Anthony "Little Pussy" Russo was what most people would call a cat burglar, a theif who is especially skilled at stealing undetected. Russo, a flamboyant figure who became a powerful force in the Jersey Shore operations of the Genovese crime family, was found dead in his locked apartment in the posh Harbor Island Spa in Long Branch on April 26, 1979. His body, with three bullets in the brain, was discovered sprawled among a collection of stuffed cats that served as mementos of his early days as a cat burglar, the career that earned him his curious nickname. Investigators suspected that Russo was the target of a hit carried out by his own underlings.

According to FBI reports obtained by The-Star Ledger, an informant with inside knowledge of mob operations in New Jersey and a close associate of one of the alleged killers confirmed that three of Russo's chief lieutenants killed him. His killers were identified as Thomas "Pee Wee" DePhillips, a capo in the Genovese family; Anthony DeVingo, a soldier who controlled gambling and loansharking in parts of Essex County; and Joe "Joe Z" Zarro, an alleged Genovese associate whose operation spread into Passaic County. The three are all dead. As outlined by investigative sources and federal documents, the hit went down this way: DePhillips and DeVingo visited Russo's lavish fourth-floor oceanfront apartment in Long Branch shortly after his return from a Florida trip. Neighbors later reported seeing two suspicious figures loitering in the hallway who fit the general description of the killers. Composite sketches were drawn from the descriptions, but were thought to be too vague to use in making a case.

They chatted briefly with Russo, who had donned his bathrobe for the night. When he turned to get a drink, they fired four shots. Three bullets from a .32-caliber gun struck him in the head, killing him instantly. A fourth bullet from a .38-caliber weapon was recovered near the sliding glass doors, but the killers slipped from the apartment, locking the door as they left. It is believed Zarro acted as a lookout and driver outside the building. The following morning, Russo's attorney, Jack Russell, reported his client failed to show for an appointment. A Russo associate, Louis "Killer Louie" Ferarro found the body. "It was a typical mob `contract,'" said one investigator familiar with the case. "It was obvious from the start that it was someone he knew, someone he trusted." Federal authorities said they always suspected DeVingo, but couldn't produce enough evidence to charge him. No weapons were ever recovered.

By noon the next day, when police returned to examine the room, the jewelry had all been returned. The cash, however, had not. Investigators believe the assassins had keys for the three locks on the apartment door and used them after the hit to return the missing valuables. There was another incentive. According to Robert Buccino, chief of the organized crime section of the state Attorney General's Office, Russo's longtime protector within the family, his brother, John "Big Pussy" Russo, had died of natural causes. Associates feared that after years of soft living, Russo would avoid jail at all costs, even if it meant violating his sacred vow of "Omerta," or silence, and ratting out his associates. When it came to living the life, Russo was nothing if not a caricature of an old-fashioned mob boss. His hands covered with gaudy jewelry, he would drive around in a pink Cadillac convertible, radio blaring, reveling in the attention and intimidation he could provoke. "Pussy Russo," said Kevin McCarthy, chief of the U.S. Organized Crime Strike Force, "was a figure from a bygone era, when mobsters could afford to be flamboyant." Another investigator put it succinctly: "Pussy had a big mouth." In fact, Ruggiero "Ritchie the Boot" Boiardo, the onetime bootleg king who built a mob empire in northern New Jersey, confided to an associate on the day after Russo's murder: "Perhaps it was for the best, because he talked too much." His killers held critical positions in the family, and had reason for concern with Russo's volatility.