New York's Mafia families are back under the spotlight after the murder of Frank Cali outside his home, writes Michael R. Sisak.

Frank Cali's deep ties to the Sicilian Mafia made him a figure of influence and power in both New York and Italy. But the reputed boss of New York's Gambino crime family died a virtual unknown compared with his swaggering 1980s-era predecessor John Gotti.

Known as "Franky Boy", Cali was shot to death in front of his home on Thursday by a gunman who may have staged a car accident to lure him outside.

Police said they were reviewing surveillance-camera video of the attack on Cali, 53, who was gunned down at his red-brick colonial-style house in a quiet Staten Island, New York, neighbourhood. The assailant sped off in a pickup truck, police said. No immediate arrests were made.

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The motive for the attack was under investigation, police said. Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea said it was still an open question whether it was a mob hit.

Aggressive federal prosecutions in the past 25 years have decimated the ranks of New York's five Mafia families. The cases resulted in long prison terms for their bosses — Gotti included — and encouraged their successors to keep a lower profile.

But the new generation still engages in old-school crimes — loansharking, gambling, extortion — that can make enemies and spark bloodshed.

Shea said there had been a slight uptick in alleged mob-related violence in New York within the last year. But he said it was too soon to say whether that had anything to do with Cali's slaying.

The mobster emerged from his home around at 9.15pm Wednesday local time after the gunman backed his pickup into Cali's Cadillac SUV, damaging it, according to police. "With what we know at this point in time, it's quite possible that was part of a plan," Shea said.

Video showed the assailant pulling a 9mm handgun and opening fire on Cali about a minute after they started talking, according to Shea. At least 12 shots were fired. After getting shot several times, Cali tried to crawl under his SUV to hide, Shea said.

"Francisco, otherwise known as Frank Cali, exits his residence ... has a conversation with an individual where approximately 12 shots are fired with at least six striking the victim causing a demise," Shea said.

"Whether it was an altercation or a conversation, that remains to be seen. But he has a conversation with an individual in front of that residence, and that individual at some point in time, it's only about a minute into it, pulls out a firearm and shots are fired."

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Frank Cali was shot on a tree-lined street in Staten Island, one of New York City's less-glamorous outer boroughs. Photo / AP
Frank Cali was shot on a tree-lined street in Staten Island, one of New York City's less-glamorous outer boroughs. Photo / AP

Shea said the gunman was believed to be a man age 25 to 40.

Federal prosecutors referred to Cali in court filings in recent years as the underboss of the Mafia's Gambino family, once one of the most powerful and feared crime organisations in the country. News accounts since 2015 said he had ascended to the top spot.

The last Mafia boss to be rubbed out in New York City was Gambino don "Big Paul" Castellano, assassinated at Gotti's direction while getting out of a black limousine outside a high-end Manhattan steakhouse in 1985. Gotti then took control of the family.

"We thought those days were over," Mayor Bill de Blasio said of Cali's slaying. "Very surprising, but I guess old habits die hard."

Once described as "the rising star of the American Mafia", Cali was an influential figure who surrounded himself with many Italian-born associates. He gained the trust of Jackie "The Nose" D'Amico, an acting boss who promoted him to capo before the age of 40.

Cali's ascension within the Gambino crime family, once considered one of the most significant criminal organisations in the US, came years after federal prosecutors sent its top leaders to prison, crippling its national and global reach.

Cali kept a much lower profile than Gotti and was killed in far less spectacular fashion than Castellano. He was shot on a tree-lined street in one of New York City's less-glamorous outer boroughs, a short walk from ball fields, a country club and a day camp.

Gotti, with his expensive double-breasted suits and overcoats and silvery swept-back hair, became known as the Dapper Don, his smiling face all over the tabloids. As prosecutors tried and failed to bring him down, he came to be called the Teflon Don.

In 1992, Gotti was convicted in Castellano's murder and a multitude of other crimes. He was sentenced to life in prison and died of cancer in 2002.

Hours before Cali was killed, the reputed boss and consigliere of the Bonanno crime family were acquitted in a Brooklyn racketeering and extortion case. In October, reputed Bonanno associate Sylvester Zottola was fatally shot while waiting for a cup of coffee at a McDonald's drive-through in the Bronx.

Also this week, prosecutors in Brooklyn announced a case against a Gambino associate accused of killing a suspected loanshark affiliated with the Lucchese crime family.

Last week, the longtime boss of the Colombo crime family, 85-year-old Carmine "the Snake" Persico, died at a North Carolina hospital near the federal prison where he had been serving what was effectively a life sentence. Persico was convicted in a 1986 case overseen by then-US Attorney Rudy Giuliani.

Cali's only mob-related criminal conviction came a decade ago, when he pleaded guilty in an extortion scheme involving a failed attempt to build a Nascar track on Staten Island. He was sentenced to 16 months behind bars and was released in 2009.

In that case, authorities intercepted conversations shedding light on his quiet underworld command.

At a 2008 bail hearing, a prosecutor said Cali was seen "as a man of influence and power by organised crime members in Italy".

- AP