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by Marilyn Bardsley
It was early evening on December 16, 1985. The sidewalks were jammed with people who had just flooded out of the many office buildings around East 46th Street between Second and Third Avenue. Some rushed home from work, eager to get out of the wintry gloom; others were lured by the strings of brightly colored lights into the stores for some Christmas shopping.
There in the midst of the mid-town bustle on 46th was an elegant steakhouse called Sparks whose clientele were businessmen and diplomats from the United Nations buildings a few blocks away.
In the vicinity of the restaurant, several men dressed alike in fur cossack hats and trench coats loitered on both sides of the street. Several other men also positioned themselves around the restaurant carefully, so they would not be noticed in the throngs of rush-hour pedestrians.
Soon a big Lincoln with two men inside pulled up in front of the restaurant. The driver shut off the engine and hurried around the side of the car to open the door for the older man, but the older man was in too much of a hurry and opened the door himself. The older man, after all, was Paul Castellano, the Boss of the famous Gambino family. His driver was his newly appointed under boss and favorite, Tommy Bilotti.
The two Cosa Nostra executives were a bit late for an important dinner meeting with some of the other under bosses and Tommy Gambino, the wealthy son of the late Carlo Gambino and nephew of Carlo’s successor, Paul Castellano. Inside the restaurant three of the guests were already waiting for Castellano and Bilotti.
Once the two men in the Lincoln had cleared the car, the shooting began. Two of the men in fur hats and raincoats rushed at Castellano with revolvers in their hands. Castellano immediately took several bullets in the head and one in the chest. Blood oozed out of him and he slumped to the ground.
Bilotti got four bullets in the head and another four in the chest. He too slumped to the ground, already dead. One of the shooters came around to the fallen Castellano and exploded a bullet at close range in the Boss’s skull.
Terrified pedestrians scattered every which way, while the shooters escaped along their pre-arranged routes. In moments, another Lincoln carrying two men passed by Sparks to survey the results of the carefully executed plan. John Gotti and his colleague Sammy the Bull Gravano and the conspiratorial group of ten men called the Fist had pulled off the first major gangland assassination since Albert Anastasia had been hit in 1957. In the next few days all New Yorkers and much of the rest of the world would know the name John Gotti as he skyrocketed to fame as the daring new head of the Gambino crime family.
If ever there was an incubator for crime it was the Italian Harlem tenements of the South Bronx. In one of those crowded dirty apartments, a young John Gotti eked out an impoverished existence with his parents and eleven sisters and brothers. His father rarely worked and then, only at menial jobs, risking the little money the family had by gambling.
Eventually the family moved to central Brooklyn, which was known as East New York. In East New York, for a poor boy like John Gotti with nothing in the way of prospects, the Cosa Nostra represented something to which he could realistic aspire to gain the power and respect he craved.
He started as many young boys did, running errands for the gangsters, molding himself into a young bully with a future. His first major incident with the police occurred when he tried to steal a cement mixer and it fell on his feet, an injury that affected his gait for the rest of his life.
He quit school at sixteen and rose to leadership in a local street gang of thieves called the Fulton-Rockaway Boys, named after two streets in their neighborhood. At an early age he exerted his bad temper, dominance and readiness to engage in fistfights. These were just the right characteristics to develop his potential as a Mafia boss.
A couple of these Fulton-Rockaway boys would follow him for the rest of his career as loyal soldiers. One was Angelo Ruggiero and another was Wilfred Willie Boy Johnson, an amateur boxer of American Indian descent.
In 1962, when Gotti was 22, he married Vicky DiGorgio whose hot temper matched his own. It was hardly a shotgun marriage since the first child from their union was born in 1961. It was a tumultuous marriage marred by constant fighting. She made it clear to him and others that she disapproved of his life of crime and the hours he spent away from home drinking and gambling. Things got so bad that at point she went on welfare and took him to court for nonsupport.
In spite of this marital disharmony, they had four more children. Their relationship eventually settled down as each developed separate pursuits. Vicky became addicted to soap operas and John to gambling and pretty girls.
