Episode 11: The Knickerbocker Avenue Bambino Squeeze
(WARNING: Graphic Images)
So, it’s been a while since my last Chronicle. And there is a good reason for that. Simply put, I’ve been busy. Promoting my two novels and new clothing line, “Our Thing” Apparel, which just recently debuted in its first store. Needless to say, I’ve had my hands full the last few months. But I suppose I can’t complain. I mean, radio interviews and NYC books signings sure beat where I was this time last year—locked in a steaming hot 8×10 cell with a psychopath bunky named Harry, who was serving life for murdering a guy who refused to give him change at a carwash.
Anyway, let’s get back to where I last left off, hustling and hiding in New York, working with some Lucchese soldiers in Brooklyn. My primary crew was me, Handsome Vince, Fat Tommy, and a couple other young guys like myself. But we all answered to a Made Lucchese capo, who I’ll only refer to as “Veto,” since I have no idea if he is dead, alive, locked up, or still active. If I had to guess, I’d wager that he’s still out there somewhere, raking in money off the streets of Brooklyn. I can’t say I actually liked Veto, because I didn’t. But I respected him. He was a cagey, secretive, slick old hustler who was all about his business, a real Mafioso to the core. And he acted like it, although he never dressed the part. By now it was summer and he always wore this goofy fisherman hat with button down linen shirts. You know the kind, faded old shirts that he had probably been wearing for ten years. He sort of reminded me of an old Giligan with a cigar. He could have been your sweet old uncle. But make no bones about it, he was a stone-cold killer. Ruthless as they come. I witnessed it firsthand the summer of ’96, when someone interfered with his money.
I honestly never thought Veto liked working with us young guys. I think he was ordered to “handle” us. But that’s only my theory. He just didn’t seem to like us and was always grumpy when giving us orders. He also never showed any gratitude when we gave him his cut of every score. It was always a quick grunt and count of the cash, as if we owed him or something. But I never thought anything of it. I knew plenty of grumpy old Mafiosi back home in Detroit. I think a lot of them were screwed over by their skippers when they were young and coming up, so they just felt it was finally their turn to play it forward. Whatever the case, I could tell he did have a special affinity towards me. I’m not sure why. He always seemed to show me a little more interest than the others. Perhaps it was because I was an out-of-towner. Or maybe it was because he was acquainted with my uncles and grandfather. Really, I think it was more than that. I was the one guy who always stepped up and volunteered to take on a new hustle. I didn’t balk or whine about who got what. And I also had both the physical look and demeanor to get things done where others couldn’t.
Anyway, so one day Veto tells me to meet him at the 7/11 a few blocks from my house in Brooklyn. He’s in his old Cadillac DeVille. It’s hot as hell and he doesn’t bother to turn on the AC because it “burns too much gas.” That cracked me up, because the guy never left home without about $10k in his pocket, and here he was complaining about a few cents in gas. We then go pick up a guy they called “Billy Bats,” not because he looked like the Billy Batts from Goodfellas, but because his name was Billy and he was known for being good with a bat. Which I very much respected, because I also preferred to use a bat. I mean, when a guy walks in with a bat, you better have a gun. Believe me, I know from experience what a guy can do to a room full of tough guys with a bat. It ain’t pretty.
So after we pick up Bats, we swing through an all Puerto Rican neighborhood and pick up a guy named Popo, a tough-looking dude in his thirties. He’s well-dressed and speaks with a slight Spanish accent. Right away, from the way Veto talks to him, I can tell he’s someone of importance. I also sensed he is all about his business. Veto then explains that there is a problem on Knickerbocker Avenue. I had no idea what Knickerbocker Avenue was, but I was about to find out. We drove for a good twenty minutes until we came to a seedy ghetto in Brooklyn, of which Knickerbocker Avenue ran straight through. Some of the streets were just littered with junkies, hanging on corners and curbs. On some streets, there were literally dozens of them lined up along sidewalks in front of dope houses, all of them looking to score some crack (known as “bambina” to New York Italians), or heroin, (known as “bambino” to New York Italians).
“The Dominicans are trying to muscle in on our bambino market,”
Veto says, jabbing his cigar at one of the lines of junkies and then turns to me. “This is all our territory. Popo’s guys have distribution dens up and down these streets. They move a ton of our shit. Look at the operation they got…” He points his cigar to one of the rooftops and I see a couple of kids standing up there, about 5-6 stories up. Just their heads are poking over the wall. “They’re posted up there on every corner… use walkie-talkies to communicate. If they see cops or a raid van coming, they call it in and the whole street shuts down. The doors get barricaded so the workers have time to jump the roof.”
As we drive, I stare up at the buildings. Sure enough, on the rooftops of every corner are teenage kids scanning the streets below. Some even have binoculars. They are lookouts, who I later learned were paid about a $100 per day to sit up there and watch for police. And the term “jumping the roof” just meant the guys selling down below could race up to the roof and disappear down another stairwell, one maybe even on the next block over. There was just no way a raiding police squad could contain them. The whole operation was actually pretty slick.
