Both the Mafia and prosecutors agreed that the most important “godfather” in American crime through the 1990s would be John Gotti, subject of course to the vagaries and uncertainties of mob longevity and legal prosecutions. As one observer has stated, “There’s no doubt in my mind the press will be labeling him the new ‘Boss of Bosses’ — if he lives that long.”Gotti was cut from the old mold, a type some law enforcement officials say hasn’t been matched around New York Mafia circles since the demise of Albert Anastasia, the chief executioner of Murder, Inc., and reportedly Gotti’s underworld idol. By 1985, Gotti was considered the top capo in the Gambino crime family, the most powerful Mafia organization in the nation. At the time, he was running rackets — at JFK airport as well as other Gambino operations throughout the New York metropolitan area — and was a particular favorite of underboss of the group Aniello Dellacroce, an aging but still brutal mafioso. As much as Dellacroce liked Gotti, boss Paul Castellano hated him, or more accurately feared him, which in the Mafia automatically breeds hatred.
In 1985, both Castellano and Dellacroce were indicted on a number of charges. Both in their late 60s, long prison terms would effectively end their reigns in the mob. It looked like just a simple waiting period for Gotti.
He waited in style, brutal perhaps, but suave. “Gotti looks like a movie star,” said a detective who knew him quite well. “He wears hand-tailored clothes, drives a big black Lincoln and likes good restaurants.”One of five brothers, Gotti worked his way up through the Mafia ranks. He became a capo as a reward for “good works” he did for the late family chief, Carlo Gambino. In 1972 Gambino’s nephew, Manny Gambino, was kidnapped by other underworld characters who demanded a $350,000 ransom. After part of the ransom was paid, the kidnappers murdered Manny and buried the corpse in a New Jersey dump. The FBI arrested two suspects while Carlo Gambino put out a contract on a third, James McBratney. McBratney was later dispatched in a Staten Island bar by a three-man execution squad. Gotti, convicted as one of the death squad, served a portion of a seven-year sentence in Green Haven prison. He was no stranger to iron bars, having previously done time for hijacking.
On his release, Gotti was welcomed back by Gambino who saw to it that he moved up rapidly for services rendered. In 1978 or 1979 Gotti was named a capo and became a top associate of Dellacroce. Gotti was known to feel that Dellacroce deserved to be the head of the family instead of Castellano, as thought many other mafiosi. But Dellacroce kept Gotti in line.Dellacroce knew he was dying of cancer. He told Gotti to be patient, a characteristic that was not Gotti’s long suit. Nor was gentility. Toughness was the key. He was once overheard telling another mafioso: “Can you beat this—they’re telling me I’m too tough for the job. Can you imagine what our thing [Cosa Nostra] is coming to?”
On another occasion he was overheard chastising an underling for not returning his phone calls. “Follow orders,” he was reported to have said, “or I’ll blow up your house.” The underling, obviously cowed, apologized and swore it wouldn’t happen again. “You bet it won’t,” Gotti was quoted as saying. “I got to make an example of somebody. Don’t let it be you.” Seasoned officers swore that if they had shut their eyes and just heard words, they would have been sure it was the ghost of Albert Anastasia talking.
All the law could do was watch Gotti, around whom odd things had a way of happening. Something or other happened to 51-year-old John Favara, a friend and neighbor of Gotti living in the Howard Beach section of Queens. In 1980 Favara ran over and killed Gotti’s 12-year-old son, Frank, in a traffic mishap officially declared accidental. Four months later Favara was shoved into a car by some men as he left his job in a furniture plant and was never seen again.
According to police, after the death of young Frank, the Favara family was deluged with anonymous threatening letters and phone calls and their car was spray-painted with the word “murderer.” From informers police got reports that Favara had been chainsawed to death and then dumped in a car that was put through a demolition machine and reduced to a one-square-foot block. There was no word on who the chain-sawer could have been.
But there were more important things than a simple murder to worry about. Trouble was brewing in the Gambino family. Dellacroce was so ill he might never stand trial, but many of the young Mafiosi worried about Paul Castellano standing up to the prospect of living out the rest of his life behind bars. There was worry that he might start thinking of swapping mob secrets for his freedom.
Gotti didn’t seem worried. Then Castellano named a mobster close to him, Thomas Bilotti, to the position of capo, the equal of Gotti. If Dellacroce died, the story went, Castellano was going to name Bilotti underboss, and if he, Castellano, went to prison, Bilotti would take over as godfather. Gotti would be out in the cold.Dellacroce died on December 2, 1985. Two weeks later Paul Castellano and his protégé Bilotti were shot to death outside a Manhattan steakhouse. Gotti was in.
Within eight days it seemed Gotti was in charge of the biggest Mafia family in the nation. He was the center of attention at a party in a reputed meeting place of the Gambino family, the Ravenite Social Club at 247 Mulberry Street in Little Italy.
“All the big shots from the family were there,” an investigator was quoted, “and Gotti walked in like he owned the joint. He obviously had no fear of anyone.”
In 1986, Gotti faced federal prosecution on racketeering charges that could take him out of action for some time. But Gotti probably marked a new trend in the Mafia — back to younger bosses, as was the case in the 1920s and 1930s — because with the government hitting the mobs hard and going after the leaders, the Mafia worried whether the old dons could take the heat. If even one talked, the damage would be enormous. Younger bosses would have a different outlook. A 20-year sentence could mean getting out in six or seven years with good behavior. They could do such time standing on their heads; they could hang tough. Toughness was John Gotti’s middle name.
