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Unveiling Harlem’s Infamous Purple Gang

Retired Intelligence Detective Gary Jenkins brings you the best in mob history with his unique perception of the mafia. Gary interviews well-known mob historian and author Scott Dietche about his most recent book, Hitmen: The Mafia, Drugs, and the East Harlem Purple Gang. Scott Dietche is a nationally recognized expert on organized crime in the United States. This Tampa-based author has written books like Garden State Gangland: The Rise of the Mob in New Jersey, The Silent Don: The Criminal Underworld of Santo Trafficante Jr., Cigar City Mafia: A Complete History of the Tampa Underworld, and The Everything Mafia Book. Click anywhere on the highlighted text to find these books. In Hitmen, Scott tells of this minor league New York City Mafia crew known as the Purple Gang. These gangsters aspired to make their Purple Gang into the 6th Family by selling narcotics, committing murder, and extortion.
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mafia, gang, east harlem, purple, connection, drug, genovese, family, murders, tied, heroin, mob, early 70s, guns, killings, la cosa nostra, florida, gangs, new york, drug dealers


GARY JENKINS, Scott Dietche



The early years of the purple gangs appearance on the drug scene were a tumultuous era for many of the mob like drug syndicates operating in New York City, including the ones operating in East Harlem. But within the gangs own ranks internal strife and petty beefs led to several killings that law enforcement scrambled to solve more often than not, they were added to the list of unsolved gangland homicides. This early violence was one catalyst that led to the myth us of the Purple Gang as something akin to an elite hit squad for hire in the underworld. There were a lot of blood spatter drug related homicides, everybody suspected them the Purple Gang of doing a bunch of them, but we couldn’t prove it. The drug game was a violent one and the gang was certainly amenable to dispatching business rivals with little to no provocation. A 1976 DEA report stated much like the original Purple Gang that terrorize Detroit during the Prohibition era, the members of the current Purple Gang appear to have an enormous capacity for violence, involvement in numerous homicides and a lack of respect for other members of organized crime. Well, welcome



Welcome all you wiretappers out there, that little snippet you heard was a little bit from Scott oout his new book about the Purple Gang of East Harlem, New York. I’ll have links to get it but welcomes Scott, it’s really good to have you.



Yeah, great to be back. Good to see you again.



Alright, Scott’s been on here before he did a show and we did a show about the New Jersey mobs. And what was that gangland Garden State gangland Garden State gang land so I’ll have a link to find that down below guys. Really good books. And Scott does his research. I’ll tell you right now he does his research. Scott also does famous for the Ybor City or Tampa area mob tour, which I took and if you look on my YouTube channel, you can download a 10 minute segment of what you would see so if you’re, you’re down in Tampa in the winter, particularly I don’t think you do it in the summer days got



no we don’t walk around. It’s not conducive to walking outside during the day.



But it’s a it’s a fun tour when you go to Florida next winter. Or if you go Well, it’d be next winter. Now by the time this gets up, why go down there to Tampa and find the Ybor City mafia tour and talk to Scott a little bit Well, he’ll he’ll give you a really good tour. So the East Harlem Purple Gang. That’s the name for the original Purple Gang out of Detroit, which was famous for a lot of murders. And how did you get onto this stories guide?



So actually, when I was doing the research for Garden State gangland, I was looking at to some murders in New Jersey in the 1970s, particularly the murder of John ilardi air and in his nickname was Coca Cola last year. It was a Genovese gangs shooter and he was in prison in state prison. He had a furlough for the weekend. And he was killed outside of a motel. And the ballistics on the gun used in his murder tied into other murders of quasi Genovese associates and people that were scheduled to testify against Genovese members. And all these guns traced back to guns that were trafficked out of Florida by a group called the Purple Gang. And, you know, I heard the name, obviously, the Detroit Purple Gang, but I heard about the East Harlem Purple Gang a few times over the years, but never really dug much into him and kind of gotten a side tangent and started looking into and I’m like, Oh, this this might, this might be interesting, as a subject of a book is really a lot of mob stuff that was going on in the 70s in New York, and to current day to some extent tied into this group. So that kind of initiated the interest in the topic.



And you know, what I find interesting about it is it’s like this small group of some Italian American, some Irish to kind of a mishmash, if you will. There’s like organized almost like a mafia family that operates in New York City together in an organized fashion but outside the normal five families now they had to be people know what’s going on. They had to kick up who were their main connections back to the Genovese family.



