The Jersey Mobster Who (Briefly) Beat the Feds
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because mafiosi come home when they finish their time.
By Seth Ferranti
At FCI Fairton, a medium-security federal prison in New Jersey, the consigliere of the New Jersey faction of the Lucchese crime family, Michael Perna, was hopping mad. The mafioso called me over to show me printouts detailing the fine a court had levied against him as part of his sentence.
Perna owed a substantial amount, but what he was incensed by was the interest that was accruing. “Can you believe that?” he asked me. “They can’t charge me like this. That’s what I do — who the fuck do they think they are?” He couldn’t believe that the government was sticking it to him, ironically with mob tactics.
The mobster, who famously beat the feds on a major racketeering case in the late 1980s that was chronicled in both Robert Rudolph’s 1992 book, The Boys From New Jersey: How the Mob Beat the Feds, and Vin Diesel’s 2006 movie, Find Me Guilty, is considered Mafia royalty. His father, Joe Perna, a known mob bookmaker and tough guy in the 1960s, raised both of his sons — Michael and his younger brother, Ralph — in Newark’s Mafia underworld. By the mid-’70s, both brothers were involved in the family business, and in the early-’80s, Michael was serving as underboss for Michael Taccetta, a high-ranking Lucchese member who controlled the New Jersey faction.
[Michael] Perna was one of the only guys who would go over and meet with guys in New York regularly.
Bob Buccino, author and former investigator
“Michael Perna was the right hand to Taccetta. He was very loyal to him,” says Bob Buccino, who investigated the Mafia as a New Jersey state police officer and wrote New Jersey Mob: Memoirs of a Top Cop. “That’s a plus … being loyal to your boss. You don’t see that too often anymore.” Known as “Mad Dog,” Taccetta was Perna’s cousin and ran the New Jersey faction for Anthony “Tumac” Accetturo, who retired to Florida. As part of Taccetta’s inner circle, Perna helped facilitate the crew’s rackets: loan-sharking, gambling, fraud, extortion and drug dealing — from the Hole in the Wall, a Newark luncheonette that served as the organization’s headquarters.
Buccino remembers Perna as the diplomat and negotiator of the New Jersey crew. “Perna was one of the only guys who would go over and meet with guys in New York regularly,” he says, noting how Perna regularly met with the Gambinos. “He was well-respected and, besides that, he was smart.” But the higher-ups in New York weren’t happy with New Jersey’s contribution. Lucchese family boss Victor “Little Vic” Amuso demanded 50 percent of everything the Jersey faction made.
“They didn’t like the New Jersey faction,” Buccino explains. “There was a point … when they were going to put out a contract on the whole [Jersey] crew.” The “whack Jersey” order, immortalized by Little Vic and his homicidal underboss, Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso, was as unprecedented as it was insane. Add to that the aforementioned racketeering case, and it was a full press on the boys from Jersey.
“I thought that was a lousy case,” Buccino says. “When the indictment came out, I felt it was a losing case from Day One because I knew the witnesses.” The prosecution put the crime families’ entire membership on trial. But after a 21-month-long trial, Perna was acquitted in August 1988 with all of his codefendants. It was a resounding loss for the feds, but not one they would take laying down.
Rudolph, a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger at the time, listed several reasons for why the mobsters walked, but mainly, he wrote, it was down to Giacomo “Fat Jack” DiNorscio — whom Vin Diesel portrayed in the movie — taking over the proceedings and turning the case into a “three-ring circus.” The jury decided not to convict, in part, Rudolph maintained, because they were offering payback for having been put through such a long, arduous trial, which included nearly two years of testimony and evidence. Another possible reason for acquittal? Perna later admitted to helping bribe one of the jurors, but whether this impacted the case remains unknown, according to Rudolph.
During the trial, Taccetta decided to grab the top spot and get rid of Accetturo. With contracts out on his life, Accetturo turned government witness, giving the feds the ammo they needed to take down the New Jersey faction at a later date. When Perna and Taccetta were re-indicted in 1992, the jury-tampering charges came to light, and “a decade of bribes, kickbacks and phony billing,” as The New York Times called it, came to an end. Perna and his coconspirators admitted to several murders, extortion, bribery and a scheme involving Newark’s Division of Sanitation in which false bills were created for nonexistent goods and services provided to the department.
Sentenced to 25 years, Perna was released on July 31, 2015. An old-line convict, he started his time at USP Lewisburg in Pennsylvania and went on to FCI Fairton before completing his sentence. On Sundays, while inside, he held pasta dinners for all the Italians on his cell block, feeding 15 or so every weekend. He would tell those gathered about the mob’s glory days. “This thing that we had, it was beautiful, but now it’s no more,” he once told me.
*Efforts to reach Perna for comment were unsuccessful.
- Seth FerrantiContact Seth Ferranti