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Volume XXIX Number 2
Spring 2007

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RIch Aniskiewicz
Rick Aniskiewicz
Photo by Suellen Aniskiewicz

A Career of Crime

by Erika Knudson

THANKSGIVING, circa 1950s: A camera shows quiet small-town Cliffside Park, a borough of Bergen County, New Jersey. A wide outside shot from above reveals neatly spaced houses. The shot slowly pans down the street and stops outside the picture window of one house, then goes inside to an extended family gathered around the dinner table. A boy listens intently as his parents, aunts, and uncles talk animatedly about local tales of organized crime figures--the latest Mafioso to come through Bergen County, local people reputedly connected to the Mob. The intensity of the boy's expression foreshadows the future: this dinner conversation and others like it will spark a life-long fascination.


Cut to WINTER 2007: A college campus in central Indiana. Professor of Sociology Rick Aniskiewicz is at his desk, typing on his laptop computer. A close shot of the screen. The book manuscript he is writing is titled Theoretical Issues in the Study of Organized Crime.

Personal history has become business for Rick Aniskiewicz, a professor at Indiana University Kokomo who, for the past two decades, has been exploring the sociological implications of the stories he heard as a kid. "When people ask me why I'm interested in studying organized crime, I say I'm from New Jersey and leave at that," he says, joking in a voice tinged with the sounds of his geographic origins. "I never knew how much the stories I heard growing up were true or how much embellishing was going on, but my interest in organized crime was embedded in my consciousness then."

His interest was rekindled when Aniskiewicz came to IU Kokomo in 1980. To prepare for teaching a class in criminology, he read Mafia memoirs such as Man of Honor by Joe Bonanno, the infamous boss of a New York crime family and possibly the inspiration for Don Corleone in The Godfather. "That book reconnected me to some of the stuff I'd heard as a kid, and I threw myself into looking at the topic from a scholarly viewpoint," Aniskiewicz says. He began by delving deep into other memoirs like Bonanno's, exploring what was myth and what was reality.

A former executive director of the International Association for the Study of Organized Crime, Aniskiewicz distinguishes individuals involved in organized crime from the organizations in which they operate and from the processes that lead to the emergence of crime networks. "I look at the ways organized crime has been discussed, the different paradigms. It's an overall reconnaissance," he says, sounding a bit like a police detective.

According to Aniskiewicz, the reality is not the Hollywood version of The Sopranos or The Godfather, nor is organized crime the exclusive realm of the Italian-American Mafia (La Cosa Nostra). He argues that organized crime is a multi-ethnic, increasingly global enterprise involving a complex division of labor.

"Crime is work," he says. "These people don't just have a criminal career, they are career criminals."

Experts and Entrepreneurs

Just as in legitimate businesses, there is an elaborate division of labor in organized crime. Aniskiewicz identifies jobs that are common to criminal organizations across ethnic and geographic designations, defining types in terms of the "work" they do within the crime world.

The type popularized by movies and "true crime" books is the Violent Entrepreneur, who settles scores and disputes violently. The manifestation of this type is the contract killer, hit man, or person who rises in ranks because of his willingness to engage in violence to deal with problems. One real-life example is The Iceman, who settled scores both personal and Mafia-related through brutal murder. This killer got his moniker by deep-freezing one of his hits in an ice cream truck, then thawing the body out and dumping it in a park. (The technique was an attempt to throw off police on the date of death, but the heart was still frozen when the body was found, thus the Iceman nickname.)

Then there are the Financial Entrepreneurs: money movers and accountants such as Meyer Lansky, who cooked the books for Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano in several casino businesses. Financial entrepreneurs are experts at doing laundry, and we're not talking about taking the Don's tux to the laundromat. They turn dirty money into money that looks legit. This job doesn't necessarily entail personal engagement in violence.

The Marginal Man is someone who plays both sides of the game. This job entails straddling two worlds, individuals who are involved with organized criminal activities, but who also work as informants for law enforcement.