Yeah, so like you said, it was kind of a mixed group that operated but they all grew up in East Harlem. They all kind of grew up in the same neighborhoods. They’re all kind of around the same age. And some of them had relatives whether there were fathers brothers uncles that were involved with the five families but you’re right the Genovese probably the biggest, the Banano family and the Lucchese family, those are the three that most of the guys in the Purple Gang, that that had connections tied to those three families.



Now as they start exerting a little influence and power and got a little older, a little more organized, I assume they’re like most gang, young man gangs, they start with smash and grabs and burglaries kind of higher end thefts. Oh, Home Invasion robberies maybe. But then they got into the heroin trade, which was huge in New York by the 70s is illustrated by the French connection that the tie ins were really into. They were the they really were the people who were bringing heroin in from overseas before some of these other black gangsters rose up. So how do they get into that they just fall into that are actors enforcers or collectors. So



in the early 70s, there was a series of cases in in and around this, this one stretch of road Pleasant Avenue in East Harlem, which was a huge epicenter for the traffic of heroin, especially in the Northeast. And there was a big bust in the early 70s That netted I think one netted over 70 guys involved in the heroin business. So a lot of the older cohort guys like Louie the whale or Carmine Tremonti, though it was the boss of the Lucchese family, they all got swept up in these raids, and it kind of leaves a power vacuum on the streets of East Harlem. So these young guys who are kind of like you said, the real kind of street level gang, they kind of step up into this power vacuum and take over the heroin trade in the early 70s. So by the mid 70s, they’ve really come to, to kind of dominate that portion of that. There was a little bit of cocaine, but like you said, it was predominantly heroin. That was that was their drug trade.



Now, were they able to take advantage of the really, maybe 100 year old trafficking routes from the Middle East to Sicily to France, like the French Connection first and went to Cuba to Trafficante, and then Kansas City in the in the Midwest and the Northeast, the later on to Montreal, the French Connection where they were able to tap into that supply clear back to Sicily, I assume.



Yeah. So that was part of it. And also, at this time, in the early 70s, do you see the emergence of the Southeast Asia route coming into the United States as well, so they had a couple of different ways they were getting drugs, also through Canada. So but yeah, some of those early routes that that kind of French Connection route started, started getting a little bit too much attention from law enforcement. So you know, as you would imagine, they look for other alternatives, but, but they were able to play again, already to the existing kind of customer base and distribution networks that the older syndicate guys had, before they were busted up.



There’s a lot of them were, you know, as far as working directly, were out of it during the 70s and 80s. They kind of backed off. So I guess these guys like you say, filled that vacume. And then as they had this working relationship with with the La Cosa Nostra, then did they start using them a little bit like, like, murder incorporated or something? They use them for different things. You got a bunch of deathly young guys like this that kind of want your attention, want your respect, then you can use them for things. It’s been my experience.



Yeah. And to some extent, they did that. I’ll give you an example. So just north of New York City is a county, Rockland County. There was a Genovese I can’t remember if it was a Capo. I think it was a Capo at that point. But a Genovese guy, Joe Pagano and he ran. He was trying to run the carting industry up there. So there were a couple private garbage collectors and in order to kind of push them out of the business he hired guys from the Purple Gang and brought them up there and they kind of like you said acted like muscle for him and we’re, you know, threatened to beat up Carter’s and threatening the life of these guys that own these other private carting companies. So yeah, in exactly the way you described, they were kind of brought in as these young guys with are pretty violent, hot headed, and let them do all the dirt work.



These you mentioned the guns out of Florida. Where are these these 22 caliber guns at annual Chicago had the same kind of a deal going they were bringing, especially some 22 calibers up out of Florida. Was this the same thing? You know, a more, you’re learning more about that kind of ability to get the weapons and spread them throughout New York?



Yeah, so they were going down predominantly .22s, they were going out to gun dealerships in Broward County. For those not familiar, that’s Fort Lauderdale, just north of Miami Dade County, and purchasing all these guns and just literally just driving them up byI- 95 back up into New York and distributing them amongst the Genovese family. And the main guys that were doing this were Purple Gang members like Frank de Certeau, Jr, and Richard Rocco. So there was there was a connection there. Now. One of the interesting things is, like you said there, there was a spate of 22 caliber killings in the 70s. Because all these guns that were being brought up there in Chicago, you know, was an area where they were being brought up. In fact, Sam Giancana was killed with a 22. You know, his murders thrown up there and this kind of rash of 22 caliber murders.



