Jon Roberts: American Desperado Excerpt
Credit: Photograph by Jamie Chung

Jon Roberts: In the early '60s, people were square. Kids were into the Beach Boys. I didn't want to run around like a Beach Boy. I dressed weird. I wore suede boots with points, velvet pants. I wore a beret. I carried an umbrella. The umbrella looked good, and I sharpened the tip so I could stab people with it. I was 13, and that's how I thought.

The only guys who understood me were a group of older kids, 15 to 17, who ran around Teaneck. They called themselves the Outcasts. Some had pachuco tattoos like Mexican gangs, but the Outcasts were never a true gang. Several of the kids had fathers in the Mafia, and none of us wanted to be part of an organization. The Mafia seemed to us like joining IBM. The Outcasts were all about not having rules.

The main thing for the Outcasts when I started with them was fighting. They liked to fight the football players or go to popular kids' parties and beat them up. Dominic was the Outcast who taught me to fight. His belief was: To give a beating, you got to take a beating. You learn to take pain so it doesn't make you curl up or run. We'd go in his basement, and all the Outcasts would beat the shit out of me. They beat me with their hands, with pool cues, belts, chair legs. Then they taught me how to use those tools properly.

Bat fighting was the big one. Once you get your guy on the ground, the first thing you need to do is reverse your grip. Point the bat down like you're grinding herbs in a mortar and pestle. Pump it up and down on the person. Focus on taking out the knees, elbows, and hands. After that, they ain't running. Now you can take your time cracking their ribs, busting their balls – anything you want. When you got a bat, you're king.

As drugs came more into our world, we started robbing people. We went after drug buyers and sellers because people doing illegal things can't report you to the police. We'd find a guy and tell him, "We can get you weed, but we need to drive to see the guy who has it." Soon as our victim gets in the car and we start driving, we tell him to hand over his money. Then we throw him out of the car.

After a while, we changed up how we robbed people. Teaneck was a small town, and the guy you robbed might see you again. So we did a setup where I would make it look like I was being robbed, too. One of the Outcasts brought a black kid into our group, Freddy. He was perfect to play the guy who would pretend to rob us; nobody would think a bunch of Italians were partners with a black kid.

For our first rip-off with Freddy, I convinced a guy that I could get him a thousand dollars' worth of heroin. When I pick him up, I have Petey, one of the Outcasts, in the back carrying an empty bag that we say has the heroin in it. Petey acts uptight and says he won't open the bag until I drive to a safe place. I take us to a woods in Fort Lee. The plan is, Freddy is supposed to jump out of the trees with a shotgun and rob us. But when I pull up, no Freddy.

I pretend to accidentally honk the horn. Freddy finally runs out of the woods with his shotgun. He is supposed to get in the car, so people don't call the cops, but he is too excited. I have to roll down the window and tell him, "Hey, bro, could you get in the car?"

Luckily the guy we're robbing is so scared he don't notice. As soon as Freddy gets in, this guy hands him his money. But Freddy starts to get out before he takes Petey's bag. I turn to Petey and say, "This robber's really fucked up. Give him your bag so he don't get angry and shoot us." Freddy takes the hint. He grabs Petey's bag and jumps out of the car.

The next day I call the guy and say, "I'm sorry, man." I tell him I'm gonna sell him heroin at a discount so he can earn back the money he lost. He is so grateful, he agrees to meet me with $500 to buy more. I pick him up that afternoon. This time I have Dominic with me. He doesn't want to go through no complicated bullshit. As soon as the guy gets in the car, he beats the shit out of him, takes his money, and throws him from the car. That was the end of our business relationship.

Evan Wright: Despite the Outcasts' disdain for the Mafia, when one of Roberts's Italian uncles gave him work collecting from people who owed money to the mob, he brought in his friends to help. Their overzealousness – they tied a man to a chair and severely beat him – resulted in Roberts's arrest, for kidnapping and attempted murder, in 1965. Roberts, who was 17, was offered a chance to join the Army in exchange for the charges being dropped.

He was sent to Vietnam, where he served on a long-range reconnaissance-patrol team whose job was to hunt and kill North Vietnamese soldiers. Roberts warmed to the work. "My first firefight was the biggest kick I'd ever had in my life," he told me. His team was selected to parachute into Cambodia to assassinate political leaders and committed, according to Roberts, a variety of atrocities, including hanging uncooperative Viet Cong from trees and skinning them alive. But then Roberts was gravely injured in an errant U.S. Army artillery strike and returned home with a metal plate in his head.

