By Robert Rudolph
© The Star Ledger 1996
      "For nearly two decades, the murder of Mafia boss Anthony "Little Pussy" Russo remained one of the most notorious unsolved killings in the long and bloody history of New Jersey organized crime.

     Russo, a flamboyant figure who became a powerful force in the Jersey Shore operations of the Genovese crime family, was found dead in his locked apartment in the posh Harbor Island Spa in Long Branch on April 26, 1979.

     His body, with three bullets in the brain, was discovered sprawled among a collection of stuffed cats that served as mementos of his early days as a cat burglar, the career that earned him his curious nickname.

     Now, law enforcement authorities believe they know who whacked Russo. New information, they say, finally corroborates what investigators long suspected: Russo was the target of a hit carried out by his own underlings.

     According to FBI reports obtained by The-Star Ledger, an informant with inside knowledge of mob operations in New Jersey — and a close associate of one of the alleged killers — confirmed that three of Russo's chief lieutenants killed him. Sources say the informant divulged it during a debriefing last year by federal investigators on an unrelated case.

     His killers were identified as Thomas "Pee Wee" DePhillips, a capo in the Genovese family; Anthony DeVingo, a soldier who controlled gambling and loansharking in parts of Essex County; and Joe "Joe Z" Zarro, an alleged Genovese associate whose operation spread into Passaic County.

     The three are all dead. The last of them, DePhillips, died last year. DeVingo suffered a fatal heart attack in 1989, while Zarro died in 1994.

     As outlined by investigative sources and federal documents, the hit went down this way:

     DePhillips and DeVingo visited Russo's lavish fourth-floor oceanfront apartment in Long Branch shortly after his return from a Florida trip. Neighbors later reported seeing two suspicious figures loitering in the hallway who fit the general description of the killers. Composite sketches were drawn from the descriptions, but were thought to be too vague to use in making a case.

     They chatted briefly with Russo, who had donned his bathrobe for the night. When he turned to get a drink, they fired four shots. Three bullets from a .32-caliber gun struck him in the head, killing him instantly. A fourth bullet from a .38-caliber weapon was recovered near the sliding glass doors.

     But the killers slipped from the apartment, locking the door as they left. It is believed Zarro acted as a lookout and driver outside the building.

     The following morning, Russo's attorney, Jack Russell, reported his client failed to show for an appointment. A Russo associate, Louis "Killer Louie" Ferarro found the body.

     "It was a typical mob `contract,'" said one investigator familiar with the case. "It was obvious from the start that it was someone he knew, someone he trusted."

     Federal authorities said they always suspected DeVingo, but couldn't produce enough evidence to charge him. No weapons were ever recovered.

     In a curious twist to the killing, some of Russo's jewelry — rings, gold chains, bracelets and watches — along with an undetermined amount of cash was reported missing. By noon the next day, when police returned to examine the room, the jewelry had all been returned. The cash, however, had not. Investigators believe the assassins had keys for the three locks on the apartment door and used them after the hit to return the missing valuables.

     Though the FBI officially says the case remains "unsolved," federal agents privately say the new information effectively brings it to a close.

     Law enforcement experts always believed Russo was a mob hit just waiting to happen.

     Robert Cordier, an assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in New Jersey, said it was long believed that Russo was murdered because he was considered a weak link in the organization and might, under pressure, cooperate with prosecutors against his associates.

     There was another incentive. According to Robert Buccino, chief of the organized crime section of the state Attorney General's Office, Russo's longtime protector within the family, his brother, John "Big Pussy" Russo, had died of natural causes. Associates feared that after years of soft living, Russo would avoid jail at all costs, even if it meant violating his sacred vow of "Omerta," or silence, and ratting out his associates.

When it came to living the life, Russo was nothing if not a caricature of an old-fashioned mob boss. His hands covered with gaudy jewelry, he would drive around in a pink Cadillac convertible, radio blaring, reveling in the attention and intimidation he could provoke.

     "Pussy Russo," said Kevin McCarthy, chief of the U.S. Organized Crime Strike Force, "was a figure from a bygone era, when mobsters could afford to be flamboyant." Another investigator put it succinctly: "Pussy had a big mouth."

     In fact, Ruggiero "Ritchie the Boot" Boiardo, the onetime bootleg king who built a mob empire in northern New Jersey, confided to an associate on the day after Russo's murder: "Perhaps it was for the best, because he talked too much."

     His killers held critical positions in the family, and had reason for concern with Russo's volatility. DePhillips, investigators say, compensated for his diminutive stature with a hot temper that often led him to tirades of "polysyllabic obscenities."

     DeVingo, who lived in Roseland, was a Genovese soldier who once controlled gambling and loansharking in parts of Essex County, and whose suburban home was adorned with an array of gaudily painted statuary. Zarro was an associate whose operation spread into part of Passaic County.

     Russo first came to public attention at the end of the World War II, when he was caught selling counterfeit sugar ration coupons. He earned his nickname from Newark cops impressed with his ability to elude them after burglaries by scaling fences with the agility of a cat. His brother's nickname came from a similar talent.

     For years, Russo was a fixture in the Oranges, his hangout a West Orange drug store where the shiny Caddy would sit parked outside for hours while he ran his bookmaking and loansharking businesses.

     According to those who knew him, however, Russo's bombast masked the fact that he was nearly illiterate, a thug who made up in volume what he lacked in smarts. He wasn't particularly well-liked or even respected, though he displayed a gift for malapropisms that included boasting of putting his assets "into escarole."

     Eventually, authorities say, Russo's mouth proved too much for the rest of the boys. Out of respect for his brother, the mob decided not to whack him — an option considered on more than one occasion — and instead exiled him to the Jersey Shore.

     For a time, he served as a driver for Mafia czar Vito Genovese, the powerful mob "don" who lived in Atlantic Highlands and founded what would emerge as one of America's most powerful crime families.

     But the Shore move proved a stroke of luck. The area was beginning to boom and Russo was right in the middle of it. As business and recreation built up, so did his trade in gambling and loansharking.

     Russo, however, could be a poor judge of character. One protege, Patrick Pizuto, knew Russo from a stretch at Trenton State Prison and was recruited as Russo's personal chauffeur. Pizuto, sources say, was introduced to Russo's associates and allowed to attend some of the most secret of the mob's meetings. Pizuto even referred to Russo as his surrogate "father." But faced with a possible murder charge, Pizuto turned informant, tape-recording everyone he could. He eventually went into the witness protection program.

     PHOTO CAPTION: Anthony "Little Pussy" Russo, the flamboyant mob boss, was found slain on April 26, 1979, in his apartment at the posh Harbor Island Spa in Long Branch. CREDIT: STAR-LEDGER FILE (001 Section: NEWS Edition: FINAL Size: 1321 words)"