Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE GAMBINO FAMILY

The Last Don

John Gotti, 1987
John Gotti, 1987

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.

Angelo Ruggiero
Angelo Ruggiero

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.

Carlo Gambino
Carlo Gambino

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.

Frank DeCicco
Frank DeCicco

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.

John Gotti
John Gotti

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.

Sammy "The Bull" Gravano testifies
Sammy "The Bull" Gravano testifies

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.

The Mafia Encyclopedia
The Mafia Encyclopedia

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.

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