Assassinated Crime Boss
When Paul Castellano and his driver, Thomas Bilotti, were shot to death in front of a steakhouse on New York’s East Side on December 16, 1985, the story made headlines around the country. The reason: “Big Paul,” the Mafia’s “boss of bosses” (which he was not) was the most feared don in America (which he also was not). Overlooked in virtually all accounts was that the assassinations, as the men stepped from a Lincoln limousine, had been one of the easiest hits on a Mafia don and his bodyguard ever. Neither Castellano nor Bilotti were armed, and neither had taken even the simple precaution of having a backup car of armed gunmen for protection.
Castellano had made a date with three mystery men and had a table reserved for them, Bilotti and himself in Sparks Steak House on bustling East 46th Street. (Probably half the mafiosi in the city could, if they wanted to, have learned where Big Paul would be on 5:30 P.M. on the day of the hit. Why, for safety’s sake had he not made a last-minute change of meeting places? Chances are Castellano, if he’d made it into the restaurant, would not even have taken the precaution of having the reserved table switched.) But Bilotti and Castellano barely made it out of the limousine when three men wearing trenchcoats and fur hats approached, pulled out semi-automatic handguns and shot both men repeatedly in the face. One of the assassins paused long enough to fire a coup de grace into Castellano’s head. The gunmen then fled on foot east to the corner of Second Avenue, one of them speaking into a walkie-talkie as he ran. Then they got into a waiting dark car that sped south and disappeared. It was a piece of cake.
Paul Castellano’s death was an indication of his ignorance of the pulse of power in the Mafia. Had he been savvier, Castellano might well have anticipated danger. His doom was settled two weeks before the hit when his underboss Aniello Dellacroce, died of lung cancer. Castellano undoubtedly despised Dellacroce, a feeling that was mutual, but Big Paul did not understand that it was his underboss who had been keeping him alive. But when Carmine Galante was rubbed out in 1979, he at least had operated correctly. He was driven around town, never indicating where he’d be; and on the day of his death he was riding in Brooklyn when “on the spur of the moment” he suggested a small restaurant where he wanted to eat. And still the hit men got him there.
Since becoming boss in 1976, Paul Castellano viewed himself as a different Mafia don—more polished, a businessman far more than a hood. He took the Gambino family more deeply into certain fields, such as the garment trade, trucking industries, construction unions. And he didn’t forsake murder. A stolen-car operation he bossed, shipping valuable vehicles as far away as Kuwait, hardly eschewed homicide and apparently carried out 25 murders to get rid of bothersome witnesses and competitors. But Big Paul did object to a murder or two here and there, and in a sense that showed he was forgetting his own roots. That should have told him Mafia power, in the final analysis, belongs to the gunmen. Meyer Lansky always knew that. He too was a businessman, a far better one than Castellano, but he knew that his position had to be backed with muscle, and he had Bugsy Siegel and others around to provide as much firepower as was necessary.
Big Paul probably hated the shooters. He hated his underboss, a man capable of peering into a victim’s eyes as he squeezed off a shot, who could watch the impact of instant death. Big Paul probably feared Dellacroce because he knew that the latter as underboss to Carlo Gambino normally would have stepped up to the top spot when Gambino died in 1976. Castellano had one edge on Dellacroce there — he was married to Gambino’s sister. Don Carlo was a man who treasured family ties and was determined to make Castellano his successor. Gambino realized it was impossible for Castellano if Dellacroce wanted to fight. At the same time Gambino could hardlyhave Dellacroce killed. There were too many others in the mob ready to step up and nothing would restrain them, knowing Castellano’s limitations. Gambino thus knew he had to deal with Dellacroce. He offered him all of the mob’s lucrative Manhattan activities, thus giving his underboss a certain measure of independent power and prestige. Given that, Dellacroce did not want to provoke a war that would ravage the family and probably provoke drastic action by the authorities. He accepted second spot to Castellano.
As Castellano refused to expand the family’s activities in certain areas, the Gambinos lost some influence, and the Genovese crime group under Funzi Tieri became the most important organization in the Mafia, as it had been before Gambino had built up his group to primacy through an unremitting mixture of force and cunning. Only with Tieri’s death in 1981 and a succession by weaker men were the Gambinos once more to become supreme, just by the sheer weight of their numbers and prestige.
Castellano continued operating the way he felt best, dickering with businessmen and ignoring the hoodlums in his own organization. For example, Frank Perdue, the chicken king known for his “tough man, tender chicken” TV commercials, determined that the retailing strategies of a large supermarket chain in the New York area were not giving him a fair shake. His chickens often didn’t make the weekly shopping circulars while his competitors were getting great display. That was when he decided to switch distributors, signing on with Dial Poultry, which happened to be run by two of Castellano’s sons. After that, Perdue reportedly had no more complaints about the proper merchandising of his neglected chicks.
While Castellano was smitten with dealing with businessmen, he kept vetoing plans for capo JohnGotti, one of the toughest men in the organization, to move into the lush field of airport rackets where a fortune could be made in freight disappearances and union racketeering. Gotti was one of the younger capos straining under the Castellano rule,feeling the don to be so inept that it was costing family members vast profits. All that kept Gotti and others in line was fear of, and a sense of loyalty to, Dellacroce. As Dellacroce’s pet, Gotti was rightly feared by Castellano who tried to keep him down by limiting him to goon squad hijackings and other bush-league activities.
Then on December 2, 1985, Dellacroce died. Evidently Castellano didn’t fear Gotti much, and he made no attempt to rub him out. Instead, Castellano planned to keep Gotti down by naming Bilotti his underboss. It was incredible. Castellano was acting like he was in some sort of company proxy fight. A smart Mafia boss would have started killing the opposition instantly. Castellano was thinking longrange while the countdown was on.
Gotti or whoever was working against Castellano
had cleared things with the other bosses in the city — nobody seemed to mind that Big Paul went. In fact, most of the bosses had reason to be sore at Castellano, who had allowed his fashionable 17-room mansion on Staten Island to be bugged by the FBI. They had been furnished transcripts of some of the tapes since they were, along with Castellano, under indictment for a number of racketeering counts. Castellano had talked disparagingly about all of them, which was bad enough, but the tape also revealed he blabbed about Mafia business with almost anyone who came into his home, even people who did not belong to any crime family. He also told Bilotti things, which violated the Mafia need-toknow code. Castellano’s wagging tongue clearly was a menace, and there was the added worry that the 70-year-old Castellano might not be able to take prison. If convicted he could get sentences totaling 170 years and know he was not going to spend his twilight years a free man. Under such circumstances a weak boss like Big Paul might talk.
After the hit at Sparks, much press was devoted to speculation about what the Castellano murder meant. Was it or wasn’t it the start of a general gang war, was the hit an inside job, and so on. The only concrete fact to come out of the affair—aside from two corpses on a Manhattan sidewalk—was that additional eavesdropping and informer information confirmed for various investigative agencies a successor to Paul Castellano.
It was John Gotti.