By Gregg Hill
By Gina Hill
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Henry Hill’s business partner, Jimmy Burke, has whacked every person who could possibly implicate him in the infamous Lufthansa robbery at JFK airport. On his way to prison, lifelong gangster Henry is given two options: sleep with the fishes, or enter the FBI’s Witness Protection Program.
Unfortunately for his children Gregg and Gina, they’re dragged along for the ride. Like nomads, they’re forced to wander from state to state, constantly inventing new names and finding new friends, only to abandon them at a moment’s notice. They live under constant fear of being found and killed.
But Henry, the rock Gregg and Gina so desperately need, is a heavy cocaine user and knows only the criminal life. He is soon up to his old tricks and consistently putting their identities in jeopardy. And so it continues until the kids, now almost grown, can no longer ignore that the Mob might be less of a threat to them than remaining under the roof of their increasingly unbalanced father.
We're grateful to a number of people for their contributions to this book. Jerry Kalajian, our agent, encouraged us to tell our story and, together with Joel Gotler and Keith Fleer, he skillfully guided us. Rick Horgan, our editor, was a constant source of inspiration with his insights and his passion. Sean Flynn, an immensely talented writer, was invaluable. And retired FBI agent Ed Gueverra, retired U.S. marshal Alfie McNeil, and retired assistant U.S. attorney Edward McDonald helped us keep this book accurate.
GINA:One of my earliest memories of my dad was my mom telling me he was going away. That's how she said it: "Daddy has to go away for a little while." It was late in the afternoon, and she was leaning down so her face was close to mine and I could smell her perfume. She was crying just a little. I'm sure she never used the word prison, and it wouldn't have mattered because I was only six years old and wouldn't have known what prison was.
We were living in the Fairview, a luxury high-rise right across the highway from Flushing Meadows, in Queens. There was a doorman at each of the three different sections of the complex and a big circular driveway out front, and we had a small terrace that overlooked the park. My dad owned a restaurant called The Suite, and he must have been doing pretty well because we could afford to live in a place like the Fairview.
We moved a lot when I was little. When my parents first got married, in 1965, they lived with my grandparents, my mom's parents, in Valley Stream, on Long Island. Gram was always tough on Dad. "That gangster," she'd say, only she'd spit out the words. She thought a nice Jewish girl like my mom should have married a doctor or a lawyer, not some hoodlum Catholic from Brooklyn that she'd met on a blind date. Dad had a union card, and the bricklayers supposedly paid him $135 a week, but he didn't even pretend to work a normal job. He went out every night dressed in sharp suits and stayed out until dawn if he came home at all, and he always had money to throw around, twenty for the doorman, fifty for the waiter. When I was older, my mom told me that that was part of what attracted her to my dad—the glitz, the way he could get them a front-row table at the Empire Club or the Copacabana, the way he seemed to know everyone and everyone knew him. One day she's a dental assistant from a middle-class family on Long Island, and the next she's sipping from a bottle of champagne that Sammy Davis Jr. sent to Dad's table at the Copa.
My dad had a dangerous side too, and I think Mom liked that, the whole outlaw mystique. She once told me a story about how, after they'd been dating for a couple of months, this boy from her neighborhood, Ted, someone she'd known her whole life, took her for a ride in his Corvette one afternoon and made a pass at her. He started groping her in the front seat and my mom told him to stop but he didn't so she slapped him. He got mad and threw her out of the car, miles from home, and tore off so fast that the tires threw gravel in her face. My mom called my dad and he picked her up and drove her home, but instead of going into the house with her, he went across the street. He saw Ted in the driveway, grabbed him by the hair, pulled a gun out of his pocket, and pistol-whipped him. Pistol-whipped him! Then my dad came trotting back across the street, all sweaty and red, and gave my mom the gun and told her to hide it. Most girls would have been terrified, but my mom said she thought it was sexy.
That's how their life together started, nightclubs and pistol-whippings. They eloped not long after my dad beat up Ted, and moved in with my grandparents. They were so young, my dad twenty-two and my mom just nineteen. And she was already pregnant with my brother. For as much as Dad might have irritated my grandma, she wasn't one to throw her daughter into the street.
