One conjecture about why people are so fascinated by organized crime figures attributes it to a timid envy of those who flout the law so boldly.
But after selling his book at a four-hour signing stint at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas, Joe Bonpensiero concludes that it’s much simpler. The book is called Niputi, The Nephew: Life under the Shadow of a Mafia Killer (self-published at CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014).
“People just want to know what those guys were like in person,” the author tells me by phone from the new home he recently purchased in Las Vegas. And Bonpensiero can share a few tidbits: he watched his mother host two of the most infamous mobsters in her home. “They were perfect gentlemen, very polite,” he says.
The word niputi means “nephew” in Sicilian, and Bonpensiero, now 75, is the nephew of the book’s title. The mafia killer is his uncle, Frank Bompensiero, so notorious that his name was used for a character in The Sopranos television series.
“When I was still living at home during my senior year in college,” Bonpensiero continues, “Uncle Frank asked if we could put up a man and his son. They stayed for three days. After they left, my mother recognized the older guy’s picture on a TV news show. ‘That man was in my house,’ she said rather naively. The man was Joe Bonanno.”
Bonanno had been the leader of one of New York’s crime families dating to the 1930s. But in his later life he moved to Tucson. Who knows what connection he had with Uncle Frank? But Bonanno had gone on the lam several times as law enforcement pursued him.
In Niputi, Bonpensiero writes that he was eight in San Diego’s Little Italy when his mother also hosted two guests for Uncle Frank. One was Frank DeSimone, later to head up the Los Angeles crime family. The author uses the word “erudite” to describe DeSimone and remembers him as extremely kind to the hostess, complimenting her profusely on her cooking.
But obviously not all mobsters belong to the gallant type. The book contrasts DeSimone’s civility with the dismissive air that Uncle Frank displayed toward the lady of the house. In preparation for the dinner that night, he ordered her around like she was a personal slave and was irritated by her explaining how she thought the dinner should go. “I rarely observed Uncle Frank being respectful to women, save for his wife Thelma, and his only child, Mary Ann,” writes Bonpensiero. “Frank was not into anyone who disagreed with him, especially women.”
In Niputi, this trait is one of several that characterized a man always wanting others to see him as the big shot, despite his never being able to rise into the crime leadership roles he craved. “The Bomp” was sure the fancy dinner in Little Italy would be a celebration of his appointment to the role of San Diego capo. Instead, he learned that the second guest that evening, Girolomo “Momo” Adamo, would soon be moving from Los Angeles to San Diego. Uncle Frank immediately realized that he was to become a foot soldier to the other man, taking on the dirty work, including “hitting” the organization’s enemies.
The slight spelling difference between the author’s name and that of the Bomp resulted from a birth-certificate misspelling of Uncle Frank’s brother’s last name. The midwife who made the mistake was not the only one who had trouble with the serpentine name. During the author’s career in the Air Force, his commanding officer often called Bonpensiero “Bomb Dispenser.”
Sammy Bonpensiero, Frank’s younger brother, stayed clear of organized crime throughout his life, unless one counts financial and other support he often gave his sibling during hard times out of the Sicilian sense of family obligation. Sammy’s son, Joe, the writer of Niputi, always understood the nature of the obligation but chafed at how it kept an inveterate criminal’s life uncomfortably close.
Niputi is a book that chronicles how Sammy, his wife Mandy, and his son Joey coped with A Bad, Bad Boy. The phrase is the title of another book by the late Judith Moore that first appeared in installments during the early 2000s in these pages. Bonpensiero admires the extensive research Moore did for her stories but complains that she became too close to Frank’s daughter Mary Ann and accepted her viewpoint uncritically.
The author of Niputi maintains that Mary Ann’s father kept her too protectively in the dark for her to be a trustworthy witness. As a result, according to Bonpensiero, Moore’s book ends up romanticizing the mafioso, granting him great sympathy based on how much she loved him and how well she felt he treated her. “The book sparkled,” writes Bonpensiero, “like a Tom Sawyerish takeoff on fun times on the Mississippi.”
A key passage in A Bad, Bad Boy is illuminating. “I believe,” wrote Moore, “that [Frank] Bompensiero understood himself as a soldier in an army. I believe that he killed in precisely the same way that soldiers kill. He did not kill civilians; he killed other soldiers…. He had no skills, really. He couldn’t even shoot straight. He fit himself into circumstances as best he knew how. Often, the fit was awkward. But he fed his family.”
