What It's Like Growing up in a Mafia family
What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family

Larry Holzwarth - October 15, 2021

For children born into the families of criminals, life presents a daunting prospect. None more so than in organized crime, especially the Italian Mafia. The Mafia is based on the concept of family. Protection of and devotion to the family is paramount (for the purposes here, Mafia refers to the Italian-American organization which calls itself the Cosa Nostra). The Mafia in the United States emerged in the late 19th century. Springing up in Italian-American neighborhoods, it grew in the Northeast and in other major cities, including New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and other areas. But in the public mind, it has long been mainly associated with New York and New Jersey. It was a fictional television series which largely introduced life in a Mafia family, HBO’s The Sopranos. The program combined organized crime families fighting each other with raising a suburban family in an affluent New Jersey neighborhood.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
The film Goodfellas is among the first to address life within a Mafia associate’s family at home. imdb

Though it was fiction, The Sopranos presented life for a family of a Mafia member in a manner never presented before. Others had merely nodded at it. The Godfather, in which it appears as if Don Vito’s wife is unaware of his doings, and Michael repeatedly warns his wife to never ask about his business for example. Goodfellas presented the families of mobsters socializing, vacationing, and attending celebrations. But little was said of the children of the mobsters. Goodfellas was based on the book Wise Guy, by Nicholas Pileggi, who extensively interviewed Henry Hill for the basis of the story. Hill, then in the Federal WITSEC program, chose the Mafia life as a child. Later he submitted his own children to it, and eventually to a life on the run. Here are some examples of growing up in a Mafia family, from some who chose the life, and some born into it.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
Henry Hill in 2005. A portrait of actor Ray Liotta, who portrayed him in film, hangs on the wall behind him. NPR

1. Henry Hill aspired to join the Mafia as a child

Born in Manhattan, Henry Hill was raised in a large, working class family in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. His father, an electrician of Irish birth, and his mother of Sicilian parents, struggled to provide for their seven children. Henry did not do well in school; much later in life he was diagnosed with dyslexia. When Hill was a young child he spent hours watching the cabstand across the street from his home. The attraction, to Hill anyway, came from gleaming Cadillacs, Lincolns, and other large cars, and the flashy suits worn by the men who rode in them. The men, most of them large in girth, wore gold and platinum watches, cufflinks, stickpins and tie pins, and heavy jeweled rings and bracelets. Among them was Paul Vario, a caporegime (captain), who ran soldiers and associates in the Lucchese crime family.

At the age of eleven, Hill entered the stand, looking for work. Vito Vario, younger brother of Paul, was impressed with the hustle exhibited by the youngster. Hill ran errands, for various members of the mob from the cabstand, as well as other businesses owned by members of the Vario family. Despite his father’s objections, and according to Hill his frequent beatings at his father’s hands, the Varios became his de facto family. He spent more and more time with the Varios, less at school and in his own home. Hill’s attraction to the life of the mobsters grew to include the respect shown them by others in the neighborhood, including the police. At the age of 14, the Varios presented Hill with a union card, provided him a no-show bricklayer’s job, and allowed him to keep a portion of the salary it paid.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
Mug shot of James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke. FBI

2. Hill threw himself into the mobster’s life with abandon

Once Hill was part of a union scam he entered fully into the Vario mob family, as well as into the Varios’ personal families. The no-show job also allowed him to leave school. Instead of attending classes, he entered job sites using the union card. There he collected loan payments and betting slips. He ran errands for the Vario brothers and others in their organization, among them James Burke, a notorious Irish gangster called Jimmy the Gent. Burke specialized in truck hijackings, untaxed cigarettes, and stolen credit cards. Before he was 16, Henry Hill was adept at the use of stolen credit cards, as well as stolen checks. He also acquired skills as an arsonist, under the tutelage of Vito Vario, known as Tuddy around the mobsters’ hangouts. Henry’s mob family continued his education, including instructing him into how to deal with being arrested.