And Gotti was adding a touch of coolness. Heading for an appearance in a federal courtroom, he insisted a female radio reporter enter before him. “I was brought up to hold doors open for ladies,” he said.It was the same sort of elegance that Al Capone, up until then a firm believer in violence, developed after becoming top boss when Johnny Torrio bowed out in 1925.
Gotti faced intensive federal prosecutions in the late 1980s, and it seemed highly likely that the young mob boss would almost certainly be convicted and would have to be replaced, if only temporarily, by a new leader of the Gambino family. But it was soon evident that even from behind bars Gotti was not about to hold still for being replaced. Given Gotti and his supporters’ propensity for violence, it remained doubtful as well that the other New York crime families would dare to interfere with the powerful Gambinos. As one insider is reputed to have said, “When the Gambinos spit, the other families drown.”That meant any real opposition would have to come from within the family, and no one seemed capable of moving on Gotti, or his handpicked caretakers — his brother Peter and a childhood buddy, Angelo Ruggerio — while he was imprisoned for his trial. Then in early 1987, shocking government attorneys, Gotti beat the rap.
Next an effort was made to convict Gotti on RICO (1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act) charges. The lead prosecutor was Diane Giacalone, but her case was ill prepared and promised little chance of success, partially due to backbiting between the prosecutors and the FBI team investigating Gotti, members of which felt they could eventually produce a stronger case. Gotti and his cohorts were acquitted, and the mob leader’s reputation was truly made. He became known as the “Teflon Don” against whom criminal charges simply could not be made to stick. It made grand press for Gotti, but his days were numbered.The FBI produced a solid RICO case against him based on 100 hours of incriminating tapes. And they convinced Gotti’s underboss, Sammy “the Bull” Gravano, to flip and testify against his chief. Gravano, who confessed to 19 murders, was out to save his own neck, and some criticized the government for granting him almost complete immunity, since Gotti was doomed on the tape evidence alone. However, it was obvious that the prosecution could not dare risk losing its case. A loss would probably leave Gotti free of any future prosecutions under RICO. Gravano’s testimony thus was vital. Gotti was convicted in 1992 and sentenced to life without parole. By the late 1990s it was unclear if Gotti would or even could continue to head the Gambino family from behind bars through his son. John Gotti Jr. was listed as acting boss of the family, but it was apparent that real power was gravitating to John J. D’Amico, a top Gambino capo and close friend of Gotti. Whether he remained a friend was open to question.
The doubts rose from the fact that cold-blooded analysis of the Gotti record proved disturbing to a number of Gambino family wise guys. In the short time before Gotti was tucked away in prison, the membership in the family had dropped from something over 250 to around 150. With Gotti at the head, the family had gained a reputation for dapperness, but Gotti’s imposing presence on the TV nightly news exposed many of the capos and soldiers to discerning scrutiny by law enforcement officials. Gotti constantly ordered his men to come to the mob’s Ravenite headquarters on Mulberry Street, even though the area was blanketed by FBI cameras. Many of the wise guys knew that quiet discretion and the shadows should have been the call; however, they dared not voice their fears to the boss and knew better than not to show up, since Gotti decreed and carried out the death sentence in such cases.
While all the mobsters hated Sammy “the Bull” Gravano for his ratting, they privately acknowledged the Bull’s charge that Gotti’s arrogance had done much to bring down the boss and their organization.
Law enforcement circles generally felt that Gotti and his son would become less major factors in the Gambino family. Indeed, crime would probably march on without the Gotti influence, and that is what happened.Confined in maximum security from the time of his imprisonment, Gotti was in virtual isolation, allowed only a few visits from family members and his attorneys. He was kept in an eight-by-seven feet underground cell for 22 to 23 hours a day in Marion Penitentiary, a highly regimented federal facility, where he knew a great many other inmates there such as “Nicky” Scarfo, the homicidal former boss of the Philadelphia crime family, and Jimmy Coonan, the equally homicidal ex-head of the Westies, New York’s Irish mob with ties to the Mafia. But he never saw them or heard their voices; each one’s isolation was complete.
There is no doubt the conditions in Marion started to crack Gotti, although for a time he maintained control in some Mafia matters by issuing orders to his son, John Jr., or his brother Peter when his son was also imprisoned. But with the passage of time the full impact of his punishment hit Gotti. Prison-made videotapes viewed by New York Daily News reporters Jerry Capeci and Gene Mustain caught the heavy toll taken on the once powerful crime boss. He felt doomed and forgotten by his relatives. In one video Gotti said, “Right now I’m cursed. I’m stuck in this joint here and that’s the end of it. This is my realm, right here. That’s the end of it.” When relatives did visit him, not too common an occurrence, he raged to them about the indifference of some of them as well as his steadily declining influence on the mob.
On a philosophical note, he said, “My life dictated that I take each course it took. I didn’t have any multiple choice.” Next then he might turn defiant, however, saying, “Listen to me carefully, you’ll never see another guy like me if you live to be 5,000.” Then the self-pity would take over: “I take credit for my, my, my bad deeds. Maybe I flatter myself. Maybe me and a lot of other people think I am more important than I really am.”
Reports of cancer ailments depressed him further. He was assigned no work, no communal recreation. For a time he beat off the worst symptoms of his cancer and declared himself victorious. “Cosa Nostra forever!” he rejoiced for a time. Finally the cancer returned, and Gotti thought about being allowed to go home to die. There was also some suggestion that he might be shifted to a lower-security facility, but there was fear Gotti would face physical attacks from lesser criminals looking to gain a “rep.” Most likely, officials wanted Gotti kept as an object lesson to other mafiosi of what could happen to them if they refused to cooperate. Gotti made his final escape when he finally lost out to his cancer in June 2002.