Joe Colombo was born in Brooklyn on June 16, 1923. Much of his early life is unknown; he lived with his parents, and had no other siblings. His father was a member of the American mafia until his murder in 1938. In his younger years Colombo held several legitimate jobs. He spent time in the U.S. Coast Guard, had jobs as a longshoreman, and in worked in a meat packing company. His last legitimate job was selling real estate.
By the late 1950’s Colombo was fully involved as an enforcer for the Profaci crime family in New York. The Profaci’s were a tough family known as one of the “five families” of New York, and also held a seat on the mafia’s national commission. As an enforcer Colombo‘s job was to collect money owed to the family and to take part in physical work ordered by his capo or higher ups. Colombo proved early on to be efficient in collecting money and extorting for the family and was quickly “straightened out” or officially inducted in the Cosa Nostra.
During his career in the mafia, Colombo had several ‘scares’ or close calls. In one situation Colombo and other members of the Profaci leadership were kidnapped by a feared and disgruntled capo in the Profaci family, Joe Gallo. At the time, Joe Profaci, the boss of the family had been requesting larger tributes from Gallo, and the feud grew. Gallo wasn’t the only capo to have increased ‘taxes’ by the boss, but he made the biggest beef because of it. After holding the men for several weeks, an agreement was finally made where Profaci would lessen the tributes owed by Gallo, and Colombo and the other hostages were released. By the end of the year however, Profaci would renege on their deal and the first Colombo war started.
On June 6, 1962 Joe Profaci died of liver cancer, and long time consigliere Joseph Magliocco took over as boss of the Profaci family. As boss, Magliocco pursued Gallo and his allies attempting several hits but none were successful. One such plot by Magliocco involved murdering the entire commission including Bonnano crime family boss, Joe Bonanno, Lucchese crime family boss, Tommy Lucchese, and Gambino crime family boss, Carlo Gambino. Magliocco handed the contract to Joe Colombo, who promptly revealed the plot to Lucchese and Gambino. With the admission, Magliocco was forced to retire, and Colombo was rewarded for his loyalty to Cosa Nostra and handed the Profaci family renaming it the Colombo crime family.
At 41 years old, Colombo was the youngest crime family boss in the nation. He was also an avid supporter of Italian-American rights spending countless hours lobbying for equality. In early 1970 Colombo created the Italian-American Civil Rights League. He immediately went after the federal government citing several instances where they purposely prevented Italian-Americans from equal liberties in the work force. His work generated a massive response from the Italian-American community and with their support; Colombo’s league became the rally cry for action. On June 29, 1970 50,000 people showed up in Columbus Circle in New York City for an “Italian-American Unity Day” rally. Several U.S. Congressmen attended the event. Soon after, the League grew national attention, which was good for Italian-American’s but bad for the American mafia and the commission noticed. In November 1971 the League drew further publicity when Frank Sinatra headlined at a sold out show in Madison Square Garden. Later that year and into 1971 Colombo himself appeared in television interviews and speaking appearances for the League. In spring 1971 Paramount Pictures was forced to halt filming of “The Godfather” due to overwhelming sediment from the Italian-American community. Movie producer Albert Ruddy met with Colombo and agreed to excise the terms “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” from the film in exchange for the League’s backing. Colombo agreed and filming resumed.
Colombo planned on building on his success with the League from the first Columbus Day rally and announced a second annual rally to be held on June 28, 1971 much to the displeasure from the commission. Prior to the rally the Colombo family nemesis, Joe Gallo was released from prison. During his time in prison, Gallo had spent his time building relationships with the other families and Harlem and Bedfod-Stuyvesant gangs of African-American descent. Upon his release, Colombo set up a meeting with Gallo to bury the hatchet so-to-speak, but Gallo refused. It’s said Colombo was going to offer Gallo $1000 to keep the calm. Gallo responded with $100,000 and the meeting never happened. A murder contract was immediately issued on Joe Gallo.
On March 11, 1971 Colombo was convicted and sentenced to two and half years for perjury after lying on a real estate application many years before. His sentenced was delayed pending appeal.
On June 8, 1971 Colombo arrived at his second annual “Italian-American Unity Day” rally. Thousands were in attendance along with Congressmen and entertainers. As Colombo was introduced and made his way to the stage, he was shot several times by an African-American man named Jerome Johnson who was wearing journalist credentials. He held a camera in one hand, and a pistol in the other. Several men including Colombo’s son jumped on Johnson however before they could wrestle him to the ground Johnson was shot three times in the back by an unknown African-American assailant who then fled on foot along with a women who initially arrived with Johnson. Neither was found.
Colombo’s murder was never solved, however because it was an African-American who committed the crime, and another who killed the gunmen, it’s believed Joe Gallo was to blame. Year’s later news emerged that Carlo Gambino was angered at Colombo’s actions and orchestrated the plot to kill Colombo. The NYPD largely influenced by the powerful Carlo Gambino eventually concluded that Jerome Johnson acted alone.