John Gotti speaks to a soldier while Angelo Ruggiero (right) listens.In the mid-1960’s, Gotti’s boss Carmine Fatico moved his headquarters out to Ozone Park near JFK Airport. Gotti, his brothers, Angelo and Willie Boy became relatively successful hijackers. That is, until they got caught in 1968 and landed in prison.
In 1972, when Gotti got out of prison and went back to Ozone Park, the headquarters had been imaginatively renamed the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club. Two important things happened in his life to significantly lift his status in the Cosa Nostra. The first was that his boss Carmine Fatico faced a loansharking indictment, so Gotti became Fatico’s man on the street to keep him informed about what was happening at a grass-roots level. The second was that Gotti met Neil Dellacroce, an important under boss to Carl Gambino. Neil accomplished Carlo’s violent dirty work from a headquarters in Little Italy’s Mulberry Street called the Ravenite Social Club.
Neil, who was disappointed that his only son Armond became a drug addict, saw in Gotti a young protege who was a younger version of his own violent, macho self. Like Gotti, he had a weakness for gambling and one such episode got him in trouble with the IRS. Neil ended up in jail for at least a year.
Aneillo (Neil) Dellacroce, the Gambino family underboss who was John Gotti’s mentor.With both Fatico and Dellacroce in the slammer, John Gotti was handed a lot of new responsibilities. For one thing, he gained incredible visibility by reporting directly to Carlo Gambino while Fatico was in jail. Before that opportunity, Carlo did not particularly value Gotti’s crowd in Ozone Park. To the sophisticated Carlo, they were just a bunch of hotheaded thugs. This was a chance for Gotti to show himself in a different light.
Gotti brought home to the Ozone Park crowd Carlo’s prohibition on drug dealing. But the warnings fell on deaf ears. Many of the men very close to Gotti were dealing and using heroin and cocaine. But Gotti kept the faith by warning them: “If you’re dealin,’ you’re ——’playin’ with fire, and if you get caught, you’re ——’ dead.”
Through Neil Dellacroce, Gotti and his Ozone Park boys had a chance to vastly improve their status under Carlo. Carlo had lost a nephew in 1973 to a kidnapper who collected the $100K ransom and then murdered the boy. Gotti was given the opportunity to get revenge for Carlo.
Carlo Gambino, the family partriach.
The kidnapper was a man named James McBratney. Gotti, Angelo Ruggiero and another one of the Bergin soldiers dressed up as cops and shot McBratney is a pub in front of several witnesses. Angelo was arrested first and later, the police also arrested Gotti for the murder.
Fortunately for Gotti, Carlo gave the McBratney case to his talented lawyer Roy Cohn who was able to get the charge reduced to manslaughter. While Gotti was in jail in 1976, Carlo Gambino had a heart attack and was dying. Carlo made a decision that was to create problems for the crime family for almost a decade-he named his brother-in-law Paul Castellano as his successor.
Castellano was not respected and admired like Carlo. Perhaps his insecurity caused him to keep Neil as his under boss in charge of all of the more violent activities, such as hijacking. While Paul would focus the family efforts on the more sophisticated criminal activities like union rackets and bid-rigging in construction projects.
This decision created two separate branches of the Gambino family: Paul’s branch and Neil’s branch. The schism did nothing to strengthen the family and ultimately brought about the assassination of Paul in 1985, when after Neil’s death, Paul sought to demote Gotti and his men and promote his own favorites.
SAMMY THE BULL
While John Gotti was climbing up the ranks in Neil’s branch of the Gambino family, Sammy Gravano was distinguishing himself in Paul’s branch. In many ways his life was similar to Gotti’s and other ways quite different.
Sammy was born in the mid-1940’s to Gerardo and Katarina Gravano of Brooklyn. Unlike Gotti, he was not born into poverty. His father owned a dress factory and made a good living for his family. They had solid middle class expectations for him and invested some attention and discipline in him.
