April 13, 2011 -- For the first time in American organized crime history, a former Mafia don testified in open court against his successor, becoming the highest-ranking gangster to break the mob's sacred code of silence on the stand.
"Vinny told me that he had killed him," Joseph "Big Joey" Massino told a Brooklyn court Tuesday, referring to an alleged jailhouse confession by Vincent "Vinny Gorgeous" Basciano. Basciano, the head of the secretive Bonanno family, is accused of ordering the murder of an associate that had fallen out of favor in 2004. He is already serving a life sentence from a previous conviction.
Massino said that in 2005 Basciano told him he killed gangster Randolph Pizzolo because Basciano said Pizzolo was "a scumbag, a rat, a troublemaker, a bad kid."
Though Massino continues his testimony today, one official familiar with the case told ABC News his colorful testimony has already been helpful to the prosecution.
In addition to fingering Basciano, the 68-year-old Massino candidly answered the prosecutor's questions about his time at the head of the family.
As a boss, Massino said he was responsible for spotting talent -- whether in killing or in racketeering -- in the mob ranks and promoting and demoting captains.
"Some people, they kill. Some people, they earn.... It takes all kinds of meat to make a good sauce," Massino said. He said that he was known as "The Ear" because his men would never say his name aloud, out of suspicion of FBI surveillance, and would instead touch their ear to refer to him.
Massino said he joined the family business in 1977. He is serving two life terms for after a 2004 conviction for multiple murders, including ordering the payback killing of the mobster who brought famed undercover FBI agent Donnie Brasco into the mob in the 1980s.
Basciano's lawyer, George Goltzer, told the court in his opening statement Basciano did not order the killing for which he is accused, but falsely admitted doing so to protect a friend. Goltzer also warned against taking Massino and others slated to testify against Basciano at their word.
"The United States government needs to make deals with the devil," Goltzer said. "You don't have to accept what they say."
Experts: Mob Dying With 'Omerta'
Massino, who has cooperated with investigators since his 2004 conviction but had never taken the stand against a boss, said he knew he was violating the mob's sacred code of silence, or "omerta."
"Once a bullet leaves that gun, you never talk about it," Massino told the court.
Massino testified that he had worn a wire for federal investigators when talking to Basciano in prison.
Despite his high rank, Massino was flipped "just like anyone else," according to former FBI agent and ABC News consultant Brad Garrett.
"You make a case against someone and then you flip them," Garrett said. "I think that he's probably decided that [cooperating is] the only way to save himself from spending the rest of his life in prison."
Massino said in court that he hoped his cooperation could get him a reduced sentence.
"One day, maybe I'll see a light at the end of the tunnel," he said.
Massino's breach of omerta is hardly the first.
When the FBI rounded up more than 125 suspected mobsters in January, investigators said the death of omerta was integral to the operation.
Those cases were "the cumulative result of years of investigative work, including the development of key cooperating witnesses -- a trend that has definitely been tipping in favor of law enforcement," Janice Fedarcyk, assistant director in charge of the FBI's New York Division, said at the time.
To mob experts, the rampant snitching is just another symptom of a mafia that's well past its prime.
"Most people's perception of traditional organized crime, from 'The Godfather' to 'The Sopranos', that's an era that has passed," Garrett said.
After the January arrests, author and mob expert George Anastasia told ABC News law enforcement has beaten the mob down.
"Thirty or 40 years ago, organized crime, La Cosa Nostra, was a major player in the underworld. Their impact was greater, they made more money and the public payed a bigger price for what they were doing... As they've gotten hit again and again and again with indictments and prosecutions and as they've turned on one another, their influence has deteriorated and they don't have the same kind of impact they used to have," Anastasia said. "They just don't have the power."