The headline in the New York Post blared “KING RAT!”
The Daily News, the city’s other main tabloid was a bit more inventive on its front page: “DON’S NUMBER TWO WILL SING THE HITS.”
They were talking about Sammy Gravano, John Gotti’s underboss in the Gambino crime family. He had decided to “flip,” the first time ever that an underboss facing trial with his boss had turned against him. “This defection is unprecedented in the annals of New York organized crime,” said Edward McDonald, former head of the Eastern District’s Organized Crime Strike Force.
Prosecutors were confident in November 1991 that they were about to destroy the image of “the Teflon Don,” the best-known mobster since Al Capone and one who had beaten all past charges against him and created a persona of invincibility that infuriated law authorities.
But this time was different. The prosecution had over 100 hours of taped conversations that doomed Gotti with his own words. The Bull — so named for his compact muscular body and thick bovine neck — had actually witnessed the damning situations recorded on tape and could provide personal corroboration the authorities had never had before against Gotti.
It could be said that what made Gravano so fascinating to the authorities, the press and the public was his very unwholesomeness. Gravano confessed his guilt to a mere 19 murders.
One newspaper splashed its front page with a tombstone labeled “R.I.P.” and listing all 19 Gravano murder victims from Joseph Colucci in 1970 to Louie DiBono and Edward Garafalo two decades later.
Despite this, the prosecution was ready to trade immunity for information about Gotti, including facts tying him to the scene of the curbside murder of Paul Castellano outside a fashionable New York steakhouse. The damage the Bull did the Gambino family was staggering. Besides Gotti, Gravano was directly responsible for dozens of convictions, guilty pleas or added prison terms for Gambino family members.
Top aide Frank Locascio (Frankie Loc) went down, along with seven capos, for counts varying from murder to racketeering. That group included Tommy Gambino, the son of Carlo Gambino and operator of the family’s empire in the garment industry. High-up figures in the Colombo family and New Jersey’s DeCavalcante family fell, as did the underboss in the Genovese family and a consigliere and three capos from other New York families. The Bull also caused eight union officials to plead guilty to charges of labor racketeering. Others who fell under the Bull’s tell-all were a city criminal intelligence cop who was feeding information to Gotti and a corrupt juror from one of Gotti’s previous prosecutions.
It remained stunning to many observers that the Bull had flipped; however, it was obvious that he had no choice, since otherwise, he concluded in conference with his lawyer, he faced a sure sentence of 50 years to life. The tapes had doomed him, and Gravano was bitter about that. Gotti’s words on the tapes tied the Bull to two or three murders for certain. He blamed Gotti’s “big mouth” for dooming him.
Some observers noted that if the case against Gravano had been that strong, and it obviously was, it was doubly true about Gotti himself. Why then, they wondered, was it necessary to make a deal with Gravano? The only explanation was that the prosecution suffered from “teflon don syndrome,” a fear that if the case against Gotti somehow fell through, the government would never be able to prosecute him again. Under that theory Gravano was a godsend.
In 1995, in exchange for his testimony in the Gotti case and some others, the prosecution agreed to no more than a five-year sentence for Gravano. As he had been imprisoned since 1990, he was free. After that the Bull was out there somewhere. The new Gravano was described as a man with a legit job, determined to start a new life. It didn’t happen. Sammy the Bull’s saga turned out to be a continuing one, well past 2000. The reason was simple.
Sammy the Bull could not cut it in a normal life after his ghoulishly happy days of robbery, extortion, and murder. At first he followed the standard witness protection drill: plastic surgery, sticking to a newly furnished identity, keeping a low profile. It took all of nine months for Gravano to tire of that. He had to bust loose. How could he be expected to “live 20 years in a cabin and be scared to death?” He left the witness protection program. His wife divorced him, selling their home and some building property in her name and left New York with their children. That was the official version, but some people in the media predicted there would someday be a family reunion for the Bull.
Gravano’s was a plight that confounded many criminals who entered the protection program. The need to return to crime is overwhelming. Dominick Costa, a mob-connected safecracker, had it made in the witness program safely buried in a small Minnesota town but felt sat on by his keepers. He eventually found a way to get back in the swing—the small bank across the street from his quarters. He cracked the safe and got $40,000, but the law soon figured out who had done it, and Costa lost his safe spot and went to jail.