Henry’s first arrest took place when he was sixteen, having been caught using stolen credit cards to purchase tires for Tuddy Vario. Hill refused to cooperate with the police, and an attorney for the Varios’ obtained his release on bail, and eventually a suspended sentence. His comportment during the arrest and court appearance impressed the mobsters, and Hill became a full-fledged associate of the Lucchese family. Though he would never be eligible to be a “made-man” in the family due to his Irish ancestry, he nonetheless became a respected associate, a protégé of Burke’s and Paul Vario’s, and an earner in a crew (Burke was of Irish background himself). Then, in 1960, Hill appeared to turn his back on his chosen family in order to please his natural parents. At the age of 17, with his father’s permission, Hill enlisted in the United States Army.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
Hill found several criminal activities tp engage in while serving in the army in North Carolina. NPR

3. Hill applied his criminal knowledge to his military life

Although Henry claimed to have joined the Army in part to please his father, his activities while a soldier were designed to please Paul Vario and his adopted family. While in the army, Hill loaned money to his fellow soldiers, charging exorbitant interest rates for the service. Assigned to the kitchen, he stole food and sold it to local merchants and restaurants. He justified the activity in Wise Guys by explaining the Army bought too much food, and what he diverted would of otherwise been disposed of as waste. Stationed in North Carolina, Hill began using free weekends to smuggle tax free cigarettes to his friends at the Vario cabstand. Hill maintained his connections with the Varios and Burke throughout his enlistment. He also sold other items obtainable on base to locals, after being removed from his kitchen detail.

As he would many times in life, Hill ran afoul of the authorities while in uniform. Following a brawl in a saloon, Hill fled the scene in a stolen sheriff’s car. His case was adjudicated by the military, and he spent time in the stockade. Leaving the service in 1963, Hill returned to New York, where he quickly and efficiently expanded his criminal enterprises, often working with Burke. Hijackings, stolen credit cards, cigarette smuggling, arson, intimidation, and other crimes were added to his resume. So was an organized car theft ring, which included cars stolen to order, delivered to a partner in Puerto Rico. By 1965, when Hill met his future wife, Karen Friedman, he was a major earner for the Vario crime family, welcome in Paul’s home as well as his business dealings.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
Surveillance still of Henry Hill with Paul Vario. Pinterest

4. By marrying Karen Friedman, Hill brought her into the mob

Hill and Friedman had two weddings, mostly to appease her Jewish parents. Most of Hill’s criminal associates attended his Jewish ceremony in North Carolina, and Karen became a part of a mob family. How much she knew of his illegal activities at the time is unclear in Henry’s self-serving relation of his tale. But getting into the marriage ensured she would be part of the Vario family for life. Divorce among mobsters was relatively rare. A divorced wife could be a loose cannon, capable of relating who knows what to the authorities. They presented a risk which the mobsters could not tolerate. Nearly all of Henry’s associates, as well as Henry himself, were unfaithful to their marriages. Some wives tolerated it, and remained in the marriage out of fear or because of their children. Henry’s philandering soon had an impact on the Hill’s marriage.

Karen later tried to distance himself from Henry’s illegal activities when the Hills’ discussed entering the Witness Protection Program (Officially the Witness Security Program, WITSEC in bureaucratic circles). Subsequent investigations, as well as the evidence presented at the time, indicated she was well aware of many, and an active participant in some. Among the latter was Karen’s smuggling of drugs, alcohol, and other contraband to her husband when he was an inmate in federal prison. Far from being an innocent victim of Henry’s crimes, she actively supported them, or at least some of them, especially his drug operations. The Hill family added two children during the marriage of Karen and Henry. They too, were indoctrinated into Hill’s criminal family, spending vacations and holidays with the Burkes, the Varios, and others of Hill’s professional colleagues.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
Henry, Karen, Gregg, and Gina Hill in the 1970s. All That’s Interesting

5. Wise Guy and Goodfellas misidentified Hill’s children

In Wise Guy, the book narrated largely by Henry Hill and the basis for Goodfellas, he is described as having two children with Karen. Both are girls, named Judy and Ruth. They entered WITSEC in May, 1980, with their parents and vanished. But the identification presented in the book and film was inaccurate. When Wise Guy was published, and when Goodfellas was released, the Hills were still in WITSEC under another name. Possibly the identities of the children were changed to protect them, though all of Hill’s former associates, including those who wanted him dead, knew his children as well as his wife. At any rate, in 2004 another book addressing the Henry Hill saga appeared. It was titled, On The Run: A Mafia Childhood. The authors were Gregg Hill and Gina Hill, described as “Son and Daughter of ‘Wiseguy’ Henry Hill”.

