The Young Mafiosi Against The Old Mustache Petes
On April 15, 1931, gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano invited his boss Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria to lunch at Nuova Villa Tammaro in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Masseria ate well that day, ordering veal, linguini, and red wine, and after the meal he and his trusted lieutenant whiled away the afternoon playing cards. It was a welcome break for Masseria from the tensions of what would become known as the Castellammarese War.
In 1913, Masseria had ruthlessly taken over the Morello Gang, New York ‘s first major Mafia family. Short, stocky, and cold-blooded, Masseria insisted that his underlings call him “Joe the Boss,” but he was hardly a beloved leader. Like Nick Morello before him, he was an old-school “Mustache Pete,” who ruled with an iron fist and always took the biggest piece of the pie for himself. But in the late 1920s, newly arrived immigrants from the Sicilian town Castellammare del Golfo challenged his control of the New York rackets. Salvatore Maranzano emerged as the boss of these newcomers and thus became Masseria’s arch foe. Maranzano’s organization established its headquarters in Brooklyn and set up outposts in Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit.
In New York, gangsters were forced to take sides. Either they were with Masseria or Maranzano. Neutrality wasn’t an option. Masseria had his “young Turks:” Lucky Luciano, Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese, Frank Costello, Joe Adonis, Willie Moretti, and Carlo Gambino. Maranzano could count on Joe Magliocco, Joe Bonanno, and Joe Profaci as well as “secret defectors” from Masseria’s camp, Tommy Lucchese and Tommy Gagliano.
Maranzano was as much a stern “Mustache Pete” as Masseria, and privately the young Turks wished both bosses would go back to Italy. They felt handcuffed by the old-timers’ insistence on tradition and impoverished by their bosses’ greed. They watched jealously as their rival Irish and Jewish gangs grew fat on the spoils of their wide-ranging criminal activities. Finally fed up, the young Turks secretly formed a third faction, led by Lucky Luciano, who had been running his own rackets behind Masseria’s back with Jewish hoodlums Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, both of whom the anti-Semitic Masseria despised.
On that spring day at the Coney Island restaurant, Masseria and Luciano played hand after hand. The usually suspicious Masseria relaxed and enjoyed himself. As the afternoon shadows grew longer along the boardwalk, Luciano put his cards face down on the table and excused himself. He had to go to the bathroom, he told his boss. Masseria watched him head toward the rear of the restaurant. As soon as Luciano was out of sight, four men came in through the front door—Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese, Joe Adonis, and Bugsy Siegel. They each pulled out a gun and opened fire on the startled Masseria who took six shots and died on the spot. Luciano came out of the bathroom, looked down at the slain boss, and nodded approvingly to the hit team.
When word of Masseria’s murder got out, Luciano brokered a truce with Salvatore Maranzano, who declared himself the Boss of Bosses. The Castellammarese War was over.
But Maranzano’s reign was short. A few months after Masseria’s death, Luciano struck again. According to John H. Davis in his bookMafia Dynasty, four hired guns from the Lansky-Siegel gang wearing treasury agent uniforms went to Maranzano’s office where the boss was expecting a surprise audit from the IRS. As Tommy Lucchese, who was in on the plot, kept Maranzano busy in the inner office, the killers disarmed his bodyguards in the waiting room. Two of the hit men held the guards at gunpoint while “the other two burst into Maranzano’s office and shot and stabbed him to death.”
With the dominant “Mustache Petes” now out of the way, New York was ready to realize Luciano’s dream, a new national syndicate that would encourage cooperation among gangs regardless of ethnic origin. Lucky Luciano would bring the Mafia into the modern age, putting the group into organized crime. Out of the ruins of the Masseria and Maranzano gangs would emerge the Five Families of New York. One of the most powerful would become known as the Gambino Family.
