When he was 20 years old, John Pennisi shot a man to death in a dispute over a girlfriend.
“The significance of what I did was 100 percent lost on me then,” Pennisi, 51, said in a recent telephone interview.
Pennisi now is trying to make sense of his previous life as a mobster and to shine a light on what he says is dishonor and treachery in the Mafia.
He said he is so focused now on doing the right thing that he won’t even drink from a juice bottle in the grocery store and stick it back on the shelf without paying the way he used to. In his earlier days, even juice from a grocery store tasted better if you didn’t pay for it. “You were always out to get over,” he said.
A former made member of New York’s Lucchese crime family, Pennisi co-hosts a podcast, “The MBA and the Button Man,” with Tom La Vecchia, a New Jersey media marketer with a master’s degree in business administration. Pennisi, the former mobster, is the button man, which is slang for a Mafia soldier.
The podcast is receiving attention for exposing the Mafia’s inner workings. It joins other podcasts, including one by former Gambino family underboss Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, in offering candid insights into a sinister world.
When Pennisi went to prison for the shooting death, he was living in Howard Beach, Queens, near the Aqueduct Racetrack. He left a 2-year-old son at home. Pennisi spent 17 years in a federal penitentiary. He was 37 when he got out. These days, he works in construction management. He is the single father of two daughters and a son. One daughter is 25, the other is 10. His son is 32.
After being paroled, Pennisi eventually became a made member of the Lucchese crime family, which is one of New York’s longstanding Five Families, all of which are still active to some extent today.
The induction ceremony to become a made man was serious. The men in the room locked arms, promising allegiance to one another and the borgata (family). As a Lucchese made member, Pennisi was involved in bookmaking, extortion and more. The real money was in loansharking. He operated mostly in Queens and Staten Island.
Pennisi said he doesn’t know how much money he made during this period. He was not a big earner. Much of the money he made went back on the streets in high-interest-rate loans. The 6-foot-1 Pennisi said he never had to rough anyone up to get paid back. Being a made member of the Lucchese crime family inspired fear on its own.
Pennisi also worked a legitimate job in construction. The legitimate job kept him off law enforcement’s radar. Staying out of his crime family’s crosshairs was another matter. Pennisi said he began picking up clues over time that others in the borgata were falsely accusing him of being a rat.
He believed he was targeted for death. In 2017, he become a government witness, testifying in court against his former criminal colleagues.
Ranking the Five Families
Pennisi discusses these events and more in the podcast and on his blog, Sitdown News. He also has a YouTube channel, Sitdownnews.
An example of the topics he discusses occurred on the April 19 podcast, when La Vecchia asked him to rank the Five Families based on which are the most powerful.
Pennisi ranked the Genovese family as the most powerful in New York. That family, which he calls “the West Side,” maintains its power in part by staying out of the limelight, Pennisi said. “They just do it right.” he said. The family also provides layers of insulation to keep members protected. For instance, they don’t introduce new members to other borgatas, he said.
Pennisi placed his own former crime family, the Luccheses, third in power behind the second-place Gambinos. Fourth in power is the Bonanno family. The Colombos, a small crime family sometimes divided by internal strife, are at “the bottom of the food chain,” he said.
By going public with inside knowledge of the Mob and its inner workings, Pennisi has received criticism. Veteran organized crime journalist Jerry Capeci reported last fall on his Gang Land News website that the U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI were “furious about the blog by their potential trial witness and have pushed him to take it down.”
In a recent telephone interview with the Mob Museum, Pennisi said no one from law enforcement or the prosecutor’s office has ever directed him to take down the blog or podcast.
Everyone breaks rules
In a New York Post story about Pennisi’s social media efforts, the newspaper referred to him as a rat and said he “isn’t breaking legs, but he’s busting chops.”
Over the telephone, Pennisi said he is not bothered by the name-calling. People are “drawn to the negative,” he said.
Pennisi said a story labeling him a Lucchese snitch or rat is more interesting to readers than one with a headline saying something like, “Former Wiseguy Changes Life, Does Good.”
He said people who shine a light on the betrayal and bullying in a supposedly honorable society should be applauded, not mocked. “When a drug addict comes clean, do you want to mock that person?” he asked.
Pennisi said all Mafia members break the rules. “The honorable life does not exist today,” he said.
When society comes up with a name for all these rule breakers in general, Pennisi said, “then I would accept that name.”
The former made man said people worldwide are getting fed up with the Mafia’s strong-arm tactics and bullying behavior. Even in Italy, mass Mafia trials are an example of how the public has had enough, he said. A major trial targeting the powerful ‘Ndrangheta organization is underway this spring in Italy. More than 350 defendants are on trial.
“No one wants to be bullied,” Pennisi said. “That is kind of what the Mob does. It bullies people.”
Pennisi said he is not worried about reprisals from mobsters who might want revenge. The prevalence of security cameras makes that kind of violent conduct difficult, he said.
Ninety percent of the comments he receives about the podcast and blog are positive, Pennisi said. He has helped steer younger people away from the life, people who are the age he was when he went to prison for killing another person.
He even hears from people who say he is an inspiration. “I never got that in the life,” Pennisi said. “I was a criminal.”
Larry Henry is a veteran print and broadcast journalist. He served as press secretary for Nevada Governor Bob Miller, and was political editor at the Las Vegas Sun and managing editor at KFSM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Northwest Arkansas. The Mob in Pop Culture blog appears monthly.