The book covers both the remembrances of the Hill children prior to their entry into WITSEC and their subsequent adventures. Gregg Hill remembered the trips to visit their father in Lewisburg while he was incarcerated there. He described the long drives as “miserable”. Gregg’s growing awareness of his father’s criminal activities is covered following his release from Lewisburg up until their abrupt departure from their home in 1980. It was not to be their only abrupt departure, accompanied by new names, new backgrounds, new schools, and new friends to whom they were forced to lie. Throughout his tenure in WITSEC, Henry could not curtail his criminal activities, as well as his evident need for publicity. But for a while his value to the authorities as a witness exceeded the troubles he caused the US Marshals tasked with protecting him and his family.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
James Burke (seated) led one of his sons into participating in the Lufthansa robbery in 1978. Pinterest

6. James Burke had children who followed their father’s footsteps

James Burke (Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas) mentored Henry Hill as a criminal. A violent and murderous thug, Burke was known to Hill’s children as “Uncle Jimmy”, while the equally vicious Paul Vario was Uncle Paulie. Burke named his two sons, Frank James Burke and Jesse James Burke. At least one followed the career path of his father, participating in the famed Lufthansa heist. Frank James Burke served as one of the drivers of a backup vehicle for the robbery, which at the time was the largest cash robbery in American history. Following the robbery, James Burke had most of the participants in the theft, and others who had knowledge of it, murdered. Gregg Hill noted the growing number of missing friends of his family during the last few months of their residence in Brooklyn. He wasn’t aware that Uncle Jimmy and Uncle Paulie were behind their disappearance.

Frank James Burke was the subject of frequent verbal and physical abuse by his father, a fact made known to the FBI by informants, including the man Frank called “Uncle Henry”. Nonetheless he has long been believed to have participated in the Lufthansa robbery, though his actual role is disputed. Hill believed him to be one of the armed gunmen. In 1987, with Jimmy Burke imprisoned for murder (based largely on testimony from Hill) Frank James Burke’s body was discovered in Cypress Hill, Brooklyn. He was the victim of a drug deal gone bad, and eventually a drug dealer named Tito Ortiz was convicted of murdering him. His death meant all of the suspects from the Lufthansa robbery were dead, in prison, (Vario and Burke) or in WITSEC. By the way, most of the money from the Lufthansa robbery, over $5 million in cash and jewels, has never been found.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
Henry Hill’s 1980 drug bust by Nassau County detectives led to intervention by the FBI. FBI

 

7. For Gregg Hill, life in a mafia family meant constant visits by the police

Gregg Hill, the older of the two Hill children, mentioned the presence of large amounts of drugs in their home, as well as the presence of friends and acquaintances who consumed and purchased them. Sacks of marijuana and bricks of cocaine were nearly always in the house, concealed in various stashes on the premises. Police visits to the home were frequent, though Hill often had prior knowledge of the coming raid from informants on the Vario payroll, and had the evidence removed before the raid ensued. The drug raid depicted in Goodfellas, following Henry’s arrest in his driveway, was different. The large amounts of drugs seized meant Henry Hill could go to prison on state charges for a very long time. But his known connections with the Mafia led the federal authorities to intervene. Hill knew the drug charges would enrage Vario and Burke.

Entering WITSEC would give the US Attorneys a valuable witness, not only against the Lucchese family associates but others of the Five Families as well. Henry also knew that Burke was behind the disappearance of so many of their associates, and that Jimmy wouldn’t hesitate to have him killed. Henry Hill viewed WITSEC as a means of escaping his Mafia enemies, though not its lifestyle, while being paid and protected by the federal government. For his wife and his children WITSEC completely upended their lives, families, and friends. For Henry it provided an opportunity to get away with past crimes, and offered a new location from which he could operate. On May 20, 1980, Karen Hill and her children were driven to their home by US Marshals, allowed to pack one bag apiece, and then driven to a secret location, where Marshals guarded them around the clock.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
Another mug shot of Henry Hill, from 1965. Jersey City PD

8. Gregg Hill enjoyed special privileges among his father’s colleagues

According to Gregg Hill, being Henry’s son brought him special attention from his father’s associates, all of whom referred to him as Henry’s kid as he approached his mid-teens. His status assured that he was protected from harassment by other kids, adults, and even the police. As a young teen he sat in bars, allowed to remain to listen to the live bands when others his age were forced to leave. He knew his elevated status was due to his being the son of a connected father. Henry’s closest friends were his “uncles” and “aunts”, in addition to those he had from Henry’s and Karen’s families. His father’s dealings with stolen guns led to a fascination with them, especially after Henry allowed his son to fire a submachine gun. The latter event took place in the basement of their home, much to the consternation of his Gregg’s mother.

