One of the more dramatic death scenes in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman shows Frank Sheeran murder a gangster named Crazy Joe Gallo gangland style at a Little Italy clam house. (Warning: This article will contain spoilers for the movie, which follows real life pretty closely.)
Those who watched The Sopranos will recognize similarities between Tony Soprano’s (likely) ending and Joe Gallo meeting his maker. Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro on Netflix), the union boss with Jimmy Hoffa and mob ties, walks into a restaurant where Gallo is dining with his wife and family before opening fire. Before doing so, he carefully selects two guns (and the type of caliber), contemplates how an assassin should take out the bodyguard first but not kill him (the beef isn’t with him), and should consider heading to the bathroom first. In the movie, Sheeran shoots Crazy Joe at the direction of powerful Pennsylvania crime boss Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci.
However, what’s the real story? Did Frank Sheeran really kill Crazy Joe Gallo and was Crazy Joe a real person? The answer: Frank said he did, although not everyone believes it, and, yes, Crazy Joe was a real person who died in a gangland hit in Little Italy.
It’s not proven whether Sheeran really murdered Gallo. In fact, the evidence suggests he did not. According to The New York Times, other men have also been suspected of carrying out the famous hit, which is technically unsolved. A Slate article points to another man, Carmine Di Biase, with persuasive evidence. Certainly Joey Gallo had earned a lot of enemies. He didn’t get the nickname Crazy for nothing.
Here’s what you need to know about the true story:
The Slate Article Says That Witnesses at the Scene Described a Killer Who Looked Like Di Biase But Not Frank Sheeran
The problem with buying the Frank Sheeran as Gallo’s killer story is that eyewitnesses describe a shooter who looked nothing like the 6 foot 3 inch tall, 248-pound or so Irishman.
An article on Slate.com by Bill Tonelli casts doubt on Sheeran’s stories that he killed both Jimmy Hoffa and Gallo. It says the accepted version of the Gallo death was always that a convicted murderer named Carmine “Sonny Pinto” Di Biase was the killer.
That article says the Clam House where Crazy Joe died was owned by a mobster named Matty the Horse. A “hood” connected to the Colombo family saw him there, told his bosses, and was ordered to take Gallo out. The article says newspaper articles at the time described the shooter as looking like Di Biase not Sheeran: “about 5-foot-8, stocky, about 40 years old and with receding dark hair.”
Sheeran was Irish and Swedish and well over 6 foot tall. Gallo’s wife told Slate that there was more than one killer, describing them as “little, short, fat Italians” – again, not Sheeran’s description at all. Gallo’s bodyguard and the hoodlum who had first spotted him, Joseph Luparelli, told a New York Times reporter that Di Biase was the shooter, according to Slate, which points out that Sheeran recounts some of the confessions in third person, without saying “I” did it.
A 1972 article in The New York Times reported that Joseph Luparelli, who was in police custody, had claimed that he and four other men killed Gallo. Joseph Yacovelli, acting head of the Colombo family, was believed to have “sanctioned the Gallo murder” – not Russell Bufalino.
Luparelli claimed he was sitting at the clam bar when Gallo walked in. He knew that Gallo had “for several months…been marked for execution by the Colombo family” so he left the restaurant and asked for Yacovelli. At that point, Carmine Di Biase, who was a former Genovese member, called Yacovelli. Then, Di Biase and Philip Gambino, a “Colombo man,” left the restaurant and returned with guns.
Di Biase, Gambino and two unidentified brothers drove to Umberto’s. Luparelli stayed at the wheel of the car as the men entered the restaurant. Di Biase, previously accused of murder, “pulled out a gun and opened fire,” according to The Times. Luparelli later went to the FBI because he was afraid he’d be killed.
Due to lack of corroborating evidence, no one was ever convicted of Gallo’s death.
Crazy Joe Led a Flashy, Deadly Life
Newspaper articles from the time tell the story of the hit and Crazy Joe’s life and personality in real life.
It was believed that Crazy Joe Gallo was linked to what the New York Daily News described in 1986 as “one of the most sensational mob hits ever,” the murder of crime boss Albert Anastasia in an Old Park Sheraton Hotel barber chair in 1957 (The Irishman movie shows this hit early on.)
The Daily News says that a widely “accepted version of the event” had Crazy Joe Gallo pulling the trigger. However, mob boss Carmine Persico boasted he did the deed. According to Daily News, Anastasia was a mob hitman for Murder Inc.
The newspaper reported that Gallo was gunned down at Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy while he celebrated his 43rd birthday.
The San Antonio Express, in a June 1972 article, described Crazy Joe as “ever unpredictable” and recently paroled from a nine-year prison term. “He had returned to his haunts and resumed control of his rackets,” the article said, “and he was as arrogant as ever.”
It’s widely believed that the seeds of Joe Gallo’s fate were planted with the shooting of mobster Joe Colombo. The Irishman shows this hit.
