Known as "Immortal," octogenarian Carmine Persico has been ruling the Colombo crime family from prison for 30 years.
Mafia scholars have long argued over who was the greatest family, who was the greatest boss, who built the greatest criminal empire. Names like Joe Gallo and Lucky Luciano come to mind, but their terms were relatively short-lived. They had to prove themselves and rise through the ranks before enjoying their moment at the top.
But there was one man who was, it seemed, born a mobster and who has stayed at the top long after his contemporaries died off.
In elementary school, he shook his classmates down for lunch money. By the time he was 15, he’d already been involved in a shootout between two rival gangs. By 17, he’d been accused of a murder. By 20, he was accused of another. At 40, the Colombo crime family was under his power and has been ever since – even now, while he sits in prison serving a 139-year sentence.
Yes, it seems that Carmine Persico was born to be a mobster and isn’t finished yet.
A Mobster From The Beginning
Carmine Persico was born in August of 1933. His father was a legal stenographer, a noble profession compared to what his son would become. Unlike many of his Mafia counterparts, Persico didn’t grow up in the mob but instead grew up on the streets, forming his own gangs and getting into fights.
After gaining a childhood reputation as a bully, Persico dropped out of school at 16, preferring to spend his days on the streets as opposed to inside a classroom. Around that same time, he formed a street gang known as the Garfield Boys. Within the next year, he would be accused of fatally beating a rival gang member in Prospect Park, though all charges would eventually be dropped.
Over the next few years with the Garfield Boys, Carmine Persico made a name for himself as a gangster not to be trifled with. Naturally, the Mafia became interested in the young man and in the early 1950s he was recruited by the Profaci crime family, which would later become the Colombo family.
For his first act as a Mafia man, the Profaci family threw him into the deep end. The details of the crime are mostly speculation, as the case remains unsolved, but rumor has it that Persico was responsible for the infamous 1957 death of mobster Albert Anastasia.
No one was ever charged for the gruesome crime, but several Colombo family members as well as Persico’s blood relatives claim Persico bragged about committing the crime in later years.
With the murder of such an important figure under his belt (assuming he was the killer), Carmine Persico became a respected figure in the Mafia and before long began climbing the ranks of power.
Carmine “The Snake” Persico
Though the Profaci family had taken Carmine Persico under their wing, it soon became clear to him that Joe Profaci, head of the family, was not a satisfactory leader.
Before long, a faction of the Profaci family, led by the Gallo brothers Joe, Albert, and Lawrence began to conspire to overthrow Joe Profaci. The bosses of other crime families, allegedly also disappointed in Profaci’s leadership, began encouraging the Gallos. Carlo Gambino and Tommy Lucchese specifically supported the Gallos’ plan to overthrow Profaci.
Knowing that Persico was also on board, the Gallos invited him to discuss strategy. Profaci, however, had gotten word of the Gallos’ plan and bribed Persico with lucrative rackets if he’d switch sides against them. The night that Persico had been scheduled to meet the Gallos, he ambushed them, allegedly attempting to strangle Joe Gallo.
Though a policeman broke up the fight, causing Persico to flee, word got around that Persico had flipped sides. Before long, he earned himself his infamous nickname: “The Snake.”
In 1962, Joe Profaci died after a battle with cancer. He was succeeded by underboss Joseph Magliocco, who was forced out a year later by Joe Colombo.
During Magliocco’s reign, the Gallo brothers attempted to retaliate against Carmine Persico and almost succeeded. One night, a van pulled up next to Persico’s car and a gunman shot him in the shoulder, hand, and face. Rumor has it that Persico spat out the bullet that had hit him in the face and drove off.
After the attempt on his life, however, a different fate was in store for Carmine Persico. In 1963, he was arrested on extortion charges and imprisoned for a short time.
However, despite his imprisonment, when Joe Colombo took over the family, he made Persico a capo.
Carmine Persico: From Capo To Convict
After being released from prison, Carmine Persico returned to the streets full time, working time in labor racketeering, extortion, loan-sharking, hijacking, illegal gambling, and murder for hire. By the time 1970 rolled around, Persico’s crew was the Colombo family’s most profitable.
Unfortunately, his high profits caught the eye of the police and in 1971 Persico was sentenced back to prison, this time for eight years. However, while the bars held Persico in, they did nothing to stop his control of the family since being made boss in 1973. During his imprisonment, he ordered dozens of hits and was even successful in ordering the murder of longtime enemy Joe Gallo.
In 1979, Persico was finally released from prison. However, his freedom was short-lived. By 1984, Persico and several Colombo family members were indicted for racketeering. After the indictment was announced, Persico went into hiding but unfortunately chose an inconvenient place to hide: an FBI informant’s house. He was arrested soon after his arrival.
In 1986, the trial that would end with Carmine Persico’s life imprisonment began. Persico chose to serve as his own lawyer, believing that his experience being sentenced to prison several times before gave him adequate experience on the subject.
Despite Judge John F. Keenan’s praise of Persico’s tactics during the trial – he described Persico as “…one of the most intelligent people I have ever seen in my life” – Carmine Persico ultimately lost the case. In two separate sentencings, he was handed a 39-year sentence and a 100-year sentence to be served consecutively, both for various crimes associated with the Colombo family.
At the time of his sentencing, Carmine Persico was only 53 and had been running the Colombo family for 14 years, making him the youngest Mafia boss in New York.
Carmine Persico’s Life Behind Bars
Despite serving what is essentially a life sentence, Carmine Persico was never stripped of his title. Under Mafia rules, a boss keeps his title unless he dies or retires.
From behind bars, Persico continued to run the family. So loyal were his family members that when an underboss attempted to elect a new boss, he was overthrown in favor of the imprisoned Persico.
Today, though the organized crime syndicate as he knew it has all but dissolved, Carmine Persico is still the boss at least in name. Of course, there isn’t much for him to do in the way of actual leadership these days, so he’s been forced to find alternative pastimes.
Over the course of his imprisonment, Persico has spent time in three penitentiaries. He began his sentence in Illinois at the United States Penitentiary, where he continued his Mafia dealings. From there, he moved to the United States Penitentiary in Lompoc, Calif., where he formed an Italian Cultural Club for inmates, made friends with other ex-Mafia members like Patriarca family consigliere Joseph Russo and Lucchese family associate Anthony Senter, and played drums in a four-man band he formed with Russo.
Finally, Persico was moved to his current address, the medium-security Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, N.C. He’s got 32 years left until he has the possibility of release and should he survive to age 117, the man also nicknamed “Immortal” could see the light of day again.
For now, he spends his time regaling fellow inmates with tales from his past, learning new card games, and watching 60 Minutes with his good friend Bernie Madoff.