March 1, 2021

John Gotti Is Dead at 61

By Selwyn Raab

John J. Gotti, who seized control of the Gambino crime family in a murderous coup, flaunted his power during a flamboyant reign as a Mafia boss, and then spent the last 11 years of his life locked away in prison, his gang in shambles, died today at a federal prison hospital in Springfield, Mo. He was 61.

Mr. Gotti's death came after a bout with cancer. In 1998, he was operated on in a prison hospital for neck and head cancer.

Traditional Mafia leaders led publicity-shy lives. Not so Mr. Gotti, who reveled in media attention as the boss of the nation's largest and most influential organized crime group. He cut a swashbuckling figure in New York City, wining and dining with show-business celebrities in elegant restaurants and nightspots surrounded by a coterie of bodyguards.

From late 1985, when Mr. Gotti engineered the assassination of his predecessor, Paul Castellano, to 1992, when he was sent to a federal prison for life, Mr. Gotti's swagger and seeming immunity from punishment he was acquitted in three criminal trials during the first five years of his regime earned him mythic gangster status.

In tabloid argot, he was the Teflon Don, evading successful prosecution, or the Dapper Don, for his snappy appearance in courtrooms and on the city's streets. At the peak of his power, his silvery hair was styled in a swept-back coiffure, and he favored $2,000 Brioni double-breasted suits accessorized by $400 hand-painted floral silk ties. A lavish spender, he relished rare brandy costing $1,000 a bottle, and was unconcerned about losing as much as $250,000 in a dice game.

Salvatore Gravano, the right-hand man to Mr. Gotti as the underboss of the Gambino crime family before he defected to become a government witness and helped bring down his boss, said Mr. Gotti viewed himself as Robin Hood, admired and respected by the world. Once when they were in a restaurant together and Mr. Gotti was the focus of all attention, Mr. Gravano, known as Sammy the Bull, asked him if he disliked people staring at him. "No, no," Mr. Gotti replied. "This is my public, Sammy. They love me."

"He was the first media don," said J. Bruce Mouw, a former F.B.I. agent who supervised the bureau's Gambino Squad, the unit that uncovered the evidence that ultimately convicted Mr. Gotti. "He never tried to hide the fact that he was a superboss."

But when he was put on trial, Mr. Gotti never acknowledged that he was a Mafia leader. Outside the courtroom he responded to questions about being a mob kingpin by replying with a grin, "I'm the boss of my family, my wife and kids."

Mr. Gotti's penchant for public contradiction the image of the hard-working family man who nonetheless seem to lead the life of a Hollywood celebrity was famously transparent. Yet he persisted in claiming that his income was entirely legitimate, derived from a $100,000-a-year salary as a plumbing supply salesman and a job with a garment accessories company.

Mob turncoats and investigators said otherwise. They asserted that Mr. Gotti received $10 million to $12 million in cash every year as his share of the proceeds from the Gambino family's criminal activities, which included murder and racketeering. Mr. Gravano testified that he personally gave Mr. Gotti more than $1 million a year from shakedowns in the construction industry.

Mob defectors said that Mr. Gotti boasted that his role model was Albert Anastasia, the founder of Murder Incorporated, a group of killers used by the Mafia in the 1930's and 40's to carry out gangland executions. Mr. Gotti, according to Mr. Gravano, said that he had acquired his gift for guile and ruthlessness by reading Machiavelli's "Prince."

In contrast to the amiable personality he displayed in his public appearances, secretly recorded tapes by law enforcement agencies and testimony from former mobsters painted a more sinister picture of Mr. Gotti as a narcissistic tyrant with a furious temper who betrayed allies and who mercilessly ordered the slayings of Gambino loyalists he suspected of being informers or who he thought had not shown him proper respect.

Those who prosecuted him said Mr. Gotti's need for absolute authority and his lust for vast wealth led to a recklessness that contributed to his downfall and undermined the entire Gambino family. By insisting that his lieutenants meet frequently and directly with him, he provided prosecutors with evidence to obtain court-authorized bugs that helped to convict the entire Gambino hierarchy in the 1990's.

