From the public’s point of view, Vincent Gigante’s claim to fame springs from the attempted slaying of Frank Costello in 1957. Even though Gigante, who went on trial for that crime, walked out of court a free man, he remains in popular theory linked to it.
According to this version, Vito Genovese ordered Costello killed so that he could seize the leadership of organized crime in New York. The then-300- pound Gigante reportedly took shooting practice daily in a Greenwich Village basement in preparation for the rubout. On May 2, 1957, Costello entered his apartment building on Central Park West. At that moment a large black Cadillac pulled up to the curb, a huge man got out, rushed past Costello, and entered the building. When Costello entered the lobby, the big man, from behind a pillar, appeared behind Costello. “This is for you, Frank,” he called. Costello turned, a movement that probably saved his life. The bullet grazed the right side of his scalp just above the ear. The fat man turned and hurried from the lobby, convinced he had delivered a killing shot.
But Costello was not seriously hurt, although he required hospitalization. Following the code of omerta, he insisted he did not know his assailant. However, the building’s doorman had gotten a good look at the gunman, and, based on his evidence, an arrest order went out for the Chin. He didn’t turn up. Informer Joe Valachi later reported, “The Chin was just taken somewhere up in the country to lose some weight.” When fat camp adjourned, Gigante came in and surrendered, claiming he’d just heard the cops were looking for him.
It was a slim, trim Gigante who sat in the courtroom on trial for attempted murder. There wasn’t much of a case against him. The doorman now wouldn’t or couldn’t identify him as the gunman. When Costello was put on the stand, Gigante’s lawyer, Maurice Edelbaum, a noted and high-priced criminal attorney, conducted his interrogation on the absolute assumption that Costello would refuse to identify his client.
Edelbaum treated Costello harshly, reviewing all the Kefauver Committee’s revelations about him and inferring that anyone who tried to kill Costello would be doing the community a favor. The lawyer then had Costello put on his glasses and study Gigante carefully. Costello did so and then swore that he had never seen Gigante in his life. Next Edelbaum leaned toward the witness and thundered, “You know who shot you. You know who pulled the trigger that night. Why don’t you tell the jury who it was?”
Costello said nothing. Later Edelbaum informed a friend, “I would have dropped dead if he answered.”
The jury acquitted Gigante.
Gigante rejoined the Genovese forces while the powerful New York Mafia split into two camps. On the one side stood Genovese and his supporters seeking control of the city’s most powerful crime family, and on the other side, the aging Costello, who was also being harassed by federal officials, the deported Lucky Luciano and the crafty Meyer Lansky. On the surface, an agreement was reached that brought peace. Genovese agreed that Costello would retire, but be allowed to maintain his racket revenues. Costello and his friends agreed to the arrangement, and, apparently to show good will, the Chin was even invited to a number of Costello parties.
However, behind the scenes the double-dealing continued. Carlo Gambino, who had joined forces with Genovese to kill off Costello supporter Albert Anastasia, now secretly switched sides, having achieved his goal of leadership of the Anastasia crime family. The Costello-Luciano-Lansky-Gambino forces concocted a frame that would deliver Genovese to federal authorities on a narcotics rap. Part of the deal called for each of the four to contribute $25,000 apiece to a fund to bribe a minor dope pusher, Nelson Cantellops, to implicate Genovese. Costello, for his $25,000, insisted that the Chin had to be included among those caught in the net. It was a favor the others willingly granted. The plot worked to perfection, and, in 1959, Genovese got 15 years imprisonment, and 24 of his aides also drew long terms. The Chin got seven years.
In the 1970s the Chin was back in the fold. Later, according to some printed accounts, he suffered from a mental ailment and frequently regressed to childhood. Other reports claimed that he had actually risen to the rank of consigliere in the crime family under Frank Tieri (all of which tells volumes about the overall intelligence frequently available about the Mafia). In fact in 1987 with the conviction of Fat Tony Salerno, Gigante was named acting boss, this despite the fact that he sometimes walked on the street in Little Italy in his bathrobe, mumbling incoherently. Both the family soldiers and the police saw this behavior as a dodge to avoid possible future prosecution. Under Gigante the Genovese family became once more the most powerful of all, eclipsing the Gambino family under John Gotti, with whom he had a running battle for power. Eventually Gigante’s “dummy act,” collapsed under attack by federal prosecutors, and in December 1997 he was sent to prison for 12 years, making it unlikely at his age that he would resume control of his family, presuming of course that he survived his term.
In 2003, after years of his “dummy act,” Gigante finally confessed he had long faked symptoms of mental illness. This followed an extended campaign by prosecutors to demonstrate how Gigante had conned judges and mental experts with his slobbering, muttering, and wandering about Manhattan in his bedclothes. In the process Gigante had fooled some of the most respected minds in forensic psychiatry and neuropsychology—in one case alone a prominent Harvard psychiatrist, five past presidents of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, and the man who invented the standard test for malingering. What apparently threw off some experts, as one put it, was that Gigante could be both mentally ill and a malingerer. In all, no less than 34 experts were convinced Gigante was not faking and was not capable of taking part in various legal hearings. The broad assessment was that in the matter of mental illness versus malingering doctors were convinced by Gigante’s act. The evidence was not supportive of any other diagnosis. Besides dementia, additional diagnoses included various forms of schizophrenia and other serious mental disorders.
Gigante finally gave up his pose when prosecutors threatened to go after relatives who supported his claim of incompetence. For many years prosecutors indicated that they believed and said they could prove that Gigante’s brother, the Reverend Louis Gigante, a noted worker with the poor, who had long championed his brother’s condition, was himself a made member of the Mafia. It was a sort of charge that the government was hardly likely to pursue, with the headlines and public outcry that might ensue. It was now said that the Chin wanted that stopped for sure. There could be yet another reason for Gigante to throw in the towel. As it was he was not likely to get out until 2007, so he might as well take a short additional sentence to wipe the slate clean. In a deal with prosecutors Gigante pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice with the concurrence of the judge so that he would be eligible for release in 2010.
Most Mafia watchers thought it rather silly that Gigante might come out and try to pick up his rule of the Genovese family when he would be in his mid- 80s and other leaders would not be likely to cede power back to him. It would be a unique situation with mobsters referring to scientific findings and declaring the Chin was “crazy as a bedbug” and not to be trusted to keep mob secrets. It would be the same situation that had occurred decades earlier when the mentally impaired Al Capone was released and never considered likely to return to power. As Greasy Thumb Guzik put it, not unkindly, “Al is nutty as a fruitcake.” Capone never was capable of even trying to come back. Would an aging Gigante try? As one law official said, “We’d have a genuine case of the ‘bedbug wars.’”