WORLD

Mob justice in New York City

A hero to some, gangster John Gotti faces the trial of his life

SCOTT STEELE,BRUCE WALLACE April 6 1992
WORLD

Mob justice in New York City

A hero to some, gangster John Gotti faces the trial of his life

SCOTT STEELE,BRUCE WALLACE April 6 1992

Mob justice in New York City

THE UNITED STATES

A hero to some, gangster John Gotti faces the trial of his life

There are yellow ribbons tied to the telephone poles, trees and door handles of the houses in John Gotti’s New York City neighborhood. They signal that people in that modest, middle-class district of Howard Beach in Queens want Gotti, now on trial for murder and reputedly the most ruthless mobster of his generation, to come home a free man. “The yellow ribbons are for him,” said a woman who lives across from the Gottis on 85th Street, but who declined to give her name. “To the kids, to everyone, he is a local hero.” Down the block, another resident paused while sweeping snow off his car last week to echo that respect for the man whose swagger and stylish $1,800 suits have earned him the nickname the Dapper Don. Gotti, said the man, who also withheld his name, keeps the area safe and free of vandals. “Half the neighborhood works for him,” he claimed. “People have more problems with parking than they have with Gotti.”

There is little to distinguish the Gotti residence from the many brick-faced homes of the Italian-American district. Like their neighbors, the Gottis have decorated their front lawn with ornaments, although they have avoided the small Jesus-and-Mary shrines favored by some for secular statuettes—of ducks. The only extravagance visible on the Gotti home is an enormous satellite dish on the roof. The only hints of concern for security are a surveillance camera peering off the roof and two dogs, a German shepherd and a bulldog, that growl at visitors from behind a backyard fence. And in the neighborhood, everybody is discreet when discussing the alleged don. “Sorry,” said Gotti’s wife, Victoria, when she opened the door to a Maclean ’sreporter last week. “I know you’re just trying to do your job. But I can’t talk to you.”

In recent weeks, however, some people close to the reputed mob boss have been talking. And what they have said in a federal district court in Brooklyn about John Joseph Gotti, 51, could send him to jail for the rest of his life. Few people were closer to him than

Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano, 47, a onetime Gotti lieutenant who has become the key witness against his former boss. Gravano, who was originally charged with racketeering along with Gotti in December, 1990, agreed to testify in return for having his own sentence reduced. Prosecutors hope that Gravano’s testimony, coupled with extensive wiretaps of conversations held between Gotti and members of New York’s Gambino crime family, will secure a conviction on charges ranging from five murders to extortion and income tax evasion.

Attempts to convict Gotti have failed before. Since December, 1985, when he allegedly took control of the Gambino family—which law-

enforcement officials assert is the biggest and richest crime syndicate in the United States—he has been tried three times for violent crimes. On each occasion, he won acquittal. His elusiveness has enhanced his reputation as a man who can outwit law-enforcement officials. But prosecutors have not given up. The government’s current case is an attempt to prove that Gotti ordered the cold-blooded assassination of his predecessor, Paul Castellano, in 1985. Still, for some New Yorkers, Gotti remains a harassed underdog. “They are trying to frame him; he is

a scapegoat,” says a teenage boy who lives on Gotti’s street. “I mean, he beat it three times. Can’t you leave the guy alone?”

But Gotti is not the only victim in his neighborhood. In 1980, neighbor John Favara was driving near Gotti’s Howard Beach home when he accidentally struck and killed one of Gotti’s five children, 12-year-old Frank, who had darted into the middle of the road on a bike. Four months later, while Gotti and his wife were vacationing in Florida, a witness saw a gang accost Favara in a parking lot, club him over the head and spirit him away in a van. No charges were ever laid. And Favara has not been seen since.

