Authors: Jerry; Joseph; Schmetterer Coffey
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The Coffey Files
One Cop's War Against the Mob
Joseph Coffey and
It was one of those things you register in the back of your mind to check out the next day. Then, when the next day comes, you can't remember who told you about it or how important it was. Reporters run into that a lot. Usually, because you're afraid you will miss a good story if you don't check it out, you start from scratch.
In this particular case I knew I had heard something about a big time hit man being busted as part of a Mafia drug ring. I was the police headquarters bureau chief for the New York
As part of my routine, every day, I called several contacts in the department who I knew would share information with me. It was a system that served both sides well. They knew I would give them a good write-up when they did something they wanted publicized. I mentioned, to one of them, my tip about the hit man. My contact told me she heard something like that. She suggested I speak to Joe Coffey.
“Joe Coffey? The Son of Sam Joe Coffey?” I asked. “Where is he these days?” My friend said Coffey was working in the chief of detectives' office. She said I'd be very interested in what he was doing.
It seemed I was always interested in what Joe Coffey was doing. My last contact with him was during the Son of Sam manhunt in 1977. Coffey was the detective sergeant coordinating the nighttime operations, which centered mostly around the borough of Queens. I was a reporter assigned to the paper's Queens bureau and trying every day to make contact with Coffey to find out if any progress had been made on the case the night before. Sometimes he was helpful. Most often the frustration that case was causing everyone was reflected in his “No comment” or “Why don't you ask Jimmy Breslin?”âa reference to the
columnist who received a personal message from the serial killer and was, daily, breaking the department's collective chops for the lack of progress. But I knew that if there was anything to know, Joe Coffey knew it. We had crossed paths many times before over the years. Joe was a favorite of many reporters. Some accused him of being a publicity hound.
I first heard about him in 1972. He was the young detective from District Attorney Hogan's office who connected a Little Italy thug named Vincent Rizzo to an international counterfeiting and robbery network. It was a complicated case that eventually involved the U.S. Justice Department and would leave loose ends and unexplained mysteries for the next two decades. The case became known as the Vatican Connection. It is one of the most spectacular detective stories of the twentieth century. Joe Coffey started it all.
We met again a couple of years later when a cop named Angel Poggi, on his very first night out of the Police Academy, walked into a booby trap set by the Puerto Rican terrorist group FALN. Coffey was a patrol sergeant. He was the first cop on the scene and held Poggi in his arms until medics arrived. I was assigned to check out the report of an explosion the city desk heard over the police scanner. I got to the scene in time to see Sergeant Joe Coffey removing his blue police shirt, which had been stained with Angel Poggi's blood.
Coverage of terrorism took up a lot of my time over the next few years. In addition to the FALN, the Black Liberation Army was busy shooting police officers. My first genuine scoop involved the BLA. I learned that they were responsible for a $350,000 armed robbery of a Brooklyn department store. They needed the money to fund their war chest. Joe Coffey had a shoot-out on the Harlem River Drive with the BLA.
International groups like the Croatians and Omega 19 were also surfacing in New York in the early seventies, bombing airports and train stations. Detective Sergeant Joe Coffey was in the middle of that, too, as a supervisor in the Arson and Explosion Squad, the forerunner of the Anti-Terrorist Task Force. As a reporter I wanted to be where the big stories were. As a cop Joe Coffey, whether it was for the publicity or a genuine desire to serve the public, wanted the big cases. We both seemed to be having a run of good luck.
Then in 1976 David Berkowitz began his eighteen-month reign of terror. Every reporter wanted in on that story. And there was Joe Coffey once again in the middle of the action.
Now I was chasing him down again. I hoped he was in a better mood than he was during the “Sam” days, and I hoped he trusted me enough by now to let me in on this hit man story. I found him in a corner of the chief of detectives' office. He was in a good mood, and he gave me a great story.
The next day's paper had the headline “Cops Probing Mob Bust 500M Cocaine Ring.” I reported that a special task force designated “Operation Rattle,” because its mission was to “shake up organized crime,” had broken up a ring that had smuggled cocaine worth $500 million from South America and through Kennedy Airport in the past year. In the process a “senior mob hit man” named Marco “Tony Ugly” Mucciolo, 61, was arrested for two murders.
The article contained the first news of a handpicked squad of detectives that had been formed to investigate a rash of mob murders. Detective Sergeant Joe Coffey was commander of the special unit. I wanted to know more about the work those guys were doing. Coffey assured me the police department's attitude towards organized crime was changing. He said I would get a lot of good stories out of his office in the next few years. He was right.
March 3, 1991Â
THE COFFEY GANG
During the early days of 1978 the streets of New York ran red with Mafia blood. From January through March thirty Mafia hoodlums at all levels in the hierarchy of organized crime were murdered.
They had names like “Patty Mack” and “Sally Balls” and hung around with guys called “Tony Ugly” and “Matty the Horse.” Their bodies were found twisted and jammed in the trunks of luxury cars in the parking lots of Kennedy and La Cuardia airports.
Sometimes they were stuffed into plastic bags and discarded along dark roads in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Occasionally, depending on the personal style of the individual hit man, they were dismembered, mutilated, and strewn about local garbage dumps. Once in a while, the victim was gunned down or stabbed to death in public. Those bodies were left where they fell to deliver messages in Mafia code.
The city's tabloid press lovingly described every hit. Each time a body was discovered, headlines screamed of blood feuds and brutal killings as Mafia families turned the sidewalks of New York into their private battlegrounds.
These murders were rarely solved. The New York police did not have the resources or the inclination to chase hit men who disappeared into the night to be protected by the Mafia code of silence. With a conspiratorial wink police officials told reporters the mob was doing the city a favor. “It's nothing but vermin killing vermin,” they would say, asking not to have their name appear next to the quote.
Detectives would spend a few hours talking to the usual suspects, and the file would be put on the back burner. Attention could then be paid to crimes committed against honest citizens. Gangland rubouts were part of the folklore of America.
But in those early days of 1978 a shakeup was taking place on the upper floors of One Police Plaza, New York's Police Headquarters. A new police commissioner named Robert McGuire was in place. In his short time in office, he had already made it clear that he would push for changes in attitude and politics within the department.