“Yet I was never drawn to the wiseguy life”, Gregg wrote in On the Run. Instead, he wanted an education which led to a profession, self-reliance, and freedom. Following Henry’s bust in 1980 it appeared any such dreams were lost forever. Word of Henry’s involvement with drugs spread through his school and among friends. His sister, Gina, wrote of her being “so embarrassed, so mortified”. It soon got worse. The children were to be taken into WITSEC, with new names, newly falsified school transcripts, a false history, and sent to a location not yet known to them. Contact with relatives, aunts, uncles, grandparents, was forbidden. Their father would be absent for long periods while he testified in courtrooms or assisted investigators in their work. After being taken into protective custody, nothing in their world was familiar to them. And it would happen again and again.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
The Hills’ new last name came from an inmate Henry had known at Lewisburg Federal Prison Camp. US Bureau of Prisons

9. Henry Hill became a valuable resource at considerable expense

While his family waited out the decision of where they would be relocated (over which they had little say), Henry provided testimony to federal authorities. As he did so he revealed crimes and scams of which the authorities had no prior knowledge. One such crime was a points shaving scheme involving the Boston College men’s basketball team. The lead investigator interviewing Henry Hill happened to have been a Boston College graduate, and a former basketball player for the school. He personally took the lead in prosecuting the players and others involved in the scam, though as with all of his other crimes to date, Hill was not charged for his role. While Hill was held for interviews, he lived in luxurious circumstances. He ordered food from expensive restaurants, paid for by the government.

While Hill enjoyed himself at the expense of the government, as well as of his former colleagues and associates, his family waited to learn of their new home. They stayed at a series of motels on Long Island and in Connecticut while their new identification papers were prepared and a destination selected. Gregg Hill wrote of the period that his father was “ratting out” his friends, continuing to refer to them as Uncle Paulie and Uncle Jimmy, years after learning both were serial murderers and thieves. Eventually, according to Gina Hill, the FBI put them in a rented house in the Hampton’s, on Long Island. Gina and Karen selected their new name surname, Haymes, which they shared with a convict who had served time with Henry at Lewisburg. But they did not know of their assigned new home until they arrived in Omaha, Nebraska.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
When the US Marshals attempted to relocate the Hills to Lexington, Kentucky, Henry pointed out the number of Mafiosi incarcerated at the Federal Medical Center there. US Bureau of Prisons

10. The Marshals provided minimal guidance to the Hills, including the children

As new residents, the Hills would undoubtedly face the question, ‘Where are you from’? Being natives of Brooklyn, they possessed the well-known and easily distinguishable accents of the region. The Marshals instructed the Hills to adopt Stamford, Connecticut as their former home. The Marshals felt that Midwesterners were unlikely to distinguish between a Southern New England accent and that of Brooklyn. Gregg knew as little about Stamford as he did about Omaha, though he attempted to comply. The Marshals also recommended the family keep a low profile and draw as little attention as possible to themselves, though Henry’s drinking and subsequent behavior was anything but discreet. And both Gregg and Gina Hill encountered difficulty maintaining the lies they were forced to tell whenever they met someone new, or as relationships developed.

