The evening of March 13, 2019, the relative calm of a residential neighborhood on Staten Island in New York City was shattered by gunfire. Police found 53-year-old Francesco “Frank” Cali lying on the street in front of his home, suffering from multiple gunshot wounds. Cali, also known as “Frankie Boy,” was taken to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead. The assailant who fired the shots had long ago fled the scene.
Since Cali was long considered by law enforcement officials and the FBI to be a key leader of the Gambino crime family, his killing sparked speculation among some investigators and the news media that a Mob war might be in the wings. New York City had not seen such bloody organized crime conflict since the Colombo crime family war of the 1990s, and many thought the time for such bloodshed might have finally arrived. The last major Mob boss murdered was Paul Castellano, head of the Gambino family, gunned down by John Gotti and his crew in December 1985.
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Cali’s connections to organized crime were considered by police to have been substantial, hence the speculation that the Mob was behind his killing. In court papers filed years earlier , investigators had considered the New York-born Cali to be part of the leadership of the Gambino family, which by 2019 had been weakened by earlier prosecutions but remained a force in the Mob world. Although he was U.S. born, Cali’s ancestry was of Sicilian origin and he was related by marriage to the Inzerillo clan of Palermo, a significant Mafia family that had itself been involved in bloody skirmishes decades earlier.
Eventually, Cali increased his influence in the New York world of organized crime. In one wiretapped conversation, a reputed Mob associate in Italy was reportedly overheard saying of Cali, “He’s our friend and he is everything over there,” referring to the United States. Cali rose in stature so much that by the time he was arrested on federal charges in 2008 he was considered by the FBI to be part of a group of Sicilian gangsters effectively working as a ruling street panel of the Gambino crime family, a family the FBI considered to be officially led by imprisoned Peter Gotti, the brother of John Gotti, who died in 2002.
The 2008 arrest of Cali on federal charges filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn involved allegations that he was part of an extortion scheme run by the Gambino family. Cali decided to quickly plead guilty to being part of the extortion conspiracy, which involved a failed attempt to build a NASCAR track on Staten Island. Cali was sentenced to 16 months in prison and released in 2009. After getting out of prison, Cali stayed out of legal trouble and worked as a legitimate businessman.
When Cali was shot dead in March 2019, some quickly speculated that it was a Mob hit. But for others in law enforcement and in the world of organized crime, the brazen way Cali was gunned down in public on the street, in the full view of area surveillance cameras, made it seem less likely that the Mob was involved. Also raising doubts that Cali was hit by the Mob was the fact that police said they saw him conversing and shaking hands with his assailant just before he was gunned down. One former member of the Gambino family noted that if the Mob wanted to kill Cali, he would have been called to a meeting and never seen again.
Using the fruits of video surveillance and other scientific evidence, New York Police Department detectives tracked down Anthony Comello, 24, of Staten Island, and on March 16, 2019, charged him with the murder of Cali. As it turned out, the alleged reason for why Comello shot Cali had nothing to do with the Mafia. Rather, Comello’s defense attorney stated in court papers that Comello was under the delusional belief that Cali was involved in the “deep state,” which was trying to secretly control the United States, and that on the night of March 13 he went to Cali’s house with handcuffs to arrest him.
The defense attorney, Robert Gottlieb, said that Comello was under the belief that he had the full support of President Trump. Gottlieb intended to raise a psychiatric defense in the case, which by the fall of 2019 was still pending.
Anthony DeStefano is the author of Gotti’s Boys: The Mafia Crew That Killed for John Gotti.