There are many monikers for the soulless beings who commit cold-blooded murders in exchange for money. Hitmen. Contract killers. Enforcers. Some within the ranks of organized crime and the police who pursue it refer to them as soldiers. They are not an American phenomenon, killing for money has been traced to ancient times. Nor are they unique to organized crime. Both husbands and wives have hired professional killers to kill their spouses or ex-spouses, business partners have paid to eliminate partners, and contracts to kill witnesses to prevent their testimony in court are notoriously common.
But it is in organized crime where the contract killers have flourished, and professional killing became an industry in the United States. During the 1930s the American press labeled a group of killers as Murder Incorporated for its activities enforcing the commands of the National Crime Syndicate, killing with seeming impunity. The number of murders committed by its killers is estimated to have been between 400 and 1,000, with many never having been solved because bodies were never found. Its killers were paid an annual salary, supplemented with a bonus for conducting a hit. Its members were subject to discipline under the syndicate, and many became targets of their employer.
Here are some of the most notorious murderers who had no compunctions over taking cash for the act of taking lives.
Tommy DeSimone was an associate of the Lucchese family in New York, known as the Animal to some of his contemporaries. He was the son of a printer who lost his business as a result of a gambling problem. His two brothers were also Lucchese associates, one of his two sisters was the long-time mistress of Jimmy Burke, a mobster who masterminded the Lufthansa heist. DeSimone descended from members of the Los Angeles mob in the 1920s, both his grandfather and an uncle had been organized crime bosses there, controlling the Los Angeles family. DeSimone was the basis for the character played by Joe Pesci in the 1990 film Goodfellas.
DeSimone began working with associates of the Lucchese family who were under the control of Paul Vario. His associate Henry Hill, who later turned state’s witness, described DeSimone at the time as a “skinny kid” (DeSimone was 15 at the time, Hill was in his twenties) and later as a “homicidal maniac”. DeSimone, according to Hill, committed his first murder at the age of seventeen, shooting a random stranger who happened to cross his path. Hill estimated that DeSimone killed eleven people, including at least four while serving a prison sentence, for both personal reasons and for money. His preferred method was by firearm.
DeSimone served as the muscle for the crew run by Jimmy Burke, and several of his murders were ordered by Burke, after he received approval from caporegime Paul Vario. Two of the murders which DeSimone carried out on his own initiative were of members of the Gambino family, and the victims were close friends of John Gotti. DeSimone killed William Bentvena, known as Billy Batts, in a fit of pique over Batts recalling DeSimone’s days as a show shine boy, though the murder took place about two weeks following what DeSimone perceived as an insult. He later murdered another Gotti friend, Ronald Jerothe, after beating Jerothe’s sister while dating her, which led him to fear Jerothe would retaliate.
DeSimone was a member of the crew which carried out the Lufthansa heist and was used by Burke to kill several of the others who had taken part in the robbery. DeSimone may have been murdered by Burke, or another contract killer working for Burke, due to his involvement in the Lufthansa heist. Henry Hill told differing accounts of the manner and reason for DeSimone’s murder after he vanished in January 1979. In the book WiseGuy, DeSimone is described as being killed by the Gotti crew of the Gambino family in retaliation for his killing of Gotti’s friends Bentvana and Jerothe, both of whom had been members of Gotti’s crew.
Hill later changed his account of DeSimone’s murder, claiming that it had been arranged by Paul Vario because DeSimone had attempted to rape Karen Hill while Henry was in prison. Karen had been having an affair with Vario, and when she told him of the attempt, Vario contacted the Gambino family with information about the Bentvana and Jerothe killings. DeSimone’s body was never found and he was declared dead in 1990, based on his having been missing since late December 1978. Also missing was a quarter of a million dollars of the Lufthansa money, which Burke discovered was gone shortly before DeSimone vanished.