If ever there was an incubator for crime it was the Italian Harlem tenements of the South Bronx. In one of those crowded dirty apartments, a young John Gotti seeked an impoverished existence with his parents and eleven sisters and brothers. His father rarely worked and then, only at menial jobs, risking the money that the family did have on gambling.
Eventually the family moved to central Brooklyn, which was known as East New York. In East New York, for a poor boy like John Gotti with nothing in the way of prospects, the Cosa Nostra represented something to which he could realistic aspire to gain the power and respect he craved.
He started as many young boys did, running errands for the gangsters, molding himself into a young bully with a future. His first major incident with the police occurred when he tried to steal a cement mixer and it fell on his feet, an injury that affected his gait for the rest of his life.
He quit school at sixteen and rose to leadership in a local street gang of thieves called the Fulton-Rockaway Boys, named after two streets in their neighborhood. At an early age he exerted his bad temper, dominance and readiness to engage in fistfights. These were just the right characteristics to develop his potential as a Mafia boss.
In the mid-1960’s, Gotti’s boss Carmine Fatico moved his headquarters out to Ozone Park near JFK Airport. Gotti, his brothers, Angelo and Willie Boy became relatively successful hijackers. That is, until they got caught in 1968 and landed in prison.
In 1972, when Gotti got out of prison and went back to Ozone Park, the headquarters had been imaginatively renamed the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club. Two important things happened in his life to significantly lift his status in the Cosa Nostra. The first was that his boss Carmine Fatico faced a loansharking indictment, so Gotti became Fatico’s man on the street to keep him informed about what was happening at a grass-roots level. The second was that Gotti met Neil Dellacroce, an important under boss to Carl Gambino. Neil accomplished Carlo’s violent dirty work from a headquarters in Little Italy’s Mulberry Street called the Ravenite Social Club.
Neil, who was disappointed that his only son Armond became a drug addict, saw in Gotti a young protege who was a younger version of his own violent, macho self. Like Gotti, he had a weakness for gambling and one such episode got him in trouble with the IRS. Neil ended up in jail for at least a year.
With both Fatico and Dellacroce in the slammer, John Gotti was handed a lot of new responsibilities. For one thing, he gained incredible visibility by reporting directly to Carlo Gambino while Fatico was in jail. Before that opportunity, Carlo did not particularly value Gotti’s crowd in Ozone Park. To the sophisticated Carlo, they were just a bunch of hotheaded thugs. This was a chance for Gotti to show himself in a different light.
Gotti brought home to the Ozone Park crowd Carlo’s prohibition on drug dealing. But the warnings fell on deaf ears. Many of the men very close to Gotti were dealing and using heroin and cocaine. But Gotti kept the faith by warning them: “If you’re dealin,’ you’re f..kin’ playin’ with fire, and if you get caught, you’re f..kin’ dead.”
Through Neil Dellacroce, Gotti and his Ozone Park boys had a chance to vastly improve their status under Carlo. Carlo had lost a nephew in 1973 to a kidnapper who collected the $100K ransom and then murdered the boy. Gotti was given the opportunity to get revenge for Carlo.
The kidnapper was a man named James McBratney.Gotti, Angelo Ruggiero and another one of the Bergin soldiers dressed up as cops and shot McBratney in a pub in front of several witnesses. Angelo was arrested first and later, the police also arrested Gotti for the murder.
Fortunately for Gotti, Carlo gave the McBratney case to his talented lawyer Roy Cohn who was able to get the charge reduced to manslaughter. While Gotti was in jail in 1976, Carlo Gambino had a heart attack and was dying. Carlo made a decision that was to create problems for the crime family for almost a decade-he named his brother-in-law Paul Castellano as his successor.
Castellano was not respected and admired like Carlo. Perhaps his insecurity caused him to keep Neil as his under boss in charge of all of the more violent activities, such as hijacking. While Paul would focus the family efforts on the more sophisticated criminal activities like union rackets and bid-rigging in construction projects.
This decision created two separate branches of the Gambino family: Paul’s branch and Neil’s branch. The schism did nothing to strengthen the family and ultimately brought about the assassination of Paul in 1985, when after Neil’s death, Paul sought to demote Gotti and his men and promote his own favorites.
The assassination of Paul Castellano was a brilliant coup on the part of Gotti, not just in the way the ambush was executed, but also in the preparation of the Gambino family and other crime families for the event itself.
When John Gotti made his decision that he was going to eliminate Paul, he determined who he would recruit to join him in the conspiracy that was ultimately called the Fist.
Gotti had to be very careful, because if in trying to recruit other key members of the Gambino family, word got back to Paul, Gotti himself would be sanctioned and executed.
First Sammy was approached, not by Gotti directly, but by Angelo. Sammy realized that Castellano would never survive an all out war with the Bergin crew. Sammy, in spite of his “by the-rules” approach to most things, understood that Paul was not leading the family in the right direction. By Gotti’s invitation to Sammy to join up with him, Gotti was signaling that he wanted to unify the family again and heal the schism that had broken the family into two camps. Sammy was behind the idea of new leadership of a unified family.
Sammy told Angelo that he would see how DeCicco and Robert DiBernardo would react to such a proposal before he made a firm commitment. After DeCicco agreed, the three key players were committed: Gotti, Gravano and DeCicco. DiBernardo, a very rich and influential man with strong Teamster connections, signed on shortly afterwards.
