NEW YORK — For nearly 30 years, federal authorities say, reputed gangster Bartolomeo Vernace got away with murder.
They say the bloodshed — a double slaying at the Shamrock Bar in Queens — was all over a spilled drink.
Vernace's luck ran out Thursday when he was charged in the killings in one of the largest Mafia takedowns in FBI history. He was among 127 defendants named in 16 indictments stemming from separate underworld investigations in New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
Past investigations have resulted in strategic strikes aimed at crippling individual crime families. This time, authorities used a shotgun approach, with some 800 federal agents and police officers making scores of simultaneous arrests.
They also used fanfare: Attorney General Eric Holder made a trip to New York to announce the operation at a news conference with the city's top law enforcement officials.
Holder called the arrests "an important and encouraging step forward in disrupting La Cosa Nostra's operations." But he and others also cautioned that the mob, while having lost some of the swagger of the "Dapper Don" John Gotti era, is known for adapting to adversity and finding new ways of making money that still harm the economy and spread fear.
"Members and associates of La Cosa Nostra are among the most dangerous criminals in our country," Holder said.
In the past, the FBI has aggressively pursued and imprisoned the leadership of the city's five Italian mob families, only to see ambitious underlings fill the vacancies, said Janice Fedarcyk, head of the FBI's New York office.
However, the FBI has gained a recent advantage by cultivating a crop of mob figures willing to wear wires and testify against gangsters in exchange for leniency in their own cases.
"The vow of silence that is part of the oath of omerta is more myth than reality today," she said.
In the latest cases, authorities say turncoats recorded thousands of conversations of suspected mobsters. Investigators also tapped their phones.
Among those arrested Thursday were union officials, two former police officers and a suspect in Italy. High-ranking members of the Gambino and Colombo crime families and the reputed former boss of organized crime in New England also were named in the indictment.
The indictments listed colorful nicknames — Bobby Glasses, Vinny Carwash, Jack the Whack, Johnny Cash, Junior Lollipops — and catalogued murders, extortion, arson, drug dealing and other crimes dating back three decades.
Other charges include corruption among dockworkers in New York and New Jersey who were forced to kick back a portion of their holiday bonuses to the crime families. Members of the Colombo family also were charged with extortion and fraud in connection with their control of a cement and concrete workers union.
The case against the 61-year-old Vernace stood out not for his nickname — Bobby — but in part because of his old-school pedigree. The alleged Gambino captain was a regular at the Ravenite, John Gotti's social club in Little Italy, in the 1980s, prosecutors said in court papers.
Over the years, he's "been observed with other members and associates of the Gambino crime family at 20 weddings and wakes," the papers said. One of the wakes was for Gotti, who died behind bars in 2002.
More recently, Vernace controlled cafes in Queens where mobsters met and federal authorities made secret recordings, the papers said. In raids three days before his arrest, agents seized illegal gambling machines at one of the spots.
The most serious charge goes back to the night of April 11, 1981, when "a dispute arose between a Gambino associate close to Vernace and others in the bar over a spilled drink," court papers say.
The associate left the bar and went to pick up Vernace and a third man; they returned and killed the two owners, shooting one in the face and the other point-blank in the chest, the papers say.Comment on this story
Prosecutors say they have an eye witness who identified Vernace as one of the shooters. They also claim to have incriminating recordings and forensic evidence.
Vernace pleaded not guilty in federal court in Brooklyn on Thursday and was ordered held without bail.
Outside court, Vernace's attorney, Gerald Shargel, said his client was facing charges similar to those he already beat in a state case about 10 years ago. He also questioned the splashy way the charges were brought.
"It seems there was a public relations aspect to it," he said.