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People Top 5
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- March 27, 1989
- Vol. 31
- No. 12
The Real Godfather
Beset by the Feds, Third World Gangsters and Mob Rivals, John Gotti Is a Target Who Doesn't Mind Shooting Back
"You have to picture it this way," explains Ronald Goldstock, head of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force, who for years has been listening to government wiretaps and bugs planted around Gotti and his crew. "To a lot of people, John Gotti is a hero. All the other mob chiefs were sent to jail after the Pizza Connection trials and the Mob Commission trial [federal prosecutions aimed at crippling the underworld leadership]. The organization is in shambles. The government is ahead. Or so it appears. Only Gotti looks like a winner. You know what he's like? He's like the last piton on the mountain. All the little mob guys are hanging on to him for dear life."
If indeed the future of the Mafia is riding on his broad back, Gotti shows precious little sign of the strain. He is the last of an old-style breed—a swaggering crime chief running a multimillion-dollar-a-year illicit empire built on prostitution, extortion, gambling, theft and drugs. Gotti conducts his public life flamboyantly, like Al Capone. And, like Capone, he has an air of romance and invincibility about him, a suggestion of immunity from the laws that govern ordinary mortals.
Yet he is not invincible. In January, as he left the Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy, Gotti walked into an ambush. Scores of detectives and special agents had taken positions in doorways and shops in a section of lower Manhattan known as So Ho. They posed as street peddlers and hot-dog vendors but wore flak jackets under their disguises. Someone whispered, "Now!" into a walkie-talkie, and the FBI men and anticrime task-force agents pounced. Guns drawn, they threw Gotti against a wall and read him his rights. "What's wrong with you guys?" Gotti asked, as the lawmen sealed off the street. Unresponsive, the police patted down the expensive double-breasted brown suit and ran their hands under the canary yellow turtleneck.
Gotti had attracted this dramatic display of police power because of a command he had allegedly given in 1986—ordering the shooting of a union leader who had demanded a kickback from contractors doing work on a mob restaurant. "Put a rocket in his pocket," were the specific instructions given to his underlings, according to federal sources. After spending a night at Riker's Island prison—"like a common criminal," complained his attorney, Bruce Cutler—Gotti pleaded not guilty and was released on a $100,000 bond. As he left the courthouse, he boasted, "I'll beat this case. I give you 3-to-1 odds I beat this case."
All his life, John Gotti has been beating such odds, and apparently enjoying the challenge. Now that he is at the top of the Mafia hierarchy, the dangers have never been greater. In Newark, N.J., earlier this month, U.S. Attorney Michael Chertoff accused Louis Anthony Manna, 59, and five other members of the Genovese crime family of plotting to murder Gotti to keep him from expanding his operations into their turf. "In the summer of 1987, the defendants began to carefully plan to kill John Gotti and his brother [Gene]," Chertoff told the jury. The FBI, according to wiretaps, warned the Gottis about the planned hit, presumably to prevent a retaliatory bloodbath.
But bullets may not be required to bring Gotti down. He also faces the combined wrath of federal, state and local police. Armed with evidence from their nonstop, high-tech electronic and visual surveillance of the Mafia, determined prosecutors have deployed complex, and in some cases untested, laws drafted specifically to fight organized crime. "It's definitely the twilight of the mob," says New York City mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani, until recently the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Indeed, the warrant on which Gotti was arrested in January is hardly his only legal worry. For more than a year, a federal grand jury has been listening to testimony from mob informers who claim that Gotti murdered his way to the top—arranging the 1985 assassination of his own Godfather, Paul Castellano. An indictment for that murder is all but certain, according to federal strike force insiders, who aim to link Gotti to additional conspiracy and racketeering charges.
Of course, mobsters have always endured the enmity of both their brothers in crime and the feds. Gotti must also withstand pressure from upstart Third World criminals beginning to encroach on traditional Mafia turf. Among these ambitious interlopers are Colombian coke lords, crack-running Jamaican "posses" and Asian gangs, who are unafraid of—or worse, unimpressed by—old-style mob muscle.
