The Mobster Who Brought Down the Mob
Credit: Photograph by Levi Brown

He'd been the perfect soldier. Tough, loyal, reliable. Even as a kid, Tommy McLaughlin had done whatever was asked of him – no complaints, no surprises. McLaughlin had proved he could keep his mouth shut. He was just 23 when he started serving 14 years on a drug charge he could have flipped on and gotten off easy. Half his life. He served every day of it, too. The hard way. Gang fights, turf wars, protection. Not easy at 5-foot-7. But he never mellowed, never backed down. Now, finally, it was his time.

At 38, Tommy McLaughlin was ready to collect on whatever he was owed for 14 years. He'd gotten married, and he and his wife were living with his sister, Joanne, and her husband, a convicted mob extortionist who had done time with McLaughlin in prison. All together in a Greek-columned four-bedroom, in the Prince's Bay part of Staten Island, just a short walk from the beach. All in all, things could be worse. While he was away, a lot of the guys he'd come up with had risen in the ranks, replacing the older crew whose cars they'd washed as kids. His first cousin, Tommy Gioeli, was now the Colombo acting boss. The family was not what it once was: While he was in prison, omertà, their code of ironclad deniability, had basically gone to shit. But business was still good and they wouldn't forget a guy like Tommy.

If it were only that easy.

They stepped right into his path on a street in Brooklyn. Two feds on foot with two more in a support car nearby. They laid it all out for him: he'd been the driver on a revenge killing back in '91. He was fresh out of prison and they already wanted to send him back – and on a 20-year-old charge. Somebody must have given him up. A week or so later, the feds took him downtown, to the 22nd floor of the Federal Building in Lower Manhattan for a meeting. McLaughlin was disdainful, defiant, as agent Scott Curtis presented him with his options: Go back to prison for the rest of your life or come work for Team America.

On a cold January morning almost two years later, as many as 800 law-enforcement agents simultaneously apprehended more than 120 mid- and high-ranking members of the five crime syndicates that have dominated organized crime in New York for a century. Hardest hit by the raid was the Colombo family, considered to be one of the mob's bloodiest outfits. "In a single day," says FBI Special Agent Seamus McElearney, "we dismantled the entire Colombo hierarchy – the boss, underboss, consigliere, five captains, and seven soldiers." Forty-eight of the arrests would be attributed to evidence collected by Tommy McLaughlin, the tough half-Irish kid who'd once been one of the family's most loyal soldiers.

The Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn is the kind of place where a promising thug can make a name for himself. Just across the Verrazano Bridge from Staten Island, it is a choice slice of the Italian-American dream, Colombo style. The family has been dug in here since the '40s, and entry-level work is still in abundance: construction, trucking, drugs, no-show union jobs, gun sales. Tommy McLaughlin was born and raised here, but by the time he hit puberty, he was left in the care of Joanne, who moved McLaughlin and his little brother to an apartment in Staten Island, essentially exiling him to "mob Siberia."

But his life – and his living – remained in Brooklyn. He was small for a tough guy, but jacked. As Detective Joe Ierardi, who followed McLaughlin's criminal ascent, puts it: "He wasn't afraid of mixing it up. And that impressed all the wrong people." Ellen Corcella, a former federal prosecutor who went after the Dyker Heights crew in the 1990s, is familiar with the indoctrination ritual. "These mob guys recruit kids who are 14 into their crews," she says. "Literally, they get the chance to wash the big mobster's car and hang out with him. Then, next thing you know, you're invited to see him murder someone. Then you're told to take care of someone."

McLaughlin had his choice of willing mentors. Joanne was dating Bonanno-family hit man Tommy "Karate" Pitera, also known as "the Butcher" for a dozen vicious killings in the 1980s. Tommy Gioeli was running a Colombo crew of his own. But McLaughlin, who started off selling weed on the streets and worked his way up to command a major supply, found a role model in Greg Scarpa, a top captain for imprisoned family boss Carmine Persico and one of the most volatile guys around. He was so violent that when three civil rights workers went missing in Mississippi in 1964, J. Edgar Hoover sent him to investigate their disappearance. While there, Scarpa kidnapped a Klansman, beat him bloody, and stuck a gun barrel down his throat until he revealed the location of the victims. His nickname was "the Grim Reaper," or alternatively, "the Mad Hatter," and he took an immediate liking to McLaughlin.

"Scarpa really liked Tommy because he was a lot like Scarpa," says Leon Rodriguez, a former Brooklyn prosecutor who investigated McLaughlin. "He was cold-blooded, tough, and willing to do whatever. And he wasn't a complainer. One thing you learn about these guys is that they're all a bunch of whiners." McLaughlin was among the youngest of the crew hanging around Scarpa's Dyker Heights home, a sanctum of Colombo activity.

But business wasn't the only draw for McLaughlin at the Scarpa residence; there was also Scarpa's teenage daughter, "Little" Linda Schiro. (Though she is Scarpa's daughter, she uses her mother's surname because Scarpa was married to someone else when she was born.) A Dyker Heights princess in a white Mercedes, she had a peculiar set of teen dating woes. "Guys I wanted to go out with didn't want to go with me," says Schiro. "They heard the rumors. 'Don't go out with Linda. Shit happens.' They put a beating on one boyfriend and tossed him in the road because I got caught drinking with him."

