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BY LORENZO LIGATO | Forty-one years ago, a shooting at Columbus Circle stunned the area’s Italian-American community.
The lead headline on the front page of The Villager’s July 1, 1971, issue declared, “South Village Numbed Over Colombo; Gunman Lived Here.”
Joe Colombo — the godfather of the Colombo Mafia crime family — was gunned down and seriously wounded on June 28, 1971, an hour before the scheduled start of the second Italian American Unity Day, a rally for Colombo’s Civil Rights League.
The alleged gunman, Jerome Johnson — an black street hustler and Christopher St. resident — fired three bullets from an automatic pistol into Colombo’s head and neck, as the don was approaching the stage to address the crowd.
Moments after the shooting, Johnson was fatally wounded at the scene by a man, presumably a Colombo bodyguard, who immediately fled and remains unidentified to this day.
Police initially linked Colombo’s shooting to the power struggle involving reputed underworld figures “Crazy” Joe Gallo and Carlo Gambino over control of Brooklyn’s waterfront. However, unable to find any connection between Johnson and the two bosses, the police dismissed the case as the act of a lone deranged gunman. Decades later, the shooting’s motive remains shrouded in mystery.
“Officially speaking, there is no final word,” said Mafia specialist Arthur Nash, author of “New York City Gangland,” an archival photo book. “Colombo’s is an unsolved homicide and most theories are pretty tenuous, particularly those linking Joe Gallo to the shooter, Johnson.”
Nash noted that in 1971, Gallo had been recently released from jail on parole and was attempting to reinvigorate a “gang so broke they couldn’t afford new shoes.” Rather, the suspicions about the famed gangster may simply speak to the prevalent racism of the 1960s, since Gallo had become a champion of black civil rights while imprisoned.
“For all we know, Colombo was shot because his phonied-up Rights League was dominating the media while more-deserving movements were spinning their wheels,” Nash added.
Founded in April 1970, the Italian American Civil Rights League was a political group aimed at combating the widespread stereotypes about Italian-Americans, frequently portrayed as crime figures by the media and discriminated against by the authorities.
“Of course, it was all just smoke and mirrors,” Nash asserted. “A plot that either Colombo or his superiors believed could distract prosecutors, give the feds a black eye, and potentially consolidate Italian-American political power.”
But ultimately, the Mafia expert added, all Colombo did for the Italian-American community was contribute to popularizing the erroneous stereotype he railed against publicly.
Yet, as reported by The Villager, a unanimous sense of shock and disgust pervaded the Village’s Italian-American community at the wake of Colombo’s shooting.
“It’s terrible,” said a candy store owner at the time. “You can talk about Colombo’s background and the underworld stuff, but nobody’s going to forget what he did for us. This was a disgrace. But we’re more united than ever now.”
Rushed to Roosevelt Hospital in critical condition, Colombo remained paralyzed for the next seven years and died of cardiac arrest in 1978 at St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital in Newburgh, N.Y.