Federal Prisoner “John” Discusses Helicopter Wire, the Mafia, and Al Sharpton
After “John’s” conviction he was sent to a federal prison in North Carolina. The place was large and daunting, especially for people like John, a first-time offender. Large concrete buildings were surrounded by a double row of what must have been twenty-foot tall fences. Between the two chain link barriers were mounds of looping razor wire. Around the fence was an asphalt path where a truck constantly drove around the perimeter. The only time it stopped moving was at shift change time when a new officer assumed the driving duty.
Strands of “helicopter wire” hung in criscross patterns above the compound. This was to prevent a chopper from landing during an escape attempt. John later learned that had indeed happened in the past.
Inmate “John Johnson” was assigned to one of four large dormitory-style housing units designated as buildings A, B, C, and D. Each building was equipped to hold 800 inmates—400 upstairs and 400 downstairs. Inside were small two-man open cubicles. Each one contained two metal lockers and a steel-frame bunk bed, one metal shelf for writing, and two plastic chairs. The cubicles ran along the outer walls with a back-to-back row down the center of the unit.
However, due to overcrowding, each tiny cubicle housed three inmates. One man slept on a mattress on the floor, leaving a space of approximately two-feet by eight-feet for standing, dressing, and whatever else needed doing.
The three inmates assigned to share John’s cubicle were an odd mix, with John in for a white collar crime, a short, beefy Italian man named Victor who’d been caught running kilos of cocaine up and down an East Coast drug corridor, and a large African American man named Mike who was serving a life sentence as a kingpin for a major drug operation.
Victor was, honestly, as dumb as a rock, so it was plain to see that he’d been used as a drug mule to carry package A from point B to C. Nothing more. Mike on the other hand, was well-educated and spoke as if he could’ve been a college professor at an Ivy league school. John was intimidated to say the least.
Victor hung out with the other Italians, a group of men who obviously stuck together and were led by a mob boss who’d been caught and sentenced to serve his time in the North Carolina prison. He called the shots within the Italian prison group, and it was no secret at all that he still called the shots on the streets.
John was in disbelief when he learned the identity of the short, balding mafia man—Venero Frank “Benny Eggs” Mangano, of the Genovese Crime Family.
John asked a fellow inmate about the liver-spotted aging man and was quickly told to steer a wide path around him. Nobody, but nobody was allowed to approach him without first asking for permission from one of his bodyguards.
So John conducted a bit of research in the prison library, discovering that Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano served in the U.S, military and had entered World War II. At the time, he was five-foot-four and weighed a mere 145 pounds. He was a high school dropout working as a waiter at the time of his enlistment. While in the military he served as a tail-gunner in bomber aircraft and had even conducted two bombing runs on D-Day. He was a decorated hero who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters, and three Battle Stars.
Then he became a mafia underboss.
“Benny Eggs” was known for his stringent loyalty to the Mafia’s code of non-cooperation with authorities. Once, he’d been called as a witness in federal court. He refused to testify. Trying a second time and using immunity from prosecution as a carrot on a stick, the Justice Department lost again. Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano refused to testify and the court found him in contempt and imprisoned for nearly two years.
Joseph Coffey of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force, still on the heels of Benny Eggs, later testified that Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano was an important figure in the Genovese Crime Family. Something had to be done about him.
Meanwhile, John DiGilio, another higher-up member of the Genovese Crime Family, was convicted of bribing an FBI clerk-typist to obtain copies of FBI files related to his unlawful activities. DiGilio controlled a branch of the Genovese Crime Family in the Bayonne area.
During this period, the FBI began receiving more reliable information on Genovese Family leaders and their activities. One of their sources was civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton is said to have forwarded information to the FBI regarding Genovese mobsters, information obtained from crime family associate Joseph Buonanno.
Sharpton’s information was key to the FBI initiating surveillance ops at two social clubs. They’d also bugged automobiles and wiretapped more than a dozen telephones. The FBI then, based on Sharption’s tips and the new information gained from them, switched their view of Genovese syndicate’s leadership, moving over to target Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano and a couple of other known names.
Later, John DiGilio was convicted of conspiracy to commit loan sharking. DiGiglio’s sentencing was set for a later date. In the meantime, a separate federal court trial began for DiGilio and a few of his extortion conspiracy codefendants. During the trial, prosecutors offered tape recordings of Digilio making humiliating suggestions about Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano.
In an odd twist, DiGiglio was acquitted but his co-conspirators were found guilty of the charges. DiGilio hastily left the courtroom immediately after the proceeding.
Still, Digilio had to return to court at a later date to be sentenced for a different loan-sharking case. He was a no show for the hearing. A few days later a fisherman discovered a body bag floating in a river. Diglio’s body was inside. He’d been shot five times in the head.
In 1989, Al Sharpton’s name once again appeared when a grand jury indicted five people for attempting to launder money through a group called the National Youth Movement The National Youth Movement’s founder was, you guessed it, the Rev. Al Sharpton. So once again, Sharpton cooperated in the investigations of the Genovese crime organization.
This time the ties to a huge organized crime organization caught up many top leaders and, wanting desperately to get the “top” boss, prosecutors decided to put Genovese Crime Family underboss Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano on the witness stand. They wanted him to testify against his boss.
At age 76, Mangano was defiant and refused to testify in spite of being offered total immunity for his part in the crimes.
So that’s how Benny “The Eggs” came to be at the same prison where mild-mannered John was also to spend a few a few years of his life.
Benny Eggs was in command of the Italians in the prison, for sure, and his followers did everything for him, including providing security, cooking and washing and sewing and shining his prison shoes, giving him money, running a store racket on the inside, and they delivered messages to the outside world for him. He wanted for nothing while inside the prison.
John often sat on a wooden picnic table in the center of the rec yard, watching Benny Eggs walk laps around the professional-grade track, surrounded by “his men.” His top lieutenants at his side while the enforcers and other heavy-hitters walked along the outside and to the rear. Others walked well to the sides, to head off any attacks. These walks also served as a means to conduct “business” meetings since the track was the only place where conversations couldn’t be overheard. Corrections officers watched the group’s activity closely, and always glanced to the skies, frequently. Helicopter watch, John supposed.
John was eventually released after serving just over two years. On his way to the gate and to freedom, he was approached by two of Mangano’s “men” who demanded that he hand over his wristwatch and portable radio. If he refused, the men stated that they knew where he lived and where his wife worked.
John handed the men his watch and radio and continued to the main office, anxious to leave behind the bizarre world of the Mafia, drug dealers, embezzlers, murderers, and more.
The stories he could tell …
Obviously, John is not this man’s true name. However, the story he told me is the truth as he recalls it.
John served 22 months in federal prison, where he witnessed everything from beatings, crooked officers, expert tattooing, an an inmate chiropractor who held “office hours” each afternoon out on the rec yard. A six pack of bottled water earned a neck and back adjustment.
And, there was a federal judge serving time there who helped inmates prepare legal documents. A full appeal cost inmates an even thousand dollars, with the funds sent to his commissary account by people on the outside.
Everything had its price there, including a piece of cake stolen from the dining hall that cost one U.S. postage stamp, the equivalent of fifty cents. Yes, stamps are the currency of the prison world.