McLaughlin wasn't exactly her thing: pale, blue-eyed, Irish. But her parents liked having him around. He'd sit on the Scarpas' living-room couch watching TV with Linda and her mother, until he was dispatched to deliver a message or find someone Scarpa wanted to talk to.

Linda's father tolerated behavior from McLaughlin that would earn other guys a beating: When she walked through the room in a bikini, fresh from the backyard pool, the other guys respectfully looked away. McLaughlin stared. "My father would swat him on the back of the head," she remembers. Tommy Gioeli warned his young cousin about Greg Scarpa. "He thought my father was too crazy," says Linda. She says her father and Gioeli were competitive over McLaughlin – his allegiance and muscle. "They were fighting over him since he was a teenager," she says.

In November 1991, an internal war broke out between two Colombo factions – the Scarpa-led crew that was loyal to Carmine Persico and the upstarts led by street boss Vic Orena. When a van full of Orenas ambushed Greg Scarpa in his driveway one morning, he narrowly escaped, plowing his Lincoln through the gunfire to safety. McLaughlin was among the first to congregate at the Scarpa home that evening, wielding a .38 and vowing revenge.

It was only a matter of time before someone got to McLaughlin, too, and the following June, his own Lincoln was ambushed as he drove through Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. One bullet grazed his back; McLaughlin and his passenger ran for their lives. Another shot severely injured a 16-year-old bystander sitting on a park bench nearby. McLaughlin turned up later at Scarpa's house, still bleeding. The two would-be assassins were brought to trial and convicted on witness testimony, but McLaughlin refused to cooperate with police.

By 1992, McLaughlin was moving ounces of cocaine from his sister's Staten Island condo to the street corners of Bensonhurst. The Brooklyn DA's office was already onto him. A four-month wiretap on his phone captured three separate incidents of McLaughlin deliver­ing two-plus ounces of coke to his undercover snitch.

By September of that year, Ierardi and Rodriguez were ready to make their move, but just then, the Colombo fighting heated up and drove McLaughlin underground.

They waited for him to resurface, and a few months later, they got a tip that McLaughlin and other mob associates would show up at the wedding of a fellow Colombo member at the Embassy Suites in Brooklyn. One of the guests, a local cop from the neighborhood, volunteered to wear a wire and alert Ierardi's team when McLaughlin and the others arrived. But the cop got drunk and soon blew his cover. "He was talking into his lapel, and they all saw him," says Ierardi. McLaughlin, who had brought Schiro as a date, spotted the cop first and told her, "'I need you to cover for me because something bad is going to happen,'" she recalls. When the local cop approached her, she pointed him in the wrong direction while McLaughlin climbed out a bathroom window. "That was the last I saw of him before he went to jail," Schiro says.

They finally caught up to him in December, at a Christmas party at a bar in Dyker Heights. Ierardi and his team grabbed him at the bar, pinning McLaughlin facedown against a table. Finally. McLaughlin would be crucial: If they could break him, they could bring down bigger fish.

These weren't bullshit charges he faced – racketeering, extortion, firearms, drug trafficking, and tax evasion – more than enough to put him away for a long time. ­Rodriguez and Ierardi tried to flip him, getting McLaughlin to offer names in exchange for leniency, but he wouldn't budge. The usual psychological pressure points had almost no effect on him. He had very little family of his own, and any real obligations he felt were to Scarpa and his crew. "He pretty much told us to pound sand," says Rodriguez.

McLaughlin dodged some charges, but admitted to one charge of selling coke and one of tax evasion, for which he got 14 years in prison, to run with nine years he'd been sentenced on his state charges. By then the war was over. Scarpa had died, in June of 1994, of complications from AIDS. When Linda's brother Joey was killed the following year, she turned to McLaughlin, who was then serving the state portion of his sentence in Green Haven Correctional in upstate New York. "It was the worst time in my life," says Schiro, "after my father died and my brother got killed too. And Tommy reminded me of them both." In 1996 she secretly married McLaughlin in the prison visitors room.

At first, McLaughlin promised to reform himself while in prison. He talked about taking courses toward a GED and got a job working as a porter. Schiro visited him in the prison's on-site family housing, a small place near the exercise yard, bringing along baked ziti and chicken parmesan that McLaughlin's sister, Joanne, cooked for their weekend together. "He was trying really hard to have this nice time alone with me," she recalls, "without the other inmates on top of him and stuff."

The relationship was good for a while, she says, because McLaughlin refused to talk about mob life or the people he knew on the outside. "He was saying he was not going to get involved in all the prison bullshit or people doing crimes on the inside," she says. But it didn't take long before McLaughlin's temper resurfaced, or his fists were called upon for protection or to settle scores for other mob guys inside. "I wouldn't hear from him for two weeks, and then he'd surface and I'd say, 'Where the fuck have you been?'" she says. "And he was in the hole, or had his privileges taken away for fighting." Soon, every conversation they had revolved around grudges with inmates and guards. "He became a prisoner," she says. "He had a prisoner's mentality." Schiro stopped visiting and calling. McLaughlin stopped calling too. She filed for divorce two years later.