On the day of Mr. Gotti's conviction for murder and racketeering, James M. Fox, the head of the F.B.I. office in New York who built the case against him, proclaimed, "The Teflon is gone. The don is covered with Velcro, and all the charges stuck."

John Joseph Gotti was born in the South Bronx on Oct. 27, 1940, the fifth of 13 children raised by his father, John, and his mother, Fannie, both children of immigrants. Mr. Gotti's father, an often unemployed day laborer, led a hardscrabble life caring for his family. The Gottis moved often from apartments in the Bronx and in Brooklyn before settling in the blue-collar East New York section of Brooklyn when young John was 12.

East New York was then a battleground for rival youth gangs. Mr. Gotti, a strapping adolescent with fast fists, became the leader of a gang called the Fulton-Rockaway Boys. During his teen years in the 1950's, storefronts in the neighborhood were hangouts for mobsters, and Mr. Gotti ran errands for members of an underworld club in the neighborhood headed by Carmine Fatico, a capo (captain) of a crew in the Gambino family. It was through club members that Mr. Gotti was first introduced to Aniello Dellacroce, his future mentor in the Gambino family.

A poor student with disciplinary problems, Mr. Gotti dropped out of Franklin K. Lane High School in Queens when he was 16. For a year or two he held any number of dead-end jobs as a factory worker and trucker's helper. By 18 he was ranked by the Police Department as a low-level associate or "wannabe" in the Fatico crew.

In the next eight years, Mr. Gotti's arrest record described a path of petty crimes from street fighting to public intoxication to stealing cars to bookmaking to possession of a gun to burglaries in New York City and on Long Island. Several of his nine recorded arrests in that period were in the company of a boyhood friend, Angelo Ruggiero. None led to penalties of more than six months in a county jail.

Mr. Gotti's first big-time arrest came in 1968, when he, his brother Gene and Mr. Ruggiero were charged by the F.B.I. with committing three cargo thefts and truck hijackings near Kennedy International Airport. The three men pleaded guilty to reduced counts and John Gotti served a three-year sentence at the maximum-security federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa.

While Mr. Gotti was in prison, the Fatico gang moved from East New York to a storefront in South Ozone Park, Queens. The new headquarters was incorporated perhaps sardonically as a nonprofit association, and named the Bergin Hunt & Fish Club. The name apparently was a misspelling of Bergen Street in East New York.

Soon after his parole in 1972 on the hijacking conviction, Mr. Gotti's underworld career got some help. Mr. Fatico, facing a prison sentence for loan-sharking, decided on temporary retirement until his legal problems were resolved and designated Mr. Gotti to run the gang temporarily.

As an acting crew chief, Mr. Gotti met frequently with Mr. Dellacroce, the underboss of the Gambino crime family, who took a shine to him. In 1973, a nephew of Carlo Gambino, the family leader, was abducted and murdered. The family's intelligence network determined that a stick-up man, James McBratney, had been one of the kidnappers. According to investigators and informers, Mr. Gotti was handed the important assignment of exacting revenge.

Mr. McBratney was shot dead outside a Staten Island bar by three men. But it was hardly a flawless crime, and witnesses picked out two of the men, Mr. Gotti and Mr. Ruggiero, from rogues' gallery photographs. Mr. Gotti was arrested in 1974 after evading capture for a year.

A grateful Carlo Gambino hired Roy M. Cohn to represent Mr. Gotti and Mr. Ruggiero. Although both defendants were indicted for murder and had been identified by witnesses, Mr. Cohn negotiated a remarkable deal with the Staten Island district attorney's office. In exchange for reduced charges of attempted manslaughter, Mr. Gotti and Mr. Ruggiero pleaded guilty, and each received a lenient prison term of four years.

Mr. Gotti spent his second prison term lifting weights and obtaining unusual perquisites. He was taken from prison in upstate New York for visits to his new home in Howard Beach, Queens, and to restaurants in New York City, where he met with criminal friends. State investigators later determined that prison authorities and guards had been bribed to arrange the excursions.