Unfortunately, Sammy did not rise to their expectations and did poorly at school. They did not understand it at the time, but Sammy suffered from dyslexia, which made schoolwork difficult for him. School was also an ordeal for him because he was small in stature and couldn’t hold his own with the kids his age. After Sammy failed eighth grade, he was sent to a special school for kids with learning problems, but he didn’t like it and dropped out of school the next year.
A youthful Sammy Gravano.
He started to hang around with the wrong friends and got into trouble. Stealing turned into car theft and finally into armed robbery and he was only sixteen. Finally he did get caught and had the choice of going to the Army or going to jail. He took the Army.
For two years he stayed out of trouble and was honorably discharged from the Army. He was fortunate to have never been sent over to Vietnam. He went to work in the construction trades with his brother-in-law Edward Garafola.
You couldn’t stay alive being a criminal in Brooklyn without mob connections, so when Sammy decided to concentrate less on construction and more on robbery, he had to get himself “mobbed up.” A buddy of his got him into a gang of burglars headed by a man named Shorty with associations to the Colombo crime family.
By that time, Sammy wasn’t the lightweight that he had been in school. While only 5 feet 5 inches tall, he built up his body with weights and steroids. He was a strong man now, strong as a bull.
Shorty asked Sammy for a favor. He wanted Sammy to kill an enemy of his. Sammy said yes and did it competently and professionally. This got him some attention from the big guys in the family.
At this point in his life he married Debra Scibetta. Unlike the Gotti’s, they got along well and produced two children. But then, Sammy was not a man to go out gambling, drinking and looking for girls every night. He was a family man.
Because of the jealousy of one of the members of the Colombo family, Sammy was released from that family to go to work for Salvatore Toddo Aurello, a capo (boss) in the Gambino family. This was a lucky move for Sammy because Toddo made Sammy his protege, much like Neil Dellacroce did for Gotti.
Through Toddo, Sammy was able to cultivate another important boss, Frank DeCicco, a clever man who was one of the few who could stay on good terms with both the Neil side of the family and the Paul side.
Sammy and Debra with daughter Karen and son Gerard.
Sammy also met John Gotti who was very different in style to Sammy. Gotti dressed flamboyantly in very expensive suits with elaborate silk ties, while Sammy was comfortable in jeans and a leather jacket. Gotti was loud and overbearing, Sammy was just the opposite.
Sammy was becoming distinguished by his earning ability. He used the money he made in one enterprise to invest in other businesses. He quietly owned interests in nightclubs, restaurants and bars, as well as construction companies. In 1977, he was finally “made,” the term used for formal induction into the Cosa Nostra.
Sammy was tested when he was told about the impending murder of his brother-in-law Nicky Scibetta for dealing and taking drugs. When they found parts of Nicky’s dismembered body in a dumpster, Sammy went through all of the proper motions of an aggrieved brother-in-law. Practiced in deceit, he went to Nicky’s wake, funeral and burial and mourned with his wife the loss of her brother.
By 1983, Sammy’s careful investments and ability to play by Cosa Nostra rules made him into one of Paul’s most powerful men. He was in fact essentially running all of Toddo’s operations on a daily basis and he was only 38 years old.
The assassination of Paul Castellano was a brilliant coup on the part of Gotti, not just in the way the ambush was executed, but also in the preparation of the Gambino family and other crime families for the event itself.
When John Gotti made his decision that he was going to eliminate Paul, he determined who he would recruit to join him in the conspiracy that was ultimately called the Fist. Gotti had to be very careful, because if in trying to recruit other key members of the Gambino family, word got back to Paul, Gotti himself would be sanctioned and executed.
First Sammy was approached, not by Gotti directly, but by Angelo. Sammy realized that Castellano would never survive an all out war with the Bergin crew. Sammy, in spite of his “by the-rules” approach to most things, understood that Paul was not leading the family in the right direction. By Gotti’s invitation to Sammy to join up with him, Gotti was signaling that he wanted to unify the family again and heal the schism that had broken the family into two camps. Sammy was behind the idea of new leadership of a unified family.
