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THE NATION | JOHN GOTTI: 1940-2002

The 'Dapper Don' Was Last Celebrity Mobster

June 11, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — John Gotti, the swaggering New York crime boss who became America's most famous--and feared--Mafia figure, died Monday at a federal prison hospital in Springfield, Mo., of complications of throat cancer.

Gotti, who rose from the streets of the Bronx to run the Gambino crime family, was 61. At the time of his death, he was serving a life sentence for racketeering charges that included murder, loan-sharking and extortion.

The U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield said Gotti, who had lapsed into a coma over the weekend, died at 12:45 p.m. EST. Prison officials will conduct an autopsy to determine the exact cause of his death, according to a statement issued by prison spokeswoman Diane Smith.

Unlike many organized crime figures who shun the spotlight, Gotti became a national celebrity during his underworld career. He alternately was known as the "Teflon Don," for his ability to escape a series of federal prosecutions, and the "Dapper Don" for his habit of wearing $2,000 Brioni suits and dining in New York's fanciest restaurants.

The subject of books, numerous magazine profiles and an HBO movie, Gotti was the last great, famous gangster. He was a modern version of the tough-talking, brawling Mafioso who captured America's imagination for much of the 20th century. But even as he basked in media attention, the clout of the Italian Mafia was ebbing nationwide.

Federal prosecutors used the RICO law (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) to jail a multitude of crime bosses by the mid-1990s. They depleted the leadership of America's five organized crime families. Gotti, who was convicted in 1992, was the last major kingpin to fall.

Since his incarceration, federal officials have jailed surviving leaders of the Gambino family. The mobster's older brother, Peter, who had taken over as the family crime boss, was arrested last week along with two other family members. They were charged with racketeering and money-laundering schemes involving the city's waterfront. Gotti's younger brother, Gene, is serving a 50-year sentence for heroin trafficking; his son, John Jr., is serving a six-year sentence for racketeering and gambling.

"The day they put John Gotti away marked the end of an era with the mob in this country," said Jerry Capeci, coauthor of "Mob Star: The Story of John Gotti" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Mafia."

"He lived large and dared the government to come get him--but he also showed that if you're going to run a crime family, you have to run it like a secret society. You can't be full of bravado and hang out on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, where the FBI has you under constant surveillance."

At the height of his powers, in the 1980s, Gotti presided over an empire that raked in about $1 billion annually from prostitution, narcotics, pornography, gambling, labor racketeering, stolen cars and business fraud. Yet it was his reputation as a ruthless killer that prompted federal prosecutors to target him as he climbed the organized crime ladder.

After three failed prosecutions, Gotti was convicted 10 years ago of orchestrating the 1985 gangland execution of Paul Castellano, the former Gambino family chief, outside Sparks Restaurant in Manhattan. The sensational crime catapulted Gotti to national attention, but it also proved to be his undoing. Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, a Gotti associate who was linked to 19 murders, cut a deal with prosecutors and testified that his boss had planned the sidewalk murder so he could take Castellano's job.

At the trial, Gotti's lawyers denied that he had any links to organized crime, arguing that he was a $60,000-a-year plumbing contractor. Bruce Cutler, one of his attorneys, suggested that Gotti was a hard-working family man who inspired strong loyalty among his neighbors in Howard Beach, Queens. The Gottis held an annual Fourth of July barbecue for them, and Cutler suggested that in some communities Gotti was an inspirational figure.

The mobster also made good copy. Reporters loved to banter with him as he walked up courthouse steps or through Little Italy in New York City, his coiffed gray hair barely rippling in the breeze. "Are you a crime boss?" a reporter once shouted to him. "I'm a boss," Gotti replied, "of my wife and family."

To this day, there are Web sites in Gotti's honor, some overflowing with personal testimonials to his generosity. But his lengthy rap sheet, and the data unearthed by federal investigations, tell a vastly different story.

"He's a murderer, not a folk hero," said U.S. Atty. Andrew J. Maloney in 1990, announcing Gotti's indictment for Castellano's murder. And the evidence introduced at several trials--including extensive federal wiretaps--underscored the image of Gotti as a powerful crime boss who frequently erupted into raging, obscene tirades against his enemies.

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