During his two decades as Brooklyn’s top mob-busting homicide prosecutor, Michael Vecchione dealt with all manner of wiseguys, but none was less impressive than Luigi the Zip.
Short, overweight, disheveled and speaking in broken English, Sicilian import Luigi Ronsisvalle — dubbed “the human bowling ball” by Vecchione for being as wide as he was tall — embodied his Zip moniker, a slur American gangsters used for their overseas brethren, whom they regarded as backwater yokels. No one, it seemed, took Luigi seriously.
“He was just a schlub,” says Vecchione of the focus of his new book, “Homicide Is My Business” (Camino Books), out now.
“He was never sharp in the way he dressed. He was never able to carry on conversations. He was just a guy who knew how to do what they wanted him to do, which was kill people.”
Vecchione, who penned two previous books involving his career as a crime fighter after he left the Brooklyn DA’s office in 2013, got to know Ronsisvalle in a series of meetings at his cramped office in Downtown Brooklyn in the early 1980s, where they chatted while the turncoat munched on veal parmesan sandwiches and sipped Budweiser from a can.
His demeanor might have been underwhelming. But Luigi the Zip — a heroin trafficker and hitman with 13 confirmed kills who flipped in 1979 — played a role in virtually every big Mafia event of his day, a kind of underworld Forrest Gump. “He was a colorful character who turned up in all these different places,” says Vecchione.
Ronsisvalle had intel on the French Connection heroin trade, made famous by the hit film starring Gene Hackman, and the Pizza Connection smugglers, which pumped some $1.6 billion worth of heroin into the US between 1975 and 1984, the drugs tucked into dough for pizzerias. He knew key details about the murder of mob boss Carmine Galante and the schemes of an Italian banker suspected of stealing a fortune from the Vatican.
Over the course of their meetings, the mobster regaled the prosecutor with details of his various hits and his own personal code: pay your debts, treat workers with respect, leave the working man alone, and go after only those who deserve it. “A man of honor kills to help people,” he explained to Vecchione.
His first slaying in the US was a freebie — and a chance for Ronsisvalle to get noticed by the bosses. A heavy gambler, he frequented a poker den on Knickerbocker Avenue, where he was dealing blackjack one night in 1968 when he overheard a group of Bonanno mafiosi “talking about someone they all knew who needed to be whacked,” writes Vecchione. The man in question was someone from the neighborhood who had been pimping out a young Italian girl from a well-liked family.
“This called for the death penalty, no questions asked,” Ronsisvalle told him. “This girl is a widow, recent, and the motherf—er who everyone seemed to like so much was taking advantage of her situation.”
“I stop dealing cards and tell the wiseguys, ‘I take the job.’”
Ronsisvalle proudly recounted to Vecchione how he did it — staking out the mark’s house near Knickerbocker Avenue, following him on foot, learning his routine. He bought an old .38 revolver from a street hustler, and test-fired the weapon in an isolated spot along the Belt Parkway.
Then, at 6 a.m. one morning, just as the pimp was leaving his house for work, “I sneak up behind him and shoot him in the head two times. He go right down. I know he dead. He get what he deserve.” The shooter casually strolled off, then split for Atlantic City.
It was the same formula Ronsisvalle had used in Italy, where he was a respected assassin — and would employ again in the US. He meticulously researched his victim’s movements, stayed calm after the killing, and justified to himself that the dead man had it coming.
Alas, Ronsisvalle’s dream of becoming a made member of the Bonnano family never happened — according to Vecchione, he was never truly appreciated by those he worked for, and remained tainted by his pedigree.
“He was encouraged to come to Brooklyn from Sicily by Carmine Galante and Joe Bonanno. They needed a hitman and bodyguards. They figured that when the other families got wind of the fact that they had this big narcotics business going — and were not sharing with them — there was going to be trouble,” says Vecchione.
“They started to import people like him to come to the United States to be their watchmen and to take care of business if a war broke out. But he was not what they were looking for as far as someone who moved up to become a made man. He was just a zip.”
Ronsisvalle was disillusioned by what he perceived, ironically, as the mob’s lack of morals. He was outraged by the antics of notorious mobster Michele “The Shark” Sindona, a corrupt Sicilian-born banker, murderer and Gambino associate suspected of defrauding the Vatican Bank of an estimated $100 million to cover his loses when his Franklin National Bank on Long Island went under in 1974. Sindona, desperate to duck jail, asked Ronsisvalle to kill a US federal prosecutor, John Kenny of the Southern District in Manhattan, and a lawyer in Milan — for $100,000. He refused. Sindona was later convicted in the US and Italy and killed himself by ingesting poison.
Meanwhile, Ronsisvalle had also grown tired of all the drug dealing by mobsters who were supposed to be duty-bound not to traffic narcotics.
Nothing in the American mob business resembled the code of honor back home, he felt. This drove his decision to flip.
He was eventually convicted in a 1976 slaying and was sentenced to just just five years in jail before being whisked off into federal witness protection. In 1985, he became the star witness at the President’s Commission on Organized Crime under Ronald Reagan. “I grew up in Sicily, since age 10, 11, 12, like a kid, American kid falls in love with baseball, I fell in love with Mafia,” he told rapt panelists.
Vecchione said he was told that Ronsisvalle had commited suicide while in witness protection, but he was unable to confirm this, and never got any details.
“I believe it,” he said. “But I guess it’s possible he’s still alive.”