Protected witnesses are Strangers in a Strange Land. For a long time it was difficult for law enforcement to mount successful cases against organized crime figures, because witnesses, for obvious reasons, did not want to come forward. This was the impetus for the Witness Protection Program, which started in the 1970s, says Aniskiewicz. "These people are given an entirely new identity, including information about their education and new ID numbers," he explains. "Individuals from urban areas manage to survive in some very remote places in the United States."

This type is also a popular one in movies, from the comedic treatment by Steve Martin in My Blue Heaven to the gritty characterization by Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence. In fact, Mortensen's character has at least two jobs from Aniskiewicz's classification: he's a Stranger in a Strange Land, working at his diner in rural Indiana. And when his former associates locate him and threaten his family, he falls back into his role as a Violent Entrepreneur.

Law enforcement officers and politicians who fight organized crime can also be engaged in its social world, says Aniskiewicz. He offers Thomas Dewey, Robert F. Kennedy, Rudolph Guliani, and Eliot Spitzer as examples of those involved in prosecuting organized crime members who get caught.

The John Gottis and Don Corleones of the organized crime world are the equivalent of corporate CEOs. "The chief executive of a criminal organization has to be well-versed in the money part of it, but he doesn't necessarily have to be a Violent Entrepreneur himself," Aniskiewicz says, although a "boss" or "godfather" most likely has a violent criminal background. "Above all, you have to be savvy in finance," Aniskiewicz says, "but you'd have to have skills in both areas."

What about the violence? How does one understand the extreme violence that permeates the world of organized crime? "You can't leave out psychological explanations or psychopathic personalities, but that only takes you so far," says Aniskiewicz, who is particularly interested in the type of people who attempt to survive the "exceedingly difficult work" of organized crime.

"These are people who are attracted to extreme danger, risk, and excitement," he says. "One analogy is, if you are told not to put your finger in the cookie jar, it's an invitation to do it and get away with it. There is a psychological reward in ‘getting away with it' in organized crime."

White Collar vs. Dirty Collar

All types of organized crime--gambling, production and distribution of alcohol during Prohibition, drug trafficking, human trafficking--have to establish markets, be aware of supply and demand, keep customers satisfied, and be aware of prices, says Aniskiewicz.

Consider the business of drug trafficking, for example: There are people involved in production of the drug, such as cocaine in the form of coca. The coca is turned into the drug that will be sold on the streets, and then transported. So there are jobs involved with harvesting, processing, and shipping. Then the work moves from wholesale to retail--to the people who sell drugs on the street and their customers.

Such parallels between legitimate and criminal business make it tempting to think of something like the Enron debacle as organized crime, but there are boundaries between the two types, says Aniskiewicz, who teaches a course called Topics in Deviance: White Collar/Organized Crime. "The simplest way to think about the distinction between the two is that organized crime refers to criminal organizations established for the purpose of committing crimes. White collar organizations originate for legitimate purposes but can end up participating in criminal activities," he says.

In other words, Enron went bad. Human trafficking was bad to begin with. Another difference is that criminal organizations cannot settle their disputes by taking each other to court. ("It's not like you can sue someone to get justice," Aniskiewicz says.) But we don't expect General Motors to settle their marketing disputes through violence. There are established processes to follow.

It gets more complicated, says Aniskiewicz, when you concentrate on criminal organizations that look for ways to make money by investing in legal business enterprise.

"If I am running a criminal organization, it is in my best interest to have a legitimate organization where I hire people and for which I pay taxes," he says. The abundant amount of money criminal organizations make is suspicious, and money is always potential evidence, so dirty money must become clean. If a prosecutor comes knocking, you want to be able to say ‘Hey, I just sell plumbing supplies.'"

Or better yet maybe, "I'm a scholar of organized crime"?

Erika Knudson is an associate director at the IU Office of Creative Services in Bloomington.

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