THERE WAS A TENSE HUSH IN THE FOURTH-FLOOR BROOKLYN COURTROOM as the witness described, one by one, the Mafia executions in which he had had a hand. He ticked of the murders, 19 all told, and everyone in the overcrowded room bent closer to hear Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano. He spoke in a flat, raspy whisper, almost as if he were using a verbal silencer. Most of the victims, he said, had been "whacked" on the orders of John Gotti, the alleged godfather of the Gambino crime family. At the defense table, Gotti could only watch with a wintry smile, showing something between contempt and disbelief, as his ex-crony totaled up the bill of particulars.

Rarely if ever had the kiss of betrayal so shaken the American mob—or provided such high drama. Until last October, Gravano, 47, had been the faithful henchman, a classic goodfella who reigned as the underboss of the Gambino family. Then, while awaiting trial with Gotti, 51, on murder and racketeering charges, including tax fraud and loan-sharking, he abruptly decided to break the omerta—the code of silence—and implicate the godfather in return for a reduced sentence. With that, Gravano became the highest-ranking hood ever to turn state's evidence and provided prosecutors with a long-sought chance to put the so-called Teflon Don away for good.

Given the stakes, U.S. District Court Judge I. Leo Glasser ordered extraordinary security for the trial of Gotti and Frank "Frankie Locs" Locascio, 59, the alleged No. 3 in the Gambino hierarchy. Glasser ruled that the jurors would be referred to only by number and that they would remain sequestered for the duration of the trial, which is expected to last another month. (Authorities are now prosecuting the jury foreman from Gotti's 1987 acquittal on racketeering charges for allegedly accepting a bribe in the case.) Everyone entering the courtroom must pass through a metal detector, and a wall of federal agents standing shoulder-to-shoulder screens off the gallery. After a year in jail awaiting the start of the trial, Gotti's hair has turned white. Arriving each day, he nods to his family and supporters, including brother Pete—also a reputed mobster—who stare intently from the front row of the spectators' section. During recesses, Pete slouches in the hallways with other hard guys, erupting with obscenities should anyone mention Gravano's name. "I'd like him to say something to me...to my face!" he said last week.

The centerpiece of Gravano's testimony was the murder of Paul Castellano, the former head of the Gambino family, who was gunned down outside Sparks Steak House in midtown Manhattan early on the evening of Dec. 16, 1985. With the help of prosecutors, Gravano set the scene in almost cinematic detail. He said that he had been planning the hit for 10 months in retaliation for a long list of grievances. For starters, he and Gotti were angry that Castellano had started some business ventures with members of another crime family without cutting them in. They were also furious that Castellano had OK'd the murder of one of his own captains in Connecticut by a rival gang. "You just don't let another family kill a captain in your family," said Gravano. "That's against the rules." What finally motivated them to set their plan in motion was the death from cancer of Aniello "Neil" Dellacroce, the underboss of the Gambino family and Gotti's longtime protector. With Dellacroce out of the picture, prosecutors suggested, Gotti apparently feared that Castellano was about to crack down on him for allowing drug trafficking by his underlings, a practice strictly proscribed by the mob hierarchy.

The night before the Castellano murder, Gravano told the court, he and Gotti met with the eight men who had been selected to handle the job. Sitting around a back room in Gravano's drywall company in Brooklyn, they didn't disclose the identity of the intended victim. "We didn't tell them who was going to be hit," maintained Gravano. "We just said it had to be done." The next day, minutes before Castellano was scheduled to arrive at Sparks, the conspirators met again for final instructions. The four shooters, all wearing light-colored trench coats and black Russian-style fur hats, apparently to confuse witnesses, took up positions across the street from the restaurant, while their four backups hovered nearby to cut off any escape. Gravano said that he and Gotti sat a block away in a black Lincoln sedan with tinted windows and that the unsuspecting Castellano and his bodyguard Tommy Bilotti even pulled up next to them while waiting for the light to change. The curbside execution, carried out as pre-Christmas shoppers looked on in horror, came off with stunning efficiency: Some of the assassins first ran up and shot Castellano as he prepared to get out of the car, while another fired point-blank into the back of Bilotti's head. Immediately afterward, said Gravano, he and Gotti cruised by the scene, looking on in satisfaction at the sprawled corpses.