Moore then asked whether the Bomp ever felt remorse. A friend of his in later life “snorted,” she wrote, when she asked him. “Frank said that if God hadn’t wanted ’em dead,” the man said, “He would have stopped the bullets.” Moore added that she thought Bompensiero “intended no irony.”
“I am not here to judge Bompensiero. We are judged even as we attempt to judge. If your Bompensiero is a thoughtless id-ridden thrill killer, an idle rip-off artist, a vicious extortionist, well, then, we know something about you and rather less than but no more about Bompensiero.”
A little closer to home, Joe Bonpensiero is willing, in Niputi, to follow this line of reasoning — to a degree. At a time when he learned the FBI cleared him during a background check for his ROTC application to become an officer in the Air Force, he had been worrying about tickets he thought the San Diego Police Department had given him. He reports appreciatively a comment his father Sammy made at the time. “All mankind would fail the test,” Sammy tells him. “Deep down, everyone has something to hide, especially when you’re trying to protect those you care about. You do whatever it takes.”
But parking tickets pale in contrast to the life Uncle Frank led. So the author of Niputi shows the Bomp no mercy. Throughout the book, in a number of references, he refers to his uncle as “carrying an evil trait.” The trait is presented as an inheritance from Frank’s grandfather, who never left Sicily, where once in a fit of rage, he killed his own son. The man’s “evil nature, the ugly head of hubris would infect some future offspring — and it did.” Uncle Frank was “a family’s evil seed gone awry.”
In the epilogue to Niputi, Bonpensiero writes: “I have considered that there could possibly be a bad gene within a baby that ekes along happily growing undisturbed. Then as it matures, it awakens and presses men into criminal attacks on each other. Maybe one day, modern medicine researchers will find it.”
If we wonder why readers are fascinated by organized-crime figures, should we not also ask Joe Bonpensiero why he wanted to write Niputi? In light of A Bad, Bad Boy, he says by phone, “I wanted to set the record straight. I had no illusions about making money. That’s why I didn’t want to fool with a publishing house editor, which could have taken a long time. I only wanted to get the story out.”
The effort is not Bonpensiero’s first foray into writing. He has already published Chocolate Moon (2006), a book about his experiences at sea on his father’s tuna boat.
Maybe in hindsight the reason for writing Niputi seems plausible. But the book’s 436 pages suggest an even more significant motive. In many ways, it is a story of revenge. Uncle Frank caused Bonpensiero’s family and many other people who were able to continue living plenty of trouble. In the FBI’s estimation, he also killed 22 people. He did know toward the end of his life, that he, the hit man, would soon be hit, too. But his 1977 killing coming out of a phone booth in Pacific Beach put an immediate end to whatever fear and regret he may have begun to feel.
Before Frank’s death, however, his nephew appears to have punished Uncle Frank in a more appropriate and painful way. And he wants the readers of Niputi to know it. It was the time after Frank had been sent to San Quentin for forging a bribery check. He had been sentenced to 42 years but served only 5, getting out in 1960. Sammy, the niputi’s father, had a hard time then trying to find something for his brother to do that wouldn’t get him in more trouble. The police were watching him like a hawk.
During the post-prison years, writes Bonpensiero, “there was a certain cadre of groupies, who, if you will, uplifted [Frank’s] spirits and did the homage thing for him. On a biweekly basis, they met for lunch at Johnny Tarantino’s Restaurant in Point Loma. Frank would in effect hold court there. He’d have his favorite lunch of fresh crab drizzled in olive oil with fresh lemons and minced parsley garnish on top and a sprinkle of sea salt and pepper.
“With his small entourage, he would tell tall tales of the old days in the mob to a contingent of wannabes who sat in awe of the aging walrus.”
But did Frank name names? “I’d bet that he would never openly discuss any of his connections or affiliations with anyone. That was not Frank. He just allowed people to assume….”
Bonpensiero was able to observe much of the fawning because his father assigned him to chauffeur Uncle Frank around town. He would have to do it only when Frank “needs to get out.” When on the town, Frank sought recognition. According to Bonpensiero, Uncle Frank had a great need “to inflate himself.”
Bonpensiero hated role of chauffeur but obeyed out of filial duty. He was in college and had a girlfriend named Gracie he’d dated off and on for several years. On one of his nights off from driving, he and Gracie ran into Uncle Frank in a nightclub. Frank invited them to join him at his table, where he situated himself next to Gracie, ogling her conspicuously. “The next day,” writes Bonpensiero, “Frank called and asked me if I would consider giving him Gracie’s phone number. I almost fell on the floor. He was about 55 at the time and was trying to hit on my 20-year-old girlfriend.”
