When it comes to bullets and bombs, Monya Elson, one of the toughest, most feared Russian gangsters to ever make his mark on U.S. soil, has always seemed to live under a lucky star: From 1991 to 1993, as he practiced his chosen profession in both Brighton Beach and Los Angeles, he survived three shootings and even a bomb blast.
Now new information has surfaced that Elson was even luckier than he knew. During that same period, Elson survived a well-planned mob rubout plot by a hit team whose members even executed a successful dry run. Elson was only spared when his guardian angel in the Genovese crime family nixed the plan at the last minute.
A key player in the murder scheme was Genovese capo Anthony (Tony D) Palumbo, who pleaded guilty last week to murder conspiracy charges that stemmed from lucrative gasoline bootlegging schemes by wiseguys and Russian gangsters during the 1980s and 1990s.
Sources tell Gang Land that Palumbo set the murder plot in motion on behalf of Victor Zilber, a Russian gangster and Palumbo-partner in so-called "daisy chain" scams that made millionaires out of many gangsters as they cheated the IRS out of more than $1 billion in federal excise taxes.
At the time, in late 1992-early 1993, sources say Tony D was a silent partner of Zilber's in Rasputin, a glitzy Russian nightclub in Brighton Beach. Elson was a so-called employee of the club who was earning $3,000 a week, a pricey salary that likely had something to do with Zilber's decision to get him out of the way.
Sources say that when Zilber, who, like Palumbo, was later charged with stealing millions of dollars in motor fuel taxes, asked Tony D to whack Elson, the mobster agreed, saying he had the perfect guy for the job, a wannabe wiseguy who had "done some work" for him in another matter.
The alleged perfect hitman was John (Johnny Balls) Leto - who in June 1992 had whacked a low-level hoodlum who made the mistake of robbing card games that Tony D was running in the Bronx. Palumbo enlisted Johnny Balls for the Elson job, the sources said. With help from Palumbo and Zilber, Johnny Balls used a pretext to lure Elson to a Bronx social club where the killing would be carried out. As a kind of practice exercise, Elson was brought up to the Bronx to see how it went. The Russian didn't appear to suspect a thing.
"The dry run went smoothly; they joked, 'We should have just done it,'" said one source familiar with debriefings that Leto, who has been a turncoat for two years now, has had about the Elson plot with prosecutors and FBI agents in the case. The reason they didn't go through with the hit, the sources say, is that Palumbo was awaiting approval from his mob supervisor at the time, capo Daniel Pagano.
That didn't go as well. When Pagano, who was earning a penny for every gallon of gasoline on which his Russian gangster partners were stealing the federal excise taxes, was told of the plot, he put a quick end to it. "What are you nuts?" Pagano is alleged to have responded. "No fucking way. If you do this, we'll have a major problem with the Russians."
Although the failed hit is years old, it's still something the feds refuse to discuss. Neither the FBI, nor assistant U.S. attorney Avi Weitzman, who identified Pagano as Tony D's superior in the gasoline bootlegging scheme with Russian gangsters when Palumbo pleaded guilty, would discuss the intriguing back story of the case. In return for pleading guilty to conspiring to kill Elson, whose name was not disclosed, Weitzman and co-prosecutors Daniel Goldman and David Massey agreed to dismiss charges that Palumbo had been involved in the June 1992 slaying of Angelo Sangiuolo.
Genovese capo Angelo Prisco was convicted last year of orchestrating the Sangiuolo slaying. As Gang Land has reported previously, Leto testified that after shooting Sangiuolo to death as they drove in a van under the elevated Pelham Bay Line in The Bronx, he met Palumbo at Rasputin and was "hugged and kissed" by Tony D in appreciation for whacking the hoodlum who was robbing his social clubs.
As part of his plea deal, Palumbo, 61, faces a maximum of 10 years behind bars when he is sentenced later this year by Manhattan Federal Judge Richard Holwell.
Whenever that day comes - it is now scheduled for December 3 - Palumbo may want to ask Judge Holwell to make a special request of the Bureau of Prisons to not send Tony D to the federal prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania to do whatever time he gets for the murder plot.
That's where Elson - now 59 - is serving a six year stretch for plotting to kill an assailant who sprayed him and his wife with shotgun fire in the summer of 1993, severely wounding his wife, Marya, who required reconstructive surgery on her face following the ambush outside their home.
That was only one of his near-misses. Two years earlier, Elson was shot in the stomach but escaped death by knocking away the assassin's gun. In 1992, he suffered only a hand injury when another executioner's gun misfired. Two days later, a bomb exploded prematurely and claimed the hands of a third would-be killer.
Elson responded in kind to those violent attacks. But after the shotgun blast at him and his wife, he vowed revenge "but not in the United States," according to court records, and moved to Italy. He remained there, until he was indicted in 1995, brought back to New York, convicted and incarcerated.
He still didn't forget, though.
In 2005, not long after he got out of prison, he plotted to whack Slava and Alex Konstantinovsky, twin brothers commonly known in the Russian underworld as the "Brothers Karamazov," according to court records. A year later, he was arrested, convicted, and back behind bars, where he's slated to be for another year.
Since no shots were fired in the Palumbo-Zilber plot, Elson may not be as angry as he was against the Brothers Karamazov, but we're pretty sure that the federal prison in Loretto is not high on the list of places that Tony D would like spend any time at.
Meanwhile, the international intrigue continues. Gang Land hears that the feds are looking into several joint ventures between members of the Five Families and other organized crime groups, including gangsters from Russia and other Eastern European countries as well as mobsters in the 'Ndrangheta, the so-called Honored Society with roots in the southern province of Calabria.