In 1976, while Mr. Gotti was still in prison, Carlo Gambino died. By normal rights of succession, the family's underboss, Mr. Dellacroce, should have been elevated. But before his death, Mr. Gambino anointed his brother-in-law, Paul Castellano, as heir. As a consolation prize, Mr. Castellano allowed Mr. Dellacroce to remain as underboss and to control 10 of the gang's 23 crews. But by creating two factions in the family, Mr. Castellano planted the seeds of his own destruction.

Paroled in 1977, Mr. Gotti left prison in remarkably fit condition: a muscular, barrel-chested, broad-shouldered figure, 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighing about 200 pounds. Returning to the city, he was promoted by his mentor, Mr. Dellacroce, to full-fledged capo of the Bergin crew.

Mr. Gotti was a popular figure in Howard Beach, where he lived in a modest home with his wife, Victoria, and their two daughters and three sons. But in March 1980, one of his children, 12-year-old Frank, steered his minibike into the road near the family's home in Howard Beach and was killed by a car driven by a neighbor, John Favara. His death was ruled accidental, but four months later, while Mr. Gotti and his wife were in Florida, witnesses saw Mr. Favara being clubbed over the head in a parking lot and then shoved into a van that sped away. Mr. Favara, not seen since, is presumed by the police to have been murdered. Mr. Gotti denied any knowledge of Mr. Favara's disappearance.

By the early 1980's, Mr. Gotti's prominence in the Gambino family had turned him into a major target for federal and city prosecutors. The Queens district attorney's office, seeking evidence of illegal gambling and loan-sharking, installed a concealed microphone and a telephone tap in the Bergin Club in 1981.

The eavesdropping revealed Mr. Gotti's ruthless control over a crew that included his younger brother, Gene, and Angelo Ruggiero. Mr. Gotti could frequently be heard on the tapes gruffly demanding respect and obedience.

In 1985, major federal indictments exploded against Mr. Gotti and his closest associates. He and Mr. Dellacroce were accused of racketeering charges that carried penalties of life sentences. Gene Gotti and Mr. Ruggiero, in a separate case, were indicted for heroin trafficking. The narcotics charge was an accusation that infuriated Mr. Castellano, who as the Gambino family boss had prohibited drug deals under penalty of death. Mr. Castellano feared drug deals would unleash government crackdowns on the family and result in long prison sentences that might induce convicted traffickers to become informers. Under Mr. Castellano's rules, John Gotti was responsible for the misdeeds of his crew members.

Mr. Gotti asked Mr. Dellacroce to intervene with Mr. Castellano, but before any resolution was made, Mr. Dellacroce died of cancer in December 1985. Two weeks later, on the evening of Dec. 16, 1985, Mr. Castellano and his new underboss, Thomas Billotti, were gunned down by a team of assassins in front of Sparks Steak House on East 46th Street near Third Avenue in Manhattan.

Mr. Gravano later testified that he and Mr. Gotti watched the shootings from a parked car. He said Mr. Gotti had arranged the killings as a pre-emptive strike to prevent Mr. Castellano from killing him and his allies.

The killings cleared the way for Mr. Gotti's takeover of the crime family in 1986. From the eavesdropping devices planted in the Bergin Club, prosecutors heard Mr. Gotti as he discussed his goal of creating an enduring crime organization.

"The law's gonna be tough with us, O.K.," he told several Bergin crew members in a tape later used as court evidence. "But if I can get a year run without being interrupted, get a year, I'm gonna put this thing together where they could never break it, never destroy it, even if we die."

As the new head of the Gambino family, Mr. Gotti immediately faced two trials from old criminal complaints. In 1984, a refrigerator repairman, Romual Piecyk, accused Mr. Gotti of slapping him and taking $325 in cash from him during a parking dispute in Queens. When he originally identified Mr. Gotti, Mr. Piecyk was unaware of his reputation as a mobster. On the witness stand, a tense Mr. Piecyk could no longer recognize Mr. Gotti as his assailant and a state judge dismissed the assault and robbery charges.

