Byline: Nancy Hass
Big Linda and Little Linda are living proof that the glitzy stereotypes of life in a crime family are pure fiction. Their years as girlfriend and daughter of murderous capo Greg Scarpa have left them trapped by poverty and gruesome memories.
We think we know the women of the mob--loud, crude, fond of bling, and indifferent to the crimes that support their families in tacky splendor. Even when their husbands are in jail or under indictment, we imagine mob wives ensconced in their own garish version of suburbia, channeling Victoria Gotti with their French manicures, leopard-print stilettos, and cascades of hair.
But, as it turns out, being married to the mob, particularly in its declining years, is often a far grittier proposition--lonely, dangerous, and squalid. Just ask Linda Schiro, widow of notorious Columbo capo and executioner Greg Scarpa. Nowhere can the collateral damage of life in organized crime be more clearly glimpsed than in the faces of Schiro, 65, and her daughter, Linda Scarpa, 42.
"This is not some glamorous fantasy," says Schiro, known as Big Linda, while her daughter is called Little Linda. She spends most of her days at the kitchen counter of the rented, sparsely furnished Staten Island condo that she shares with Linda and three of Linda's four children. Instead of gazing at a banquet-length dining table laden with stolen diamonds and gold, as she did many nights during her 30 years with Scarpa, Schiro clears a place amid the box of Cheez-Its and sleeves of Oreos to rest her elbows and put her graying head in her hands. A pair of Yorkshire terriers yap nonstop at her feet. "This is hell, my life."
Her daughter shoots her a look of pure contempt, black eyes narrowing just like her father's. Little Linda pays the rent with her small salary from selling beer for a wholesaler door to door at restaurants; no one, not even the feds who arrested him in 1992 for murder and racketeering, ever figured out where Greg Scarpa's millions went. This is all they have, this sheetrocked rental with kids' bikes in the living room and half-empty plastic cups of Arizona iced tea everywhere. It is a lifetime away from the decked-out three-story house in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, the home in Florida, and the apartment Scarpa had use of on Sutton Place. The fast cars are gone, as are the handsome wiseguys lounging in the front room, ordering in Chinese food with stolen credit cards. Outside on the concrete stoop, her daughter's kids yell for money to go to Burger King; the sliding doors look out at a strip of asphalt. With a history of psychiatric hospitalizations, Big Linda has nowhere else to go. "I work like a dog to put this roof over your head, Ma," says Little Linda. "Time to shut up."
Greg Scarpa was no ordinary mob guy. He earned the moniker "the Grim Reaper" because he preferred to do the killing himself instead of jobbing out the task to hit men. And through his decades on the street, he seemingly never tired of the work. He was widely considered the most brutal member of New York's most violent, dysfunctional mob family, the man at the center of the Columbo war of the early 1990s. The war's opening salvo took place in the Scarpas' driveway in Brooklyn, when gunmen from a rival faction opened fire on Scarpa in his Lincoln, just steps away from where he had kissed Little Linda goodbye as she loaded her infant son into her Mercedes. He emerged from the sedan unscathed, but a year later, a dozen men were dead. Scarpa began cruising the streets with his crew, looking for enemies. Once he shot and killed a guy who was hanging Christmas lights. "Putting his family in danger was the beginning of him just going off," says Little Linda, looking over at her son, now 20 and home from college, dozing on the sofa with the television blaring.
The lowest moment came near the end of the seven-month war. After someone threatened Little …