On Jan. 21, in a second-floor conference room in the federal district court in Brooklyn, Judge I. Leo Glasser began the arduous task of selecting the jury for the latest Gotti trial. More than 200 candidates were interviewed during the three-week process. To counter the possibility of tampering, the court kept the identities of prospective jurors secret, and those approved were swiftly sequestered. Many people summoned were deemed unsuitable to serve for reasons ranging from their disapproval of electronic bugging to admitting previous knowledge of the case. With Gotti intently observing the proceedings, still others expressed outright fear. One middle-aged man said that he was reluctant to leave his wife alone at home while he was sequestered. And a clearly nervous woman remarked: “My sister lives on Mulberry Street—John Gotti sort of knows her from the neighborhood.” Both were excused.

After 12 jurors were selected, the prosecution presented its opening argument on Feb. 12. In a 45-minute statement, U.S. attorney Andrew Maloney said that he was confident that the audiotapes—recorded by electronic bugs hidden by the FBI in a private apartment above the Gambino headquarters at the Ravenite Social Club in Manhattan— would prove that Gotti and his remaining co-defendant, Frank Locascio, were guilty. Said Maloney: “This is not a complex case—these defendants will tell you in their own words what it’s about.” He added: “This is a case about a Mafia boss being brought down by his own words, his own right arm and, in the course of it, perhaps bringing down his whole family.” Gotti remained stone-faced throughout much of Maloney’s presentation, but did manage a smirk when the prosecuting attorney pointed at him with his left hand, cocked his thumb and pulled his index finger like the trigger of a pistol.

There was little in the early life of John Gotti to distinguish him from other petty hoodlums. The fifth of 13 children bom in the South Bronx in 1940 to an immigrant couple from Naples, Gotti moved with his family to Brooklyn after the Second World War. There, he joined a youth gang called the Fulton-Rockaway Boys, and at 16 he quit school and became its leader. He soon met Aniello Dellacroce, a captain in the Gambino family, who encouraged Gotti’s underworld aspirations. But throughout the 1960s, Gotti languished as a minor criminal, whose arrest record included such pedestrian crimes as public drunkenness. In 1969, he was jailed for a bungled attempt to hijack a shipment of women’s garments from New York’s Kennedy airport.

In 1973, after his release, Gotti rejoined Dellacroce, who was then headquartered in the Bergin Hunt & Fish Social Club in Ozone Park, in Queens. That same year, Gotti earned the gratitude of Mafia boss Carlo Gambino, whose nephew had been kidnapped by Irish gangsters and murdered. Gotti tracked down the alleged killer, James McBratney, in a Staten Island bar and held him while another man shot him dead. A grateful Gambino hired well-known lawyer Roy Cohn to defend Gotti. Pleading guilty to manslaughter, he served two years in jail for the killing. His ascension up the Gambino family ladder had begun.

On Feb. 17, the Brooklyn jury members, wearing large black earphones, began to listen to the FBI tapes, following along on transcripts provided by the prosecution. Loudspeakers played the recordings to the courtroom, but without the headsets the discussions were often drowned out by the traditional Neapolitan music that played on a radio in the Ravenite apartment. The conversations contained references to shady underworld figures with names that could have come straight from a Dick Tracy comic strip—Fat Dom, Ralphie Bones, Gaspipe and Jackie Nose.

On one tape, recorded in 1990, Gotti outlined his close relationship

with Gravano. “Soon as anything happens to me, Sammy is the acting boss,” he said. In a particularly striking taped tirade, Gotti warned his associates about talking openly in places where their words could be picked up by listening devices, insisting that he would strangle anyone who dared in his presence to mention “La Cosa Nostra”—a term for the Mafia that means “this thing of ours” in Italian. “He don’t [even] have to say ‘Cosa Nostra,’ ” explained Gotti. “Just ‘La’ and they go.” And

when an underling told him that a rival had opened a competing gambling operation in the city, the accused Mafia don exploded: “You tell this punk, I, me, John Gotti, will sever your motherf—ing head off.”

Behind a black iron grate on 101st Avenue in Ozone Park, a sign marks the entrance to the “Bergin Hunt & Fish Social Club Inc.,” a yellow-aluminum-sided, redbrick-faced building that was still a favorite Gotti hangout when he was indicted in December, 1990. Just three A-train stops away from Howard Beach, Ozone Park is home to lower-income Italian-Americans. Gotti has staged an Independence Day extravaganza there every July 4 for more than a decade. Local people say that they love John Gotti. And they are not afraid to use their names.

