When alleged Gambino family boss Francesco “Frank” Cali was gunned down in front of his car outside his Staten Island home earlier this month, many people were stunned. The murder was the first killing of a New York area mob boss in more than 30 years, since Gambino family boss Paul Castellano was fatally shot in front of Sparks steakhouse in Manhattan, and many began speculating whether Cali’s death signified the resurgence of the mob or a new internal power struggle within the Gambino family.
These concerns were dismissed almost immediately, however, when police arrested Anthony Comello, 24, who was officially charged with Cali’s murder in Staten Island criminal court on Monday. When Comello first appeared at a court hearing in New Jersey last week, he exhibited erratic behavior, flashing the words “MAGA” and a symbol for QAnon, a popular Internet conspiracy theory, on the palms of his hands.
It was later reported that Comello had no ties to the Mafia, but had shot Cali because he had wanted to date his niece and Cali disapproved of the relationship. Cali’s lawyer, Robert Gottlieb, has said that his client will plead “unequivocally not guilty,” adding that online conspiracy theories drove his client to commit murder: “At the end of the day, after everything is known about the case, it’s going to show that the hate that’s spewed on the internet by QAnon and other right-wing conspiracy websites, hate words that have been spewed by citizens, including politicians, including right at the White House,” he tells Rolling Stone. “Words matter. Hate words matter.”
“This was an erratic, isolated kind of hit. It had no earmarks of a Mob hit.”
Nonetheless, theories still persisted on some corners of the internet that Comello was merely acting as a fall guy for the real perpetrator within the Gambino family. To provide some context, we reached out to Selwyn Raab, the author of Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires, a massive tome tracking the last five decades of the mob.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Raab confirmed that he thought Cali’s alleged murderer had no connection to organized crime. “This was an erratic, isolated kind of hit,” Raab tells Rolling Stone, adding, “It had no earmarks of a Mob hit within the family or etc. Somebody pulls up and bangs your car and rings your doorbell? Normally Mafia hits are a bullet in the back of your head when you’re unsuspecting, or it’s a very carefully planned execution…this looks like an ad hoc hit by a screwball kid.”
As for Comello’s espousal of alt-right conspiracy theories, Raab says he’s never heard of people in the Mob sharing such extremist political views. “This is unrelated to Trump and the White House. My only experience, when I spoke to a few low-level Mafia guys, is that they’re pretty conservative and vote Republican,” he said. But their political leanings have little in common with Comello’s apparent radical views: “You ask ’em why [they vote Republican], they don’t want taxes and they don’t like immigrants,” Raab says.
That said, Raab is familiar with Cali’s reputation, describing him as an American-born, first-generation Sicilian immigrant mob boss, a man who’s “had the Mafia in his DNA for a long time,” Raab says. “Many relatives in Sicily and the U.S. were Mafiosi.” Cali took power during a time of transition, when the Sicilian wing took over the Gambino family, and Raab describes him as a “climber.” “Some people told me back in the Eighties, Nineties, when he was a kid, he was a real eager wannabe. He did all the favors for them, he was a loyal member,” Raab says. At the time of his death, however, “he was well-known. Quiet, but well-known in the right circles.”
“Quiet” is the operative word here: over the past few decades, the Mafia has largely existed under the radar, with no internal power struggles garnering media attention, says Raab. After taking a serious hit from law enforcement in the Eighties and Nineties, the Mob made a quiet resurgence in the early aughts after 9/11, when the FBI started focusing its attention on counterterrorism. Nonetheless, they’ve continued to fly under the radar: “They’re not like John Gotti. They’re not flamboyant. They’re not giving TV interviews. They’re not waving to crowds.”
“[Mob bosses are] not like John Gotti. They’re not flamboyant. They’re not waving to crowds.”
And this strategy has largely worked: prior to Cali’s death, there hadn’t been a highly publicized Mob-related killing since Castellano’s death in 1985. The circumstances under which Cali was murdered also reflect how secure he felt in his position — “he had no bodyguards around him, he didn’t travel with a retinue of goons,” said Raab. “The worst thing about [the shooting] is that it brought attention to the Mafia,” Raab said. “You didn’t see any headlines for a long time. Suddenly everyone’s resurrecting the history, their past, that they’re still around.”
In addition to bringing unwanted press attention, the passing of Cali will also inevitably leave a power vacuum within the Gambino family. “The worst thing that has happened with Cali’s murder is that there’ll be a revamping in the family, which is always troublesome. The boss has been removed. There may be more than one candidate to be the next boss,” Raab says.
Raab is not optimistic about Comello’s future in prison (and indeed, his lawyer has requested that Comello be put in protective custody, for fear he might be a target). “His big problem now is gonna be in segregation. The big problem is gonna be the prison authorities trying to keep him safe. The mob doesn’t like anyone hitting their own people and getting away with it.”
“That’s the irony here,” Raab said. “Cali [was] safe from the Mafia, but not safe from a screwball.”