Richard Cantarella (aka "Shellackhead") (born 1944), was a New York mobster who became a caporegime for the Bonanno crime family and later a government witness.
Cantarella was born to Italian parents on the Lower East Side, Manhattan and raised in Knickerbocker Village, a public housing development that was home to many Bonanno family members. A skinny kid with jet-black hair, Cantarella got the name "Shellackhead" from his hair pomade. Cantarella was married to Lauretta Castelli and they had a son, Paul Cantarella.
As a young man, Cantarella was introduced to the Bonanno family by his uncle, mobster Alfred Embarrato. Embarrato controlled the distribution center for the New York Post through local union of newspaper workers. In 1963, Embarrato obtained a job for Cantarella at the Post as a delivery truck driver. However, Cantarella and his cousin, Bonanno mobster Joseph D'Amico, actually served as enforcers on the newspaper's loading docks, jobs they would perform for over thirty years. From 1988 until 1991, Cantarella was a so-called “tail man”, a worker who rides on the back of the delivery truck and unloads the newspaper bundles. However, Cantarella never showed up for work; he paid a laborer $20 a night to do his job while Cantarella collected his $700 a week in wages.
During the late 1970s, Cantarella became involved in criminal activities with Manhattan City Councilman Richard Mazzeo, the Director of Real Estate for the City of New York's Marine and Aviation Department. Mazzeo dispensed leases for newsstands and parking lots at the Staten Island Ferry terminals in Lower Manhattan and Staten Island. In return for granting leases to certain individuals, Mazzeo received large kickbacks. Cantarella told Mazzeo that a newspaper vendor at the Lower Manhattan terminal was operating an illegal sportsbook operation. This information allowed Mazzeo to break the vendor's lease and evict him. In return, Mazzeo installed Cantarella as the vendor's replacement. By the 1980s, Cantarella controlled newspaper stands in both terminals. Cantarella and Mazzeo became close friends and briefly shared an apartment in Upper Manhattan. The two men made hundreds of thousands of dollars on their lease scams.
In 1983, Mazzeo lost his job as director, was convicted of tax evasion charges, and sent to jail for six months. Mazzeo started using illegal drugs and Cantarella started worrying that Mazzeo might become a government witness. After consulting with other Bonanno members, Cantarella decided to murder Mazzeo. On the evening of Nov. 14, 1983, Cantarella, Alfred Embarrato, Joseph D'Amico, and Patrick Romanello met Mazzeo at a sanitation garage in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Mazzeo was meeting them at the upstairs garage office about a possible job. As the men walked down the stairs, Cantarella shot Mazzeo in the head. After shooting and stabbing the body several times, they loaded it into a black plastic bag and dumped it. Mazzeo's body was discovered five days later.
In 1982, the Bonanno family was rocked by the revelation that one of their associates, Donnie Brasco, was actually a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) undercover agent named Joseph Pistone. Cantarella's cousin Capo Anthony Mirra was among those responsible for introducing Brasco into the family. After the family executed capo Dominick Napolitano, another Brasco friend, the terrified Mirra went into hiding.
Family boss Joseph Massino ordered Cantarella to find Mirra and murder him. On February 18, 1982, Cantarella convinced Mirra to meet him at a parking garage in Lower Manhattan. As Cantarella and Embarrato kept watch, another cousin, Joseph D'Amico climbed into Mirra's Mercedes S-Class and shot him in the temple at point blank range.
Family crime wave
Beginning in 1991, Cantarella started using his son as an accomplice in many of his criminal operations. In 1994, Cantarella and other mobsters kidnapped a wealthy businessman at his office, drove him home, forced him to deactivate the burglar alarm system, and robbed him of cash, jewelry and other valuables. They also forced the victim to start paying protection money to Cantarella. Cantarella also extorted $250,000 from another businessman, using part of the money to purchase a Pontiac Firebird convertible for Lauretta.
In 1992, the State of New York started investigating allegations of racketeering and fraud at the New York Post. The target was the Bonanno family and its control of the newspaper. During the investigation, the family became concerned that Robert Perrino, a delivery superintendent at the paper, would cooperate with prosecutors. Perrino had been operating a number of criminal scams at the Post, victimizing both fellow employees and the company. Perrino's main contact with the Bonanno crime family was Salvatore Vitale.
Vitale approached Canterella and asked him if he would murder Perrino. Vitale suggested to Cantarella that he could take Perrino's job at the Post. Cantarella, a lifelong friend to Perrino, raised no objections. Vitale then told Bonanno consigliere Anthony Spero that Cantarella wanted to eliminate Perrino. Spero gave Cantarella permission. On May 5, 1992, Perrino was lured to a Bonanno club in Bensonhurst, where he was murdered. In December 2003, Perrino's skeleton was excavated from the floor of a construction company in Staten Island. Perrino had been shot multiple times to the head.
Canterella was eventually convicted of grand larceny for his "no show" job at the Post and served seven months in prison.
With Vitale's conviction in 2001, Cantarella became acting underboss for the family. However, in October 2002, Cantarella was himself indicted on racketeering charges that included the Perrino murder, arson, kidnapping, loansharking, extortion, illegal gambling, and money laundering. Lauretta and Paul Cantarella were also indicted on racketeering charges. In December 2002, Cantarella accepted a plea bargain deal to avoid prison time for his family and became a government witness. In early 2003, the Bonanno family realized that Cantarella had become an informant.
In June 2004, Cantarella testified at the murder trial of Bonanno boss Joseph Massino, admitting in court his own role in the 1983 Mazzeo killing. Also in 2004, Cantarella testified that he attended the Bonanno family induction ceremony for Perry Criscitelli, who was then the president of the Feast of San Gennaro Association. In July 2007, Cantarella testified at the murder and racketeering trial of Bonanno mobster Vincent Basciano. As of 2011, it is assumed that Canterella and his family are part of a Witness Protection Program.