Sammy told Angelo that he would see how DeCicco and Robert DiBernardo would react to such a proposal before he made a firm commitment. After DeCicco agreed, the three key players were committed: Gotti, Gravano and DeCicco. DiBernardo, a very rich and influential man with strong Teamster connections, signed on shortly afterwards.
Now Gotti needed someone of the older generation, a traditional capo in the family. ? Joseph Armone fit the bill. By getting Armone to join the Fist, they reduced the possibility of a civil war within the family.
Gotti and his co-conspirators knew that they had to lay the groundwork for their plan well beyond the Gambino family. In Jerry Capeci and Gene Mustain’s book Gotti: Rise and Fall the strategy is described:
Members of the Fist contacted influential men in three other Cosa Nostra families -Luchese, Colombo, and Bonanno — and asked for support if? “something happened” to Paul. They approached men they regarded as the next generation of leaders, because most of the current leaders had fallen victim to the RICO (racketeering law) sword and were awaiting trial and facing life in prison without parole. For obvious reasons, Paul’s friend Chin Gigante was not contacted.
On the day of Paul Castellano’s assassination, DeCicco carried on some important political preparations. He went to the Sparks restaurant to make sure that the other capos there did not think that their lives were endangered and to do his best to prevent them from taking any retaliatory action against whoever they thought was responsible.
A couple of days after Paul’s death, elderly consigliere Joe Gallo called a meeting of all the Gambino family capos at a restaurant owned by Gravano. Gallo had already warned Gotti that his contacts with the younger leadership of the other families didn’t count. ? Only the Cosa Nostra Commission could have a leader removed. Consequently, Gotti and the Fist must never admit what they did, regardless of what conclusions were reached by other Gambino family members or other crime family members.
Capeci and Mustain captured the spirit of the dialogue:
“It’s terrible, what’s happened,” Gallo began. “But we don’t know who killed Paul, we’re investigatin’. Nobody feels worse for Paul’s and Tommy’s families than me. But we’re a family too and we have to stay strong. So that’s why we called you here.
None of the captains believed him, of course. But the armed sentries and seating arrangements made reassurance more important than truth.? Nobody had any questions about the murders; Gallo, speaking for Gotti, gave them the only answers they wanted.
The other Cosa Nostra families were given the same message and did not threaten any trouble. The sole exception was Chin Gigante, the boss of the Genovese family who reminded the Gambino capos that eventually someone would have to pay for breaking the Commission rules.
When the Gambino capos met again before the end of the year, John Gotti was formally elected boss of the family.? Fist co-conspirator Frank DeCicco made his nomination.
As a student of Machiavelli, Gotti had a good sense of who in his organization to put into positions of power. DeCicco became his under boss and he made Angelo head of the Bergin crew. Sammy officially took over all of Toddo’s operations. Sammy was a very powerful man, but he preferred to remain a shadowy background figure, while Gotti and DeCicco visibly ran the show.? Joseph Armone, the elderly capo who had become a member of the Fist, was given new sources of income. And consigliere Joe Gallo remained in his position under Gotti as he had under Paul Castellano.
Most importantly, Gotti understood the value of public relations. Unlike his predecessor and some of the other family bosses, Gotti realized that favorable publicity would enhance his standing with other Cosa Nostra families, with the members of his own family, and, very importantly, with potential jurors and witnesses. By charming the media, he was able to create a public image of himself as a legendary, almost heroic rogue. Yes, he was a gangster. That could not be denied. But to the public he was a popular and likeable guy — the way Al Capone was revered on the streets of Chicago in 1930. Gotti was very media astute, a fact which confounded his enemies in law enforcement.