Gradually, the family settled into a new life in Omaha, with Henry frequently absent due to his court appearances or grand jury interrogations. From relatives and family, with whom they were not supposed to have contact, the Hills learned of contracts on their father’s head. Other relatives of the Hills were offered bribes to reveal their whereabouts. Just as Gregg Hill was about to start his high school career as a freshman in Omaha, the US Marshals pulled the plug. Concerned over a suspected breach in security, the entire family repeated the quick departure from their Brooklyn home. Once again, their destination was kept from them until they were on their way to it, in protective custody. It proved to be Lexington, Kentucky. After Henry Hill pointed out the proximity of a federal prison to their new home, it was changed to Independence, a suburb of Cincinnati.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
Independence, Kentnucky, became the next home for the Hill family. City of Independence

11. Once again, their names were changed to protect the innocent

By the time the Hills arrived in Northern Kentucky, Henry had astutely learned his worth to the federal authorities. The value of the information he provided eventually led to more than 50 convictions, and likewise proved invaluable in obtaining indictments. Such indictments often led to others selecting cooperation over conviction, and branched off in new and expanded investigations. Whenever Hill wanted something, he threatened to withdraw his cooperation, leverage which he used to avoid living in Lexington and relocating to the Cincinnati suburbs. According to Gregg Hill, his father orchestrated the Omaha security breach, by making phone calls to past associates in New York, hinting at where the Marshals had sent him. Gregg states his father told him so, though he issued a caveat. “I learned a long time ago not to trust anything my father says”, he wrote.

With the new location came another change of identity, and the Hill/Haymes family became the Scott family. Henry Hill’s name in Independence was Martin Todd Scott. But the Scott’s were far from a happy family. The abrupt departure from Omaha refocused the fear in the minds of Karen and the children, though Henry was indifferent. The relocation took place in September, 1980; just four months had passed since the drug raid on the Hill home in Brooklyn. On his first day in school Gregg, then using the Christian name of Matthew, failed to respond when that name was called several times in class. Almost immediately rumors of his using drugs spread among his classmates. Gregg found himself in what he described as the realm of “rednecks and hillbillies”, to his deep chagrin. Meanwhile his father continued to flout the terms of his agreement with the government.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
The 1978-79 Bost5on College points shaving scandal was revealed by Henry Hill to Us Attorney Edward McDonald. Sports Illustrated

12. Hill published his story about the Boston College Point Shaving scheme in early 1981

In February, 1981, Sports Illustrated published the story of the Boston College points shaving plan, under the byline, “By Henry Hill with Douglas S. Looney”. The story caused a national sensation, and was covered by nearly every major news outlet extensively. It also caused outrage among the federal authorities, who had not yet issued indictments for the individuals. Effectively, it exposed their entire case before they were ready to pursue it. During the same time Henry Hill told the authorities of the scheme, he informed Looney of the same. Since Hill provided the story without consulting his federal handlers, he violated his agreement with them. Though he was threatened with removal from WITSEC, in the end the threats were not carried out. His information provided just too much evidence against the mobsters for the authorities to close him out.

Almost unbelievably for a man in hiding, Hill provided some information regarding his existence in WITSEC. Gregg Hill reported in his book that the Sports Illustrated article included a picture of his father. A page-by-page review of the issue (February 16, 1981), reveals no such image in the magazine. In On the Run Gregg described a scene with his father subsequent to the publication of the article. His reaction to seeing is father’s photograph in a national magazine is a significant part of the scene. But no such photograph existed, rendering the entire depiction in the book, and subsequently the entire book, less than credible. Despite the inaccuracies described by Gregg, Henry Hill did publish the story, and earned significant rebuke from the US Attorney’s and the FBI. Nonetheless he continued to remain in WITSEC, despite the growing problem of his keeping a low profile.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
US Attorney prosecuted the Boston College scandal and portrayed himself in Goodfellas. Reddit

13. Gregg and Gina both described several incidents which added to their fears in 1981

According to Gregg Hill, “My parents were so reckless in the summer of 1981”. He described a visit from Karen’s mother to their Independence home, as well as a project undertaken by his father that summer. Henry struck upon the idea of using a horse-drawn carriage to convey tourists to various sites in downtown Cincinnati. Henry called his idea the Queen City Trolley. It opened for business in July, the same month Jimmy Burke was indicted for his role in the Boston College points shaving scam. When the syndicated television program PM Magazine asked to do a segment on the Queen City Trolley Henry agreed. Though he attempted to disguise his features with a fake mustache and a changed hairdo, and used his Martin Scott alias, he made no attempt to disguise his New York accent. The Queen City Trolley failed after a few weeks.