Vinnie Scavone, a spry senior citizen, strolled past the Bergin last week, arm-in-arm with his wife, Evelyn. “If he can, he’ll help you out,” said Scavone. “Everybody listens to him.” Added Evelyn Scavone: “He takes care of his own. He only harms someone that does something to him.”

Nearby, a train trestle bisects Ozone Park. From that elevated stage every July 4, with 101st Avenue blocked off to traffic by garbage Dumpsters, Gotti employees set off fireworks as part of the all-day celebration. The street party is conducted without city permits, but the police indulge Gotti. Said Ozone Park resident Helen Catania: “You can’t beat a man who puts out fireworks like he does.” She added: “What a spread—hamburgers, frankfurters, chicken, spareribs—and the kids can have all the ice

cream, soda, cotton candy, free rides and games they want. That’s why I want him for president.” With Gotti in jail awaiting trial last Independence Day, some youths sported Tshirts emblazoned, “We miss you, John.”

But some supporters say that they worry that Gotti will not beat the current rap. “He’s in trouble now,” said restaurant owner Nick Dimitratos. On the wall above the counter where Gotti often stopped for coffee is a framed newspaper account of his brother Peter Gotti’s recent acquittal on racketeering charges. “Thank God for the jury system in this country,” Peter Gotti is quoted as saying. “That is all we have left.”

On March 2, the jury in John Gotti’s trial began hearing lurid testimony when “Sammy the Bull” took the stand. Gravano had agreed to the plea bargain with authorities on Gotti’s 51st birthday in October. Now, sitting just 20 feet away, his former boss wore a forced smile as Gravano described him as the head of the Gambino crime organization. “John was the boss,” he said in a hoarse voice. “And I was the underboss—I helped John run the family.”

Gravano admitted to participating in 19 murders since joining the Gambino family in 1976, claiming that Gotti had personally approved 10 of the “whack-outs.” He told the court that on Dec. 16,1985, he sat in the passenger seat as Gotti drove a Lincoln with tinted windows, stopping at a red light less than a block from Sparks Steak House in east midtown Manhattan. He also testified that at the intersection, another Lincoln, driven by Castellano aide Thomas Bilotti, pulled up beside them. “I just

turned and I told John they were right next to us,” he said, adding that he then used a walkie-talkie to notify four gunmen waiting in ambush that “they were coming through.” As Castellano’s car pulled up to the restaurant, he said, “the shooters ran over to them and started shooting them.” With Castellano and Bilotti dead on the pavement, he told the jury, Gotti drove by slowly to see the bodies up close before speeding away. The reason for the hit, said Gravano: to allow Gotti to assume leadership of the family. Gotti made no attempt to hide his contempt for the man betraying him. From across the defence table, he glared at his onetime right-hand man. During cross-examination, Gravano insisted that he had been “a good loyal soldier” for Gotti. “John barked and I bit,” he said. But in one daring exchange with Gotti’s defence attorney Albert

Krieger. In the society in which you grew up and which shaped your life, a person who is playing the role that you are playing at this point would be called a certain name, isn’t that so? Gravano: Probably.

Krieger-, And that name is?

Gravano-. An informer.

Krieger-. Some other word?

Gravano-. Rat.

Krieger, Gravano appeared anything but loyal.

With his usual flourish, Gotti had once vowed to his friends that nothing would ever break up their gang. On wiretaps played in court, he is heard boasting: “This is gonna be a Cosa Nostra till I die. Be it an hour from now, or be it tonight, or 100 years from now when I’m in jail, it’s gonna be Cosa Nostra.” But by turning on his boss, Gravano shattered that solidarity, and placed Gotti’s fate in the hands of the Brooklyn jurors. Their decision will determine whether John Gotti’s legendary reputation for eluding conviction grows even larger—or comes to a sudden, perhaps permanent, end.

SCOTT STEELE

BRUCE WALLACE

HELENE STAPINSKI

New York City