Yeah, even out to Las Vegas to because of the Chicago influence that I think Frank Cullotta used one of those 22s. And Ken Ito was a famous Chicago hit. And they were reloading the bullets with less powder, so it would make less noise and put silencers on him. And then the bullets weren’t as strong. Oh, yeah, but they didn’t Chicago so they didn’t get killed. Ido killed him that hurt him big time than sound like you’re in New York guys tried to mess with the bullets up there. It sounds like that. The 22s always work the way they were supposed to.



Yeah, they definitely seem that way. There were there was a there are a lot of, you know, just kind of on an aside, one of the things that I found from doing this research is I never realized how violent the mafia in New York were in the 70s How many killings just even outside the Purple Gang. It was a really violent era, especially in the mid 70s. For the mafia.



It was a time of same way in Kansas City, Cleveland, the Danny Green thing. It’s like the 70s was a time when the post war baby boom, young guys started coming of age and they’re wanting some more action and the old guys who were like the Mustache Petes going back to the you know, 1920s were still wanting to hang on to what they had. So you know, speaking of the older guys now East Harlem wasn’t that kind of Fat Tony Salerno’s area of operation, shall we say was Did he have a special connection with these guys or did he come into play on this come into play on this?



There were some connections actually funny enough? There were two. There was a Tony Salerno and a Frank Salerno who were tied in with the Purple Gang. No relation to Fat Tony, so I don’t know. But yeah, so you know, East Harlem going all the way back to the foundation of the American mafia. You had guys like clutch and Morello he was based out of East Harlem was Ciro TerraNova. Joe Valachi grew up in East Harlem so he’s Harlem was a real fertile ground for mafia guys. And around the time that purple band come up. There are still a lot of Mafia guys and like I said, just a couple blocks over that Tony Salerno had his Palma boys Social Club, which was his headquarters. So yeah, I think because of that proximity, and that already some strong ties with the Genovese family that that was one of the those connections that they had.



Yeah, I mean, I noticed that in Kansas City, like anywhere around the city market here, if you had a bar or something then the mob the Civella family felt like that they had some kind of proprietary interest just because of geography because it was in their kind of historical area. So that’d be that’s the mob, you know, they think they own you, you come within their purview or you they do anything for you in any way they own you the rest of your life. That’s the mob or and these guys, they were like I guess they were like La Cosa Nostra wannabes did they see themselves as like a farm team for a coach?



Yeah, that’s kind of a good descriptor, because what ends up happening is so get the Purple Gang really lasts maybe 10 years as this kind of real viable group. By the late 70s, early 80s Some of these guys start getting plucked into the majors, if you will, kind of brought in as and made it into some of the mafia family so the group starts kind of dissipating. Some guys go into the Genovese family Bonnano family and you know, the gang kind of there’s still remnants of it, but by the mid to late 80s kind of disappears and becomes kind of more mythological thing than it actually viable gang. But they’re all the guys that were involved in it that were still around are still active in various aspects of organized crime, whether stolen the drug trade or in other areas.



Now those those connections, this may be a little bit too much detail and stuff that’s really hard to learn. They had connections with the black community, did they have like a point person that you could find out that then, you know, put took the larger loads, they were able to get in overseas, and then start distributing more and onto a street level because they didn’t go out into the streets of Harlem and, and sell drugs on the street corner?



Yeah, so there weren’t a lot of close connections between the black dealers at the time and the Purple Gang. Frank de Certeau, Jr. had used some dealers in Harlem to move his product. Probably the best known one is Matthew Madonna was the major drug supplier to Nicky Barnes and Nicky Barnes, obviously very well known Harlem drug dealer back in the day A Matthew Madonna was a member of the Purple Gang, who later became kind of the acting Boss. Casey’s when he was released from prison in the 90s. But yeah, so there’s, there’s a relationship there, where they start off as suppliers. And then, you know, over time, some of the black gangs go off on their own become their, their own self sufficient operation and don’t need the mafia to supply them anymore. So, but definitely in the, in the early years, there were a lot of close ties.



Now, those old blaxploitation movies, as we used to call them were like super fly, but they always showed the evil, the corrupt policemen, the evil of usually Italian sounding white guy, and then the black dealer. So that’s all based in fact, and isn’t it?



Yeah, yeah. I think to some extent, yeah. Especially back back in the early 70s. For sure.



Yeah, cuz they can’t, can’t say the New York City Police Department Special Investigations Division that narcotics people they were you know, there was some shady business going on by the back.



Oh, yeah. Yeah, this is, you know, the time of the Knapp Commission. You know, Frank Serpico and his testimony in the in the resulting movie with Al Pacino, just kind of really showing how, how embedded the mafia were in police corruption and especially in certain neighborhoods, where they were, you know, paying off everybody.



