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John Pappa—Life Behind Bars For A Job Well Done


UPDATED: There are a million stories in the naked city, and in the mob, too.
Take the case of John Pappa—books and films could be made about this guy, and perhaps one day will.
In May 1999 John Pappa was convicted of racketeering, drug dealing and four murders, including the 12th and final killing of the Colombo family war, which took three years to run its bloody course.
The Colombos have probably had more wars than any other family in the Mafia—they have also produced some of the most legendary “gangstars” of our age, including Greg Scarpa and Wild Bill Cutolo.
John Pappa, looking as innocent
as a puppy dog.
Pappa was arrested during a wedding rehearsal in 1997. That’s how it is done: you put a bullet in his head, then hug and kiss his mother at the funeral, and maybe you are invited to join the victim’s brother’s bridal party.
An excited team of cops and FBI agents nabbed the mobster at a church on Staten Island.
Pappa, 22 at the time, was chased into St. Ann's Church as members of the wedding party looked on in terror and screamed.
The police came charging into the church; Pappa was carrying—given his lifestyle, he was probably always carrying. On this occasion he had a 9mm.
But God was in Staten Island that day, and Pappa dropped the gun and raised his hands without anyone else dying because of him.




Pappa, depending on your relationship to him, either looks like a movie star or the devil. In some pictures he almost looks baby faced, but he can’t hide the tattoos. Police love tattoos when they arrest you—Pappa wears on his body the Italian phrase for, “Death Before Dishonor.”
Pappa’s trial took place in Brooklyn Federal Court, focusing on the Oct. 20, 1993, murder of high-profile capo Joseph Scopo, as well as three other murders committed in the following 12-month period. Pappa, 24 at the time of his conviction in 1999, got four life-without-parole terms for the murders and 45 years for drug dealing and other miscellaneous charges under Brooklyn Federal Judge Raymond Dearie.
“This prosecution brings the terrible legacy of the Colombo war to a close, with the conviction of one of the most dangerous young hitman in the Colombo family,” said assistant U.S. attorney Stephen Kelly, at the time.
He and Amy Walsh prosecuted Pappa.
Pappa's tattoo --"Death Before Dishonor," in Italian --
didn't help to endear him to the police.
Pappa’s father, Gerard, was a Genovese soldier who ran in a circle that included such notables as Anthony Gaspipe Casso and Sammy Bull Gravano. While Gaspipe and the Bull went on to create a certain infamy about themselves, Pappa’s career was cut short when he was murdered in 1980 under orders of Chin Gigante for committing an off-the-record killing. Pappa, the son, was known for idealizing his father.
Would we have ever heard of Pappa Junior if not for the Colombo war? It is hard to say.
In summation, the inter-family war took place between Persico loyalists and the muscle behind Victor (Little Vic) Orena, who wanted to be the boss and not a seat warmer for a Persico. But then he got arrested and put in prison for life, ending the war. The Persico faction won, but 12 people had to die and a bunch of gangsters ended up behind bars, none more famously than John Pappa.
What intrigues me, anyway, is the fact that a man in his early 20s could and would play such a pivotal role in a mafia war. Some say it is a sign of how low the mob has fallen, calling on children to do a man’s work. Others say it was the Persicos at their Machiavellian best, picking a young gunman whom no Orena mobster would ever recognize until the first slug burned its way into his gut.
One is also struck by Pappa’s cold-bloodedness: He tried to cut the face off one of his victims--and wear it like a mask?
Because of circumstances, the Colombo war, Pappa had an opportunity to achieve his goal, which was to become a made man. Pappa apparently doesn’t read the newspapers a lot and still believes one can live life like a Goodfella, flaunting wealth, getting beautiful women, without pesky cops bothering you. Mobsters of the post-RICO age are trying to live impossible lives.
No, he didn’t read the papers, but he had a plan and he went about achieving it with unbelievable ruthlessness, but his flaws got him—he turned on his friends and finally exposed himself to law enforcement by failing to keep his mouth shut about his gangster prowess to impress his elders. He has something in common with John Gotti Sr. in this sense.
The best evidence against Pappa during his trial, according to Mafia expert Jerry Capeci, came from Pappa’s own mouth: His mob associates testified he made repeated admissions about murder, drug dealing and assorted mayhem in the early 1990’s.
In addition to the Scopo slaying committed to enhance Pappa’s reputation (so he could eventually earn his “stripes” with the Colombo family), he plotted to kill former cohorts—his own friends—whom he felt either betrayed him or were trying to steal his thunder.
Pappa murdered the three, who were accomplices in the Scopo murder, because he felt they were trying to take credit from him for the war-winning murder of feared Capo/Orena loyalist, Scopo. (Although it is now largely believed that the arrest and conviction of Orena -- who got a lifetime sentence -- ended the war more than anything else.)
Pappa killed Eric Curcio, shooting him to death in Curcio’s auto body shop. Pappa actually described the deed over the phone to a confederate.
John Sparacino was the next victim. He was lured to the home of Colombo associate Calvin Hennigar, who murdered Sparacino. (Hennigar is sitting in his own cell right now, as you read this, having been convicted with Pappa.) Pappa was so enraged that his would-be victim was already dead by the time he arrived at Hennigar’s that he mutilated the body—yes, Sparacino’s is the face he tried to whittle off--before setting the body on fire in a stolen car on Aug. 15, 1994. (Pappa and Hennigar used to eat dinner at Sparacino’s house, the meals prepared by Sparacino’s mother, who considered Pappa and Hennigar to be among her son’s best friends. Pappa was in her other son’s bridal party, remember.)
Pappa was also the triggerman in the June 1994 killing of associate Rolando Rivera.
The irony is that, as far as is known, Pappa never even became a made man in the Colombo, or any other, family, for his services. He may in fact be a target in prison for having killed big-time mobster Scopo, who has a lot of blood relatives in more than one Mafia family. Chances are, some of them are in prison, or will be one of these days.
Now that would make a good movie.

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