I think sometimes my grandparents liked my dad in spite of themselves. He wasn't the kind of man they wanted their oldest daughter to end up with, but he could be awfully charming. That was my dad's greatest asset, his charm. And his connections. That's how he always explained it—connections. Like the time the pavers showed up with a truckload of asphalt to blacktop my grandma's driveway. "Don't worry about it," one of them told Gram. "Henry took care of it." Or when my dad and his friend Tommy DeSimone would back a truck up to the garage and unload boxes of microwaves or knit shirts or toaster ovens. He'd tell my grandma he did a guy a favor and bought a load of merchandise from him, stuff she could help sell to the neighbors. Gram probably knew it was stolen, but she never asked, so my dad never had to answer.
My dad tried to make my grandma happy. He even converted to Judaism, got circumcised and everything; my grandma made a little tent for the sheets when he was recuperating so his sore parts would be protected. But he didn't try hard enough. My grandma is strict to begin with, and my dad wasn't used to following rules. He had a hard enough time obeying the law, let alone my grandma. He would stay out all night, and then my mom and grandma would get into terrible arguments. "He's a married man!" Gram would scream. "That's no way for a married man to behave!" So my parents moved in and out, depending on how much money they had. My mom and dad got their own place for a while, a small apartment, then moved back right before my mom had me. Over the next couple of years, they moved six times—out to Kew Gardens, back in with my grandparents, out to Forest Hills, back to Valley Stream.
Of course, I don't actually remember a lot of that, and I didn't know most of those stories until years later. But I definitely remember the Fairview. We lived on the third floor, overlooking the pool, and I shared a bedroom with my brother. I was in first grade at P.S. 220, and maybe a little precocious. I had a friend in the building, and we'd go roaming around the hallways, knocking on doors. We'd tell people we were Girl Scouts and ask for cookies. We had it backwards, Girl Scouts asking for cookies, almost like a scam. But there would always be at least one nice old lady who'd say, "Oh, how cute," and give us cookies and milk. I guess I had my dad's charm.
I don't know how long we'd lived there before my mom told me Dad was leaving. But it was about the same time he'd bought me Baby Alive, this doll that you could feed pretend baby food and her mouth would move, like she was chewing. My dad was always buying me dolls. He'd say, "Whaddya want, Princess?" and I'd say, "Barbie's swimming pool!" or something like that, and the next day or the day after, he'd bring it home. That's who my dad was to me then, a wonderful man who brought me dolls and called me Princess.
And then my mom told me he was going away. She wiped the tears from her eyes and streaks of mascara from her cheeks. She didn't want me to know how upset she was.
"For how long?" I asked.
"Just a few years," she said, like a few years was a long weekend. That was my mom, trying to make something very big sound very small. "It's just temporary," she said. "Just a temporary situation." My mom used that expression for everything bad that happened. In time, I would grow to hate those words.
I was already used to my dad being away. He'd been locked up a few times since I'd been born, once for seventeen months; my mom took me to visit him in the Nassau County jail when I was about four. And if he wasn't in jail, it wasn't unusual for him to go out one night and come back three mornings later. Still, I knew it was different this time because my mom was crying.
She hugged me and then left me alone. My mom had a lot of things on her mind that day. I looked around the apartment. The sun had just gone down, and the kitchen was dark. I wanted to visit my dad right away. I wondered how long it would be before I could wrap my arms around his neck and feel the smooth leather of his blazer or smell his Paco Rabanne cologne lingering in the apartment after he left to go to The Suite.
GREGG: We'd be up all night, I would be, anyway, riding in the front seat to help my mother stay awake. We'd leave at eleven o'clock, sometimes even later, and drive west into Pennsylvania. It was a long ride, five and a half hours, too long to feel comfortable in a car, especially with two dogs dozing in the backseat with my little sister. We'd bring pillows and blankets with us, which made me self-conscious when we pulled into a truck stop or the Perkins House of Pancakes because if anyone saw us they might think we were homeless. I hated being poor, which we were since my father had gone to prison, and I hated even looking like we were poor.
