When a 2002 federal indictment named Peter Gotti, an older brother of the more famous John Gotti, as the current Gambino family boss, he became the third Gotti to be so named. Previously, John’s son, Junior, held the title until he followed his father to prison. Actually, some argue that John sought to keep control of the crime family by using his son and later his brother as surrogates or, according to some, “gofers,” carrying out his orders.
By the time John was dead, there was considerable thought, outside the circle of federal persecutors, that Peter was little more than a front man for the mob. One of Peter’s lawyers, Gerard Shargel, raged in court, “Forgive me for stating the obvious: John Gotti is dead.” According to the attorney, “in a certain twisted and perverted way, the government mourns his death,” because they had lost a defendant who would pack the crowds into a courtroom. Thus, according to some defense lawyers, the feds just had to go wild whenever any Gotti name came up—that it was like wonderful old times.
Some mob observers insist the Gambino family was delighted not to have a strong leader so that capos could run their own show and “kick up less upstairs” to Peter Gotti, who was only a front. This has indeed happened in the mob before. In the Chicago Outfit, post–Al Capone, the popular belief was that Frank “the Enforcer” Nitti was in charge but was little more than a front man for Tony Accardo and Paul Ricca. When the pair told Nitti he had to cop a plea to get the rest of the mob off the hook with the law and do the time for all of them “or else,” he knew what they meant. Terrified at doing prison time, Nitti shot himself.
Alleged Gambino crime family boss
This thesis, applied to Peter Gotti, did not have to go that far. He was a convenient scapegoat in any Gambino operation since it could all be blamed on the Gotti breed. Many inside the mob insist Peter never could cut it in the mob and was dubbed with the nickname “Retard” to indicate that fact. He was “celebrated” cautiously in the crime family for a level of incompetence that even John, according to one description, found “breathless.” Trying to explain to Peter Gotti that he was involved in a conspiracy was a monumental task and not always convincing. In a conference with a federal prosecutor and his attorney, the renowned Bruce Cutler, the official tried to explain to Gotti why he was being charged as taking part in a conspiracy. If he knew what was going down, he was in on it, the prosecutor told Gotti, but the latter responded, “But I never got a dime out of it.” Didn’t matter, the prosecutor responded, if he knew what was happening, he was in on the conspiracy. Gotti kept saying, “But I got no money out of it.”
Finally, the prosecutor desperately appealed to Cutler to explain the facts to his client. “Can you help me out on this?” Cutler, not trying to be uncooperative, simply responded he could not do any better getting his client to understand what constituted conspiracy.
The government does not buy the “retard” claim, the prosecutors more likely feeling that Peter Gotti was simply “pulling a Gigante,” the mob boss of the Genovese family who walked around Greenwich Village in a bathrobe mumbling to himself, pretending to be weak minded. They see Peter as far smarter than he talks. The government claimed before Peter was being brought to trial that it would prove that Gotti received money from Jerome Brancato, allegedly for illegal activities. These payments, prosecutors claimed, were required by the mob code that gives the boss control over captains and a financial cut in their dealings. Other observers see Peter as a pawn in mob operations and certainly no powerhouse. Defense attorneys say that even if it is shown that Peter got some money from criminals who had been closely tied to John Gotti, it does not imply guilt. As is typical of their claims, they would be sure to remind jurors that the prosecutors must prove guilt, not just guilt by association. “At bottom,” one lawyer involved in the case in which Peter Gotti was one of many players, said, “there is nothing illegal about associating with somebody, even somebody the government calls the mob, as long as you do not commit the crime.”
Some claim that even though Peter Gotti may be far less important than anyone, including himself, may think, it is inevitable that he will end up being sent away for 50 to 70 years or so. Almost every crime caper pulled by Gambino mobsters (and even those by others) in recent years was invariably linked to Peter Gotti as the family boss. If it was on the waterfront or in gambling operations or in shakedowns of Hollywood people or others, Peter Gotti was generally named the overall boss. Fifty to 70 years would be hard time for a man who will undoubtedly come to feel he was much better off in 1979 when he retired as a sanitation worker on a disability pension. Far more than for most involved in organized crime, it will be no easy matter to figure out if Peter Gotti was a genuine mob insider or merely an outsider looking in.
The ambiguity of the justice system’s view of Peter Gotti was readily apparent after he was found guilty of money laundering and racketeering. Defense attorney Shargel asked that his client get less than the maximum sentence since he was in poor health and was at most a mob boss in name only. Gotti could have been given 15 years (and mob bosses usually get the “max”), but the judge imposed a sentence of only nine years. The judge said that the record “strongly suggests that Peter Gotti did not exhibit leadership characteristics.” The judge noted, however, that he was “still a leader,” which meant he deserved a stiff sentence.Attorney Shargel told the judge that Gotti was blind in one eye and suffered from thyroid goiter, sciatica, emphysema, rheumatoid arthritis, post concussion syndrome and depression, and that a long prison stay could further damage his health. Shargel further pleaded for leniency by stating: “Peter Gotti may have had the title of acting boss, but I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks he has managerial capacity, if you will. I don’t think there’s anyone who knows Peter Gotti who thinks he was making important decisions, if you will.”
Gotti still faced a possible additional 70 years in imprisonment for taking part in an unsuccessful 1999 plot to kill Mafia turncoat Sammy “the Bull” Gravano. That matter went to trial in November 2004. However, many legal opinions held that Gotti wouldn’t get a major sentence in the matter and that he might well get off with a sentence concurrent to his nine-year term.
Perhaps the major import of Gotti’s prosecution was not that it would destroy the Gambino crime family, but recognition that at last the Gotti influence within the mob was fading. This would not make the real bosses of the Gambinos happy. As long as Peter Gotti was handy, he could be kicked around.Some observers find the prosecution to be very cynical for sitting on “Mikey Scars” DiLeonardo, apparently expected to be the law’s turncoat of the early 2000s while they prosecuted Peter Gotti. Scars has informed federal investigators that rather than Peter Gotti, the true boss of the Gambino family was JoJo Corozzo, who has been described as sublimely happy with Gotti being out there as a sitting duck. From the feds’ viewpoint, it has been said, there would be plenty of time to unmask Corozzo after the last of the Gottis was taken care of. In the meantime the claim can be made that once again a fatal blow has been struck against the Gambinos. The downside to this, some observers warn, was that the Corozzo influence can continue to solidify. This theory can be argued on either side. From a more personal view, Peter Gotti will get his, as the New York Times has noted, “Gambino Crime Boss or Not.”