His Mafia uncles rewarded him with a plum job, taking over Manhattan gay bars, called bottle clubs, which in the late 1960s were being converted into discos. The Mafia wanted a piece of the action, and Roberts not only obliged but also became involved in managing clubs like Salvation and Sanctuary that sparked the reign of disco in the 1970s.

Jon Roberts: When I came up with the idea of getting into the nightclub business, Carlo Gambino gave me one of his top guys to work with, Andy Benfante. Andy was trusted. For six years he had worked as Carlo Gambino's personal driver and bodyguard. Now we were cut loose to find good businesses to take a piece of. Andy was nearly 30 when we started. I was not yet 21.

Andy called himself the "new breed of Italian." He didn't dress like other soldiers. He wore open silk shirts, expensive shoes, gold chains, nice watches. He was partying in the clubs, fucking a young blonde one day, a young brunette the next. He liked Motown music and rock, like I did. As soon as we started working together, Andy took me to a shop called Granny Takes a Trip. It was a crazy place where rock stars went. It sold everything – wild, psychedelic silk pullovers, cashmere sweaters, velvet pants. Andy turned me on to a guy there who made custom boots by measuring your whole leg. The boots he made you were skintight and went up past your knees. The heels must have been four inches. Normal wiseguys looked at Andy and me like we were nuts. But Andy didn't give a fuck what anybody thought.

We took pieces of half a dozen nightclubs by 1969. We'd send in our guys to start fights and approach the owner a week or two later and inform him we could fix his problems if he took us in as partners. The problem was the clubs we took over died after we got them. There were only a few promoters in New York who could make a club a success, and we needed to get one on our side.

We got in with Bradley Pierce through a partner of his who was just a real bad guy. Bradley was the scenemaker in Manhattan. He had a mailing list of celebrities who'd come to his openings. He had long, curly blond hair and walked around like Jesus spouting peace and love, but he was a genius who could make any club go. Bradley was shrewd. One of his tricks was getting certain girls to follow him – a group of fashion models who did whatever he told them. He would say, "Come to this club for a week or two, and drink your brains out." If a club was dying a little, his army of models would make it hot again. Bradley had other tricks, too. He told us, "I don't care if the club is empty inside. Always keep a line of people outside waiting to get in."

Everybody came to our clubs. Mick Jagger, Teddy Kennedy, Johnny Carson. That freak artist Andy Warhol and his crowd used to come in all the time. Bruce Lee was one of the nicest people I met in our clubs. He wasn't famous yet and he was small, but you could see the way he carried himself he was in phenomenal condition. After I saw his movies, I realized I probably couldn't have taken that guy with a baseball bat.

When we had parties at the clubs, Andy and me started spiking the punch with LSD. We'd have these old mustached wiseguys show up, and we thought it was hilarious to get them high on acid. At one of these parties, we dumped handfuls of LSD blotter paper into the punch. "This is going to be the funniest shit ever," Andy said. No old wiseguys came, but Ed Sullivan showed up. First thing he did was take a cup of LSD punch. He walked around chatting like normal. Then his face got a wild look. He grabbed at something in the air that didn't exist and held the walls with his hands. We sent a whore over to ask what he was feeling. He went paranoid on her. He yelled, "Who are you?" He stepped closer and put his hand on her tit. He started twisting it like a doorknob. Andy and me got a brainstorm: If we could get Ed Sullivan fucking the whore on film, we could blackmail him. I told her to take him into the back room. Me and Andy peeked in. The whore took her tits out of her shirt so Sullivan could play with them, but when she tried to get him undressed, he freaked. He went into the corner and started crying.

In the summer, Andy and I did what everybody else did in the club world: We left the city. We found an incredible old farmhouse on the water on Fire Island that we got for nothing because the owner was a degenerate gambler who was into my uncle for a lot of money. After we got friendly with Jimi Hendrix – he played the opening party at one of our clubs, Salvation – we'd bring him out there to get away from it all. A few times, we took Jimi waterskiing off the back of my Donzi speedboat. He liked getting out and doing things physically, even when he was stoned. One time, Jimi's out there – no life vest on – and he falls off the skis. He's in the water thrashing around. I swing the boat past and throw him the rope. It's floating a couple of feet from his hands, but he's waving his arms like crazy. Suddenly, I'm wondering if he can even swim. Andy has to jump in the water and swim the rope over to him, because, Jesus Christ, if this guy died while out with us, what a headache that would have been.

I had some good times with Jimi, but he was a disaster on water skis.