The question is, who will get Gotti first, his underworld enemies or the law? Recently, the government has turned up the firepower against the mob. Using the powerful RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) statute, which permits the government to connect two or more criminal acts and label them a conspiracy, prosecutors have jailed many of the crime-family leaders.
Investigators have planted court-sanctioned listening devices in cars, taped telephone conversations, even bugged the mobsters' most private moments in church confessionals. Such sleuthing, combined with RICO, has resulted in convictions of mob chieftains for terms of up to 100 years. The list of the fallen is impressive: among them, Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno, 77, head of the Genovese family; Anthony "Tony Ducks" Corallo, 76, head of the Lucchese family; Carmine "Junior" Persico, 55, leader of the Colombo family; and Philip "Rusty" Rastelli, 69, acting boss of the Bonanno family.
Of the top Mafia men in the United States, only John Gotti, with his hand-cut suits and razor-styled hair—the Dapper Don, as he has been dubbed by New York tabloids—still walks the streets. He governs the all-powerful Gambino family from an innocent-looking Queens storefront, the Bergin Hunt & Fish Social Club. It is, in reality, a fortress, with sentries, reinforced doors and a well-stocked kitchen, as if the soldiers of the club, who neither hunt nor fish, expect someday to sit out a siege.
There, Gotti directs the largest crime family in the country, with more than 250 blooded soldiers, ruthless men initiated into the mob's inner sanctum by carrying out a murder. He also controls at least 500 more Gambino associates—those denied that final increment of trust that only a killing can bring. Gotti himself boasts of personally killing enemies while expanding his empire and planning for the future.
A secret 1986 government tape captured Gotti the strategist, plotting his underworld dominion. "If they don't put us away for one year or two, that's all we need," said the Godfather. "But if I can get a year run without being interrupted...put this thing together where they could never break it, never destroy it. Even if we die, be a good thing."
"It's a hell of a legacy to leave," said his enthralled companion.
"Maybe after 30 years it would deteriorate," continued Gotti, "but it would take that long to f——— succumb.... So we got some f——— nice thing if we just be careful."
This zeal for careful dynastic planning would not have been easily predicted from Gotti's childhood. The fifth of 13 children in a household headed by a South Bronx sanitation worker, young John spent his time hanging out with neighborhood gangs, cracking heads instead of books. Dropping out of high school, he ran numbers and performed small chores for local hoods. John and his cohort measured themselves by how tough they were, and Gotti always ranked toughest. For one thing, he was built like a tank. He stood 5'8", weighed almost 200 lbs. and could punch his way through cement. And he was fearless in a fight. Mob legend has it that he took loaded guns from the hands of his enemies. He had also begun running up a rap sheet; at 17 he pleaded guilty to burglary and was placed on probation.
In 1959 Gotti was still trying to appear legitimate, operating a garment-press machine in a Brooklyn coat factory. Around this time he met Victoria DiGiorgio, a petite woman with dark hair, two years younger than himself. Her parents—a sanitation worker and his wife—did not think much of a young man who worked as a clothing presser. Over her parents' objections, John and Victoria were wed. Their first child, Angela, was born in April 1961, about the same time that her proud papa was promoted to the position of capo in the Gambino family. Four other children would follow: Victoria, John A., Frank and Peter.
In the tradition of Mafia wives, Victoria Gotti has always claimed ignorance about her husband's business affairs. Three years ago she told reporters, "I'm an old-fashioned woman. I don't ask him what he does. All I know is, he provides." By all accounts Gotti has rewarded that Old World devotion by strictly observing his wedding vows. "I know that they had some trouble early in the marriage—even a separation—but he was always faithful," according to one listener familiar with the Gotti tapes. "He did not fool around with other women."