Once again, Hill raised his profile, rather than lowered it, and the federal authorities were not amused. He added to his transgressions with a couple of arrests in Kentucky over incidents involving alcohol and disorderly conduct. The federal authorities managed to keep them quiet. Jimmy Burke’s upcoming trial meant the government still needed Henry to testify. The Marshals learned of private investigators, allegedly hired by either Burke or Vario, focusing on the area. Once again, after less than a year in Independence, WITSEC decided to relocate the Hills. Hard evidence they had been located drove them to another hurried departure, again without the knowledge of where they were going until they were enroute. It turned out to be what was then a small town about 18 miles from Seattle, by the name of Redmond, Washington.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
Henry Hill provided information on associates from other mob families, including, allegedly, John Gotti. FBI

14. Life for Gregg and Gina Hill was a continuous challenge

In every stop on their peripatetic journey through childhood and adolescence, both Gregg and Gina encountered losses caused by their father’s actions. Essentially, Henry Hill never really left the life he adopted as a child himself. He returned to petty crimes, heavy drinking, drugs, gambling, and associating with like minded acquaintances. He attempted to assuage his children’s resentment with occasional gifts, horses for Gina, various pieces of sporting equipment for Gregg. But he was often absent, even while not away testifying against his former accomplices. Throughout his tenure in WITSEC his behavior grew ever more reckless. So did Karen’s, who made various attempts to establish herself as a pet groomer, a hairdresser, and other occupations. Gregg and Gina learned to make friends by not telling much of their past, not even their fictional past.

Hill’s recklessness continued to be endured by the authorities because the information he provided did far more than convict Jimmy Burke and Paul Vario. Hill’s often rambling testimony and depositions led to the FBI and US Attorney’s opening new investigations. His evidence helped the federal authorities obtain warrants for searches and electronic surveillance on subjects with whom Hill had had little direct contact, including John Gotti. The government wasn’t yet ready to release its hold on Henry Hill, not as long as he still held the potential for future convictions of mob associates. But Hill was growing increasingly willing to violate his agreement with the government, contacting former associates in New York (one had provided funding for the Queen City Trolley), and making other deals unknown to the US Attorneys. While in Redmond, he made his biggest since entering WITSEC.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
Henry Hill published his story through writer Nicholas Pileggi in Wise Guy. Goodreads

15. Hill agreed to tell his story through writer Nicholas Pileggi in 1981.

While in Redmond, Henry Hill informed his family that he had signed a book contract in September, 1981, coinciding with the most recent security breach which forced the family to again relocate. According to Gregg in On the Run, “This is the big score”, said Henry. Gina was more tolerant than her brother, who expressed his dissatisfaction with both his parents following the announcement of the book deal. “My dad was redeemed”, she wrote. “He’d left that old life behind, and now he was a professional”. Unlike her brother, Gina was supportive of her father’s new project. Gregg found it a source of resentment. He resented the fact that because of his father he had to live the life of a constant lie, while his father was now going to tell his supposedly true story to the world. Karen also supported the idea, believing her son was being negative.

After a few months in Redmond, both Gregg and Gina found themselves questioned by friends regarding their father’s employment. Until then, in Omaha, Independence, and Redmond, their pat answer had been that he worked for the government in a classified capacity. But as Hill’s drinking and drug use began to spiral out of control, friends, particularly Gregg’s, didn’t accept such an answer. By 1983 both Hill children had let slip some elements of Hill’s past, though they continued to hold back details. The tension in the Hill household, chiefly between Henry and Gregg, grew into physical confrontations, usually when Henry was drunk. That changed when, in 1983, Henry Hill married another woman. He reasoned that his marriage license to Karen had contained the name Hill. His current name was Scott. As Martin Scott he was unmarried. Thus, in his addled mind, he was not a bigamist.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
The success of Goodfellas led to more and more risky behavior on the part of Henry Hill. Wikimedia

16. Hill returned to crime while in WITSEC

According to Henry Hill, he left Witness Protection of his own volition. Henry implied in writings and interviews that he had tired of the restrictions on his activities. In truth, several criminal charges hastened his removal from WITSEC by the authorities, though his wife and children remained in the program. Henry returned to selling drugs and other relatively small-time crimes in several jurisdictions. Gregg Hill eventually graduated from college, earned a law degree, and entered into a career practicing law. At least that is what he claimed in On the Run. Gina likewise avoided the the life practiced by her father. Both siblings continued to live lives of low profiles, even after their father’s life became prominent following the release of Goodfellas in 1990. Henry enjoyed his new-found notoriety, and profited from it shamelessly.

