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Growing up in the witness protection program

In “On the Run: A Mafia Childhood,” Gregg and Gina Hill tell their story of life as the children of “Goodfellas” mobster Henry Hill. Read an excerpt.

Few areas of American culture have been more falsely glamorized than the mafia. The movie “Goodfellas” told the story of Henry Hill — the gangster who famously broke the mafia code of silence. In 1980 Hill left “the life,” entered the witness protection program and testified against the mob. When Hill came under federal protection, his wife, Karen, and their two children did too. Now, almost 25 years later, Gregg and Gina Hill are breaking their own silence in a new book called "On the Run: A Mafia Childhood.” The siblings were invited to discuss the book on “Today.” Here’s an excerpt:

GINA: One of my earliest memories of my dad was my mom telling me he was going away. That’s how she said it: “Daddy has to go away for a little while.” It was late in the afternoon, and she was leaning down so her face was close to mine and I could smell her perfume. She was crying just a little. I’m sure she never used the word prison, and it wouldn’t have mattered because I was only six years old and wouldn’t have known what prison was.

We were living in the Fairview, a luxury high-rise right across the highway from Flushing Meadows, in Queens. There was a doorman at each of the three different sections of the complex and a big circular driveway out front, and we had a small terrace that overlooked the park. My dad owned a restaurant called The Suite, and he must have been doing pretty well because we could afford to live in a place like the Fairview.

We moved a lot when I was little. When my parents first got married, in 1965, they lived with my grandparents, my mom’s parents, in Valley Stream, on Long Island. Gram was always tough on Dad. “That gangster,” she’d say, only she’d spit out the words. She thought a nice Jewish girl like my mom should have married a doctor or a lawyer, not some hoodlum Catholic from Brooklyn that she’d met on a blind date. Dad had a union card, and the bricklayers supposedly paid him $135 a week, but he didn’t even pretend to work a normal job. He went out every night dressed in sharp suits and stayed out until dawn if he came home at all, and he always had money to throw around, twenty for the doorman, fifty for the waiter. When I was older, my mom told me that that was part of what attracted her to my dad — the glitz, the way he could get them a front-row table at the Empire Club or the Copacabana, the way he seemed to know everyone and everyone knew him. One day she’s a dental assistant from a middle-class family on Long Island, and the next she’s sipping from a bottle of champagne that Sammy Davis Jr. sent to Dad’s table at the Copa.

My dad had a dangerous side too, and I think Mom liked that, the whole outlaw mystique. She once told me a story about how, after they’d been dating for a couple of months, this boy from her neighborhood, Ted, someone she’d known her whole life, took her for a ride in his Corvette one afternoon and made a pass at her. He started groping her in the front seat and my mom told him to stop but he didn’t so she slapped him. He got mad and threw her out of the car, miles from home, and tore off so fast that the tires threw gravel in her face. My mom called my dad and he picked her up and drove her home, but instead of going into the house with her, he went across the street. He saw Ted in the driveway, grabbed him by the hair, pulled a gun out of his pocket, and pistol-whipped him. Pistol-whipped him! Then my dad came trotting back across the street, all sweaty and red, and gave my mom the gun and told her to hide it. Most girls would have been terrified, but my mom said she thought it was sexy.

That’s how their life together started, nightclubs and pistol-whippings. They eloped not long after my dad beat up Ted, and moved in with my grandparents. They were so young, my dad twenty-two and my mom just nineteen. And she was already pregnant with my brother. For as much as Dad might have irritated my grandma, she wasn’t one to throw her daughter into the street.

I think sometimes my grandparents liked my dad in spite of themselves. He wasn’t the kind of man they wanted their oldest daughter to end up with, but he could be awfully charming. That was my dad’s greatest asset, his charm. And his connections. That’s how he always explained it — “connections.” Like the time the pavers showed up with a truckload of asphalt to blacktop my grandma’s driveway. “Don’t worry about it,” one of them told Gram. “Henry took care of it.” Or when my dad and his friend Tommy DeSimone would back a truck up to the garage and unload boxes of microwaves or knit shirts or toaster ovens. He’d tell my grandma he did a guy a favor and bought a load of merchandise from him, stuff she could help sell to the neighbors. Gram probably knew it was stolen, but she never asked, so my dad never had to answer.

My dad tried to make my grandma happy. He even converted to Judaism, got circumcised and everything; my grandma made a little tent for the sheets when he was recuperating so his sore parts would be protected. But he didn’t try hard enough. My grandma is strict to begin with, and my dad wasn’t used to following rules. He had a hard enough time obeying the law, let alone my grandma. He would stay out all night, and then my mom and grandma would get into terrible arguments. “He’s a married man!” Gram would scream. “That’s no way for a married man to behave!” So my parents moved in and out, depending on how much money they had. My mom and dad got their own place for a while, a small apartment, then moved back right before my mom had me. Over the next couple of years, they moved six times — out to Kew Gardens, back in with my grandparents, out to Forest Hills, back to Valley Stream.