The Mad Hatter Anastasia
After the murders of Masseria and Maranzano, one old-school Mafioso managed to survive the purge and thrive among the young Turks: Vincent Mangano. Though he was included in Lucky Luciano’s plans to remodel organized crime in America, he still retained many of his old-world ways. He was tolerated because of his close association with Emil Camarda, vice-president of the International Longshoremen’s Association, which gave Mangano tight control of rackets on the docks. Mangano and Camarda established the City Democratic Club, which promoted bedrock American values in the front room, while illegal activities were hatched in the backroom. It became a regular meeting place for the members of Murder, Inc., the infamous gang of assassins who were mostly Jewish and who, for a price, did the bidding of the Italian mobsters. Mangano’s cutthroat brother Philip frequented the club as did Albert Anastasia, the brutal, hot-headed mobster who was also known as the “Mad Hatter,” “Il Terremoto” (the Earthquake), and the “Lord High Executioner” of Murder, Inc. Of all the killers in that elite group, Anastasia was the most feared, and for good reason.
Anastasia had been “close to some thirty assassinations with gun and ice pick and strangling rope, either in person or by direction,” write Burton B. Turkus and Sid Feder in Murder, Inc. “The killings claimed by the torpedoes of the troop he commanded ran well into three figures.” Though formally aligned with the Mangano family, Anastasia preferred the company of gangsters from other families, particularly Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Louis Lepke, which didn’t sit well with Vincent Mangano. Over the years, Anastasia’s relationship with his boss deteriorated to the point where they nearly came to blows on several occasions and had to be physically separated.
Amazingly the two men coexisted within the same criminal organization for almost 20 years before the Lord High Executioner finally had enough. Anastasia’s first move was against Vincent’s vicious brother, Philip, who was shot symmetrically in each cheek and the back of the head. On April 19, 1951, Philip’s body was found in the wetlands of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, fully dressed except for his pants. At about the same time, Vincent Mangano was reported missing. He was never found, and it was just assumed that he had met a fate similar to his brother’s.
It was assumed Anastasia was behind the rubout of the Mangano brothers, and he was called on the carpet by the other New York bosses. Anastasia never admitted to having any part of the murders, but he did tell the bosses that Vince Mangano had put out a contract on his head before he disappeared, which was confirmed by Anastasia’s pal Frank Costello. Anastasia, who was already running the Mangano organization as his own, was too powerful—and too crazy—to be denied. The New York bosses formally agreed that he should be the new boss of the Mangano family.
Anastasia now had control of a large portion of the Brooklyn waterfront. Besides having his family’s “muscle” behind him, he was also one of the overseers of Murder Inc., the new national crime syndicate’s lethal enforcement squad. Made up of seasoned killers from various ethnic gangs, Murder Inc.’s mandate was to carry out hits strictly for “business” reasons since making money was the syndicate’s sole purpose. But with kill-crazy Anastasia at the helm, rival gangsters were usually careful not to offend him on any level.
Anastasia was such a powerful force that Frank Costello crossed family lines and formed an alliance with the Mad Hatter to provide protection. Costello, who was running the Luciano (later called the Genovese) Family while Lucky was in prison and later deported, was known as the Prime Minister of the Underworld for his unique ability to broker lucrative deals. He was an executive gangster who had initially depended on New Jersey mobster Willie Moretti to back him up with a force of over 50 loyal soldiers. But when an untreated syphilis infection began to take Moretti’s mind, Vito Genovese, who was angling to take over the Luciano Family, proposed to the commission that Moretti be taken out of his misery before he inadvertently started revealing mob secrets. Three, possibly four, gunmen shot down Moretti on October 4, 1951, in a New Jersey restaurant. Without Moretti’s services at his disposal, Costello turned to Anastasia and his troops to back him up. Anastasia, who had always liked Costello, obliged.
Anastasia’s violent temper often got the better of him. While watching television one night in 1952, he saw an interview with a Brooklyn man named Arnold Schuster who described his experiences as a prosecution witness against famed bank robber Willie Sutton. Anastasia became enraged and shouted at the television set. “I can’t stand squealers!” he yelled and immediately arranged for a hit team to kill Schuster. Oddly, Anastasia had no connection with Willie Sutton whatsoever. He just hated “squealers.”
