From mob boss to devastating informant –

LARRY McSHANE,Associated Press

The killers put the dead canary in the freezer. Later, their work finished, they placed the bird inside the mouth of the equally deceased Bruno Facciola.

The August 1990 mob hit followed a tip from two corrupt NYPD detectives that the Luchese family capo had turned government informant. Facciola was stabbed, shot through both eyes and shot again in the head. Then came the bird. Message: Speak no evil.

The slaying was orchestrated by a diminutive thug known to fellow Mafiosi as "Little Al." Few embraced the mob ethos more fervently than Alphonse D’Arco, a hard case from the cradle.

"I was a man when I was born," Little Al once bragged. He committed every crime except pimping and pornography, which he deemed beneath his dignity. Murders? He committed eight while rising through the Luchese ranks.

He especially despised informants. "Rats," he’d spit. He did a three-year heroin rap without opening his yap. So when word came that Facciola was singing, D’Arco arranged for his demise.

And for the canary.

Four months later, D’Arco became the Luchese boss, though not for long. His reign abruptly ended, but not in the fashion he expected: on the wrong end of a jury verdict. Or maybe a bullet.

Instead, D’Arco – disgusted by the loss of mob honor, double-crossed by men he had respected – became in 1991 what he most abhorred: a rat.

And not just any rat. Over the last 15 years, he has brought down mob bosses, underbosses, consiglieres. And he’s still making inmates out of ex-accomplices today.

Little Al may be the most devastating mob informant ever.

Alphonse D’Arco, born July 28, 1932, grew up near the Brooklyn Navy Yards, a neighborhood of heavyweight mobsters – some his relatives. His childhood, D’Arco once recalled, was "like being in the forest and all the trees were the dons and the organized crime guys."

He walked into the woods without hesitation.

Two tenets of the old-school Mafia appealed to him: Loyalty and honor. Both extended into his personal life.

In 1951, during the Korean War, D’Arco volunteered for the Army, served two years and received an honorable discharge. When he returned to Brooklyn and the mob, he found a wife; they remain married to this day. They had five children.

In 1959, D’Arco first met future Luchese family boss Vittorio Amuso. He was soon making money for the Lucheses in a variety of ways: Hijacking. Drug dealing. Burglary. Counterfeiting. Arson. Armed robbery.

D’Arco became a made man in a ceremony held in a Bronx kitchen. "I should burn like this paper if I betray anyone in this room," he swore. It was Aug. 23, 1982. He was particularly good with dates, as federal investigators would learn.

D’Arco had long ago resolved the differences between mob life and straight society. As John Q. Citizen, D’Arco would have lived by the rules. As Alphonse D’Arco, mobster, he would abide by the Mafia’s code. He obeyed orders and his elders, kicked money up to the bosses. He never cooperated with law enforcement.

But an erosion of mob values was under way.

Henry Hill was a Luchese associate and a cocaine dealer. Once arrested, he became the most notorious Mafia turncoat of the 1980s. His testimony helped put away D’Arco’s capo, Paulie Vario, in 1984.

Hill’s life was eventually turned into the classic mob movie, "GoodFellas." D’Arco stayed in "The Life," and became Vario’s replacement.

D’Arco’s old friend Amuso soon became the head of the family, and his underboss was another pal, Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso.

The mob world was good for D’Arco. He had about $1 million in loan-sharking money spread around, and ran his own crew. The family hierarchy relied on him to handle important business – labor unions, racketeering, murder.

"He grew up in the life. It was something that he wanted, and succeeded at," said former federal prosecutor George Stamboulidis.

D’Arco wore shirts with big "wiseguy" collars, and lived in an apartment in Little Italy. The market rent was $1,200 a month; he paid $200.

A few months after they exposed Bruno Facciola, the two crooked detectives provided Casso with a new bit of information: the underboss and Amuso were targeted for arrest. On Jan. 9, 1991, the pair met with Little Al at a Brooklyn bar, where Amuso pronounced him acting boss of the Lucheses.

Then Amuso and Casso disappeared.

