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  • Writer's pictureJ. Sutton


Updated: Apr 15, 2023

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) is a federal law proposed in 1968 and passed by Congress in 1970. It was enacted to address the on going issues of organised crime groups profiteering from their illegal acts on a large scale.

This controversial act's purpose is to tackle organised crime syndicates illegal activities as an organisation. Previously to this, crimes commited by syndicate members had to be tried individually. The RICO act meant all those involved or related to the crimes and racketeering could be convicted taking down the whole organisation at once.

The first attempt at applying this act to gain conviction of an organised crime group was in 1979. A group of Hells Angel members were arrested in connection with an illegal drug enterprise with Sonny Barger being one of the identified ring leaders in the organisation.

"the Federal Government culminated a long drug investigation with the arraignment of 18 members, including Ralph (Sonny) Barger, 40 years old, and his wife, Sharon, 29, on conspiracy charges. The indictment that resulted in the arrests charged 32 persons with conspiring to violate Federal racketeering statutes in a case that Federal investigators had focused on drug traffic. The Angels got into narcotics traffic about 15 years ago, according to law enforcement officials, and it has made some of them wealthy." New York Times (1979)

In 1981 the charges were dismissed after the jury had difficulty coming to a conclusion and there was a mistrial. The jurors felt uncomfortable judging people as a whole group for things like murder, and conspiracy to distribute/sell drugs. Something that is problematic, in that a person who murders by their own hand is indeed a murderer, but if that murder is done on the basis of an order, should the person who ordered it also be held to the same accountabilities? This was a moral dilemma the jury were not willing to face.

There were other issues with the trial according to sources reporting at the time of the trial. "Another problem for the prosecution was that some of its most compelling evidence came from witnesses who had been granted immunity. One former member of Hells Angels was given immunity in six murders and received $54,000 in various payments from the Government." New York Times (1981). Things like this made it harder for the jury to give a fair judgement, so the case was dismissed and unsuccessful.

Ralph Barger frontman of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels

The first Mafia family to feel the full effects of this new act was the Genovese Family. Who became the first organised crime family to be tried and convicted under the RICO act.

Pennsylvania Crime Commission Report 1990 pp. 107

Frank “Funzi” Tieri was the elected frontman of Mafia Boss Philip “Benny Squint” Lombardo, who headed the Genovese family. It is believed that Lombardo was the Boss of the family at this time and was the one in control, but would elect an underboss to assume his role publicly. This would deflect any attention away from him and onto whomever he had chosen. Frank Tieri was this chosen person.

Case Files from the Tieri investigation detailing his conviction.

Source: Funzi Tieri. Federal Bureau of Investigation. National Security Archives.

However, authorities had compiled a long investigative history which linked Tieri to a good amount of evidence. This evidence showed that he was acquiring his money in less than legitimate ways, he was seen to be living beyond his means. The case documents some 300 plus pages showed that he had been on their radar since at least 1963.

It was therefore Tieri who was the face of much media attention around the time the family was being tried. The evidence against him and others within the Genovese family was too great to deny and resulted in the first successful RICO conviction.

Since then the RICO Act has been used to successfully convict thousands of organised crime syndicates throughout the U.S.A.

Image source - The Central New Jersey Home News. New Brunswick, New Jersey. Tuesday 01 July 1980. P23


Organized Crime in Pennsylvania A Decade of Change. 1990 Report (1990) Pennsylvania Crime Commission. U.S Department of Justice. pp. 107 - 108

Tieri v. Immi. Nat. Serv., Dept., of Just, 457 F.2d 391 (2d Cir. 1972)

United States v. Gigante, 925 F. Supp. 967 (E.D.N.Y. 1996)

Wallace Turner, (1979). U.S. Drug Investigation Brings a Round of Arrests for Hells Angels The New York Times. June 18, 1979, Section A, Page 14

Wallace Turner, (1981). Prosecution of Hells Angels is Dropped after 2d Mistrial. The New York Times. February 26, 1981, Section A, Page 14

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