The Last Don

With little more to do 21 hours a day in his 6-by-8 cell than read, listen to the radio and watch television on a tiny black-and-white set, life behind bars should have been, if nothing else, a humbling experience for inmate No. 18261-053 at the maximum-security federal prison in Marion, Ill. But John Gotti always flouted convention, and so he remained defiant to the end, a man who over the course of his six decades could be—and was—accused of almost everything except false modesty. “Listen to me carefully,” Gotti bragged to a Marion visitor in a moment caught on a 1998 videotape. “You’ll never see another guy like me if you live to be 5,000.”

Many people will no doubt take comfort from that boast. For at his death on June 10 at the federal prison hospital in Springfield, Mo., at age 61 from head and neck cancer, John Gotti left a legacy as the most feared and celebrated gangster since Al Capone. With his brimming self-confidence and macho style—he loved to zip around New York’s Sheepshead Bay in his cigarette boat—he built a veritable Camelot of crime, only to have it all come crashing down after one stunning betrayal. Even so, he had a lasting effect on the world of organized crime, if not quite in the way he might have hoped. “Mobsters learned important lessons from him—the way not to conduct yourself if you’re running a crime family,” says Jerry Capeci, a former Daily News reporter and the coauthor of two books on Gotti. “You don’t conduct the business of a crime family on Broadway.”

Gotti, who died wearing a simple prison smock, was born far from the Great White Way. He grew up in New York City’s gritty South Bronx, the fifth of 13 children. His father, John, who worked odd jobs, and mother Fannie, a homemaker, were both first-generation Americans. By the time he was a young teen John was already the leader of a street gang. Standing 5’10” and built like a utility truck, he earned a fearsome reputation as a brawler. At age 16 he dropped out of school and briefly held a few mundane jobs, including one as a coat presser in a garment factory. So far as law-enforcement authorities can tell, that was the last time Gotti ever earned an honest living.

He soon came under the tutelage of Aniello (Neil) Dellacroce, a major player in the Gambino crime family, the largest and most powerful of the five Mob organizations in New York. In 1968, at age 27, Gotti’s fledgling criminal career was interrupted when he was charged with stealing cargo from John F. Kennedy Airport, a crime for which he spent three years in the federal pen in Lewisburg, Pa. When he got out, he seemed destined to continue his slow but steady rise in the Gambino family. And then he was presented with an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. In 1972 the nephew of Mob boss Carlo Gambino was kidnapped and murdered. Gotti drew the assignment of punishing the man fingered for the crime, a thug named James McBratney. In May 1973 Gotti and two accomplices walked into a bar on Staten Island and shot McBratney dead. Copping a plea, Gotti ended up serving two years for the murder.

He left behind a growing family. In 1962 he had married Victoria DiGiorgio, and together they had five children: Angela Albano, now 41, a homemaker on Long Island; Victoria, 39, a successful pulp novelist and newspaper columnist; John Jr., 38, now in jail on Mob-related charges; and Peter, 27, who owns a vending-machine company. In 1980 Gotti’s beloved son Frankie, then 12, was killed when the minibike he was riding accidentally collided with a car in their Queens neighborhood. The distraught motorist, a 51-year-old neighbor named John Favara, tried to apologize. But four months later he was seen being bundled into a van by a burly assailant, never to be heard from again. This past March journalist Capeci published an account of the incident asserting that, according to an FBI informant, Gotti directly ordered the death of the unfortunate driver, whose body was allegedly stuffed into a barrel filled with concrete and tossed into the Atlantic.

Gotti’s family always insisted that the patriarch was an honest business-man who was unfairly hounded by the law. His lawyers claimed for years that he worked as a $60,000-a-year salesman for a plumbing supply company. “I’m an old-fashioned woman,” wife Victoria told reporters in 1986. “I don’t ask him what he does. All I know is, he provides.”

Gotti also proved himself adept at taking. Paul (Big Paul) Castellano, who had become the new boss of the Gambinos after the death of Carlo in 1976, wanted to steer the Mob toward a greater emphasis on such things as labor fixing at the expense of more traditional rackets like loan-sharking and extortion. Gotti had other ambitions. On the evening of Dec. 16, 1985, as Big Paul was getting out of a Lincoln in front of Sparks Steak House on East 46th Street in Manhattan, three gunmen calmly approached in full view of a throng of Christmas shoppers and opened fire at close range. Seventy-year-old Castellano and his lieutenant Thomas Bilotti were killed. Gotti was never arrested for the brazen attack, but no one doubted that he had godfathered the hit. “I knew what would happen next,” says Remo Francheschini, the former commanding officer of the Queens District Attorney’s Squad. “There was nobody with his charisma and stature to take over. Had to be Gotti.” Sure enough, within days Gotti was spotted being embraced by Mob courtiers as the new capo di tutti capi—the boss of bosses—outside his headquarters at the Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy in lower Manhattan.

And with that, a dark star was born. Rather than operate in the customary shadows of the underworld, Gotti seemed to revel in his status as a celebrity. Each year, he sponsored an illegal fireworks display on the Fourth of July for his neighbors in the Ozone Park section of Queens, a gala that the police always seemed unable to shut down until 1996, when the city’s tough new mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, finally put an end to the festivities. Gotti started appearing at some of New York’s finest Italian restaurants togged out in $2,000 Brioni suits and monogrammed Gucci socks, his hair always perfectly razorcut. The tabloids bestowed on him the title the Dapper Don.

It didn’t hurt Gotti’s image that he also began to acquire an aura of invincibility. In 1985 the feds arrested him on racketeering charges. Their case against him, based on dozens of hours of secretly recorded conversations from the Bergin Hunt & Fish Social Club, another Mob hangout, looked airtight. But in 1987 Gotti walked away scot-free with the help of his lawyer, Bruce Cutler. Three years later he was tried on charges that he had ordered the shooting of a union leader. A jaunty Gotti quipped to reporters beforehand, “I give you 3-to-1 odds I beat this case”—and once again was as good as his word when a jury acquitted him. Now the city’s tabloids were calling him the Teflon Don.

By 1991 prosecutors finally had a weapon that proved too much even for him. Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano, his longtime friend and right-hand man, had been arrested for murder and racketeering and was facing life in prison. He agreed to become the star witness against Gotti in return for a lighter sentence. Gravano was the highest-ranking Mob member ever to turn informant, and his nine days of testimony in March 1992 made for riveting theater. This time the jury found Gotti guilty, and he was sentenced to life without parole.

As he listened to the verdict, the don kept his familiar wintry smile. Later he told one lawyer, “It’s all right…. It’s not over yet.”

But in fact it was, and Gotti spent most of the next 10 years doing hard time at Marion. He took his three drab meals a day in his cell and was led out in leg irons for an hour of daily exercise. In 1998 he was diagnosed with head and neck cancer. His physical discomfort behind bars was not Gotti’s only concern. He watched helplessly last year as his son John Jr., who had taken over some of the duties as boss of the Gambino organization, pleaded guilty to racketeering, extortion and tax evasion and was sentenced to 6½ years in prison.

By all accounts Gotti took pride in never having broken his code of silence. As his daughter Victoria once declared, “My father is the last of the Mohicans.” But by the end such bravado apparently started to sound a bit hollow even to Gotti himself. Perhaps he realized that a gangster, even one as celebrated as he, is destined to be remembered as nothing more than a gangster. “Maybe I flatter myself,” he told one visitor to Marion. “Maybe me and a lot of other people think I am more important than I really am.” With that insight, John Gotti may have shown that he really was a wise guy after all.

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