During eight eye-opening months as boss, D’Arco’s blind allegiance to the mob was undermined.

From seclusion, Casso and Amuso started a whispering campaign against D’Arco among the Luchese faithful. Yet D’Arco was unconvinced of their betrayal until the night of Sept. 18, 1991, when he attended a meeting in a Manhattan hotel room.

The vibe was ugly. Longtime Luchese associates appeared unnerved. A family hit man was among the group, and D’Arco believed he was marked for death.

After bolting, he began to rethink his life. He considered going to war against the Amuso-Casso faction. But that assumed a loyalty to the Lucheses that he no longer felt, a code of honor that he no longer believed.

"So I says, `That’s it,’" D’Arco explained later. "I washed my hands of the whole thing."

He sent most of his family to Hawaii for safety. D’Arco hid out while a deal was made. On Sept. 21, 1991, Alphonse D’Arco became the most unlikely cooperating witness ever recruited.

And one of the most expensive. The federal government spent more than $2 million to relocate the D’Arco clan. Little Al and six other families were moved from New York to parts unknown.

News of the stunning defection spread quickly through the underworld. An attorney was dispatched to inform jailed Gambino boss John Gotti that Little Al was switching sides.

The acting boss would testify more than a dozen times against the mob’s top echelon. D’Arco was a combative and effective witness, his memory for details and dates unshakable.

Testifying at a 1996 competency hearing for Genovese family boss Vincent "Chin" Gigante, D’Arco flew into a rage. "Don’t break my chops," D’Arco warned defense attorney Michael Shapiro. "I’ll break yours, too."

D’Arco’s testimony helped convict Gigante and Colombo boss "Little Vic" Orena; ex-cronies Amuso and Casso; Bonanno consigliere Anthony Spero; Genovese consigliere James Ida; and an assortment of others.

He spilled about corruption in the unions, the Garment District, the airports.

"D’Arco gave them great value for the money," said defense lawyer Edward Hayes. "D’Arco is a lunatic, but he has a story."

Once, in a Brooklyn courtroom, D’Arco stood before a federal judge who noted they had grown up in the same nearby neighborhood.

"Yeah," D’Arco replied. "And we both rose to the top of our professions."

Ex-prosecutor Stamboulidis said D’Arco embraced his new calling as fervently as his old.

"When he entered an agreement with the government, he answered all the questions with brutal honesty and thoroughness," said Stamboulidis, now a partner in the Manhattan firm of Baker Hostetler. "A true believer does everything 100 percent. He believes 100 percent in his current position."

In return, D’Arco was sentenced in November 2002 to time served. He was fined $50, and returned to obscurity.

While mob turncoats like Hill and Sammy "The Bull" Gravano went back to jail, D’Arco stayed on the right side of the law. And one of the biggest trials lay ahead – one that brought him back to the day when Bruno Facciola had a canary for his last meal.

It was March 2005 when federal authorities announced the indictments of Stephen Caracappa and Louis Eppolito, former NYPD detective partners turned partners-in-crime. The two were charged with taking $4,000 a month from Gaspipe Casso to work as Luchese hit men.

On occasion, they slipped the underboss inside information. They told Casso that Facciola was reportedly working as an informant, authorities charged, and Casso ordered D’Arco to handle the hit.

Little Al was called again to testify.

The ex-boss, now 73, looked more grandfatherly than Godfatherly on the stand, but his thick Brooklyn accent was unchanged by years of life outside the city.

He stood firm under withering cross-examination from Hayes and former Gotti lawyer Bruce Cutler. Caracappa and Eppolito were quickly convicted, and faced life in prison. D’Arco slipped back into the Witness Protection Program.

But there was a moment during his testimony when he recalled a less complicated time.

Cutler, his voice booming, recited a litany of perks that came D’Arco’s way from his agreement to be an informant: No jail time. A new identity. An attorney, free of charge.

"That’s another reward, yes?" Cutler asked.

"I don’t see anything to be a reward," D’Arco responded without hesitation. "I’d trade it all to go back on Spring Street."

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