Now Gotti needed someone of the older generation, a traditional capo in the family. Joseph Armone fit the bill. By getting Armone to join the Fist, they reduced the possibility of a civil war within the family.
Gotti and his co-conspirators knew that they had to lay the groundwork for their plan well beyond the Gambino family. In Jerry Capeci and Gene Mustain’s book Gotti: Rise and Fall the strategy is described:
Members of the Fist contacted influential men in three other Cosa Nostra families -Luchese, Colombo, and Bonanno — and asked for support if “something happened” to Paul. They approached men they regarded as the next generation of leaders, because most of the current leaders had fallen victim to the RICO (racketeering law) sword and were awaiting trial and facing life in prison without parole. For obvious reasons, Paul’s friend Chin Gigante was not contacted.
On the day of Paul Castellano’s assassination, DeCicco carried on some important political preparations. He went to the Sparks restaurant to make sure that the other capos there did not think that their lives were endangered and to do his best to prevent them from taking any retaliatory action against whoever they thought was responsible.
A couple of days after Paul’s death, elderly consigliere Joe Gallo called a meeting of all the Gambino family capos at a restaurant owned by Gravano. Gallo had already warned Gotti that his contacts with the younger leadership of the other families didn’t count. Only the Cosa Nostra Commission could have a leader removed. Consequently, Gotti and the Fist must never admit what they did, regardless of what conclusions were reached by other Gambino family members or other crime family members.
Capeci and Mustain captured the spirit of the dialogue:
“It’s terrible, what’s happened,” Gallo began. “But we don’t know who killed Paul, we’re investigatin’. Nobody feels worse for Paul’s and Tommy’s families than me. But we’re a family too and we have to stay strong. So that’s why we called you here.”
None of the captains believed him, of course. But the armed sentries and seating arrangements made reassurance more important than truth. Nobody had any questions about the murders; Gallo, speaking for Gotti, gave them the only answers they wanted.
The other Cosa Nostra families were given the same message and did not threaten any trouble. The sole exception was Chin Gigante, the boss of the Genovese family who reminded the Gambino capos that eventually someone would have to pay for breaking the Commission rules.
When the Gambino capos met again before the end of the year, John Gotti was formally elected boss of the family. Fist co-conspirator Frank DeCicco made his nomination.
As a student of Machiavelli, Gotti had a good sense of whom in his organization to put into positions of power. DeCicco became his under boss and he made Angelo head of the Bergin crew. Sammy officially took over all of Toddo’s operations. Sammy was a very powerful man, but he preferred to remain a shadowy background figure, while Gotti and DeCicco visibly ran the show. Joseph Armone, the elderly capo who had become a member of the Fist, was given new sources of income. And consigliere Joe Gallo remained in his position under Gotti as he had under Paul Castellano.
Most importantly, Gotti understood the value of public relations. Unlike his predecessor and some of the other family bosses, Gotti realized that favorable publicity would enhance his standing with other Cosa Nostra families, with the members of his own family, and, very importantly, with potential jurors and witnesses. By charming the media, he was able to create a public image of himself as a legendary, almost heroic rogue. Yes, he was a gangster. That could
not be denied. But to the public he was a popular and likable guy — the way Al Capone was revered on the streets of Chicago in 1930. Gotti was very media astute, a fact which confounded his enemies in law enforcement.
The original Mafia was an institution built out of respect and honor in Sicily the early 1700s. This secret society was at the time mostly intended to unify the natives against their enemies. Its intention was to create a sense of family based on ancestry and Sicilian heritage.The leaders of today are changing the face of the Mafia. Gotti himself is not Sicilian, but rather Neapolitan.
It has been called The Outfit, The Arm, The Clique, The Tradition, The Syndicate, The Honored Society, The Office, and The Combination, but to its members it is La Cosa Nostra (this thing of ours). The face of the Mafia has changed from the faceless, mysterious, and impenetrable power that it was fifty years ago.
Fifty years ago, no member of La Cosa Nostra would have considered breaking omerta, the code of silence which, in many ways, is responsible for the power of the Mafia.
To do this was to be labeled a “rat” (called that because a rat will do anything to survive) and be marked for certain death. Today, things are different. It has been blamed on drugs, and it has been blamed on youth. One thing is certain: powerful members of the Mafia have broken omerta, and the entire organization has paid the price.
In 1988, Angelo Lonardo, former acting boss of the Cleveland Family, testified before the Senate Committee on Government Affairs. The issue of the changing of the Mafia was addressed. Senator Roth stated:
“…we are facing a new generation of the LCN La Cosa Nostra… They lack respect for tradition and for the family, they have succumbed to the influence of drugs, both as traffickers and as users. As a result, they have become more greedy, selfish, more violent. Many have chosen to forsake omerta, the traditional vow of silence and turn in other family members to save their own skins.”
Mr.Lombardo himself stated that there were no men of honor anymore. He states:
“It has changed since I first joined in the 1940’s, especially in the last few years with the growth of narcotics. Greed is causing younger members to go into narcotics without the knowledge of the families. These younger members lack the discipline and respect that made “This Thing” as strong as it once was.”