WITNESS INTIMIDATION 101
Despite John Gotti’s love affair with the media, occasionally the real man, a hotheaded bully, showed through the charming veneer. An excellent example was the incident with the refrigerator mechanic Romual Piecyk. Before Gotti became boss of the Gambino family, he was involved in a fight with the man outside the Cozy Corner Bar, one of his hangouts. He got annoyed at Piecyk for laying on the horn of his car outside of the bar and punched the man in the face. Then Gotti’s buddy reached in the mechanic’s pocket and took out the $325 that constituted his week’s earnings. Piecyk called the police and Gotti was arrested like a street criminal.
Later Piecyk worked with the DA to get Gotti indicted before a grand jury. When he saw all the publicity on Gotti after the Castellano assassination, Piecyk began to be concerned. He was being followed, harassed and endangered. Someone had even ruined the brakes on his truck.
Intimidation worked well. Piecyk was justifiably frightened. From his hideout, he wrote to his wife “I feel I have been lied to by the laws that are supposed to protect us. I have been a pawn in the power game between the government and the mob…I can’t and will not live the rest of my life in fear.” He decided to appear at the trial on Gotti’s side: “I’m not going to go against Mr. Gotti. I’m going in his behalf. I don’t want to hurt Mr. Gotti.”
It was interesting what the jury finally heard about the incident from Gotti’s attorney: Piecyk was the drunken aggressor, not Gotti, who only tried to protect Gotti’s friend from Piecyk’s violent behavior.
When asked to tell the jury about the men who assaulted him, Piecyk had amnesia: “To be perfectly honest, it was so long ago, I don’t remember…who slapped me. I have no recollection of what the two men looked like or how they were dressed.”"Not surprisingly, the case was dismissed.
Gotti loved the media coverage of this trial. It made him feel very powerful. What better way of dramatizing to the public that “nobody bettter mess with Gotti. “He never gave a thought to how this trial might boomerang on him later on.
Gotti had lulled himself into thinking that his handling of Paul’s assassination precluded any retaliation by members of the Gambino and other Cosa Nostra families. In reality, Vincent (The Chin) Gigante, the highly eccentric boss of the Genovese family, began to plot revenge for his friend Paul immediately after his death.
Chin Gigante walked around the streets of New York City in his bathrobe and slippers muttering to himself. Allegedly this behavior was prompted by the belief that if the FBI thought he was crazy or senile, it would provide him a good defense in court.
Gigante was one of the Cosa Nostra’s old guard. He and the late Paul Castellano represented a set of old and inflexible rules. When the brass young Gotti killed Gigante’s friend, “illegally” according to Cosa Nostra traditions, and usurped his place as boss, Gigante felt that he had to punish Gotti and his under boss for their crimes. If such crimes went unpunished, they would be repeated and would threaten the whole traditional fabric of the organization. Gigante limited the punishment to the taking out of one boss (Gotti) and his under boss (DeCicco), as quid pro quo for the assassination of Castellano and his under boss Bilotti.
Vincent (Chin) Gigante, crazy-like-a-fox Genovese boss and deadly enemy of John Gotti
Gigante approached two of the Gambino capos to get their support. Daniel Marino and James Failla were both Paul Castellano loyalists. If they supported Gigante’s plot, Failla would be rewarded by being the new boss and Marino would be the new under boss. They both bought into The Chin’s plan, but did not have any role in carrying out the plot.
Gigante selected Anthony Casso, an accomplished assassin from the Luchese family, to handle the execution of Gotti and DeCicco. The instrument was a remote-controlled car bomb placed in DeCicco’s car outside a restaurant in which DeCicco and Gotti were supposed to be meeting. At the last minute, Gotti changed plans and told DeCicco to meet him in New York City.
When DeCicco and his soldier, who had gray hair like Gotti, opened DeCicco’s car, the man who had been watching them gave the order and the car blew up, killing DeCicco and badly injuring the soldier.
Gotti was shaken by the assassination of his next in command and his own narrow escape from the “justice” of the Cosa Nostra. However, he was a good enough leader to understand how to respond. Everyone in the Gambino family was required to attend the wake. He told them, “Who the —- did it, they got to know we ain’t afraid. They wanna play some more, let ‘em ——’ try some more. We gotta be strong against people who are strong.”
