Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Gotti, the Last Mafia Icon

Sparks Steak House

Sammy Gravano
Sammy Gravano (AP)

On the late, cold afternoon of December 16, 1985, unsuspecting New Yorkers, hustling home from a long day's work, were about to witness a public underworld execution. In Underboss, Sammy Gravano and Peter Maas describe the setup:

'The more we thought about it, the better it looked,' Sammy said. 'We concluded that nine days before Christmas, around five to six o'clock at night, in the middle of Manhattan, in the middle of rush hour, in the middle of the crush of all them shoppers buying presents, there would be literally thousands of people on the street, hurrying this way and that. The hit would only take a few seconds, and the confusion would be in our favor. Nobody would be expecting anything like this, least of all Paul. And being able to disappear afterwards in the crowds would be in our favor. So we decide this is when and where it's going to happen.'

Frank DeCicco, mugshot
Frank DeCicco, mugshot

The day before the assassinations of Paul Castellano and Thomas Bilotti were to take place, eleven conspirators met at Gravano's office on Stillwell Avenue. According to Gravano, the four designated shooters were Vincent Artuso, John Carneglia, Eddie Lino and his brother-in-law Salvatore Scala. The designated back-up shooter, Anthony "Tony Roach" Rampino, would be standing across the street from Sparks Steak House, while Angelo Ruggiero, Joseph Watts and Iggy Alogna would be stationed at 46th Street and Second Avenue to facilitate the escape. Frank DeCicco would be inside the restaurant where a meeting was to take place. He would be joined there by capos James Failla and Daniel Marino, who were not part of the plot.

A December 16, 1999 article in Jerry Capeci's "This Week in Gang Land" claims Gravano mistakenly named Alogna as a member of the hit team. Stating "informed sources" say Dominick Pizzonia was the other man present. There is also another version as to who was present inside Sparks Steak House. According to Remo Franceschini in his book A Matter of Honor, the retired police lieutenant claims:

On December 16 Big Paul had arranged to meet Neil Dellacroce's son Buddy Dellacroce at Sparks Steak House on East 46th Street. Frank DeCicco set it up. Castellano was going to pay homage, to explain why he hadn't come to the wake and offered condolences, to make amends and praise the dead.

It wouldn't be until the afternoon of the planned murders that the actual hit team knew who their targets were. Huddled in a park on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the group went over the final details of the murder plot. The four shooters were dressed alike - long light colored trench coats and black fur Russian, or Cossack, style hats. The reasoning for this was to draw attention to the outfits, not the men wearing them.

Gravano told the FBI that he and Gotti arrived near Sparks Steak House close to five o'clock in a Lincoln driven by John. Famed New York Police Detective Joseph Coffey, in an interview with Court TV's Rikki Klieman years later, doubted the two were in the vicinity of the restaurant. Gravano claimed that after circling the block, they parked where from their vantage point they would have a clear view of the front of the restaurant. Moments later Bilotti in a black Lincoln pulled alongside Gotti's car and waited for the light to change. Using a walkie-talkie Gravano notified the others that Castellano was proceeding through the intersection.

Paul Castellano(right) & Tony Biotti (left) moments after the hit
Paul Castellano(right) & Tony Biotti (left) moments after the hit (AP)

Bilotti steered the Lincoln into an open space in front of Sparks and got out. As Castellano alighted from the vehicle, the hit men moved in. "Big Paulie" was hit six times in the head and killed instantly. When the shooting began, the unarmed Bilotti stooped to look through the driver's side window only to see his boss's execution, unaware that killers were now aiming at him. As the shooters assigned to Bilotti opened fire, Artuso's gun jammed. However, the gunfire from the second assassin dropped the newly crowned underboss and Carneglia, who had finished blasting away at Castellano, rounded the automobile and put the finishing touches on Bilotti.

The assassination squad ran past scrambling pedestrians, who were running for cover, and made their way to Second Avenue and the get away cars. Gotti and Gravano calmly drove past Sparks. As he looked down on the body of Bilotti, Gravano said to Gotti, "He's gone."

Paul Castellano on a stretcher after the assassination
Paul Castellano on a stretcher after the assassination (AP)

Hearing the shooting going on outside, DeCicco, Failla and Marino quickly left the restaurant. As they hurried down 46th Street they ran into Thomas Gambino, Castellano's nephew, who was on his way to the Sparks' meeting.

"Your uncle's been shot," said DeCicco.

"Is he dead?" Gambino asked

"He is, so's Tommy," DeCicco confirmed.

"Jesus, what's going on?" Gambino inquired.

"Don't worry, everyone else is okay. Get to your car and leave. We'll be in touch," DeCicco assured.

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