Then the prison would rise up through the windshield, climbing above the trees like a fortress in the woods. The federal penitentiary at Lewisburg was a big beige block with a tower in the center near the front where I could see a guard with a military rifle slung over his shoulder. There were twenty-two hundred men inside, some of the worst criminals in the federal system. My father was one of them.
Eight years old, and I had to get past an armed guard to see my father.
He'd been sentenced to ten years on November 3, 1972, but his lawyer kept him out for almost two more years with a long string of appeals. I'm not sure exactly what my mother told me he'd been convicted of, but I know it wasn't the truth. Maybe it was because we were so young, but my mother always told us that my father wasn't a real criminal. She usually fell back on a gambling charge if she got specific at all. "Your father did some things he shouldn't have done," is how she'd put it. "But nobody got hurt, and those bastards just kept coming after him until they convicted him of something."
The truth was, as I found out later, somebody did get hurt. His name was John Ciaccio, and he owed a gambling debt to a friend of my father, a guy who ran one of the unions at Kennedy Airport. My father, Jimmy Burke, and the union guy flew to Tampa, where Ciaccio owned a nightclub and a liquor store, and beat the shit out of him; my father, by his account, smacked him in the face a few times with a .38 revolver. Apparently, he had a thing for pistol-whipping.
The state of Florida indicted them first for kidnapping and attempted murder. They were acquitted in that case. But then federal prosecutors indicted them for extortion, which they could do because my father had crossed state lines. My mother explained it to me in pretty blunt terms, considering how old I was. "They beat the state case, and now the feds are going after him," she said. "Those bastards." She made it sound like the government was picking on him over something petty.
In the late sixties and early seventies, when he had a wife and two young kids at home, my father was a full-time criminal. He stole, fenced, bootlegged, loan-sharked, and extorted. I'm probably leaving out a few things too, like arson. My father would do almost anything to make a score. Truck hijackings were a favorite thing for him and Uncle Jimmy, stealing a load of goods that they could fence below wholesale, which was all pure profit for them. They'd get a tip from one of the guys on the loading docks at Kennedy Airport whenever a good load was going out, and they'd follow the driver until he stopped at a red light. Then one of them would stick a gun in his face. Jimmy Burke usually tucked a fifty in the guy's shirt pocket for his trouble; that's where he got his nickname, The Gent. Some of the other thefts were easier: They'd just walk into a garage and steal the truck, or they'd buy off the driver so he'd leave his keys in the cab when he stopped for coffee.
Stealing was second nature to my father. He'd been running with mobsters for more than half his life, since he was eleven years old and started cutting school to hang out at Uncle Paulie's cabstand in the Brownsville East section of Brooklyn. His father, Grandpa Hill, beat him with a belt when he found out; he was an honest man, an Irish electrician with a Sicilian wife raising eight kids—my father and his five sisters and two younger brothers—in a walk-up. But that only pushed my father closer to the men at the cabstand. He told me once that the wiseguys were the only people who were nice to him. My father had a hard time in school because he was dyslexic—he didn't learn to read until he was sent to prison, and he still can't recite the alphabet without singing that song kindergarteners learn—and he had a harder time at home because of his troubles at school. "I got smacked at home, I got smacked at school," he said later. "The guys at the cabstand, they didn't smack me. They patted me on the back, they took me in, they gave me money." I'm not making excuses for him, only trying to explain it the way he explained it to me.
So he grew up to be a gangster. And like all gangsters, he acted like he owned the world. None of them ever did, but my father did his best to rip it off. He stole everything and from everyone. He ran up huge bogus tabs at his own restaurant, The Suite, on stolen credit cards. He torched a few buildings. He ran numbers and sold bootlegged cigarettes out of his car. His greatest success, the heist that made him a minor legend in the New York underworld, was burglarizing an Air France strong room at Kennedy Airport in 1967 and walking out with $480,000. I had a few fancy birthday parties after that one—clowns, magicians, ponies, the whole thing.