The whole neighborhood looked rough. And I mean rough! Reminded me of some of Detroit’s worst eastside ghettos. Only the houses were brownstone row houses, and occasionally there were the remnants of a drug raid. New York police had what was known as “TNT,” Tactical Narcotics Taskforce. They would raid street level distribution spots, and when they were finished they would drop HUGE concrete blocks in front of the doors, blocking all access to that building. On these concrete blocks they would spray paint the words “TNT WAS HERE.” A clear message to the neighborhood. Not that anyone cared. I once drove through literally ten minutes after a raid. Cops weren’t five blocks away before everything returned to business as usual.
So, Veto went on to explain that there was a new sect of Cubans and Dominicans who had setup on Knickerbocker Avenue and were now selling a very strong brand of heroin that junkies were coming from miles around to get. He was really pissed about it, and must have said ten times “this is not allowed.” I got the impression that Popo had no loyalty to Veto or the Italians, but rather he simply picked the side that he thought would win in a turf war. And he made the right choice. Heroin was a racket that the mob took very serious in New York. Contrary to popular belief, or what was depicted in the Godfather, drugs are a HUGE money maker for the Mafia. Every Family has crews that either sell drugs or extort people who do. I was part of a crew who did the latter.
Veto and his higher-ups were smart. They didn’t want a full-on turf war over the heroin trade in the Brooklyn ghettos. What they wanted was symbiosis. So, Veto partnered me up with Popo and Billy Bats. Our job was to track down the leaders of this Cuban/Dominican crew and propose to them an offer they couldn’t refuse. It took us a while. We drove around for days, asking guys in the neighborhood, grilling the owners of local headshops, who always seemed to keep their fingers on the pulse of the neighborhoods. A few times, we resorted to busting up the places a bit with, yes, baseball bats. I remember one headshop on Third Avenue had a cocky Rastafarian running the place. He got tough so I came back with a bat and smashed his collection of Reggae records to bits. Guy probably wanted to kill me but he knew who we worked for so he licked his wounds and moved in with life. But like the rest, he didn’t give up anything.
Obviously, this new crew of Cubans and Dominicans had people shook, because nobody was giving up anything. Oddly enough, it was a dirty cop who eventually supplied the tip we were looking for. A mid-level dealer had been busted with a few ounces of the Cuban heroin. The cop knew it was the Cuban/Dominican heroin because dealers in New York always labeled their dope, which I always thought was stupid but I understood it was to identify their brand from others. So, the busted dealer ends up cutting a deal with the cops and gives up his source. Says his source is the top guy, a Dominican headquartered out of a bodega in East Harlem.
Thanks to the dirty cop, this information eventually ends up in the hands of Veto, who calls us into his little sandwich shop headquarters and tells us we have to send the guy a message. This is where, if I’m being honest, I got a little nervous. He wanted just me, Bats (who was a bit of a loose cannon) and Popo the Puerto Rican (who I didn’t trust) to go tell the leader of a multi-million-dollar heroin ring that he can no longer sell his dope off Knickerbocker Avenue. The notion seemed both absurd and ludicrous. I knew the guy would laugh at us, and wouldn’t give two shits who we worked for. I actually made sure to walk in there with a gun, just in case things took a turn for the worse.
It played out pretty much how I figured. We walked in and told the guy he could only sell Lucchese dope or he would have to setup shop somewhere else. He was a big, musclebound black Dominican dude who could barely speak English. Popo did most of the talking, and I’m sure the guy wondered who the hell me and Bats were. At first he laughed and thought we were joking. But I gave him a stern look and warned him,
“This ain’t no joke, my man. Our boss wants you know the deal is this: You sell our dope and that’s it. We set the price. No more of this slick shit with your own product.”
He was a smart hustler but not a smart guy. In a matter of words, he told us to fuck off and get out of his store. He said he doesn’t answer to no one and will sell whatever he wants. I thought that would be the end of it. I mean, I figured how the hell could anyone regulate the sale of heroin in a five-mile section of Brooklyn? Well, I underestimated the power and influence of the Lucchese Family. A few days later, the bodies of the Dominican and his girlfriend were found in a vacant lot off Knickerbocker Avenue. The guy had been severely beaten with a blunt object, his head caved in. Both bodies had been set on fire after they were dumped. Message sent. I thought for sure that there was going to be an all-out war over this but calmer heads prevailed. The Cubans and Dominicans knew they could never win a war against the Mafia in New York. Message received.
Now, everything else I’m about to say came purely secondhand or is based on my own deductive reasoning. Soon after this, another Dominican, a guy named Trevor, who I actually met on several occasions, became one of the main suppliers of high-grade heroin for the entire Lucchese Family. I was told by Veto himself that Trevor had married an Arab woman from the Middle East. The family of this Arab woman were farmers. And you can probably guess what they grew. Yes, poppy, which is the base for heroin. How Trevor and his network got the heroin here to the States is a mystery to me, but I know he was making millions, buying up commercial properties all over New York. Last I heard, he had just finished up a ten-year prison sentence and picked up right where he left off. Old friends of friends have told me that he owns properties all over Brooklyn. Of course, no one can ever fully trust what they hear secondhand on the streets. But the moral of this Chronical, I suppose, is on the streets there is always a system of checks and balances. Which leads me to my next Chronicle, a huge check scam I was involved in before I finally made my way back home to Detroit.
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