When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took over the whole Plaza Hotel in March, he seemed to be just another Saudi royal with a sense of entitlement to match his riches.
But upon learning that a gay wedding was scheduled for the Plaza that same weekend, the prince known as MBS agreed to let the ceremony and the ensuing celebration go ahead as planned. He seemed like he might not be just another rich Saudi after all.
Nobody imagined that he would prove to be just another gangster, with a crew that appears to have employed the same method of body disposal as the Irish-American mob that once operated five blocks crosstown from the Plaza.
Back in the 1970s, the Irish-American mob in Hell’s Kitchen included Edward “The Butcher” Cummiskey. He had been trained as a butcher while serving a term in Attica state prison. He earned his nickname after his release, as he put his knowledge to work on various murder victims with an 18-inch serrated knife.
“The elbow is the toughest part,” he more than once observed aloud.
James Coonan—the ascendant young boss of the Irish mob who during the 1980s was a kind of Hell’s Kitchen version of MBS—immediately recognized the value of Cummiskey’s approach.
“No corpus delicti, no investigation,” Coonan was quoted saying in court papers.
That apparently was the same aim of the MBS-affiliated crew that is said to have dismembered Jamal Khashoggi shortly after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents he needed to marry his fiancée.
And it might have worked had there not been a recording of the killing by either Khashoggi’s Apple Watch or electronic eavesdropping devices planted by Turkish intelligence, or both.
The dismemberment of Khashoggi was likely made easier by the bone saw the MBS affiliated team reportedly purchased for the purpose, though Cummiskey and Coonan always seemed to manage just fine with the serrated knife. The Khashoggi job must have been particularly messy, as the Saudis do not seem to have followed the usual Irish-American mob protocol of waiting for the blood to congeal before cutting up the corpse.
Saudi Consul General Mohammed al-Otaibi was reportedly promoted to say, “Do this outside. You will put me in trouble.”
A member of the MBS-affiliated crew seems to have responded much as the Irish-American crew would have.
“If you want to live when you come back to Arabia, shut up.”
Pure gangster, be it in Istanbul or Hell’s Kitchen.
And that would fit with MBS’ approach to asserting control in his kingdom, as he demonstrated in November when he imprisoned dozens of Saudi royals, businessmen and officials in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. That happened to be the same establishment where President Trump was so lavishly feted in 2017 while on his first international trip.
The arrests were said to be part of a crackdown on corruption, but MBS’ real goal was more likely to intimidate any possible opponents and to separate them from considerable portions of their wealth. The posh prisoners were suddenly as powerless as a Manhattan restaurateur to whom Coonan and his right-hand man Mickey Featherstone paid a visit in the early 1980s.
As recounted by the restaurateur, he afterward called the detectives at the Midtown North Precinct to report he had been visited by two men who demanded money.
“What were their names?” a detective inquired.
“Featherstone and Coonan,” the restaurateur replied.
“Pay them,” the detective said.
Among the prisoners in what was described as a “golden cage” in Riyadh was Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. He gave an interview to Reuters after his release, saying it had all been a “misunderstanding.” He denied that one of his fellow detainees had died while being forcefully urged to comply and he insisted all was fine, really, for real, really.
“I’m very comfortable because I’m in my country, I’m in my city, so I feel at home,” he said. “It’s no problem at all. Everything’s fine.”
He also said, “I have nothing to hide at all. I’m so comfortable, I’m so relaxed. I shave here, like at home. My barber comes here. I’m like at home, frankly speaking.”
He also said, “I told the government I’d stay as much as they want, because I want the truth to come out on all my dealings and on all things that are around me.”
Alwaleed reported that he had retained all his assets, which at the time included a minority interest in the Plaza Hotel in New York. He does not seem to have offered any objection when MBS took over the entire hotel in March. MBS made no manifest effort to stop the gay wedding there on March 24, and is even said to have taken a quick peek at the reception.
But in August, the seemingly benevolent MBS proved unconscionably callous, offering not even a shrug after a Saudi warplane bombed a school bus in the war he is running in Yemen. The U.S.-made laser-guided munition killed 40 youngsters aged between six and 11, along with 11 adults. Even Eddie the Butcher would have been shocked by such a mass killing of kids.
But Eddie would have immediately endorsed the ghoulish logic behind making Khashoggi disappear in Istanbul this month. He no doubt would have approved of the Saudis apparently doing him one better by having somebody dressed as Khashoggi subsequently leave the consulate.
Eddie could not have foreseen how it would turn out for the MBS-affiliated crew. He was shot to death in 1976, long before anybody could have imagined a future dismemberer might have to worry that his victim was wearing a watch capable of recording and transmitting the act.
After initially denying that Khashoggi had been murdered, the Saudi government has said that he was killed by a “rogue” crew acting independently from MBS.
"There obviously was a tremendous mistake made and what compounded the mistake was the attempt to try to cover up. That is unacceptable in any government," Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Fox News. "We are determined to punish those who are responsible for this murder."
The Saudi consul in Istanbul—the same guy who is said to have predicted he would get in trouble—was dismissed and put on a plane home to Saudi Arabia, the first of what will no doubt be a host of fall guys.
In the meantime, Turkish President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to provide “the details” of Khashoggi’s death in a speech to his parliament on Tuesday. CIA Director Gina Haspel was flying in to Istanbul.
All the attention and the widespread outrage over the killing dramatizes a drawback to the dismemberment strategy; should there be an investigation despite the absence of a corpse, most humans are viscerally repulsed by the act. A one time henchman named William Beattie testified during a 1988 racketeering trial that he had turned away, saying, “That’s not my bag,” when Coonan began dismembering a body.
''I'll kill anybody, but I'm not into cutting them up,'' Beattie told the court.
Coonan was convicted and sentenced to 75 years. He is presently incarcerated as prisoner number 13874-054 at Schuylkill Federal Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania, from which he is likely following the Khashoggi case with the intense interest of a fellow professional.