The details of my father's line of work were sketchy to me when I was eight. All I knew was that my father was in trouble, and I resented him for it. The day before he went to Lewisburg, the same day my mother was telling my little sister that he was going away for a while, he went out drinking with his friends. He stayed out all night, and in the morning he hired a limousine to take him to prison. He had a better ride through the Pennsylvania farmlands than I ever did.
Our trips to Lewisburg were always miserable. Visiting hours began at eight o'clock in the morning, so we'd either leave late the night before, around ten o'clock, or early in the morning, at about three. Uncle Paulie let us use his car once, a big cream-colored Lincoln Town Car that rode like it was on a cloud. Usually, though, we were in our beat-up Oldsmobile Toronado, the car we got after my father accidentally dropped a lit cigarette in the front seat of our 1969 Chrysler Newport, causing it to go up in flames. That was still better than the Plymouth Duster with the bald tires we had to rent one time from some low-budget lot. I knew it was a bad sign when we needed to be towed up the exit ramp of the parking lot at the Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge. On the way home in a blinding snowstorm, the wheels slipped on a curve and threw the Duster into a spin, bouncing one side off the guardrail, then whipping around so the other side smashed it too.
If I had a headache, the drive was even more unbearable. When I was five, my mother made a left turn into a gas station in Island Park in front of a drunk driver who was speeding. We got hit pretty hard, and we all got hurt pretty badly—Gina was thrown through the windshield, and I was pinned under the dashboard. The scar on my mother's face never completely healed. Ever since, I'd suffered migraines, maybe once a week or so. They'd come on fast, this stabbing, throbbing pain right behind my eyes that would spread through my whole head. Once a migraine started, I was done for the day. I'd have to stay in a dark room with a cold compress tied around my head. The pain was so bad I'd get nauseous, couldn't keep anything down, not even aspirin. So if I got a migraine in the car, sometimes I'd have to hang my head out the window to vomit. My head hurt so bad I didn't care how I looked to anyone driving by.
And then we'd get to the prison. There would be a guard at the main entrance, an enormous black steel gate, waiting with a massive key, just like in the old movies. Beyond that was a small courtyard that led to another gate, and another guard would open that one only after the first had been locked, so for a few seconds it was like we were trapped in a cage. Then we went up a set of wide stone steps into the building, where we got in line with everyone else who had a father or a brother or a son locked up in Lewisburg.
It always took a little while to get past the guards. My sister and I had to empty our pockets, and my mother had to hand over her purse to get searched. My mother always brought a big bag jammed with all kinds of stuff. The guards made her take everything out and then they searched the bag with a baton and a miniature flashlight. I could never understand why my mother always brought so much with her. Later on, my father used to brag that he'd bought off the guards so that my mother could smuggle things in, but it didn't seem like it at the time. They poked through everything with their batons, and they glared at us, like we were the criminals instead of the men inside.
We followed a long, wide hallway after that, passing through a series of gates in the same stutter-step—through one, wait for it to clank shut behind us, then on to the next one. After the final one, there was a short set of stairs that emptied into the visiting room. It was huge, bigger than a gymnasium, and it probably had looked fancy once. Lewisburg was built when federal prison officials thought inmates should be rehabilitated instead of simply punished. So they designed a kind of classical hall with tall windows to let in the sunlight and mosaics and murals on the walls and ceiling. They were faded by the time my father was locked up, and the room smelled like ammonia, but it wasn't quite strong enough to get rid of the must.
It was usually fairly crowded on visiting day, a lot of women, a few kids, a handful of men, all of us waiting on plastic chairs next to long tables, like in a big cafeteria. The inmates came in later, through another gate at the far end, after their visitors had been cleared through security. We'd sit there, staring across the hall, waiting for my father, and then he'd come shambling out in his prison tans. He didn't wear stripes like convicts in the movies I'd seen. He wore beige trousers and a short-sleeved shirt that showed off the tattoo on his left arm. It was from the 82nd Airborne, my father's one stint in legitimate life, a stretch in the army. "They turn you into a motherfucking killing machine," he told me once. He was drunk and reveling in the memory. "They brainwash you, strip you down so you kill on command, shove a bayonet through some cocksucker on command." He never saw combat, though, and he never talked about patriotism or serving his country. Other than the basic training, the only thing he really talked about was how cool it was to jump out of an airplane. "Craziest fucking thing I ever did," he said. "I loved it."
