Howard Abadinsky has written about gambling, loan-sharking, theft, fencing (not the kind with swords), the drug business, the sex business, money laundering and "trafficking in persons and arms." He can talk about Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone and the MS-13, but fugitives are another story.
Gangsters, he said, "prefer to take their chances in court, than take their chances living elsewhere." Their contacts and connections tend to be local, and they're usually reluctant to abandon them.
An obvious exception is James "Whitey" Bulger, who was arrested yesterday in Santa Monica after 16 years in hiding.
"You have to understand," said Abadinsky, who is professor of criminal justice at St. John's University. "The world of organized crime is filled with informants. It's very, very unusual to stay out long. That's why I'm wondering about Whitey."
Bulger's decade-and-a-half at large had a lot of people wondering about him, but as Abadinsky acknowledged when pressed a little, he is not in fact the only well-connected criminal to have gone on the lam.
"We've had some fugitives," he said, "but they've stayed pretty close to home. The fact that Whitey was captured out in California was probably the biggest distance I've ever heard of."
There was Joey Lombardo in Chicago, for example. ("Known as the 'Clown,'" said Abadinsky, who did not see fit to mention that he was also known as "Lumbo," and "Lumpy," and to his Pugliese parents, Giuseppe.)
In 2005, Lombardo and 13 other defendants were indicted on an array of charges including running a racket based on gambling and murder. By the time federal agents got around to arresting them, he had disappeared.
Lombardo reappeared nine months later, looking a little like Saddam Hussein after nine months in a hole outside Tikrit. FBI agents caught up to the fugitive outside the home of a longtime friend in the Chicago suburbs.
At his arraignment, he famously explained that it had been more than nine months since he'd seen a doctor to treat his atherosclerosis by saying that he'd been "unavailable."
Then there's Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso, who served as an acting boss in New York's Lucchese family and is perhaps best known for his unsuccessful attempts to assassinate John Gotti. He did, however, kill lots of other people with his partner in crime, Vittorio "Vic" Amuso.
Casso managed to evade capture for three years in the '90s, even while throwing a lavish wedding for his daughter at a country club in Brooklyn's Mill Basin. Then in 1993, he was arrested at a hideout in the New Jersey woods.
Bulger may be the most famous of the gangster fugitives, but his 16-year disappearance was less than half as long as the ongoing absence of Frank Matthews.
Matthews was a big-time gangster based in Brooklyn who, according to the crime writer Ron Chepesiuk, was the first black drug trafficker to expand his operations outside of New York City.
Matthews was known for his brashness. After getting rich, he moved to a white neighborhood in Staten Island where the Italian-American mob boss Paul Castellano was living. According to Chepesiuk, Castellano was thinking about "whacking" Matthews because he saw him as a "nuisance." Matthews, who once threatened to kill "every Wop on Mulberry Street," didn’t much care about "big-time white gangsters and how tough they were," Chepesiuk said.
In any case, Castellano never got his way. In 1974, Matthews was scheduled to appear in a Brooklyn to face an indictment for drug trafficking, but he never showed up and was never seen again. At one point, said Chepesiuk, "five or seven D.E.A. agents were specifically assigned to hunt him down. They assumed they were going to get him. They always got their man. But the months rolled into years, the years rolled into decades, and they never caught him."
"They reopened the investigation in 1980 and 1999," he continued. "Frank Bender, the real famous forensic sculptor --they had him on America's most wanted and they showed the bust of Matthews what he looked like."
It didn't work. Thirty-five years after his disappearance, Castelleno's whereabouts remains unknown. "People claim to have seen him at a funeral where he was dressed like a woman," said Chepesiuk. "Over the years a legend builds up."