Schuster’s murder was a serious violation of syndicate rules. Killing civilians was strictly off limits, and the ambitious Vito Genovese leapt on this breech, declaring to the Mafia commission that Anastasia was seriously unbalanced and thus a threat to the syndicate. He knew that if Anastasia could be eliminated, Costello would lose his muscle, and he would be free to take over the Luciano family. And if the commission refused his request, Genovese had another ace up his sleeve. Anastasia had no idea that his own underboss, the wily Carlo Gambino, had secretly sided with Genovese and brought crime boss Joe Profaci (of what would eventually become known as the Colombo Family) into the plot.
The pieces were in motion. On May 2, 1957, Costello walked into his apartment building on Central Park West. He didn’t notice the black Cadillac pulling up to the curb outside. A 300-pound man lumbered out of the car, rushed into the lobby, and ducked behind a pillar as he pulled out a gun. “This is for you, Frank,” he shouted. Costello turned toward the fat man as the gun went off. The bullet grazed Costello’s scalp above the ear. The fat man ran back to the Cadillac, leaving the job unfinished. The wound was minor and Costello survived, but the incident got him to think about retirement. (The rotund shooter, who was never arrested, is reputed to be Vincent “Chin” Gigante who would lose weight and go on to become boss of the Genovese family in the late 1980s.)
On the morning of October 25, six months after the attempt on Costello’s life, Albert Anastasia sat in a barber’s chair in the Park Sheraton Hotel on Seventh Avenue, getting a trim. Two men in suits and fedoras with scarves covering their faces walked briskly into the barbershop, holding handguns down at their sides. One of them shoved Anastasia’s barber out of the way, and they both started shooting. Anastasia took several bullets but managed to get to his feet, enraged that anyone would have the audacity to try to take out the Lord High Executioner. He lunged at his attackers, but in his confusion he actually lunged at their reflections in the large mirror that covered one wall. The killers then finished him off. Anastasia lay sprawled on the floor, his blood mingling with the fallen hair clippings. The identities of the two killers were never established, but it is known that they were members of the Profaci Family. Carlo Gambino had given the contract to Joe Profaci who passed the assignment along to “Crazy Joe” Gallo and his two brothers.
With Anastasia in the grave, the way was clear for the ascendance of the namesake of the Gambino Family, the real Godfather.
The Gambino Family is Born
Carlo Gambino was a diminutive man with small eyes and a large nose. Joseph Bonanno, who was the boss of his own family, characterized Gambino “a squirrel of a man.” Unassuming in appearance, he hardly looked the part of a major-league crime boss, but in his case looks were indeed misleading. Though he eschewed ostentatious mansions, flashy cars, and sharp suits, he was perhaps the most intelligent and most powerful of any mob boss of any era. With the cunning of a fox and the stealthy bite of a viper, Carlo Gambino was in spirit a descendent of the cutthroat Borgias of the Renaissance.
With Albert Anastasia out of the way, Gambino ascended to the boss’s chair and named Aniello Dellacroce, another stone-cold killer who had been closely aligned to Anastasia, as his underboss. With Dellacroce in a position of power, Gambino was able to keep Anastasia’s loyal supporters in line.
Gambino had the rare ability to see two moves ahead and act without hesitation when he saw an advantage. When it became evident to him that the ambitious Vito Genovese was not content with control of just his own family, Gambino laid a trap for him. Genovese, who longed to be Boss of All Bosses, knew that Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, and Lucky Luciano were his enemies, but he never suspected that Gambino, who had helped him eliminate Anastasia, was secretly in league with the others. Many of the Mafia bosses staunchly opposed getting into the narcotics trade, but Genovese saw the huge profits that could be reaped from drug dealing, and he allowed it in his family. His enemies recognized an opportunity. They put together a lucrative drug deal that was too good for Genovese to pass up, then paid a Puerto Rican drug dealer $100,000 to rat on Genovese. The government chose to ignore the fact that in all probability a small-fish drug pusher wouldn’t have had access to a big-fish Mafia boss and that whatever testimony he gave would be hearsay, but they wanted Genovese so badly, they took the little fish’s testimony as gospel truth and won a conviction against Genovese that earned him a 15-year sentence.
