NEW YORK — Peter "Big Pete" Chiodo took the stand this week in a federal courtroom in Brooklyn with some obvious discomfort.
For one thing, Chiodo, who says he is responsible for five Mafia murders, had to squeeze his wounded, 400-plus pounds into a wheelchair to make his courtroom appearance.
His fellow mobsters tried to kill him six years ago. They ambushed him at a service station and shot him 12 times.
Now Chiodo sings in the "Mob Choir"--that is, he testifies against his old gang in hopes of doing less time in jail.
This month, the choir is singing about Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, who is either a senile old man or a murderous Mafia don, depending on which lawyers are describing the feeble-looking man who sits mumbling to himself these days in federal court.
"The Oddfather," blared one of the city's newspapers as Gigante's trial on charges of murder, extortion and racketeering started last week.
"The Slobfather," trumpeted another when Gigante, reputed head of the Genovese crime family, appeared in court with rumpled sports clothes and three-day stubble.
Ah, New York, the city where Mafia trials are not just about justice and La Cosa Nostra. They're also Dick Tracy, Marlon Brando, the lore of the capos and the godfathers and blood feuds over following the code. The courtroom fills with Mafia cognoscenti--many of them reporters and authors who are looking for today's headline and maybe tomorrow's script.
They know the history, the family trees. And in this latest version, "The Chin's" court record is beginning to sound like satire of a well-known genre. It would be a sendup if not for all the dead bodies.
"Sometimes it feels like a Martin Scorsese movie," says mob expert Adele Sammarco, who is a reporter for New York's all-news television station NY1. "Everybody's wondering who's going to play The Chin."
Gigante became The Chin because his name is Vincent, or Vincenzo, pronounced Vin-CHIN-zo in Italian. He is charged with overseeing complicated extortion schemes, as well as seven gangland murders. In one case, a body was found with firecrackers in the mouth, apparently because the victim had blown up another mobster in violation of Mafia rules.
Gigante, 69, denies the charges. In court he sits in a wheelchair and sometimes, for no apparent reason, his leg shakes and he begins to mumble. A New York Daily News columnist wrote last week that for a while the left leg shook. Then after a recess, the right leg took over.
The family says these are the signs that he's sick and feebleminded. His lawyer told the jury that far from being a devious Mafia don, Gigante has an IQ of 70. His daughter Yolanda, who gives daily press briefings outside the courtroom, says he has heart trouble. A family doctor has been giving him a kind of nitroglycerin pill to get him through the negative testimony, she explained after court on Monday. On another day, she told the press that her father is a "paranoid schizophrenic' being persecuted (for real) by the feds.
Indeed, Gigante looked so much like a mental patient the first day in court that Judge Jack B. Weinstein ordered him to shave and wear a suit and tie. Told that Gigante, who was known for wandering around his neighborhood in a bathrobe, doesn't own a suit and tie, the judge settled on a jacket and a golf shirt. He also ordered The Chin to shave.
The papers, of course, went crazy. "Judge to Chin: Come Clean" roared the Daily News. The New York Post's headline writer could not resist something for the younger set:"Judge: Shave Chinny 'Chin' Chin."
The U.S. government calls all this mumbling and shaking and sloppy dress Gigante's "crazy act." Prosecutors say the bathrobes on the street, the visits to mental wards for an occasional "tuneup," as Gigante's friends call it, are all part of an artful cover-up.
Whatever the jury decides in this case, probably sometime in mid-August, for mob-followers this is the best courtroom bonanza since the trial of another mob kingpin, John Gotti, five years ago. The courtroom across the East River from Manhattan is packed, as in the Gotti days. But this time, more than three rows are taken for Gigante's family, instead of Gotti's beefy pals.
"This is much more like the Old World mobsters who preferred to work out of public view," said Juliet Papa, who works for WINS, New York's news radio. "It's a much harder case than Gotti for them to prove."
In Gotti's case, prosecutors had tapes of the boss giving obscene orders to kill. With Gigante, the prosecutors are relying on their own undercover work as well as an array of mobsters to rat on their former colleague.
Not that the feds didn't try to get Gigante on tape. They rented an apartment next to his longtime companion, Olympia Esposito, and tried to put a bug in the ceiling of the dining room. But the bug didn't work, agent Charles Beaudoin explained to the court last week.