Of course, I don’t actually remember a lot of that, and I didn’t know most of those stories until years later. But I definitely remember the Fairview. We lived on the third floor, overlooking the pool, and I shared a bedroom with my brother. I was in first grade at P.S. 220, and maybe a little precocious. I had a friend in the building, and we’d go roaming around the hallways, knocking on doors. We’d tell people we were Girl Scouts and ask for cookies. We had it backwards, Girl Scouts asking for cookies, almost like a scam. But there would always be at least one nice old lady who’d say, “Oh, how cute,” and give us cookies and milk. I guess I had my dad’s charm.

I don’t know how long we’d lived there before my mom told me Dad was leaving. But it was about the same time he’d bought me Baby Alive, this doll that you could feed pretend baby food and her mouth would move, like she was chewing. My dad was always buying me dolls. He’d say, “Whaddya want, Princess?” and I’d say, “Barbie’s swimming pool!” or something like that, and the next day or the day after, he’d bring it home. That’s who my dad was to me then, a wonderful man who brought me dolls and called me Princess.

And then my mom told me he was going away. She wiped the tears from her eyes and streaks of mascara from her cheeks. She didn’t want me to know how upset she was.

“For how long?” I asked.

“Just a few years,” she said, like a few years was a long weekend. That was my mom, trying to make something very big sound very small. “It’s just temporary,” she said. “Just a temporary situation.” My mom used that expression for everything bad that happened. In time, I would grow to hate those words.

I was already used to my dad being away. He’d been locked up a few times since I’d been born, once for seventeen months; my mom took me to visit him in the Nassau County jail when I was about four. And if he wasn’t in jail, it wasn’t unusual for him to go out one night and come back three mornings later. Still, I knew it was different this time because my mom was crying.

She hugged me and then left me alone. My mom had a lot of things on her mind that day. I looked around the apartment. The sun had just gone down, and the kitchen was dark. I wanted to visit my dad right away. I wondered how long it would be before I could wrap my arms around his neck and feel the smooth leather of his blazer or smell his Paco Rabanne cologne lingering in the apartment after he left to go to The Suite.

GREGG: We’d be up all night, I would be, anyway, riding in the front seat to help my mother stay awake. We’d leave at eleven o’clock, sometimes even later, and drive west into Pennsylvania. It was a long ride, five and a half hours, too long to feel comfortable in a car, especially with two dogs dozing in the backseat with my little sister. We’d bring pillows and blankets with us, which made me self-conscious when we pulled into a truck stop or the Perkins House of Pancakes because if anyone saw us they might think we were homeless. I hated being poor, which we were since my father had gone to prison, and I hated even looking like we were poor.

Then the prison would rise up through the windshield, climbing above the trees like a fortress in the woods. The federal penitentiary at Lewisburg was a big beige block with a tower in the center near the front where I could see a guard with a military rifle slung over his shoulder. There were twenty-two hundred men inside, some of the worst criminals in the federal system. My father was one of them.

Eight years old, and I had to get past an armed guard to see my father.

He’d been sentenced to ten years on November 3, 1972, but his lawyer kept him out for almost two more years with a long string of appeals. I’m not sure exactly what my mother told me he’d been convicted of, but I know it wasn’t the truth. Maybe it was because we were so young, but my mother always told us that my father wasn’t a real criminal. She usually fell back on a gambling charge if she got specific at all. “Your father did some things he shouldn’t have done,” is how she’d put it. “But nobody got hurt, and those bastards just kept coming after him until they convicted him of something.”

The truth was, as I found out later, somebody did get hurt. His name was John Ciaccio, and he owed a gambling debt to a friend of my father, a guy who ran one of the unions at Kennedy Airport. My father, Jimmy Burke, and the union guy flew to Tampa, where Ciaccio owned a nightclub and a liquor store, and beat the shit out of him; my father, by his account, smacked him in the face a few times with a .38 revolver. Apparently, he had a thing for pistol-whipping.

The state of Florida indicted them first for kidnapping and attempted murder. They were acquitted in that case. But then federal prosecutors indicted them for extortion, which they could do because my father had crossed state lines. My mother explained it to me in pretty blunt terms, considering how old I was. “They beat the state case, and now the feds are going after him,” she said. “Those bastards.” She made it sound like the government was picking on him over something petty.

In the late sixties and early seventies, when he had a wife and two young kids at home, my father was a full-time criminal. He stole, fenced, bootlegged, loan-sharked, and extorted. I’m probably leaving out a few things too, like arson. My father would do almost anything to make a score. Truck hijackings were a favorite thing for him and Uncle Jimmy, stealing a load of goods that they could fence below wholesale, which was all pure profit for them. They’d get a tip from one of the guys on the loading docks at Kennedy Airport whenever a good load was going out, and they’d follow the driver until he stopped at a red light. Then one of them would stick a gun in his face. Jimmy Burke usually tucked a fifty in the guy’s shirt pocket for his trouble; that’s where he got his nickname, The Gent. Some of the other thefts were easier: They’d just walk into a garage and steal the truck, or they’d buy off the driver so he’d leave his keys in the cab when he stopped for coffee.