GINA:I was always happy when we went to Lewisburg. We didn't go every week, but pretty often, maybe every other week, at least once a month. It was a long ride, but my mom always tried to make it as much fun as she could, like we were going off for a weekend adventure. She'd pack some toys and some games, and I'd get to play with Gregg, who I adored. At that age, he didn't want much to do with me, but when it was just the two of us in the car, he didn't have a choice. And we usually stayed at a Sheraton that had an indoor pool, and there would always be other kids there who we could run around with and play hide-and-seek and pinball.
I hated getting ready to leave, though. There was always an argument. My grandma would yell at my mom. "Why are you taking them to see that gangster?" she'd say. "That's no place for children. Children don't belong in a prison. Let him rot in hell."
Those were terrible words for a little girl to hear about her dad. As far as I was concerned, my grandma didn't understand him. My mom had built him up pretty well in my mind, probably more than she had to because when you're six years old it doesn't take much to believe your dad is the best man in the world. To me, he was smarter than everyone else, which meant that everyone else—the prison guards, the police, my grandma—was wrong. I knew he got in trouble for doing things he shouldn't be doing and that's why he had to go away, but I never thought of him as a criminal. Never in a million years could Dad hurt someone or steal or kill anyone. He had a weak stomach and loved everybody. In fact, my dad saved lives. I was sure of it, because I would make my mom tell me the story over and over.
"Tell me how Dad saved that little black boy at Jones Beach," I'd say to Mom, and every time she told it, it was like hearing it for the first time.
"Your dad and I were dating and we were laying on the beach," she'd begin, "and then Dad yelled, 'That kid is drowning in the undertow!' Dad was the only one around who noticed. And he got up and ran into the water with all his clothes on and he grabbed the little boy and carried him to safety."
"Was his mother happy Dad saved him?" I would ask. And Mom would answer really loudly, "Oh my God, was she happy. She hugged and kissed Dad to pieces!" That always made me laugh.
Anyway, my dad didn't seem too upset to be in prison. I can't imagine he liked it, but he always came into the visitors' hall with a big smile on his face. He'd say, "Hi, Princess!" and he'd pick me up and I'd get to hug him and kiss him, and he'd tell me how great things were going to be when he got out, how we'd get a big house and he'd buy me a horse. That was another thing Gram didn't understand, how generous he was, which in my eyes showed what a caring person he was. He always asked me what I wanted, even then when he was in prison.
We'd stay there all day, from eight in the morning until the guards made us leave in the afternoon. I don't remember being bored, though. We could get snacks from the vending machines at one end of the hall, and I had crayons and paper to keep me busy. I drew a lot of houses. That was my specialty. All kinds of houses, but mostly little Cape Cod-style ones, and incredibly detailed, down to the little tassels on the window shades. I never drew people inside the houses, but the lights were always on in the windows behind the bushes, and I could imagine that there was a family inside sitting down to dinner or watching TV together or playing with the dog.
A psychologist would probably have a field day with that detail, a little girl obsessively drawing cozy houses. But I never felt depressed—just the opposite; I was the bubbly one in the family. Looking back, though, I can see the symptoms, starting with those drawings. When my dad went to prison, our life became a lot more difficult. We were suddenly poor, so poor that we had to move out of the Fairview and go on welfare and buy our groceries with food stamps. My mom moved us back in with my grandparents for a little while, but she fought so much with her own mother that we got an apartment in Elmont, a run-down little town on Long Island. She tried so hard, my mom did. There were only two bedrooms, and instead of putting Gregg and me in one and taking the other for herself, she slept on the couch in the living room. She never wanted us to go without anything.