I’m trying to think that Pleasant Avenue went out was was Joey Gallo and his crew or when No, that’s President Street, that’s President Street, okay, I’m getting getting my streets, my P Streets.



There’s actually a really, there’s a great collectible mafia book, you can find a copy for under a couple $100 called the Pleasant Avenue connection from the early 70s. And it’s one of the cops that worked on that original case that busted a lot of the main heroin dealers at the time. So you might be able to find in your local library, it’s really an interesting book. It’s kind of a nice snapshot of like the early 70s and the mafia drug gang. And, you know, one of the other things I think, through my research and you know this because we’ve talked about this before with the Kansas City Tampa connection, is this eternal myth that the mafia were never involved in drugs, and I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. They’re deep in it for a long time. Yeah,



wait way too much money. And the families you mentioned that they were connected to are the families that binotto Genovese, and Lucchese, those are the families that then had they just didn’t have Gambino in it, but they all you know were well known as come out and you know, as we look back in history, that they all were making money off the heroin and then the cocaine and probably still do to some extent greater or lesser today, because there’s just too much money and just too much money. It’s too corrupting an influence it’s it’s just it’s amazing. So these guys, as they you know, kind of matured and got older How did that how did that progress and their relationship with with as they wanted to go into the crime fad, the La Cosa Nostra families and you know, they didn’t really become the Sixth family, although I read somewhere where there were some people that that claim that they might be the Sixth family they never really quite got to there. How did that develop as they got older?



Yeah, so there was a period of time like 1977-78 There was a bunch of news articles written about the Purple Gang it was like the the flavor of the month if you will, they call them you know that the six family that they’re getting ready to take on all the other five families and that’s a little kind of media hyperbola and but in reality what what was happening is that the guys that already had family connections, now we’re getting you know, in their mid to late 20s had shown their ability to make money on the street are now being pulled in to the to the family so guys like Angelo Prisco, who becomes a Genovese family member Mikey Mancuso, who goes into the Bonannos and now is currently allegedly the head of the Bonanno crime family here in 2023. He’s a purple gang member you know other guys like Danny Leo, who was a Genovese acting boss for a while these guys start making that move up into the into the, into the big leagues. And the but then you also have guys like the Meldish brothers, Michael and Joseph who can never be made because they’re not Italian. They kind of keep on the more street level criminal activities but still have ties to the different families so as they mature as they get older, they really kind of become absorbed into the overall organized crime picture of New York.



That’s quite a little slice of life and in New York City that you’ve stumbled on to that’s not that’s not really been reported on or books about particularly I I first saw you talking about it, or I saw your book or something, I thought, well, who is that? I did my own little bit of research did kind of quick little overview recently, and threw it up on my podcast just like instruct myself in it because I knew I was going to be talking to you. And it’s it’s a really interesting little, kind of a hidden little pocket of organized crime in New York City that that most people didn’t know about. There needs to be a movie made. I think about these guys. It’s got all the right stuff.



Yeah. Yeah. Especially in the early years, like the first couple years like 72-74. You see the a lot of killings internally, like there’s a lot of drug beefs between guys and the gang. And there’s quite a bit of violence, I was fortunate enough to get a copy of a DEA report, which I referenced in a little snippet I read. And it really kind of started outlining all these murders that not only were they responsible for, what other ones they were allegedly involved with, or tied to. And then as the seven years go on, their name pops up and other killings like these Genovese family killings in the late 70s. Tied it tied into New Jersey mobster by the name of John Digilio. And then one of the weirdest killings that the Purple Gang is tied to is the killing of Donald Aronow in Miami, Florida in the mid 1980s. He was the founder of Donzi Apache made other cigarette boats. And he, he got wrapped up in that South Florida drug era thing. What was interesting is he was also very good friends with Frank Fecerto , Jr. And Paul Kayano. Guys that were member’s of the Purple Gang so after his murder, the Purple Gang kind of come under law enforcement radar, and the gentleman that’s ultimately charged and convicted of his murder is likely tied into a drug syndicate run by this guy named Ben Kramer. So not a direct tie to the Purple Gang. But still, the fact that they’re, you know, around all these kind of more high profile killings was interesting.



I always wanted to do that story on that Daniel Aranow, Thunderboats or something like that was the name of the company or any I was wanting to do that. I just never got back around to it. I read a whole lot at one time that got distracted, but it’s a heck of a story. Oh, yeah. That guy is like, Mr. upstanding businessman. And but yet he’s got all these connections with the drug gangs and ended up being a victim of assassination. Really?



