived as Maranzano himself was assassinated five months after the end of the Castellammarese War by a coalition of his subordinates led by Charles "Lucky" Luciano. Valachi then became a soldier in the family headed by Lucky Luciano, eventually known as the Genovese Family), in the crew headed by Anthony "Tony Bender" Strollo. In July 1932, Valachi married Carmela Reina, the eldest daughter of Gaetano Reina. Valachi remained in his position as a soldier in the Genovese Family until 1959 when he was convicted of narcotics violations and sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment.
Historically, the existence of the Italian-American Mafia had long been refused or unknown to most of the American public, although it existed as an open secret to the Italian-American community, law enforcement agencies, and various associates and victims. J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had even publicly denied the existence of the Mafia despite investigating it for years. This continued until 1957 when the Apalachin meeting, a summit of international Italian organized crime figures in Upstate New York hosted by Joseph Barbara, was raided by police. The raid resulted in the indictment of 58 Cosa Nostra bosses, and the aftermath confirmed the existence of the Mafia to the public. Despite this, little else was revealed about the organization itself.
In October 1963, Valachi testified before Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations, known as the Valachi hearings, stating that the Italian-American Mafia did exist - the first time a member had acknowledged the existence of the organization in public. Valachi's testimony was the first major violation of Omertà, a code of honor practiced by Italian organized crime syndicates which strictly forbids any cooperation with authorities, and the first concrete evidence to federal authorities that the Italian-American Mafia existed. Valachi described several inner mechanics of the Mafia, including its structure, operations, rituals and membership.
Valachi's motivations for becoming an informer have been the subject of some debate: Valachi claimed to be testifying as a public service and to expose a powerful criminal organization that he had blamed for ruining his life, but it is also possible he was hoping for government protection as part of a plea bargain in which he was instead sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder which he had committed while already serving in prison for his narcotics violation, avoiding the death penalty. While in prison, Valachi feared that mob boss and fellow prisoner Vito Genovese had ordered his death as a traitor. Valachi and Genovese were both serving sentences for heroin trafficking. On June 22, 1962, using a pipe left near some construction work, Valachi bludgeoned to death an inmate whom he mistook for Joseph DiPalermo, a Mafia member he believed was commissioned to kill him. After time with FBI handlers, Valachi came forward with a story of Genovese giving him a kiss on the cheek, which he took as a "kiss of death". When Valachi decided to cooperate with the Justice Department, attorney William G. Hundley became his protector, later stating: "We'd put dark glasses and wigs on him and take him to the Roma restaurant. He was a hell of a guy. . . . My days with Valachi convinced me that the Cosa Nostra was the most overrated thing since the Communist Party." Although Valachi's disclosures never led directly to the prosecution of many Mafia leaders, he was able to provide many details of history of the Mafia, operations and rituals, aiding in the solution of several unsolved murders, as well as naming many members and the major crime families. His testimony, which was broadcast on radio and television and published in newspapers, was devastating for the Italian-American Mafia, which was still reeling from the Apalachin meeting in 1957. Following Valachi's testimony, the Italian-American Mafia was no longer invisible to the public as it had previously been for almost a century.
After the Justice Department first encouraged and then blocked publication of Valachi's memoirs, a biography heavily influenced by those memoirs and by interviews with Valachi was written by journalist Peter Maas and published in 1968 as The Valachi Papers, forming the basis for a later movie of the same title starring Charles Bronson in the titular role.
Death and legacy
On April 3, 1971, Valachi died of a heart attack while serving his sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution, La Tuna in Anthony, Texas. A $100,000 bounty for Valachi's death, placed by Vito Genovese, was still valid and went uncollected.
Francis Ford Coppola, in his director's commentary on The Godfather Part II (1974), mentioned that the scenes depicting the Senate committee interrogation of Michael Corleone and Frank Pentangeli are based on the Valachi Federal hearings, and Frank Pentangeli is a sort of Valachi figure.