Despite all the treachery and double-dealing Gambino used to seize power, he also knew when to make peace and forge alliances. In 1962 his son Thomas married Frances Lucchese, daughter of Tommy “Three-Finger Brown” Lucchese, who was the boss of the powerful New York family that bore his name. Like a Machiavellian prince, Gambino gave the young couple his blessing as he anticipated the benefits he would gain from a familial bond between two major crime families.
Under Gambino’s leadership, family rackets spread into new areas. Starting in the late ’50s, they engaged in large-scale drug trafficking. The Gambino and Lucchese families put a stranglehold on illegal activities at JFK International Airport, effectively boxing out all competition. Gambino bought into all kinds of legitimate businesses such as pizza parlors, meat markets, restaurants, construction companies, trucking firms, dress factories, and nightclubs, and used them as fronts to facilitate illegal operations.
Gambino increased his family’s presence in the Teamster’s Union, in Manhattan’s garment center, and in the trash disposal business in all five boroughs. He solidified the family’s control of the Brooklyn waterfront when one of his capos, Anthony Scotto, rose to power in the AFL-CIO International Longshoreman’s Association, which in the late ’70s had 100,000 members working ports from Maine to Texas. Scotto also became president of the union’s Local 1814 in Brooklyn. Many people found it hard to believe that the well-spoken, college-educated Scotto was a member of the Mafia, and his close ties with elected officials helped him maintain his respectable image. He raised money for New York Gov. Hugh L. Carey’s reelection bid in 1978 and for Lt. Gov. Mario Cuomo’s unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City in 1977. When Scotto was brought to trial for taking cash payoffs from waterfront businesses, no less than Gov. Carey and two former New York mayors, John Lindsay and Robert Wagner, testified on his behalf. Scotto was ultimately convicted, but the judge imposed a light sentence after receiving pleas for leniency from a number of prominent people in labor, business, and politics.
Carlo Gambino also had a gift for making lemonade out of bitter lemons. In the early ’60s, Joe Bonanno and Joe Mogliocco, the newly appointed boss of the Profaci Family, felt that they were being pushed around by the more powerful bosses, so they hatched a plot to level the underworld playing field by secretly putting out contracts on the lives of Gambino and Tommy Lucchese as well as the bosses of Buffalo and Los Angeles. The contract was given to Profaci Family hitman Joe Colombo, who suddenly saw an opportunity to better his own situation. Colombo informed the intended victims of the plot, and they in turn went to the Mafia commission for justice. The commission ruled that the elderly Mogliocco could live if he retired. Bonanno defied the commission and as a result was kidnapped and held captive until he agreed to give up complete control of his family and retire to Arizona. The commission rewarded hitman Colombo with Mogliocco’s former position as head of the family that would eventually take Colombo’s name. But Colombo was widely regarded as unfit for the job and overly dependent on Gambino’s advice.
In 1967, when an ailing Tommy Lucchese stepped aside and appointed Carmine Tramunti to take over as boss of his family, Gambino supported the new boss who was really no more than a figurehead and once again pulled the strings from behind the curtain. As the war in Vietnam was raging and student protesters rioted on campuses across America, Carlo Gambino had firm and comfortable hold in his own family and considerable influence over two other families.
Gambino’s health began to fail in the 1970s, and as time passed, he was seen in public less and less. He nevertheless maintained tight control over his family, running his rackets from his retreat in Massapequa, Long Island. In his final years he anointed his own successor, his cousin and brother-in-law Paul Castellano, which angered the traditionalists in the family who felt that underboss Aniello Dellacroce was the obvious choice.
As Joseph Coffey and Jerry Schmetterer write in The Coffey Files: One Cop’s War Against the Mob, “the general opinion of Castellano was the he was selfish, greedy, and not as smart as he liked people to believe. Dellacroce,” they argued, “was the real brains of the family.” But Dellacroce was a traditionalist, and he wouldn’t challenge a boss’s decision. Dellacroce’s supporters simmered, unhappy with Gambino’s choice.