By the mid '60s, John Gotti was running his own crew and making enough money in extortion, numbers and kickbacks to afford a house, expensive gambling habits and several Mercedes cars. Even then he showed unusual qualities of ambition and leadership. On May 22, 1973, at age 32, he earned the gratitude of crime boss Carlo Gambino when he coolly walked into Snoope's Bar and Grill on Staten Island and helped murder James McBratney, also 32. Erroneously, McBratney was thought to have been involved in the kidnapping and murder of Emanuel Gambino, a nephew of Carlo's. After pleading guilty to a manslaughter charge, Gotti served two years in prison. He emerged a made man. "You could see that he was being groomed for leadership," says Remo Franceschini, a New York City police lieutenant who has monitored mob affairs for three decades. "He had it all-he was smart and he was brutal."
Gotti also had a powerful backer: Aniello "O'Neill" Dellacroce, who had a place next to Paul Castellano in the Gambino family. When Dellacroce died of natural causes in December 1985, only Castellano stood in Gotti's way. But Castellano did not concur in Dellacroce's high opinion of Gotti and refused to push his career along.
On Dec. 16, 1985, at 5:25 P.M., after the light in Manhattan had grown dim, Paul Castellano's Lincoln turned into East 46th Street, stopping in front of Sparks Steak House. The city was crowded with Christmas shoppers, and no one paid much attention to the three men who moved in front of the car and behind it. It was too late for Castellano, who was halfway out of the passenger door, and for his designated successor, Thomas Bilotti, who was in the driver's seat. The three gunmen opened fire, then simply drove away. The execution, both very public and very efficient, signaled one of those truly hostile Mafia takeovers.
At the time, Gotti was conveniently at home in his Cape Cod-style house in Howard Beach, Queens—the one with the satellite dish on the roof. The neighbors there, always happy to provide a character reference, consider him a "good father," a "decent family man," and a "community asset." But organized-crime cognoscenti, from FBI mob watchers to state and local crime-family genealogists, immediately concluded he had ordered the hit. "I was in London, and as soon as I heard about Pauli getting whacked, I said Gotti is the next Godfather," says Franceschini, commanding officer of the Queens District Attorney's Squad. "I knew what happened and I knew what would happen next. There was nobody with his charisma and stature to take over. Had to be Gotti."
During the next few days, the captains and lieutenants and soldiers of the associated crime families formally recognized Gotti's ascension and paid visits of homage to the new head of the Gambino family. There were embraces and kisses of ratification. Gotti flourished in the limelight. "Overnight," says Goldstock, "he underwent a change. He seemed to grow in stature. Even his language changed. He stopped threatening to murder people, chop off their heads, blow up their houses and kill their wives and children. He became a kind of diplomat."
The government bugs planted so carefully in every crevice of his world offer occasional corroboration of that transformation. In the late afternoon Gotti sometimes holds court at his clubhouse, providing his own rough justice. The first item on the agenda, in one typical session, was a squabble between neighbors.
"He leaves the garbage out two, three days," said one angrily. "He don't put the cover on the can and he don't take care."
"Is this true?" asked Gotti.
The man with the garbage problem sounded contrite. "The kids," he explained, "they knock over the cans. What can I do?"
One source of Gotti's power is a deep understanding of local folkways and pride. "You will put the garbage in the cans and make certain that the cans are covered," Gotti ruled sternly as the homeowners murmured assent. "We got to keep our own backyard clean."
At such moments Gotti sounds much like Don Corleone, Mario Puzo's jowly old Godfather-in-decline. After becoming the reigning capo, Gotti did not, however, immediately and forever curb his volcanic temper. There were still outbursts that echoed the fury Gotti had shown in 1982 when Anthony Moscatiello, a former business associate, was slow in returning an urgent Gotti phone call. "What, I got to reach out for you three days in a-f——— advance?" Gotti raged, while the feds listened.
"Pal, my wife just called me."