Bonpensiero writes that he pointed out how young Gracie was and offered to set up Frank with one of her friends instead. “Just so you know, Joey, they all are going to be younger,” Uncle Frank replies. “But who gives a shit? They all go down the same way. Right?”
“I was no prude,” continues Bonpensiero, “but listening to him disgusted me.” He and Gracie then planned an evening together with Frank. They came up with a tall, gorgeous blond who worked as a stripper. When Frank got the news, he borrowed a brand new red Cadillac for his nephew to chauffeur the four of them around for an evening. But as Joey came back after taking Gracie to her door when the night was over, he heard Frank’s girl giving him bad news. As he pawed her in the back seat, she told him she wasn’t “straight” and got out to go to her own car. In the driver’s seat again, Joey listened to his uncle berate the girl. “I don’t go out with perverts or lizards that change their f*ing stripes.” Writes Bonpensiero, “We left it at that. We had a funny at Frank’s expense.”
The funny may have emboldened the niputi. Not long afterward, he finished his “baby sitting” sessions with Uncle Frank. But they were soon to meet again. The occasion was an engagement party for one of Frank’s nieces, a cousin to Joey. The girl’s mother noticed her daughter drinking too much at the instigation of her fiancé. Mother wanted Frank, the eldest relative, to intervene.
Frank went into the room where the drinking was going on and noticed Joey sitting in a corner. He confronted his nephew about not stopping the situation. It took only seconds for a heated confrontation to develop, and Frank asked Joey to step outside.
In the Sicilian culture, writes Bonpensiero, “The younger individuals, by custom with its implied threat, would not, could not, and dare not contradict an elder relative.”
But outside, when Uncle Frank grabbed Joey by the shoulder, a fight was on. “In retrospect, I had just about all I could stand of my uncle,” writes Bonpensiero. “Over the last few months, I had squired him around and paid for the privilege with the hard earned money Dad earned. I had been embarrassed by his crude and pompous actions in public and had endured his crass fawning over my girl.”
Joe struck quickly. “After faking toward my left, I swung upward and shoved my fist into the side of his face and heard the sound of a crunch.”
Frank swung back and missed, whereupon Joe hit him again several times on the cheek and eye and in the midsection. Now Frank was on the ground with his nephew on top of him delivering “a barrage of punches with all the fury that 20 years could unleash.”
Joe felt his Dad pulling him off with shouts to stop and a reminder that “he’s your uncle.”
“No, he’s your brother. I don’t have an uncle.”
Frank and his nephew would collide one more time. The mobster and an accomplice named Jimmy “the Weasel” Fratianno were trying to extort profits from Nate Rosenberg, a successful local businessman. They had gone to such an extreme as to hang him by his ankles out of a fourth-floor window in a room of the U.S. Grant Hotel. Of course, they had to pull Rosenberg back in or he’d have fallen to his death without turning over any money. But Rosenberg was so terrified that he agreed to have the men later come to his business, where he promised to cough up the first round of the cuts they wanted.
However, writes Bonpensiero, he was called in to thwart the plan. Rosenberg knew his father from their earlier having businesses near each other on lower Broadway. Rosenberg asked Sam Bonpensiero for a recommendation of someone who could help him counter his brother. Sam recommended his son Joe, who by now was already back home after serving his first tour in the Air Force.
By the time the mobsters showed up for their first installment, Joe Bonpensiero had taken a job in Rosenberg’s company. While Rosenberg was further discussing the deal with the thugs in his office, his secretary alerted Joe, who suddenly entered carrying a tape recorder. He told the mobsters he was prepared to bring the district attorney down on them. Then he turned to Fratianno: “Jimmy, has he told you that when he tried to play tough guy with me six years ago, I almost broke his jaw, gave him a big shiner and kicked him in the ribs a few times?”
The crooks got up and left, never to return. It was 1968. By this time, Uncle Frank had already been a modestly paid informant to the FBI for two years. After later speaking with FBI agent Jack Armstrong, Bonpensiero writes in an email, he estimated that Uncle Frank ratted out hundreds of mobsters over the course of the rest of his life. Yes, he did take the hit in 1977 that he knew was coming his way. He could not have felt the bullet that entered his skull from behind his ear. But earlier, the man who had such a strong need to inflate himself must surely have felt the humiliation his nephew Joey had twice meted out to him.