A man who was staunchly loyal to Dellacroce was part of an incident in 1972 that would have major repercussions years later. Carlo Gambino’s nephew, Manny Gambino, was kidnapped and held for a $350,000 ransom, which the boss paid in part. The kidnappers reneged on the deal and killed Manny, burying his body in a New Jersey landfill. The boss wanted revenge, and the family assembled a list of likely suspects, one of them was James McBratney, who had a history of kidnapping wiseguys for profit. In truth, McBratney had nothing to do with the incident. Nevertheless three Gambino soldiers cornered him in a Staten Island bar and killed him for the crime. One of the three executioners was John Gotti, who was convicted for the crime. Upon his release from prison he was made a capo for his good deed. Gotti would go on to become one of Dellacroce’s most powerful supporters, and after Dellacroce’s death, he would become boss of the family. But not before the reign of “Big Paul” Castellano.
As clever and foresighted as Carlo Gambino was, he left his family divided and embittered when he died. The Gambinos had split into two camps: the Manhattan faction, which was loyal to Dellacroce, and the Brooklyn faction which sided with the new boss, Paul Castellano. “Big Paul” had thrown a bone to the Manhattan faction by keeping Dellacroce on as his underboss, but it wasn’t enough to stop the backroom grumbling. The Manhattan faction believed that Castellano wasn’t half the gangster that Dellacroce was and that Castellano had simply inherited the position instead of earning it.
The two factions had different philosophies regarding organized crime. The Dellacroce faction valued traditional mob rackets—gambling, street-level extortion, narcotics trafficking, prostitution, loan sharking, and hijacking—the so-called “blue collar crimes,” while the Castellano faction favored “white collar crimes” such as high-level extortion, bribery, and theft in labor, construction, waste management, the garment industry, on the docks, and at JKF Airport. Castellano wanted to further Carlo Gambino’s master plan of using ill-gotten gains to buy into legitimate businesses, but eventually the Manhattan faction began to feel that their profits were being funneled to a boss who wanted everything to be legit and cared little for the workhorse crews who did the dirty work. They feared that if all family operations eventually became legit, there would be no place for the hard-core criminals who took their cues from Dellacroce and revered the memory of Albert Anastasia.
Although Castellano adopted an executive style, he maintained a significant contingent of tough guys in his faction to keep Dellacroce’s Manhattan faction in check. One of the premier crews in the Manhattan faction was Carmine “Wagon Wheels” Fatico’s, which included an up-and-coming John Gotti. Fatico’s crew was into bookmaking, loan-sharking, gambling, and hijacking, particularly at JFK Airport, and they had a reputation for using violence to get what they wanted when they wanted it. But the Brooklyn faction had a crew that was even more violent, some were certifiable psychopaths, led by capo Roy DeMeo. Working out of the Flatlands section of Brooklyn, DeMeo, who was a trained butcher by trade, had taught his young protégés how to kill cleanly and efficiently. As described by Gene Mustain and Jerry Capeci in Murder Machine, this crew specialized in draining the blood from bodies, cutting them up into small pieces, wrapping the pieces into small packages, and disposing of them so they wouldn’t be found. The apartment at the rear of their regular hangout, the Gemini Lounge, was occupied by one of DeMeo’s cousins, Joseph “Dracula” Guglielmo, and dozens of people were known to have met their end in that apartment. If anyone in the Manhattan faction entertained thoughts of challenging Paul Castellano, the idea of tangling with DeMeo’s demented crew gave them pause—at least until DeMeo was found dead in the trunk of his Cadillac in 1983. He’d been shot five times behind both ears.
