Tommy ‘Karate’ Pitera

Thomas Pitera was born to parents Joe and Catherine on December 2, 1954, in the Gravesend area of Brooklyn, NY. He was the youngest of two children, having one older sister, Theresa. Pitera attended David A. Boody Junior High in Gravesend, where he was bullied mercilessly – until he became interested in martial arts. As a child he was obsessed with the TV show The Green Hornet, and this fuelled his interest in karate and similar disciplines. After winning a karate contest in 1972, he earned a scholarship to study and train in Japan. When the scholarship ended, he stayed on in Japan for a while, finding employment in a chopsticks factory and continuing to train and absorb the culture.

Tommy Pitera

Upon his return to Brooklyn, Pitera became an associate of the Bonanno crime family. During the 1980s he was made, and was put to work with Frank Lino’s crew. In August, 1988 he was ordered to murder Wilfred Willie Boy Johnson because of evidence that he was an informant. Johnson was a long-time friend and associate of John Gotti, and Gotti had discovered that Willie Boy had been passing information on since 1966. Pitera, along with accomplice Vincent Giattino, ambushed Johnson outside his home in Brooklyn, where he was shot at point blank range. In 1992, Pitera was acquitted of this murder, but Giattino was convicted.

Pitera soon earned a reputation in the Bonanno family for being a ruthless killer. A drug supplier by the name of Tala Siksik was next to fall foul of Pitera’s sadistic ways. He was shot in the back, following which, his body was decapitated, dismembered and buried near a wildlife refuge in Staten Island. This would come to be Tommy Pitera’s personal graveyard – a place to dispose of bodies in an area that, in all probability, would never be disturbed.

Further murders followed, the most notable being that of Phyllis Burdi, a friend of his then girlfriend, Celeste Lipari. Pitera had previously been married to his childhood sweetheart Carol Boguski, and they had a son together. But the marriage didn’t work out and they divorced. To Pitera, his girlfriend Celeste was perfect, except for one thing – her drug habit. He had suspicions that Phyllis Burdi was supplying her with drugs, and she was warned to stay away. Both Celeste and Phyllis used cocaine and heroin excessively, and Tommy was afraid that if they continued it would end in tragedy. Soon his fears became a reality. Whilst Celeste was partying at Phyllis’ home on September 10, 1987, she overdosed on cocaine and heroine. When Pitera was told she had died, he was beside himself with grief and swore revenge on Phyllis. She stayed hidden for a while but was soon sneaking back to her old haunts in Brooklyn to see people that she knew. One fateful night, she ran into Frank Gangi, one of Pitera’s crew, at a club. Pitera had spread the word that if anyone knew where Phyllis was they should tell him immediately. Frank ignored this for a while and he and Phyllis began to party. They then decided to go back to Gangi’s home to get more drugs. Pitera got to know that Phyllis was with Gangi after calling his home. He went there and shot her dead as she slept. He then dragged her body into the bathtub and began to dismember her. Again, she was taken to be buried at his personal graveyard in Staten Island.

Tommy Pitera & Celeste Lipari

It was ultimately Frank Gangi who would play a major role in the downfall of Tommy Pitera. Gangi didn’t feel like he was cut out for the mafioso life. It disturbed him greatly to know and see the depths that Pitera would go to. So much so that he was relying on cocaine and alcohol to get him through the days. When he was stopped by police for a DUI on the evening of April 10, 1990, he decided this was his cue to stop the nightmare. He began to talk. Gangi confessed to all the murders he was involved in with Pitera, and provided information on other Pitera murders. On June 4, 1990, Pitera was indicted for heading a drug dealing crew and for his involvement in seven murders, including the 1988 Willie Boy Johnson murder. It was alleged that Pitera’s crew sold about 220 pounds of cocaine per year, multiple kilos of heroin and hundreds of pounds of marijuana.

Frank Gangi

Tommy Pitera’s trial began on May 6, 1992 at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse. Along with many other witnesses, Frank Gangi took the stand and testified against Pitera. As he was giving evidence he began to cry on the stand, and later, during a break when he passed Pitera’s table, Pitera taunted him by saying ”Are you going to cry again?” Indeed Gangi did cry again as he was describing the murder of Phyllis Burdi, the sight of her being cut up in front of him, and the way that Pitera had put her head on the side of the bathtub. After all the evidence had been heard, and photos were shown of the bodies being exhumed from the wildlife refuge, some of the jurors admitted to having regular nightmares about what they’d seen and heard. Throughout the trial, Pitera seemed unmoved, and didn’t show any sign of remorse or sympathy.

Tommy Pitera mugshot

On June 25, 1992, Thomas Pitera was convicted on eighteen out of the nineteen counts he was charged with. The one charge he was found innocent of was the Willie Boy Johnson murder. Apparently the jury felt they should give him the benefit of the doubt on that count as there were no witnesses. They convicted him of six murders – Talal Siksik, Marek Kucharsky, Joey Balzano, Phyllis Burdi, Sol Stern and Richard Leone. During the deliberation on sentencing, the jury rejected the death penalty for Pitera. He was sentenced to life in prison, and is currently serving his time at USP McCreary, Kentucky.

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