Whatever anyone tells you about the Mafia taking care of their own, don't believe it. Maybe Uncle Paulie gave Mom some money, but not enough to support her and two children. Even with the welfare, she needed to go to work. She learned how to groom dogs, and I used to ride around with her at night when she was dropping off pets she'd washed and combed and clipped. I think that's where my fascination with houses started. No matter what street we were on, even driving through the city streets, I'd look up into windows and see lights on and wonder what those people were doing. It was never anything bad. In my mind, it was always normal families having normal interactions, just people living their lives. Then we'd go into these lovely homes in manicured neighborhoods at eight, nine, ten o'clock at night and deliver the dogs she'd groomed, and I'd see these nice, quiet, serene living rooms—matching furniture, clean carpets, children in their pajamas welcoming their pets home. It was so bittersweet for me because I wanted to be one of those kids in one of those houses.
Then we'd drive back to Elmont. It wasn't such a bad neighborhood, and there were a lot of kids to play with. But I used to hate going to school. I wasn't doing very well, especially in math; my mom would do my homework for me, but that didn't help me understand the numbers any better. And sometimes on a school night I would get this awful pain in my neck, like a spasm or a pulled muscle. I don't know if it was psychosomatic, but it hurt so bad I couldn't turn my head.
Gregg and I were so different like that. He loved school. He was always the smart one, the one who brought home the grades, the one who did his homework without any trouble at all. My grandma decided when he was really little, barely into elementary school, that he would grow up to be a doctor because he was the smart one in the family. He wasn't geeky or anything like that, but just one of those kids who was hungry for knowledge and for whom learning just seemed to come naturally. During those years when my dad was in Lewisburg, Gregg was fascinated with sharks. He memorized fifty different species, how their fins were different and how big each one was and how sharks could smell through their skin—quirky facts like that. He'd announce them over dinner sometimes, which I suppose was better than talking about Dad.
But I know those years were terribly hard on him. He was always serious to begin with, very reserved, especially when it came to our dad. Like when we went to visit him and Dad would ask us what we wanted, I always had something on my list, like Barbie's Dream House. Not Gregg. He didn't have a list and never asked for anything. He would just shrug his shoulders or shake his head.
There was such a deep sadness in my brother back then. And sometimes he couldn't even hold it in. He would be sitting in his fourth-grade class and just burst out sobbing. There was no trigger, like if a bully teased him or made some smart remark about his dad being in jail or his mom being on welfare. It would just happen, like there was an awful hurt that he buried way down deep where it would bubble and build and finally explode and come pouring out. It was so embarrassing for him. He went to counseling for a little while, and I think the school even put him in the slow-learner class for a time, which was even more humiliating considering he'd always gotten straight A's. It broke my heart, all of it, knowing how sad he was. I couldn't understand why he was like that, why he couldn't see any hope.
GREGG: I always hated those trips to Lewisburg. I can't say I ever missed my father, but it was still nice to see him, at least in those first few moments when he came out smiling. I'd hug him, and it was sincere. I mean, for as hard as things were for the rest of us, for my mother and my sister and me, he was still my father.
- "Henry Hill lived life dangerously close to the edge, and nearly pulled his family into the abyss. That his children survived to tell this fascinating tale is a testament to their resolve."—Nicholas Pileggi, Author of Wiseguy
- "Gripping... an unforgettable portrait of life inside the Mob... This book is proof of the bravery of children who refused to accept their father's legacy."—Sam Giancana, Author of Double Cross
- "Remarkable... absolutely the best book about growing up with a wiseguy father -- and I've read them all... plenty of riveting, juicy detail... Only the children of Henry Hill could've written this intimate exposé, and they've done it with gut-wrenching honesty and incredible courage."—Pete Earley, Author of Witness: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program
- "Mob children are the hidden victims of organized crime... their story has never been adequately told until now... A must-read for those who want the complete picture of life in the Mafia."—Anthony Bruno, Author of Bad Guys
- On Sale
- Oct 15, 2007
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Grand Central Publishing