Thomas Pitera took pride in his craft as a crime-family contract killer, dropping bodies for the Brooklyn Bonannos at a gruesome clip throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Pitera was a nightmare on the same Gravesend streets where he grew up, though no longer the victim of cruel bullies. Undersized as a youth with a falsetto voice some said was a cross between Michael Jackson and Mickey Mouse, Pitera was an easy target for local toughs.
Like many Brooklyn boys coming up in the 1960s, Pitera enjoyed Bruce Lee movies, sparking a lifelong interest in martial arts. Pitera took his obsession to the next level, studying martial arts in Japan for more than two years on a special scholarship.
Returning to the old neighborhood in 1974, Pitera put his training to good use as a street solider for the Bonanno crime family. That’s when he earned a new nickname.
The bullied became the bully.
Mafia thugs are by nature cruel and intimidating. Pitera, however, was a special breed of menace: an up-and-coming gangster with something to prove, and the muscle and martial-arts training to inflict exceptionally cruel and unusual punishment.
Pitera was assigned to the wing of the Bonannos led by “The Three Captains” of Alphonse “Sonny Red” Indelicato, Dominick “Big Trin” Trinchera and Philip “Phil Lucky” Giaccone. These three goons were unhappy with how boss Philip “Rusty” Rastelli ran the family through rival captains Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano and Joseph Massino.
Little did the gangsters know federal agent Joseph Pistone had infiltrated Napolitano’s crew as thief Donnie Brasco, yet at the time Pistone was years from crippling the Bonannos. Later in 1981, the same three captains were assassinated in a group hit set up by Napolitano and Massino, gunned down at a Brooklyn bar owned by none other than Sammy the Bull Gravano from the Gambinos.
When the smoke cleared, Pitera was among those reassigned to a new captain and crew, and he was formally inducted into the Bonanno Family.
In August of 1988, as a favor to Gambino gangster John Gotti, Pitera murdered Wilfred “Willie Boy” Johnson. Gotti learned Johnson, his former driver and close friend, was cooperating with federal investigators since as early as the mid-1960s. Pitera was acquitted at trial of the Johnson murder.
Bonanno consigliere Anthony “The Old Man” Spero, who led the ultra-violent Bath Beach crew for the family, drew Pitera into his orbit. To carry out Spero’s bidding, Pitera formed a squad of ferocious killers, which he also put to good use in a lucrative sideline robbing drug dealers. The thing about drug dealers is that once you rob them, they never run to the police. If they resisted, Pitera murdered them, burying them out in Staten Island, before selling their stashes. Investigators later dug up half a dozen of Pitera’s victims in a makeshift mob graveyard in the William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge on Staten Island.
Pitera obsessed over the dismemberment and disposal of his victims. Diligently studying and perfecting his process, wrapping the bodies in plastic and burying them deep enough to throw off the cadaver dogs, Tommy Karate earned yet another, more fearsome nickname.
Tommy the Butcher.
By the time Pitera was indicted on seven murders and numerous racketeering charges, investigators suspected he may have been involved in more than 50 killings. Pitera murdered not only contract targets and low-life drug dealers, but members of his own crew he suspected of cooperating with police.
Searching his home in Gravesend, police hauled away a horde of weapons, not just firearms, but ornate swords and exotic knives, as well as hundreds of books on torture and dismemberment, including “The Hitman’s Handbook.” They also found a horde of mementos Pitera kept from his many victims, a telltale trait of a psychopathic killer.
At trial, Frank Gangi, a former member of Pitera’s crew and nephew of Genovese crime-family captain Rosario Gangi, testified against Tommy Karate to get out from under his own legal problems. In chilling detail on the witness stand, Gangi recounted how Pitera murdered and disposed of his victims. Gangi escaped into the federal-witness-protection program. Though prosecutors pushed for the ultimate sentence for Pitera, four of the murders preceded the re-enactment of the death penalty in New York.
In the summer of 1992, Pitera was convicted on drug charges and six of the seven murders, but acquitted on the Johnson killing.
Pitera is currently high-kicking his way through a life sentence, incarcerated at the federal penitentiary in Allenwood, Pennsylvania.