Joseph "Joe" Colombo Sr. (June 16, 1923 - May 22, 1978) was the boss of the Colombo crime family, one of the "Five Families" of the Cosa Nostra in New York.
Joseph was born into an Italian American family. His father, Anthony Colombo, was a Cosa Nostra soldier who was found shot to death in his car along with his wife. Though he lived a life of crime, as a Catholic Joseph did not tolerate offenses that others committed against the church. When a thief stole jewel-studded crown from a Brooklyn church, Colombo forced him to return it. The thief complied, but kept three diamonds from the crown. Soon afterwards, the body of the thief was found with a rosary wrapped around his neck.
Colombo was originally part of what was then called the Profaci crime family in New York. In 1961, a gang war broke out in the family between boss Joe Profaci and the renegade Gallo brothers. At this time, Colombo was a caporegime in the family and a Profaci loyalist. Later in 1961, the Gallos kidnapped Colombo and underboss Joseph Magliocco, forcing Profaci to negotiate with them. After the men were released, Profaci reneged on his promises to the Gallo brothers and the war continued.
On June 6, 1962, Profaci died and Magliocco succeeded him as boss. Magliocco was soon drawn into a plot with Bonanno crime family boss Joseph Bonanno to murder Lucchese crime family boss Tommy Lucchese and Gambino crime family boss Carlo Gambino. Magliocco wanted to retaliate against the two bosses for their support of the Gallos, and wanted to take over the Mafia Commission. Magliocco gave the shooting job to Colombo, who promptly revealed the plot to Lucchese and Gambino. The Commission forced Magliocco to retire and designated Colombo as boss of what was now the Colombo crime family.
Italian-American Civil Rights LeagueEdit
In the late 1960s, Colombo aligned his movement with Rabbi and political activist Meir Kahane's Jewish Defense League (JDL) in order to attract Jewish support for his cause. When 13 JDL members were indicted, Colombo paid their bail without being asked. For years, the Colombo family supplied arms to Kahane, who armed Jewish militant groups like Kach in Israel and the JDL in the U.S.
In the spring of 1970, Colombo responded to increasing Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) scrutiny of his activities. Claiming that the FBI was harassing Italian-Americans, he picketed FBI offices in New York City. Colombo's activities led to the formation of the Italian-American Civil Rights League. On June 29, 1970, 150,000 people showed up in Columbus Circle in New York City for an "Italian-American Unity Day" rally. Among the participants were five U.S. Congressmen and several prominent entertainers.
Under Colombo's guidance, the League quickly grew in numbers and soon developed a national presence. The League drew further publicity when in November 1970 Frank Sinatra headlined a benefit for the League at Madison Square Garden. Colombo became increasingly public in his attempts to portray FBI anti-Mafia activities as "harassment" of Italian-Americans. Unlike other mob leaders at the time who tried to shun the spotlight, Colombo began to appear in television interviews and make other speaking appearances on behalf of the League.
Colombo planned to follow up on the League's early successes by planning a second Italian Unity Day rally in Columbus Circle to be held June 28, 1971. Other Mafia leaders were quite displeased with Colombo's public activities. Prior to the rally, Colombo's position became more difficult with the release from prison of Joey Gallo. Gallo had previously battled for control of the Profaci/Colombo organization during the "Gallo-Profaci War." Gallo used his time in prison to build alliances with other ethnic criminals (most particularly African-American criminals in Harlem and the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn), and was using these contacts to disrupt Colombo's activities in Brooklyn.
Assassination and DeathEdit
On June 28, 1971, at the second Italian Unity Day rally, Colombo was approaching the podium to address the crowd. Jerome Johnson, an African American street hustler, approached Colombo. Wearing press credentials from the league and disguised as a photojournalist, Johnson fired three shots from an automatic pistol into Colombo's head. Colombo's son and several others wrestled Johnson to the ground. At that point, a second man stepped out of the crowd and shot Johnson dead. The second assailant then escaped without being identified. The crowd quickly dispersed, although some made a feeble attempt to continue the festival.
Colombo was seriously wounded, but survived the shooting. He lingered in a coma without ever regaining consciousness for nearly seven years (he was "vegetabled", in the words of Joe Gallo). On May 22, 1978, Joe Colombo died at his Blooming Grove, New York estate.
The Colombo shooting was never solved. The prime suspect was Joe Gallo because of his alliances with African-American gangs in Harlem. Also, Gallo resented Colombo due to his alliance with Profaci in the earlier gang war. Another suspect was Carlo Gambino. Gambino was angered over the increasing publicity generated by Colombo's League activities. At one meeting, Colombo allegedly addressed Gambino's complaints by spitting in his face. Finally, the shooter Johnson had connections to the Gambino family.
Another unsubstantiated theory is that the U.S. government set up Colombo's shooting to destroy the League. Some believed that Colombo was a target of the FBI COINTELPRO program. Colombo is also mentioned on an assassination victims list in Volume IX part II of the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Organized Crime report of Ralph Salerno, consultant to the Select Committee on Assassinations. No law enforcement agency ever conducted any investigation into either the Colombo shooting or the Johnson murder.
Colombo was replaced as head of the Colombo family by Vincenzo "Vincent" Aloi Colombo's shooting would start another Colombo family war with the Gallo forces.
In a 2005 HBO TV special, Chris Colombo, son of Joe Colombo, aired film footage of his father's civil rights work for Italian-Americans and claimed that he was assassinated