I’ll give you two words and you tell me what first comes to you mind. Vito Genovese………. Don Vitone is one of those polarizing figures. People either love him or hate him. If you love him, he was a tough street guy who commanded respect and left his family in great shape with guys who would lead long into the future. If you hate him, he’s a treacherous, jealous sociopath. Of course us mob nerds weren’t around him. I imagine that the feelings I described were amplified if you actually had to deal with him. Whether it was law enforcement or fellow mobsters, being around him had to be some experience.

As you all know, Vito was Lucky Luciano’s original underboss. When Lucky was put away (set up by law enforcement) Vito was named the acting boss. Unfortunately for Vito he had some legal issues of his own. In 1937 he fled the United States and returned to Italy in order to escape being picked up for the murder of Ferdinand Boccia. Vito preferred killing him than to split money they cheated off a wealthy gambler. Frank Costello then stepped in and led the family.

In 1945 Vito returns to New York. In Leonard Katz’ book, Uncle Frank, he claims that Frank Costello immediately gave the family back to Vito.
It’s more widely believed though that Vito didn’t become boss until the Costello shooting in 1957. Either way, back in New York Vito was a very powerful guy. He had the muscle and he was involved in getting the international heroin trade ramped up. After the Costello attempted hit, Vito and Carlo Gambino collaborate on the murder of Albert Anastasia. Now Vito must make sure that he has the commission behind him so he calls for the meeting in Apalachin to smooth everything over. You all know what a mess that turned out to be.

vito genovese

So now Vito has law enforcement all over him and he has mobsters pissed at him. What to do, what to do. Enter Nelson Cantellops.

Nelson Cantellops
Nelson Cantellops – Image courtesy of gangstersinc.ning.com

Nelson was a low-level drug dealer from the Bronx. He was married with three kids and by all accounts he wasn’t good at being either a husband or father. He often beat his wife when coming home drunk and never provided much for his kids. In July of 1957 he was arrested on drug charges. What transpired after his arrest seems to be of some question. There is a story that the FBN (Federal Bureau of Narcotics) worked on Nelson for a year getting information out of him. There is also a theory that he was paid by Vito’s old pals Carlo Gambino, Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello. Either way, Nelson Cantellops wove a tail of major heroin dealings and implicated Vito Genovese and Vito’s trusted soldier Vincent Gigante. Not only did he implicate them but he put himself in their company. He only claimed to have been together with Genovese once but once was enough. As the result of Nelson’s testimony, Genovese got 15 years and Gigante got 7 years.

This sentence for Genovese for all intents and purposes was a death sentence as he would die in prison in 1969.

Does anyone believe Genovese was dumb enough to be in the company of some small time drug dealer?

I certainly don’t.

So where did Nelson’s tale come from?
Did he just make it up himself in order to get out of prison early?
Did the FBN set this up in order to get Genovese off the streets just as Dewey had done with Luciano?
Or was it Vito’s old pals giving him payback for being greedy and stupid for the Apalachin meeting?

I personally would love to know that Costello got back at his old rival for the failed hit attempt but who knows. No matter which theory you subscribe to it was still Don Vitone being set up.

Michael Maffucci