Gotti put Sammy Gravano in charge of investigating the car bomb, but Sammy never did get a lead on who was responsible. Apparently, Gotti did not particularly suspect Chin, at that time since Chin was known to be against the use of car bombs.
The bombed car of under boss Frank DeCicco.
But, Chin Gigante didn’t give up. He planned another assassination attempt on Gotti. However, one of the FBI’s bugs picked up the entire plan. In a highly controversial decision, Bruce Mouw of the FBI dispatched one of his agents to warn Gotti. Gotti’s first reaction to this information, after the agent had left, was to order Chin’s assassination. However, he settled for the killing of Chin’s under boss. Chin got the message and the two men decided to resolve their differences peacefully from that point on.
RICO was an acronym for the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. RICO had been law since 1970, but its powers were never fully utilized until the Justice Department under Ronald Reagan began its concerted assault on organized crime. RICO changed the focus from prosecuting individual criminals to prosecuting individuals who committed crimes which benefited “corrupt” organizations -such as crime families.
Capeci and Mustain describe the impact of this powerful tool for prosecutors:
RICO introduced two new concepts: “criminal enterprise” and “pattern of racketeering.” A criminal enterprise was any group “associated in fact” whose members committed crimes for group purposes. A racketeering pattern was two or more violations of state and federal laws regarding murder, kidnapping, hijacking, extortion, fraud and twenty-seven other crimes.
The penalty for a RICO conviction – up to twenty years in prison for each count – was much more severe than most of those provided under the state and federal laws covering the crimes that a prosecutor could allege as part of the pattern of racketeering.
Another RICO provision was especially ominous to defendants like Gotti. It permitted prosecutors to charge crimes for which a defendant had already been convicted and punished in state court – on the theory that the enterprise nature of the crime had gone unpunished.
This statue was not good news for Gotti, considering his prior convictions for attempted manslaughter and hijacking, all of which could be fit into a framework of racketeering on behalf of a criminal enterprise. Armond Dellacroce had already admitted to the existence of that criminal enterprise -the Bergin crew of the Gambino family – when he was busted for drugs.
Diane Giacalone, the U.S. attorney preparing the federal racketeering case against Gotti was very concerned that he would intimidate witnesses in her case the same way he intimidated Romual Piecyk. Using the Piecyk experience, she was able to get Gotti’s bail revoked and he went back to prison to await his court date on RICO charges some ten months later.
A breakdown in the working relationship between two of the federal groups pursuing Gotti doomed Giacalone’s case even before it went to trial, but she didn’t know it.
Bruce Mouw, who was heading up the FBI’s campaign against Gotti, received a crucial bit on intelligence through one of his informers, a mistress of one of Gotti’s capos. She found out from her boyfriend that the reason that Gotti was so confident about being acquitted is that he had bought off one of the jurors. This particular juror was subsequently elected foreman.
Mouw did nothing about this information and predictably, Gotti was acquitted. Later, when the story came out, Mouw was harshly criticized for withholding the information about the juror. Had Giacalone known about this, a mistrial could have been forced and a new jury selected.
John Gotti confident in court.
Howard Blum in his book Gangland: How the FBI Broke the Mob describes how Mouw’s hands were tied:
How could he announce he had learned a juror had been bribed without revealing his source? Giacalone had already demonstrated her willingness to sacrifice informants (she had not protected Gotti’s old time friend Willie Boy Johnson’s identity as an informant). Who could guarantee that she would not reveal… (the informant’s name) in open court? An extremely productive source of information on the Gambinos would be shut off, and a life would be put in jeopardy. Operationally and morally, Mouw had no choice but to keep his peace.
So with the help of the government, John Gotti beat the government’s case. If ever Gotti needed a boost to his ego and prestige, this was it. A few months later, he celebrated his triumph by giving a huge July 4th party in Ozone Park with free food and enormous fireworks display. Echoes of Al Capone’s gifts to the neighborhood, which made both gangsters into local folk heroes.
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