"Let me tell you something. I need an example. Don't you be the f——— example. Do you understand me?"
"Listen, I called your f——— house five times yesterday, now, if you're going to disregard my m——- f——— phone calls, I'll blow you and that f——— house up."
"I never disregard anything you..."
"This is not a f——— game. My time is valuable. If I ever hear anybody else calls you and you respond within five days, I'll f——— kill you."
In Gotti's case, such threats aren't hyperbole. On March 18, 1980, his 12-year-old son, Frank, was riding a minibike near his home when a neighbor, John Favara, 51, came driving west on 157th Avenue, fighting a late-afternoon glare. Favara's car struck and killed the boy. Victoria Gotti went into a prolonged state of mourning, setting up a shrine in the home. And she blamed Favara, a service manager for Castro Convertibles. Gotti himself was inconsolable. "His sun rose and set on his son," said a Nassau County policeman. On July 25, John and Victoria drove to Florida. Three nights later several witnesses, including a watchman at the Castro plant, saw Favara grabbed by a heavyset man and thrown into a van, never to be seen again.
The people in Howard Beach and Ozone Park believe they know what happened. They say that Favara's car was compressed into a square cube of metal by a salvage-yard crushing machine. And they say Favara's body was inside the car.
After his arrest in January for the union leader's shooting, Gotti spent fewer than 14 hours in custody. If convicted, he faces 25 years to life. It seems certain that when he does go back into court, he will show the same dramatic flair that so beguiled the public during his trial for racketeering two years ago. Always Gotti appeared resplendent in his hand-tailored $1,800 double-breasted suits, his monogrammed Gucci socks, the custom-made silk shirts with French cuffs. And some final sartorial touch—usually a jaunty silk handkerchief flying from his lapel pocket.
But it takes more than clothes to make a Dapper Don. It requires an attitude as well. During the racketeering trial, tough-talking young prosecutor Diane Giacalone outlined the charges against Gotti, which ranged from loan-sharking to extortion. To buttress the case, government lawyers produced hundreds of hours of incriminating tapes. Yet through it all Gotti looked up over his gold-rimmed half glasses, smiling. It was not all bravado: Gotti knew that, legally, someone would have to take the witness stand to publicly corroborate the tapes. And, better than anyone, he knew that witnesses against mob chieftains are nearly impossible for prosecutors to come by.
For in his world, where men trust each other with guilty secrets that could send them to prison, there are hard rules about informers, and no chance of forgiveness. So when Giacalone disclosed in court that Wilfred "Willie Boy" Johnson had been a government informer known as Wahoo for nearly 20 years, a grudge was born. Willie Boy had been a soldier in the Gambino family and had delivered lower-level hoods to his government paymasters, but he had never informed on any major mob figure. That didn't help. Even his refusal to testify against Gotti didn't help. Someone pointed to him after the trial—at which Gotti and six of his cohort were acquitted—and said, "You're looking at a dead man."
Gotti was acquitted that time, but as the conviction of many of his colleagues attests, the RICO law has proved a formidable weapon against the mob. As former U.S. Attorney Giuliani says, "It's not all over." By that he means that dogged, detailed intelligence work and aggressive prosecution may soon yield legal ammunition for more big cases against more big-time mobsters—and Gotti is at the top of the list.
That threat, which includes the possibility of prison sentences adding up to hundreds of years, does not seem to have much affected Gotti. It certainly has had no apparent impact on his unforgiving view of life, which includes bleak consequences for those who wrong him. Last Aug. 29, at 6:20 A.M., informer Willie Boy Johnson left his home in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn. At that moment three men got out of a stolen car, took out their automatic weapons and opened fire. When they were done, police counted 14 bullet wounds between Willie Boy's head and his feet.
The ever-present microphones planted in Gotti's Queens lair picked up the Godfather's reaction to the slaughter of his former companion. "We all gotta go sometime," he said. It is an epitaph that could be his own.
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