At 11:45 a.m., on June 28, 1971, it all reached a fatal crescendo, when Colombo was “gunned down in front of thousands of his horrified followers in Columbus Circle,” according to Express. The article said the shooter was an African-American man named Jerome A. Johnson, 25, of New Brunswick, New Jersey, who was “killed on the spot.”
Colombo took “two bullets in his brain,” survived surgery, but was left permanently paralyzed, according to the article.
According to the Express article, Crazy Joe Gallo was subsequently murdered at Umberto’s, which was only a block away from the police headquarters. He was accompanied by Sina Essary, his wife of just three weeks and his 10 year old stepdaughter.
A gunman walked in “from the street and began to blaze away.” Some said there was an “open contract” on Joe after the Colombo shooting.
But there were other run ins. Three weeks before he was killed, Gallo went to the San Susan nightclub on Long Island, purportedly partially controlled by Colombo capo John Franzese. It was said that Joey grabbed the manager and said, “This joint is mine. Get out,” according to Express.
A New York Daily News article from January 1973 reported that Joseph (Joe Yak) Yacovelli succeeded Colombo as the leader of the family and was wanted for questioning in the Crazy Joe Gallo murder.
An AP story on April 8, 1972 described how the murder of Joe Gallo went down. Six diners were celebrating his birthday but had “barely finished their clams” when shots rang out and “90 seconds later, Gallo was dead.”
It was one gunman who fired three bullets after bursting into the Clam House by that account. Gallo was shot in the shoulder. “He stumbled to his feet in stunned disbelief” and fled across the room. He was shot a second time, in the buttocks, before making it outside where he collapsed and died. His bodyguard was struck. His sister was also present. There were 20 bullets fired with four guns inside the establishment.
That article tied the hit to the shooting of Joseph Colombo the previous June, saying it had “finally been avenged.”
The AP story reported that no one had connected Gallo to Colombo’s shooting, saying his hitman was a “psychopath acting alone.” But after the shooting, a contract went out for Gallo. The AP story reported that Gallo had been vying for control of the Colombo family since 1960, launching a bloody war with a trail of a dozen deaths, along with his brothers, Larry and Albert. They were initially an enforcement squad for “ailing Brooklyn don Joseph Profaci.” Profaci’s family became the Colombo Crime Family.
In April 1972, The Daily Times labeled Crazy Joe “a flashy mobster” who was assassinated “a decade after he had lost a war for control of the crime family later taken over by Colombo.” That article said that Colombo was shot while “leading an Italian-American rally” by a gunman who was “posing a professional photographer” and was himself gunned down “by Colombo henchmen.”
Colombo had upset top mobsters like Carlo Gambino because of his “flamboyant lifestyle,” including picketing outside FBI headquarters.
Crazy Joe was described in that article as “straight out of an old Jimmy Cagney gangster movie.” He was “always on stage,” and a “wiry 5 foot 6.” He was considered a hired gun. He’d served time in prison for extortion.
The Gallo gunman was described as “middle-aged.”
Frank Sheeran Insisted He Killed Crazy Joe Gallo
Frank Sheeran claimed responsibility for the hit in his confessional stories to author Charles Brandt for Brandt’s 2004 book, I Heard You Paint Houses. In that book, Sheeran also confesses to shooting Jimmy Hoffa to death at the behest of Pennsylvania crime boss Russell Bufalino. There are some who doubt both of Sheeran’s claims.
In the case of Crazy Joe Gallo, Sheeran says in the book that Gallo used the other suspect to “whack Joe Colombo, the boss of the Colombo family in Brooklyn.” He said that Bufalino “never forgave Crazy Joey Gallo for that.” Furthermore, Colombo’s relatives were there. Sheeran claims the hit was sanctioned though because Colombo was holding rallies and bringing publicity to the mob through his Italian American Civil Rights League.
Gallo was running around in a rich and famous lifestyle “like he was Errol Flynn.” The book describes the hit in meticulous detail, how Gallo was out on the town for his birthday, and it was well-known he’d end up at the Clam House and sit “off to the left.” It required a “good shooter with accuracy.” Gallo was a convicted felon so he wouldn’t have a gun but his bodyguard would. He’d need to be taken out first but not killed.
Sheeran said in the book that “I didn’t look threatening or familiar in any way. I looked like just a broken down truck driver with a cap on coming in to use the bathroom.” Plus, with his “very fair skin,” he didn’t look like a Mafia hitman. Gallo would have his guard down more because you weren’t supposed to hit someone in front of their family (but Colombo was hit that way at the rally) and you weren’t supposed to do a hit in Little Italy restaurants because it scares away tourists. Some mob figures were set up to greet Crazy Joey outside the restaurant to put his guard down even more.
Sheeran described how he “went straight ahead toward the clam bar” and “ended up facing the table with the people…Crazy Joey swung around out of his chair and headed down toward the corner door…it was easy to cut him off…He made it through Umberto’s corner door to the outside… Crazy Joey got shot about three times outside of the restaurant…Crazy Joey Gallo went to Australia on his birthday on a bloody city sidewalk.”
He added of rumors there were more than one gunman, “I’m not putting anybody else in the thing but me.”
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