Stealing was second nature to my father. He’d been running with mobsters for more than half his life, since he was eleven years old and started cutting school to hang out at Uncle Paulie’s cabstand in the Brownsville East section of Brooklyn. His father, Grandpa Hill, beat him with a belt when he found out; he was an honest man, an Irish electrician with a Sicilian wife raising eight kids — my father and his five sisters and two younger brothers — in a walk-up. But that only pushed my father closer to the men at the cabstand. He told me once that the wiseguys were the only people who were nice to him. My father had a hard time in school because he was dyslexic — he didn’t learn to read until he was sent to prison, and he still can’t recite the alphabet without singing that song kindergarteners learn — and he had a harder time at home because of his troubles at school. “I got smacked at home, I got smacked at school,” he said later. “The guys at the cabstand, they didn’t smack me. They patted me on the back, they took me in, they gave me money.” I’m not making excuses for him, only trying to explain it the way he explained it to me.

So he grew up to be a gangster. And like all gangsters, he acted like he owned the world. None of them ever did, but my father did his best to rip it off. He stole everything and from everyone. He ran up huge bogus tabs at his own restaurant, The Suite, on stolen credit cards. He torched a few buildings. He ran numbers and sold bootlegged cigarettes out of his car. His greatest success, the heist that made him a minor legend in the New York underworld, was burglarizing an Air France strong room at Kennedy Airport in 1967 and walking out with $480,000. I had a few fancy birthday parties after that one — clowns, magicians, ponies, the whole thing.

The details of my father’s line of work were sketchy to me when I was eight. All I knew was that my father was in trouble, and I resented him for it. The day before he went to Lewisburg, the same day my mother was telling my little sister that he was going away for a while, he went out drinking with his friends. He stayed out all night, and in the morning he hired a limousine to take him to prison. He had a better ride through the Pennsylvania farmlands than I ever did.

Our trips to Lewisburg were always miserable. Visiting hours began at eight o’clock in the morning, so we’d either leave late the night before, around ten o’clock, or early in the morning, at about three. Uncle Paulie let us use his car once, a big cream-colored Lincoln Town Car that rode like it was on a cloud. Usually, though, we were in our beat-up Oldsmobile Toronado, the car we got after my father accidentally dropped a lit cigarette in the front seat of our 1969 Chrysler Newport, causing it to go up in flames. That was still better than the Plymouth Duster with the bald tires we had to rent one time from some low-budget lot. I knew it was a bad sign when we needed to be towed up the exit ramp of the parking lot at the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge. On the way home in a blinding snowstorm, the wheels slipped on a curve and threw the Duster into a spin, bouncing one side off the guardrail, then whipping around so the other side smashed it too.

If I had a headache, the drive was even more unbearable. When I was five, my mother made a left turn into a gas station in Island Park in front of a drunk driver who was speeding. We got hit pretty hard, and we all got hurt pretty badly — Gina was thrown through the windshield, and I was pinned under the dashboard. The scar on my mother’s face never completely healed. Ever since, I’d suffered migraines, maybe once a week or so. They’d come on fast, this stabbing, throbbing pain right behind my eyes that would spread through my whole head. Once a migraine started, I was done for the day. I’d have to stay in a dark room with a cold compress tied around my head. The pain was so bad I’d get nauseous, couldn’t keep anything down, not even aspirin. So if I got a migraine in the car, sometimes I’d have to hang my head out the window to vomit. My head hurt so bad I didn’t care how I looked to anyone driving by.

And then we’d get to the prison. There would be a guard at the main entrance, an enormous black steel gate, waiting with a massive key, just like in the old movies. Beyond that was a small courtyard that led to another gate, and another guard would open that one only after the first had been locked, so for a few seconds it was like we were trapped in a cage. Then we went up a set of wide stone steps into the building, where we got in line with everyone else who had a father or a brother or a son locked up in Lewisburg.

It always took a little while to get past the guards. My sister and I had to empty our pockets, and my mother had to hand over her purse to get searched. My mother always brought a big bag jammed with all kinds of stuff. The guards made her take everything out and then they searched the bag with a baton and a miniature flashlight. I could never understand why my mother always brought so much with her. Later on, my father used to brag that he’d bought off the guards so that my mother could smuggle things in, but it didn’t seem like it at the time. They poked through everything with their batons, and they glared at us, like we were the criminals instead of the men inside.

Excerpted from "On The Run: A Mafia Childhood." Copyright 2004 by Gregg Hill and Gina Hill. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Warner Books. To learn more you can visit: