NEW YORK — Hair styled by regular visits to the barber shop at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, creases sharp in his $1,800 suit, silk necktie carefully chosen to coordinate, John Gotti once again is center stage at a high-stakes, high-visibility trial with more than a touch of Hollywood.
After winning acquittal three times, the reputed head of the nation's largest organized crime family is the chief attraction in a Brooklyn courtroom. He is facing federal charges including murder, murder conspiracy, racketeering, illegal gambling, loan sharking and obstruction of justice.
Gotti, 51, who swears he is just a salesman for a plumbing and heating supply company, is accused most prominently of masterminding the assassination before Christmas in 1985 of Paul Castellano. The government says Gotti wanted to take Castellano's place as head of the Gambino crime family.
Gotti is on trial for ordering five underworld executions, although federal prosecutors have now alleged that he authorized six other hits as well, for a total of 11.
The prosecutors, who have succeeded in winning the cooperation of Gotti's most trusted aide, Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano, are convinced they have their strongest case yet against the man the media has dubbed the "Teflon Don."
Extraordinary precautions are being taken to guard against jury tampering (artists may not even sketch prospective jurors' faces) as Gotti sits outwardly jovial and smiling in court with co-defendant Frank Locascio.
Since his arrest more than a year ago, Gotti has been held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan. Incarceration has put a severe crimp in his lifestyle, which previously included trips in his custom Mercedes from his modest home in Howard Beach, Queens, to expensive restaurants; visits to his country home in Pennsylvania, and jaunts in his speedboat on Jamaica Bay.
It has been lights-out promptly at 10:30 p.m. and a severe decline in sartorial splendor. Except for court appearances, Gotti has been forced to wear a dark brown prison-issue jumpsuit.
Even though prosecutors stand 0-3 against Gotti, law enforcement officials stress that over the past decade they have made significant progress against traditional organized crime. They say three of New York City's five Mafia families essentially are on the ropes and major assaults are under way against the other two.
"The infrastructure of the Cosa Nostra is in the process of disintegration," said Ronald Goldstock, director of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force. "The Gotti trial should be put in a larger context."
Although Gotti has not been convicted in these cases, Goldstock said, "he has been unable to avoid prosecution and electronic surveillance. . . . (and) the conversations . . . were used to convict a dozen people around him.
"You look at Gotti's achievements as head of the family after a five-year period. His achievements are largely he was acquitted three times and they have been able to have fireworks on the Fourth of July.
"In terms of the family, he has been a disaster," Goldstock said. "People within the family have been blown up in internecine warfare. Others have been convicted and public and law enforcement attention have hurt the businesses the family are in."
The Gambino and Genovese families remain New York City's most powerful Mafia organizations. Estimates are the Gambino family contains some 400 members, who are involved in loan sharking, gambling, theft, hijacking and receiving stolen property. They also have penetrated such industries as construction and trucking (in the garment business) as well as crime at airports and on the waterfront.
Prosecutors believe they won some important victories even before jury selection began.
By gaining the cooperation of Gravano, who was charged in the indictment with committing three murders and was arrested with Gotti on Dec. 11, 1990, government lawyers believe they may have the strongest witness ever against Gotti.
Gravano is expected to tell the jury that Gotti ordered the slaying of Castellano because Castellano, as head of the Gambino crime family, planned to assign mobsters reporting to Gotti to other crews. Castellano complained that Gotti crews were involved in drug trafficking, against Castellano's orders.
At the time, Gotti was a middle-level captain in the crime family who had served prison time for attempted manslaughter and for cargo thefts and truck hijackings at Kennedy Airport.
Gravano, a 46-year-old amateur boxer, also is in the position to corroborate government tape recordings, prosecutors believe. Some of the tapes show that Gotti had confidence in Gravano and planned to have him act as his surrogate if he went to jail. Government lawyers allege that on one of the tapes, Gotti discusses the five murders that prosecutors say he ordered.