The rank and file’s dissatisfaction with Castellano grew as the years passed. They resented his aloofness and apparent disdain for the foot soldiers in his family as exemplified by his remote mansion, which he called the “White House,” in the Todt Hill section of Staten Island, the highest point in the five boroughs. They became outraged when rumors spread that the boss had been having an affair with Gloria Orlate, his Colombian maid, while his wife was still living in the house. These rumors were confirmed by FBI tapes obtained from a bug planted in a lamp on his kitchen table. The feds caught Big Paul discussing illegal deals with his underlings and whispering sweet nothings to Olarte. According to Joseph F. O’Brien and Andrew Kurins, two of the agents who planted the bug, in their book Boss of Bosses: The Fall of the Godfather— The FBI and Paul Castellano, the boss “doted on her… Like adolescents… the pair indulged in long sessions of kissing and petting, stroking and teasing without ever having actual intercourse.” Castellano would later undergo surgery to regain his sexual prowess for her. To the men of honor in the Gambino family, this was no way for a boss to act.
It seemed that everything Castellano did rubbed the Manhattan faction the wrong way. He made a pact with Genovese family boss Vincent “Chin” Gigante to execute, without warning or appeal, any member caught dealing drugs. Many wiseguys in the Gambino family were heavily into the drug trade and depended on those profits, including several members of Carmine Fatico’s crew.
By the early 1980s, Castellano faced RICO charges in two upcoming trials—the Commission case which sought to put away the heads of the five New York families and a case that targeted Roy DeMeo’s stolen luxury car ring. Castellano decided to plan ahead in case he was convicted and had to serve time. He let it be known that Thomas Gambino, Carlo’s son, would take over for him and Tommy Bilotti would serve as underboss. The Manhattan faction seethed. They considered Thomas Gambino even more white collar than Castellano and had little respect for Bilotti who, though a capo, served as Castellano’s chauffeur and bodyguard.
In 1983, a federal indictment charged 13 members of the Gambino family with drug trafficking. This group included John Gotti’s brother, Gene, and his best friend, Angelo “Quack Quack” Ruggiero, who got his nickname for his nonstop talking. Unbeknownst to him, the feds had been listening in on his home phone conversations since 1980, and they had the chatty Ruggiero on tape discussing family business, making drug deals, and expressing contempt for Castellano, calling him a “pansy” and a “milk drinker” among other things. By law, when a person is charged with a crime based on evidence gathered from a wiretap, he’s given transcripts of the taped material to aid in his defense. Ruggiero was presented with boxes of such transcripts, and it wasn’t long before Big Paul sent down word that he wanted to see them. If his men were dealing dope, he wanted to know about it. Ruggerio told Castellano that he was innocent, that it was a bum rap, that the feds had no case against him. (In fact, Ruggiero had borrowed $200,000 from Castellano for a drug deal, telling the boss that it was for a pornography enterprise.) Castellano, however, could not be placated. He insisted that he see the transcripts.
Ruggiero went to underboss Aniello Dellacroce for help. Dellacroce managed to stall Castellano through 1984 and into 1985, but Castellano persisted. He wanted a copy of Ruggiero’s transcripts, and as his own trials drew near, he felt that it was crucial to know what had been going on in his family behind his back. By now the 70-year-old Dellacroce was dying of cancer and couldn’t be of much help to Ruggiero, but Ruggiero’s childhood friend, John Gotti, rallied to his side. The white-collar boss from up on the hill was not going to interfere with the business of the real wiseguys. Castellano was losing his patience with these insolent soldiers. He informed his inner circle that if he didn’t get the transcripts soon, he would have Ruggiero and Gotti whacked. Rumors of his intentions filtered through the ranks and found their way to Gotti.
On December 2, 1985, Dellacroce succumbed to his illness. Without Dellacroce to intervene for them, Ruggiero and Gotti were at grave risk. But Castellano was at risk, too. If he attempted to take out Ruggiero and Gotti, the Manhattan faction was ready to go to war against the rest of the family, threatening to destroy what had become the dominant criminal organization in New York City. Each day the tensions mounted. For John Gotti and his crew, the choice soon became evident: Kill or be killed. If there was ever any doubt in John Gotti’s mind, it was Paul Castellano himself who provided the last straw. Big Paul did not attend Aniello Dellacroce’s wake. To the Manhattan faction, this was an unforgivable show of disrespect.