With Castellano's demise, Gotti allegedly seized control of the Gambino family and two years later installed Gravano as his consigliere, or counselor, the family's third-ranking position. For Gravano, like Gotti, the rise to power had been swift if not unexpected. Starting out on the streets of Brooklyn's Bensonhurst neighborhood, he earned a reputation as a ruthless enforcer always eager to "do a piece of work"—mob argot for murder. A weight lifter and avid boxer, he would even intimidate other hoods. "You know how crazy he was?" says one former New York City police officer. "He'd shake down made guys. Nobody shakes down made men. They kill you for that."

In vivid testimony, Gravano described how in 1976 he himself had been "made" a member of the Gambino family, a solemn ritual familiar to devotees of gangster movies. He said he was driven to a house in Brooklyn, where he waited upstairs until his name was called. When he went down to the basement he found several men, including Castellano, seated at a table. After reciting his vows like a black catechism, his right trigger finger was pricked. Dripping a bit of blood on a picture of a saint, he held the print as it was set on fire and swore that "if I divulge any secrets of this organization, my soul should burn like this saint."

By 1985, Gravano had hooked up with Gotti. Despite their differences in sartorial style—Gotti likes $2,000 suits, while Gravano habitually wore jeans and T-shirts—the two men shared a common temperament, according to law-enforcement officials. Though prone to violence, they did not entirely shun the more genteel forms of gangland enterprise—like corrupting unions. The bonding paid off handsomely for Gravano, whom Gotti eventually elevated to the No. 2 slot and named as his heir. On an FBI surveillance tape from Jan. 4, 1990, obtained by bugging Gotti's hangout, the Ravenite Social Club in lower Manhattan, the don can be heard laying down the order of succession. "This is my wishes," he says. "That if I'm in the [expletive] can, this family is gonna be run by Sammy. I'm still the boss. If I get 50 years, I know what I gotta do. But when I'm in the can, Sammy's in charge."

As Gravano told it, Gotti has more than his freedom to lose if he should be convicted. Traditionally, each of the six main capos in the Gambino family has been obliged to practice a kind of trickle-up economics, kicking back a hefty percentage of their profits to the godfather. In Gravano's case, that entailed turning over 80 percent of his net revenues—about $100,000 a month in cash—from the construction industry. "When the money would accumulate to a big number, I would talk to John," Gravano said. "His brother Pete would come to my house Sunday early in the morning, and I would give it to him in some sort of bag or box or whatever." On a more sentimental note, each of the 21 regular captains also had to give to Gotti a minimum of $3,000 each Christmas and on his birthday (Oct. 27). Of course, Gravano wasn't doing badly himself, especially for an eighth-grade dropout. His tax returns show that in 1989, for instance, he and his wife, Debra, reported an income of $770,000. In his cross-examination, Gotti's attorney Albert J. Krieger sought to portray Gravano as a thug who had carried out his killings for personal profit and was now trying to pin the blame on Gotti.

Considering the obvious risks, what made Sammy run to the arms of the feds? In part he may have felt he was being set up to take a fall. Last October prosecutors approached Gravano and played tapes for him of Gotti discussing the impending trial; on the recordings Gotti always refers to "my case," almost never mentioning the plight of his co-defendant and supposed right-hand man. From the beginning, there was also speculation that for all his tough-guy image, Gravano might balk at the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars. After all, despite his violent past, he had beaten every rap and never done any time. Under the terms of his plea bargain, Gravano will get a maximum of 20 years—with his actual sentence about 10 years. By contrast, Gotti faces life without parole.

Not that Gravano's time in stir will be comfortable. He will likely spend most of his time in isolation. After he gets out, he will be placed in the federal witness-protection program and be given a new identity, home and job. Wherever he ends up, it appears now that his wife and two teenage children won't be with him. Debra reportedly begged her husband to keep his silence and has blocked the kids from seeing their father. (The dangers of squealing were reinforced last week. In violation of mob rules the sister of a capo testifying against Gotti was seriously wounded after two gunmen ambushed her outside her Brooklyn home.)

Before he even starts his prison sentence, however, Gravano is obliged as part of his plea bargain to testify over the next two years or so at other mob trials that are already in the planning stages. Meanwhile he will remain under round-the-clock guard by FBI agents, possibly at a military base near New York City. In the view of many experts on the mob, the current trial—and especially Gravano's testimony—have sunk Gotti no matter what. Even if he is acquitted, his power and reputation for invincibility have been shaken forever. Can the Teflon Don survive betrayal by his closest aide and still rule La Cosa Nostra? Fuhgeddaboudit.

BILL HEWITT
KEN GROSS in Brooklyn

  • Contributors:
  • Ken Gross.