Yeah, yeah. And he was, he was tied in with George George Bush, the elder George HW Bush, and he was actually making so So in a nutshell that the thing was he was making boats for customs agents to intercept drug dealers, but his other boats are being bought by drug dealers.



I know it’s a story. I’ll get into that one. All right, is there any other particular stories that you want people giving people a little taste out of your book here?



I think another interesting thing is the as it was really apparent with the gang, so they all kind of grow up in East Harlem, which is a tight, tight knit, but you know, real urban, dense neighborhood on the upper upper Upper East Side of Manhattan, small neighborhood, which at its height was actually much bigger Little Italy than the famous Little Italy on Mulberry Street. But they kind of follow that pattern that a lot of mobsters do so even though their early exploits are centered in East Harlem, by the late 70s, they’re going Suburban. So they’re moving up to Yonkers and to Tuckahoe and these kind of outside the city neighborhoods and their crimes are following them. So now, you start seeing news articles from these more kind of suburban even quasi rural police departments suddenly there’s mafia guys moving into their town and so it’s kind of interesting because it follows that pattern you see with the mafia in New York is you know, they kind of got more successful they move out to Long Island they move you know, out into the suburbs



same here in Kansas City exactly the same Yeah, it’s it’s it’s a ball over. Interesting did they do Did you run onto especially early in the stories about doing a lot of rip offs of other drug dealers they had, they’d get picked tips up because you’re in that world you pick tips up about other successful drug dealers, learn where their stash house was, or maybe where they kept their money or things like that, then go do a home invasion kind of robbery. We get those all the time. And you can always tell them the newspapers, two people found that in the house. And I can tell you right now, it’s a drug robbery. So did they get into any of that?



So yeah, so there are some stories and some, like rumors around that they did exactly that. They were kidnapping other drug dealers, they were kidnapping low level Wiseguy associates and basically a kidnapping ransom type scheme exactly as you described it and they’re also implicated in a couple bigger the disappearance of a Aturo Zapi who was a Gambino guy in Florida Supposedly there’s a Purple connect Purple Gang connection to that but but certainly in those early years when they’re out and about there’s definitely some some kidnapping I didn’t see a lot in terms of like robbery or in home invasion type stuff but the kidnapping for ransom definitely was was one of the things that we’re involved in



interesting that’s how all these young mob guys start is ripping off other criminals because they they one that had the the balls to do it if you will, or other people don’t really have the Cajones to do something like that. It’s interesting progresses. I’ve seen it here at Kansas City. And it’s, you know, we even had one FBI set up a drug sting. And these guys found out about it, they were they’re the ones that that looked like they were the FBI was going to sting them. They didn’t know how bad these guys were. And they were they had a bureau had the hotel room wired up for camera and sound. And the guy just pulls out a gun start shooting the guy this guy the informants is going to sell him these four or five kilos of dope and then they arrested the getaway driver out in front and and I know from intelligent sources that they were part of a gang that was getting into that and that’s how they were getting started was was doing kidnappings and ripping off other people for their drugs . All right, Scott Dietche from Tampa, Florida and the Ybor City Mafia Tour and the Purple Gang remind us the title of that and your other titles. So you’ve got several other titles. I didn’t write them down. I know you’ve got them off the top of your head and I’ll put links to all this down below guys.



Yeah, so my, the book is called Hitman: the Mafia Drugs and the East Harlem Purple Gang, also Garden State Gangland, which is kind of the first overall comprehensive history of the mafia in New Jersey, and Cigar City Mafia, which is the story of the Tampa mafia.



All right, great. Scott, I really appreciate you.



Anytime. It’s great. Great being on again,



it’s good to see you again. Oh, guys, don’t forget, I like to ride motorcycles. So watch out for motorcycles when you’re out there on the street. And if you have a problem with PTSD, and you’ve been in the service, go to the VA website and get that hotline. If you have a problem with drugs or alcohol. Our good friend Anthony Ruggiano, who was on the show not too long ago, has a hotline on his website. Like it’s reformed or Anthony And he also has a YouTube page. And he also works in treatment down in Florida somewhere. So call that hotline and maybe you can get in treatment with Anthony Ruggiano. And so thanks a lot, Scott for coming on the show.



And real quick. I interviewed Anthony for for the Purple Gang book. He had some good good stories with that. So try that. All



right. Thanks, guys. Thanks, guys. Thanks, guys. Thanks a lot.


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