The Rise and Fall of the ‘Teflon Don’

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John Gotti

John Gotti. FBI photo.

A fatal plane crash in May 1982 began the slow unraveling of the once-formidable Gambino crime family of New York. The man who died in that private plane, which crashed 12 miles southeast of Savannah, Ga., in a flight bound from New Jersey for Orlando, Fl., was Gambino “associate” Salvatore Ruggiero. He had been running a profitable heroin business that few people knew about — even leaders of the Gambino family were kept in the dark.

coverIn his new book Gotti’s Boys: The Mafia Crew That Killed for John Gotti, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anthony DeStefano traces the impact of the crash on the story of John Gotti, the so-called “Teflon Don” and the murderous underlings who helped him build a crime empire. Angelo Ruggiero, the brother of Salvatore, as well as John and Charles Carneglia, Salvatore Scala, and Vincent Artuso all bonded with Gotti and, as DeStefano writes, “propelled him to the top” — until he was finally brought down by his trusted lieutenant Sammy “the Bull” Gravano.

DeStefano, a Newsday staffer who has covered organized crime for three decades, discussed his book with The Crime Report’s Nancy Bilyeau in a wide-ranging discussion that explored the world of the American Mafia, its lingering impact on U.S. society, and the reasons for the public’s apparently insatiable interest in chronicles of the “wise guys.”

The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Crime Report: Why was that May 1982 plane crash such a critical event in the story of John Gotti?

Anthony DeStefano: It served as a catalyst for some of the things that happened subsequently. After the crash, certain people had to take action to protect their interests, and as a result they got deeper into things just at a moment when law enforcement was starting to watch [high level members of the Gambino family].

TCR: So members of the Gambino family were already being surveilled when the plane crashed?

AD: The FBI got more than they bargained for. I think they were looking for traditional stuff: hijacking, money laundering, gambling. Suddenly the bugs are picking up all this frenetic activity on the drug empire. People were doing these drug deals. Now, people had been doing deals before that, but this really accelerated the tempo and brought more people into the situation that might not have gotten involved. They were trying to launder certain assets. The circle of culprits expanded.

TCR: Is it a myth that, historically, Mafia bosses have not wanted to get too involved with illegal drugs?

AD: There were certain old-school gangsters like Carlo Gambino who did not want to get involved with drugs. They knew what the risks were. But others were doing business with drugs from way back in the 1930s, even the 1920s. It was an accepted open secret.

TCR: Since John Gotti was part of the Gambino crime family and he was not totally avoiding drug profits, this must have caused a problem.

AD: Gotti’s out-front position was “I’m against drugs.” But it was a willful blindness. He was taking his cut and he didn’t care where the money came from.

TCR: An interesting part of your book is your analysis of Gotti as a boss. He wasn’t a great one, though his “boys” were loyal to him for the most part.

AD: He could be very nice to people, but he had this streak to him that he had to show people he was tough and he would abuse his own sub-bosses and people around him. He could be generous; I was told he would carry people who couldn’t earn a dime. But he could be nasty.

TCR: I didn’t know until I read your book that he was such a chronic gambler.

AD: It was addictive. People told me he would bet money on the way a raindrop would fall. He got money. And he threw it away.

TCR: According to your book, one of the reasons Gotti hated his boss, Paul Castellano, whom he later had killed outside Sparks Steak House, was that he didn’t share money. 

AD: He didn’t share. Castellano didn’t make friends with the people under him. He considered himself a businessman and above the riffraff and that created tension within the family. He was very greedy, and that caused resentment. Gotti got money and he shared it with his friends. He was generous. But Gotti wasn’t smart about his money. He would throw it away on gambling. He didn’t invest his money in anything or bury it in companies.