In his writings, interviews, and appearances, Henry Hill never expressed remorse for his crimes. Nor did he apologize for the lives his activities disrupted. Instead, he frequently mentioned that he had never “whacked” anyone, as if that exonerated him for his career. The lives he helped ruin through drugs, gambling, extortion, robberies, insurance fraud, arson, and his many other criminal activities were of no consequence to him. Instead, he retold his tales over and over, with the accounts frequently inconsistent with previous recounting, always in a manner which stressed his own superiority over his victims. Nor did he seem to recognize the harm he had done to his family, to Karen and his children. The story of the Hills is an account of being raised in a Mafia family and in fleeing from one. The many inconsistencies in the retellings do not alter the considerable dangers inherent in the tales.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
Luigi Di Ciccio grew up in a crime family in Naples, Italy. BBC

17. Luigi Di Cicco avoided entering the lifestyle followed by his father

Luigi Di Cicco spent the early years of his life visiting his father, Giuseppe Di Cicco, in various Italian prisons. Giuseppe was a boss in the Neapolitan Camorra, who ran organized crime activities from prison, through his brothers. Luigi and his uncles lived in a house which was heavily fortified, equipped with hidden rooms and escape tunnels. Closed circuit television and stout fences protected the grounds. As Luigi grew older he recognized the respect and deference he received as he went about his business on the streets and in shops and offices. As a teenager, Luigi enjoyed the respect he received, though it was never enough to entice him into his father’s and uncle’s chosen career paths. He reported being tempted from time to time, but his father never encouraged his son to enter the family business. Instead, he was told to choose his own way.

Luigi was close enough to mob activities to witness the bodies of two of his uncles lying dead in the streets shortly after hearing the shots which killed them. He was eleven years of age at the time. His father remained imprisoned until Luigi was in his twenties. Though Luigi visited him often, he managed to avoid linking his father to the mob violence which occurred with alarming frequency in their home town of Lusciano. When Giuseppe was allowed to attend a funeral in his home town, under heavy security guard, Luigi noted the near reverence directed by the townspeople to the crime boss. Nonetheless, he avoided the “life”. He worked in sales, served in the military, and eventually became a restauranteur, while his father continued in his chosen career after his release from prison. In 2014, Giuseppe returned to prison. By then his son owned his own restaurant in Civitavecchia, Italy.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
A young Albert Francis Brown with his mother in the early 1920s. Wikimedia

18. The strange life of Albert Francis Brown

Born in December, 1914, the man who lived most of his life as Albert Brown was called Sonny by his father, Alphonse. Alphonse had money, power, and prestige in Chicago, New York, and Miami. He sent his son to the best schools available, among them Saint Patrick’s High School in Miami. There, Sonny befriended a young Cuban expatriate by the name of Desiderio Alberto Arnaz, who later gained lasting fame as Desi Arnaz. Sonny attended the University of Notre Dame, but eventually completed his studies and obtained his degree at the University of Miami. Sonny maintained a simple life after completing his schooling. He worked selling used cars until he learned of his employer manipulating odometer readings on his vehicles. His father died in 1947. Sonny remained close to his mother, including going into a restaurant business together.

In 1959 his old friend Desi Arnaz produced a new television series. Starring Robert Stack, the program was a highly fictionalized account of Elliott Ness and his squad of agents in the pursuit of Al Capone in 1930s Chicago. Called The Untouchables, the program was an immediate and major hit. It drew heavy criticism from Italian-American organizations and celebrities, among them Frank Sinatra, condemning its stereotyping of Italians as gangsters and criminals. Sonny personally called his former schoolmate, Desi Arnaz, though his complaints were of a personal nature. Both Sonny and his mother expressed their displeasure at the depiction of Al Capone on the program. Sonny should know, he was Al Capone’s only legitimate son, a fact of which his friend Desi was well aware. For most of his life Sonny distanced himself from his father’s legacy.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
A photo of Al Capone taken in the Chicago detective bureau in 1930. Wikimedia

19. Sonny changed his name to escape his father’s shadow

In 1965 Sonny was arrested for shoplifting, having stolen aspirin in some accounts, flashlight batteries in others, and both in still more. When he stood before the judge under the name of Al Capone he realized the burden caused by just the name. After his court appearance, in which he received probation, he changed his name to Albert Francis Brown. The fact that he did so at the age of 48 made the news, United Press International (UPI) reported the event in newspapers across the nation. He lived the remainder of his life in relative peace and quiet. Following his aspirin/batteries crime wave of 1965 he never again drew the attention of law enforcement. Except for J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, which kept an extensive file on his whereabouts and activities.