On December 16, just after 5 p.m., the streets of midtown Manhattan were jammed with office workers and Christmas shoppers. Rush hour had begun, worse than usual during the holiday season, and a black Lincoln Continental inched along with the crush of traffic. Tommy Bilotti was behind the wheel, Paul Castellano in the front passenger seat. They were heading for Sparks Steak House on East 46th Street between Second and Third Avenues for a meeting that had been arranged by capo Frank DeCicco.
Eight hit men waited for their arrival. The primary team of four wore identical trench coats and fur Cossack hats and lingered in the doorways along the block where the steakhouse was located. The backup team hung back nearby in case they were needed.
Castellano’s car arrived at about 5:30 p.m. As the boss opened his door to get out, the hit team converged. Castellano and Bilotti took six bullets each, the hubbub of rush-hour traffic masking the sound of the shots. The sight of two men in business suits sprawled on the pavement alerted pedestrians that something had happened. Bilotti’s body was face up in the middle of East 46th Street, blocking traffic. Big Paul had toppled into the gutter and lay in a contorted position with blood pooling around him. As people gathered around, the assassins walked quickly to waiting cars. Eye witnesses said they saw the identically dressed men but were unable to identify any of them individually.
In a matter of weeks the newspapers declared John Gotti, the man who had organized the hit, as the new boss of the Gambino family. In one bold move, he deposed an unpopular leader, averted a mob civil war, and saved his own hide. The ascent of John Gotti would mark a return to the methods of Gotti’s idol, Albert Anastasia, the Lord High Executioner.
The John Gotti Era
John Gotti is perhaps the most well-known Mafioso in American history, on par with the legendary Al Capone. He had a violent temper and was quick to retaliate against the smallest perceived slight, and yet like Capone, he was a stylish man about town, known for his hand-tailored suits, painted silk ties, and perfectly coifed steel gray hair. While most mob bosses shunned the media, Gotti always had a quip ready for the outstretched microphones and a million-dollar smile for the cameras whenever he strutted into court. The press dubbed him the Dapper Don for his sartorial style, then the Teflon Don for his astounding ability to keep criminal charges from sticking to him. He had the bark of a pit bull and the bite of a Great White, but the New York public took to him and despite his reputation, seemed to root for him whenever he was on trial.
Upon taking the throne, Gotti appointed Frank DeCicco as his underboss and promoted his old friend Angelo Ruggiero to capo in charge of his old crew. While maintaining his old hangout, the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club in Ozone Park, Queens, he mainly held court at the Aniello Dellacroce’s old haunt, the Ravenite Club on Mulberry Street in Manhattan’s Little Italy where he popularized the “walk-talk,” conducting confidential conversations while strolling along the streets as news and surveillance cameras caught the video but not the audio. Unlike his contemporaries, Gotti loved the limelight, and a week didn’t go by that a Gotti sighting wasn’t reported somewhere in the press.
Many of his Mafia counterparts wished he’d learned more from the wily Carlo Gambino, whose face was virtually unknown to the public. Gambino wielded enormous power from his humble home and the backrooms of dingy social clubs. Gotti’s home in Howard Beach, Queens, was frequently seen on television, and he was often spotted dining at some of the fanciest restaurants in town. Mob traditionalists found his style grating, particularly Vincent “Chin” Gigante, the boss of the Genovese family. Gigante was the one New York boss whose permission Gotti did not seek when he was planning the hit on Paul Castellano. Gotti knew that Gigante would have denied him because of his close ties to Castellano. Gigante, who had protected himself and his family for years by pretending to be mentally ill, saw Gotti as a usurper and a danger to the well-being of the mob, so he put out a contract on Gotti’s life. Gigante was secretly aided by two of Gotti’s capos, James “Jimmy Brown” Failla and Daniel Marino, who had originally belonged to the Castellano faction.
On April 13, 1986, Frank DeCicco–Gotti’s underboss and the man who had set up Castellano—stood outside his parked Buick with a friend from the Lucchese family, Frank Bellino. As DeCicco reached into the car to fetch a business card for Bellino, a bomb concealed under the car exploded. DeCicco was nearly torn in half by the blast. Police arrived and rushed him to the hospital, but he was dead before he got there. Bellino was seriously injured but survived. The bomb was meant for John Gotti.