TCR: Gotti’s conviction in 1992 (for five murders, conspiracy to commit murder, racketeering, obstruction of justice, tax evasion, illegal gambling, extortion, and loansharking) came largely on the evidence of his close associate Sammy “the Bull” Gravano, arguably his deputy. If Sammy Gravano hadn’t heard John Gotti deriding him on a recording the authorities shared, would he have flipped on Gotti?

ruggiero

The death of Gotti henchman Angelo Ruggiero’s brother, Salvatore, in a 1982 plane crash heightened the FBI’s attention to the Gambino crime family. Photo courtesy Kensington

AD: I go back and forth on that. Gravano was worried when he got arrested that Gotti might want him to take the fall. Gravano didn’t actually have much of a jail record, despite all the people he may have killed. He did the arithmetic in his head and knew that he was looking at big time if he was convicted for this. And once he did hear how Gotti was talking about him, he decided, “I’m not going down for this guy.”

TCR: Reading your book, I was shocked by how little care was taken of the juries in the earlier John Gotti trials and how in danger these people were. “Gotti’s boys” were busy trying to tamper juries.

AD: Yes, they would follow the jurors to their cars out of the parking lot and write down their license numbers and were able to find out about them. In a number of cases, there were attempts to intimidate. In Gotti’s 1986 federal trial, they managed to bribe one juror who swung the other jurors his way and there was an acquittal. These were bold attempts.

TCR: After media darling Gotti was sentenced and lost his power, didn’t the Mafia realize they needed a lower profile?

AD: Yeah, the Mob (came to the conclusion), “don’t bring attention to yourself. Don’t have these social clubs where everybody comes and pays homage to the boss. Don’t have these big meetings.” They became very discreet.

TCR: Would you say then that they got smarter after Gotti?

AD: I think in terms of secrecy, yes.

TCR: What do you think of Rudy Giuliani’s role in spearheading an aggressive stance against the Mafia when he was a prosecutor?

AD: You’ve got to credit Giuliani with putting together the idea of a racketeering and conspiracy case against most of the bosses of the five families. And he took out some of the top bosses. Tony Salerno, Tony Corallo. Paul Castellano was on trial when he was killed. In doing that, [Giuliani] seriously hobbled the mob in the concrete industry, the construction rackets. That didn’t mean that things didn’t persist in the construction area and other industries. It went on for a good 15-20 years.

TCR: But is it fair to say the Mafia is not as predominant in New York City and other U.S. Northeast cities now?

AD: They’ve been seriously impacted by the prosecutions. The unions are now run by trustees and federal monitors, so the Mob is kept out of them. There is no longer that power base for them. I think it’s also true for the docks and the garment industry. Where you still have the Mob is, I think, the gambling, some drugs, and the lower-level extortions and loan sharking.

TCR: And no one has tried to take the place of the Italian Mafia?

AD: There are some smaller groups. For a while you had the Albanian groups who were trying to vie for control of some of the Five Family rackets, notably gambling, stolen-car rackets. But they get picked off. The Feds have gotten better at it over the decades. You’ve got the wiretaps and the surveillance. This is a different time. It isn’t the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s, or even the 1960s, when the Mob could work with impunity.

TCR: Yet the popular culture is bursting with movies, TV series, podcasts, and documentaries about the Mafia.

Anthony DeStefano

Anthony DeStefano

AD: What’s happened is people still glamorize the Mafia, for reasons I’m not sure of. I was talking to my editor about it and he said the Mafia has become almost like the Old West genre. It’s passed into American folklore, and people like these stories, whether they are true or fiction. It doesn’t matter. These are now folkloric characters: John Gotti, Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, Joe Bonanno. Just the lifestyle, the aura.

And some of them were very family-oriented. [They care about their] wives and children. Plus they were patriotic. So a certain section of the public could relate to them. I even ask people why they want to know about the Mob and they say, “It’s just so interesting.” And I say, “OK.”

Editor’s Note: Gotti died of cancer in prison in 2002. Gravano, believed to have killed 19 people, received only a five year-sentence because he testified against Gotti. But, while in Witness Protection in Arizona after release, he ran a huge illegal drug business. He was arrested in 2000, tried, and convicted; he served almost 20 years of his drug sentence. Gravano was released from an Arizona prison in September, 2017. He now keeps a low profile.

Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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