If ever anyone was born into the gangster’s life, it would be the only son of Al Capone. But there is extensive evidence that the father did not desire the son to follow in his footsteps. Sonny received a liberal education, though his father dropped out of school at just 14. He did not learn of most of his father’s criminal activities in his youth. When his father was convicted and incarcerated for tax evasion in the 1930s, he maintained a correspondence with him in prison. Sonny Capone died in 2004, in a small town in California, where most of his neighbors and friends were astonished to learn he was the son of an infamous gangster, one who’s name is that of probably the most famous mobster of them all. He never approached the notoriety of his father, and instead went to great lengths to remove himself from his father’s legacy.

What It’s Like Growing up in a Mafia family
Aftere taking over the Profaci crime family, Joe Colombo made its name his own. Wikimedia

20. Joseph Colombo followed his father into the Profaci crime family

At the end of the 20th century the Five Families dominated organized crime in New York. One of them, the Colombo family, descended from the Profaci crime family, originally a bootlegging and racketeering group founded in the 1920s. Anthony Colombo was an enforcer in the Profaci crime family in the 1920s and 1930s. His son, Joseph, was born in 1923 and spent most of his childhood in Brooklyn. In 1938, Anthony Colombo was murdered along with a mistress, his body found strangled in a car. Joseph attended high school in Brooklyn, dropped out to enlist in the Coast Guard, and received a medical discharge in 1945. He then worked in various jobs, including a ten-year stint as a longshoreman on the docks of New York. Eventually he joined the Profaci family, encouraged by friends of his late father as well as relatives.

He rose through the criminal ranks quickly. During the early 1960s Colombo learned of plans for the Profaci family to murder several high ranking mafiosi, including the heads of the Lucchese and Gambino families. Colombo maneuvered around the plans deftly, exposing them to the Commission and as a result was rewarded by being made the new head of the Profaci family, Joseph Profaci having died a year earlier. Having learned the business originally at his father’s knee, Joe Colombo became the head of one of the mob’s most notorious families at the age of just 41. Paralyzed after a shooting in 1971, he died in Newburgh, New York, in 1978 after years of being comatose. His business fell to his son, Anthony, and a third generation of Colombo’s. The latter worked to polish his and his father’s images as Italian-American community leaders, rather than participants in organized crime.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Wise Guy: Life in a Mafia Family”. Nicholas Pileggi. 1987

“Gangsters and Goodfellas: The Mob, Witness Protection, and life on the Run”. Henry Hill, Gus Russo. 2007

“On the Run: A Mafia Childhood”. Gregg Hill, Gina Hill. 2004

“Paul Vario”. Biography, The Famous People. Online

“Jimmy Burke – A Goodfella with a Mean Streak”. Article, American Mafia History. March 3, 2014. Online

“Goodfellas: What Happened To The Real Karen Hill After The Movie”. Adrienne Tyler, Screen Rant. August 22, 2020. Online

“Son of a Mob Figure Is Found Shot to Death”. Report, The New York Times. May 19, 1987

“Witness Security Program”. Article, US Marshals Service. Online

“‘The Worst Fix Ever'”. David Purdum, Espn Staff. ESPN. October 3, 2014. Online

“Henry Hill: 7 Things To Know About Infamous ‘Goodfella'”. Luchina Fisher and Eileen Murphy, ABC News. June 13, 2012. Online

“Growing up in the shadow of the Mafia”. Alan Johnston, BBC News Italy. May 29, 2014. Online

“Al Capone’s Son: What happened to ‘Sonny’ Capone after the death of his notorious gangster father”. George Martin, inews.uk. March 1, 2021

“Florida History: The lives of Al Capone and his son”. Article, Crestview News Bulletin. April 9, 2020. Online

“Colombo: The Unsolved Murder”. Don Capria, Anthony Colombo. 2015

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