The second trial began in August 1986 in Brooklyn, with Mr. Gotti, his brother Gene and five other defendants accused of federal charges that they had violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO, by being members of a criminal enterprise. But the government's case was handled by a prosecutor who had never tried a complex Mafia case before. Experienced prosecutors and F.B.I. agents had also said that the evidence was thin and its premature use would expose two informers who were gathering evidence against Mr. Gotti in another extensive investigation. Mr. Gotti was defended by Bruce Cutler, a former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn who represented Mr. Gotti in other cases.

After deliberating a week, the jury acquitted Mr. Gotti and the other defendants on all counts of racketeering and conspiracy. The verdict, however, may have been tainted. The foreman of the jury was later convicted of accepting a $60,000 bribe arranged by Mr. Gravano to vote for acquittals and to prevent a unanimous verdict, as required for convictions.

It was the most stinging courtroom defeat suffered by the Justice Department in its campaign against the Mafia. Law enforcement officials grudgingly conceded that for the public and for the underworld, Mr. Gotti's back-to-back legal victories had wrapped him in a cloak of invincibility.

Mr. Gotti worked at burnishing this image. He became organized crime's most significant symbol of resistance to law enforcement since Al Capone in Chicago 60 years earlier. If he spotted detectives on stakeouts, he was known to taunt them by rubbing one index finger against another and mouthing the words: "Naughty, naughty."

After his ascent as head of the Gambino family, his style became flashier. He switched from windbreakers to hand-tailored suits and monogrammed socks, and he no longer drove his Lincoln himself, preferring to be chauffeured in a Mercedes-Benz when he went on his rounds.

Usually, he began his working day at noon at the Bergin Club, where he conducted business in a private office decorated with huge mirrors, a blow-up of his cover picture from Time magazine and a picture of his dead son. He had installed a barber's chair where he sat while his hair was cut, washed and blow-dried every day.

In late afternoon, he was driven to his main headquarters in Little Italy, the Ravenite Social Club on Mulberry Street, which had been Mr. Dellacroce's base for decades. The top members of the Gambino hierarchy were required to report to him in person at the Ravenite four or five times a week. According to Mr. Gravano, these appointments gave the F.B.I opportunities to videotape, identify and compile a who's who of the family's principal leaders.

Mr. Gotti assumed command of the family when it had 23 active crews, about 300 made (inducted) members and more than 2,000 associates (men who hoped to become made members and who cooperated in criminal enterprises). The Gambino organizational structure was similar to that of New York City's four other longstanding Mafia groups: the Bonanno, Colombo, Genovese and Luchese factions. At the top was the boss, followed by an underboss and then the consigliere, who relayed instructions to the capos of the crews.

As a capo, Mr. Gotti had depended on gambling, loan-sharking and hijacking for his income. But as the new Gambino boss he found himself at the center of a cornucopia of illegal profits, with all members and associates funneling shares of their loot to him.

Investigators estimated that the Gambino family in the mid-1980's grossed about $500 million a year, primarily from illegal activities in the New York area and Florida. Under the direction of Carlo Gambino and Paul Castellano, the family had expanded from a gang specializing in gambling, loan-sharking and stealing into more sophisticated operations, like extorting money from unions, garment manufacturers, garbage-carting companies and food suppliers; stealing gasoline excise taxes; and engaging in stock frauds. Under Mr. Gotti these operations continued, but unlike Mr. Gambino and Mr. Castellano, he also met openly with known narcotics traffickers.

Law enforcement efforts persisted against him, and Mr. Gotti found himself in court again in 1990. He was tried in Manhattan on a New York State indictment charging that he had ordered the shooting of a carpenters' union president following a labor dispute at a restaurant owned by a Gambino gangster. Again, he was acquitted despite evidence from tapes secretly recorded at the Bergin Club in which he was heard discussing preparations for the shooting and despite testimony from a participant in the plot.

