Mafia boss Carmine 'The Snake' Persico dies aged 85

9 March 2019, 12:47 | Updated: 9 March 2019, 20:57

The former boss of one of America's most powerful Mafia families has died while serving a 139-year jail sentence.

Carmine "The Snake" Persico was head of the New York-based Colombo crime family.

His lawyer Benson Weintraub said Persico died at the Duke University Medical Centre in North Carolina, near a federal prison in Butner where he was imprisoned. He was 85 years old.

He was convicted of racketeering and murder and sentenced to more than a century behind bars in 1986.

Persico was among eight defendants convicted in what became known as the "Commission Trial" which was overseen by the then US attorney Rudolph Giuliani - who went on to become mayor of New York and is now Donald Trump's lawyer.

Prosecutors said during the trial that he was involved in the assassinations of two other mobsters - Albert Anastasia, the Murder Inc. leader who was killed in a barber's chair in Manhattan in 1957, and Joseph Gallo, who was shot at Umberto's Clam House in Little Italy in 1972.

Persico represented himself during the trial and questioned prosecution witness Fred DeChristopher, his cousin by marriage, who admitted turning him in for a $50,000 (£38,400) reward.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Persico was the son of a law firm stenographer and his wife.

He was a high school dropout and part of a street gang, and was first arrested at the age of 17 after another youth was beaten to death in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

When the charges were dropped he was recruited to the world of organised crime, and was working his way up the hierachy of the family then headed by Joe Colombo by his mid-20s.

At his sentencing, District Judge John F Keenan suggested Persico should have chosen another calling.

"Mr Persico, you're a tragedy," he said. "You are one of the most intelligent people I have ever seen."

He reportedly continued running his mob operation from behind bars and plotting to kill those responsible for putting him in jail.

"He was the most fascinating figure I encountered in the world of organised crime," Edward McDonald, a former federal prosecutor, told The New York Times.

"Because of his reputation for intelligence and toughness, he was a legend by the age of 17, and later as a mob boss he became a folk hero in certain areas of Brooklyn."