Fourth Time's a Charm
The next time around the prosecutors were more successful. In fact, they were luckier than they could ever have imagined. They found the biggest “rat” ever to scurry into their midst, with enough information to turn the “Teflon Don” into the “Velcro Don,” as Gotti later came to be called when his world began to fall apart.
Sammy “the Bull” Gravano was John Gotti's underboss in the Gambino crime family. He confessed to murdering nineteen people over a twenty-year period, an average of about one whack per year.
When Gotti got wind of another indictment, probably charging him with the murder of Paul Castellano, he ordered Gravano to go into hiding. Gotti knew Gravano would be subpoenaed to testify. Sammy the Bull stayed in various resort areas: the Poconos, Florida, and Atlantic City. When he retuned to New York City, Gotti demanded he meet him at the same social club that everyone on both sides knew was wired better than a home entertainment center. They were not there fifteen minutes before the feds raided the joint.
What do John Gotti and Grandpa Munster have in common?
Believe it or not, John Gotti's defense team trotted out celebrities as character witnesses to tell the press what a great guy he was. Among them was the ancient Al Lewis, most famous for playing Grandpa on the beloved television classic The Munsters. Other celebrities who attended his trail were actors Mickey Rourke and John Amos.
The two men and others were arrested and denied bail. At a hearing, excerpts from the hours and hours of tapes were played. Gravano learned what Gotti had been saying about him when he was not around. He was putting the blame for the Castellano hit on Gravano's shoulders. Locked up together for months before their trial, the two men developed an even deeper dislike for one another. Gravano saw the writing on the wall and decided to cut his losses. He became one of the most important mob informants in history.
The feds knew Gravano would be an invaluable asset in nailing the Teflon Don, so despite his many crimes he was granted immunity. His testimony not only brought down several members of the Gambino family, but also members of the Colombo and Genovese crime families. The Bull entered the Witness Protection Program, getting five years for all his murders.
Many mobsters believed that, while the Bull's testimony was certainly damning, the Dapper Don's rampaging ego was in large part to blame. Most mobsters prefer the shadows, and those who strutted and swaggered in the limelight invariably had their comeuppance. Membership in the Gambino family dropped considerably. Many modest low-level capos and underlings were ordered to meet with Gotti at his social club, despite the fact that everyone knew that it was under constant FBI surveillance. Camera-shy hoods were obliged to have their picture taken lest they earn the wrath of Don John. It was common knowledge that the FBI was watching and listening to everything that was said in the club, but Gotti would make his minions line up and pay homage. He would also speak with self-destructive candor. The Bull and the others were alarmed and angered by the Dapper Don's egotism and big mouth. He had begun, as many celebrities do, to believe his own publicity and consider himself as “untouchable” as Eliot Ness.
John Gotti became a pop culture icon. Starting with his portrait by Andy Warhol on the cover of Time, Gotti became a cottage industry, spawning books, T-shirts, songs, and name-dropping across the media spectrum. His daughter Victoria became a successful novelist and star of a reality show.
The final John Gotti trial was, to no one's surprise, a media circus. Sammy the Bull was now Sammy the Rat in the local papers. Gotti's people initiated a smear campaign, calling him everything from a homosexual to a compulsive womanizer. The defense team did not have as much ammunition as they did in previous cases, and the sequestered jury was impossible to influence.
When Gravano, who had been sequestered at a Marine Corps base in Virginia, took the stand, that was, as they say, all she wrote. He placed Gotti at the scene of the Paul Castellano murder and fingered him as the man who orchestrated the hit.
In 1992, Gotti was convicted and given a life sentence without the possibility of parole. At his sentencing an angry mob loudly protested the verdict, but to no avail. Gotti was sent to a maximum-security prison. For many years it is believed he ran things from behind bars. But eventually health problems took over. He was diagnosed with cancer and lingered gravely ill for many years in a prison infirmary.
John Gotti's funeral procession
Courtesy of AP Images/Robert Spencer
Cars with floral arrangements lead the funeral procession of reputed mob boss John Gotti as it winds its way through the Queens borough of New York, Saturday, June 15, 2002. Gotti died in prison of cancer. He was sixty-one.