Later, a New York City police officer assigned to the investigation was arrested and convicted on charges that he was in the employ of the Gambino family and supplied the names and addresses of the jurors to the gang. But no charges of jury tampering in that case were brought.

In early 1990, while the state trial was proceeding in Manhattan, F.B.I. technicians in a separate investigation installed eavesdropping equipment in an apartment above the Ravenite Club that Mr. Gotti used to conduct his most secret sessions with important aides. For several months, the bugs recorded conversations that implicated Mr. Gotti, Mr. Gravano and the family's consigliere, Frank Locascio, in crimes like murder, bribery, loan-sharking, gambling and obstruction of justice.

Mr. Gotti and his co-defendants were arrested at the Ravenite Club in December 1990. He soon faced his fourth trial in six years as a Mafia boss on murder-racketeering charges. But this time the authorities had a trump card. Mr. Gravano had made a deal with the prosecution to testify.

On April 2, 1992, Mr. Gotti and Mr. Locascio were convicted by a jury in federal court; Mr. Gotti on all 13 counts against him, including a racketeering charge that cited him for five murders, and related charges of murder, conspiracy, gambling, obstruction of justice and tax fraud.

Arms folded and smirking, Mr. Gotti declined to say anything in his own behalf before he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Outside, hundreds of chanting, flag-waving Gotti supporters protested. Mr. Gravano received a five-year sentence.

The same day he was sentenced, Mr. Gotti, who had previously refused to fly because of his fear of airplane crashes, was put aboard a plane and flown to the maximum-security federal prison in Marion, Ill.

From 1992 until 2000, he was kept in virtual solitary confinement, restricted to his cell except for an hour of daily exercise in a cellblock or in a courtyard.

Soon after his conviction, Mr. Gotti, according to federal prosecutors, appointed his eldest son, John A. Gotti, known as Junior, the acting boss of the Gambino family. Investigators said he did this to make sure that his son and closest relatives would continue to get a huge share of the gang's profits.

In 1999, his son pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges involving the Gambino family and was sentenced to six years and five months in prison. "I'm a man's man," the younger Mr. Gotti said in a hushed courtroom crowded with supporters and reporters. "I'm here to take my medicine."

Mr. Mouw, the F.B.I.'s Gambino specialist, commented: "John Gotti has done some horrible things in his lifetime. He made a lot of widows, but one of the worst things I ever saw him do was make his son acting boss. That was sealing the son's fate."

Later, investigators said they believed the elder Mr. Gotti was still trying to cling to power through his brother Peter. But the Gambino family's crime empire was in ruins, the authorities said. By 1999, they said, the family was down to about 11 crews and its influence in the garment center, in trucking, in construction and in garbage hauling was waning.

Mr. Gravano was the subject of a best-selling 1997 biography by Peter Maas called "Underboss, Sammy the Bull Gravano's Story of Life in the Mafia," which was later made into a movie for television. After his release from prison in 1995, Mr. Gravano, who admitted to committing "18 or 19 murders," was given a new identity and background and had some plastic surgery on his face. But he left the federal witness protection program after nine months because, he said, it was too restrictive, and lived openly in Phoenix. "I'm not running from the Mafia," he said.

In May, Mr. Gravano returned to the federal court in Brooklyn where his testimony brought down his former mob colleagues and pleaded guilty to running a multimillion-dollar Ecstasy ring with his son in Arizona. He is awaiting a sentence that could put him in prison for up to 15 years.

Mr. Gotti is survived by his wife, the former Victoria DiGiorgio, his son John A., and his brothers, Gene, who is serving a 50-year sentence for heroin trafficking, and Peter. Mr. Gotti is also survived by another son, Peter, two daughters, Victoria Gotti Agnello, a successful author of mysteries, and Angel Gotti Forca; three other brothers, Richard, Vincent and Dominick; and 11 grandchildren.

"He was obsessed with his own importance," Mr. Mouw said. "He gave his own status a higher priority than Cosa Nostra. He was convinced that no jury would ever convict him because he was John Gotti, a caesar, an emperor."