Sammy the Bull was not that kind of small-timer. He operated on a bigger scale and, after living rather openly plugging his book, went into business in a racket he knew well—drugs. He set up his new life in Arizona operating there and on the East Coast with his own multimillion-dollar Ecstasy combine, which authorities charged included his wife, his daughter, his son, and 32 others. Caught dead to rights seeking to return to his “glory days,” Gravano pleaded guilty to federal drug charges in May 2001 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison and fined $100,000.
Already, before his sentencing, Gravano had other travails. The fact that he had been fined $100,000 was not uninteresting to some observers, especially since he traveled to Brooklyn, home base of the Gambino crime family, to set up his operations. There had long been speculation that Sammy had squared things with John Gotti’s family by paying off regularly for dispensation for his past treacheries. The Mafia has long been known to be forgiving of almost anything as long as the money flowed in. According to this thesis, Gravano’s Ecstasy revenues took over as his take from his biography and his legitimate businesses in Arizona was fading. The problem here was that Gravano may well have welched on his payments; after all that was part of the game.
Even before the feds nailed Gravano on the Ecstasy rap, the Gambinos had once more had it with Sammy. Apparently the mob had decided that turncoat Gravano just couldn’t be trusted. The feds claimed that John Gotti’s brother, Peter, acting boss of the crime family, had plotted with Gravano’s brother-in-law Edward Garafola and Gambino soldier Thomas Carbonaro to arrange Gravano’s demise in Arizona. According to prosecutors, Carbonaro and one Fat Sal Mangiavillano found that a hit in Phoenix was not so easily done. Gravano had his house surrounded with a chain-link fence, off which bullets could well ricochet. The spot across the street was too open to wait around to do some shooting; they had to worry that Sammy would spot them. In addition, the FBI was at the time holding a convention in Phoenix, forcing the plotters to wear hoop earrings and leather bikers’ caps to keep from being spotted. By then the boys felt they could not wait out the end of the convention because some of the agents were taking vacation time once the meetings ended. Whey they got back to New York, Carbonaro and Fat Sal heard about Gravano’s bust in the Ecstasy case, which gave Fat Sal another idea: Maybe they could send Sammy a letter bomb. Carbonaro, he later told prosecutors when he was arrested, was not impressed. Fat Sal had forgotten that prisons use X-ray machines.
That may have provided a comic topper to any possible hit but perhaps more of interest on conceivably why the plot never came off was the fact that Sammy the Bull announced in 2003 he would testify for Carbonaro whom he doubted had taken part in any hit plot. Gravano’s line apparently would be that Carbonaro had been part of his crew before he ratted on Gotti and that he and his wife had stayed in contact with Carbonaro and his spouse when the Bull entered the witness protection program. In all his informing, Gravano had steadfastly refused to inform on his own crew members. That may well have given him an entree to a peace deal for a time with the Gambinos. Gravano apparently always gave himself an out.
Deals, deals, deals, that was all Sammy knew. And while in the witness program and later, he merrily, according to court papers filed in Arizona, went on plotting crimes, revenge, and what have you. Noted attorney Ron Kuby, protégé of the late famed civil rights attorney William Kunstler, was one of Gravano’s targets after Kuby roused the Bull’s ire by representing the families of 12 of the 19 people Gravano admitted killing in his days within the Gambino family.
The plan, according to court papers, called for Kuby to be lured to Texas where there was more evidence against Gravano available. There, it was alleged, Sammy himself would take Kuby out or have some associate drug dealers do it for him. Kuby did not fall for the lure. But Sammy also had other things to worry about then. He got his 20-year federal sentence and faced trial in Arizona on state charges. There were other headaches for Sammy. In New Jersey charges were readied claiming Gravano had hired a hit man to take out a New York police detective, Peter Calabro, near his home in New Jersey in 1980. This was not a murder Gravano had confessed to, and, if true, it would be a charge hard to admit since police are adamant that no cop killer gets a deal. On the other hand, some legal observers felt it was an old case and tying it to Sammy might be difficult.
It was all problematic, but many thought Gravano was at the end of his rope and would never outlive his prison sentences. Then there were those who thought Sammy might make a deal. The Arizona charges meant nothing because they would be served concurrent with his federal sentence, and journalists in the Southwest thought they saw the elements for a bargain. Sammy knew a lot about drug deals and dealers in Arizona, Texas and elsewhere. He could, some journalists felt, offer the law so much in busting up drug rackets that he could get chunks of his jail time rescinded once again.
On the other hand this could be all fantasy. But there is no doubt Sammy would go on scheming, looking for an arrangement. Sammy was an unrepentant criminal and a practiced turncoat. Sammy the Bull’s career may or may not be at a dead end. Stay tuned.