Gotti seemed larger than life, untouchable and unstoppable. The government brought him to trial three times, and he beat the charges every time. But his luck fed his arrogance. He demanded that his men treat him like the Pope, bowing and scraping in his presence. When he called for them, he wanted them to appear instantly. Failing to show up could earn the offender a death sentence. “You know why he’s dying?” Gotti was heard saying on an FBI wiretap on December 12, 1989, in reference to a wiseguy whose murder he had ordered. “He’s gonna die because he refused to come in when I called. He didn’t do nothing else wrong.” Oddly, Gotti preferred to have his men by his side while he held court when they could have been out earning money for the family.
In the end it was Gotti’s big mouth that did him in. The FBI had managed to bug the apartment above the Ravonite Club where an elderly widow let the mobsters hold top-level meetings. Listening devices recorded Gotti planning criminal activities and complaining about his underlings. Federal prosecutors charged him with murder and RICO violations based on these tapes, and this time they had a witness, Gotti’s underboss, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano. The feds had allowed Gravano to hear the portions of the tapes where Gotti disparaged him, and Gravano decided to do the unthinkable: rat on the boss.
The tension in the courtroom was electric when Gravano testified against Gotti and his co-defendant, consigliere Frank Locascio. Gotti stared daggers at Gravano, but the Bull was undeterred as he recounted crime after crime that Gotti had either committed himself or ordered. On April 2, 1992, Gotti was convicted and received a sentence of life without parole. Gravano, who confessed to 19 murders committed between 1970 and 1990, was given five years. It was a sad day for the Gambino family, but as Carl Sifakis writes in The Mafia Encyclopedia, mobsters “privately acknowledged the Bull’s charge that Gotti’s arrogance had done much to bring down the boss and their organization.”
Gotti continued to rule the family from prison, conveying messages through his brothers and son, John Jr. who visited him often. At the federal maximum-security penitentiary in Marion, Ill., Gotti was confined to a small cell by himself 23 hours a day. While he appealed his conviction, day-to-day operation of the family shifted to capos John “Jackie Nose” D’Amico and Nick Corozzo who agreed to take over as acting boss at the urging of Gotti’s younger brother, Gene, when older brother, Peter, refused the position. But as Corozzo was getting ready to assume power, he was arrested on the beach in Key Biscayne, Fla., two days before Christmas 1996. He pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and was sentenced to eight years in prison. Gotti’s son took over as head of the family, but Junior, despite his imposing body-builder physique, lacked his father’s toughness and criminal skills. In 1998, he too was convicted on racketeering charges and sentenced to 77 months in prison.
On June 10, 2002, John Gotti, the Teflon Don, died of throat and mouth cancer at a prison hospital in Springfield, Mo. He was 61 years old. His brother, Peter, took over as boss, but by this time the Gambino Family was in disarray with membership down to around 150 from a high of 250, according to Carl Sifakis in The Mafia Encyclopedia. On July 15, 1999, journalist Jerry Capeci reported in his online Gangland column that only 5 of the 21 Gambino capos active in 1991 were still in business. Thirteen of them had been sentenced to prison, including Gotti’s brother, Gene, and Carlo Gambino’s son, Thomas. Collectively they had been forced to pay over $10 million in fines.
After serving his five-year sentence, Sammy Gravano settled in Arizona where he was eventually arrested and convicted for running the largest Ecstasy ring in the state. He’s currently facing charges in New Jersey for the 1980 murder of a corrupt New York City policeman.
The glory days of the Gambino Family are over. Carlo Gambino’s successors did not learn his lessons well enough to keep their mouths shut, maintain a low profile, and prosper from the shadows. The family’s diminished power and influence can be seen today in John Gotti’s two main hangouts. The Bergin Hunt and Fish Club where Gotti ran his crew and hatched the plot to murder Paul Castellano has been subdivided. The wiseguys now share the space with a butcher’s shop and delicatessen. The Ravenite Club in Little Italy, which was the court of the Mafia king, is now a ladies boutique run by a designer from Hong Kong.