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Thousands Turn Out for the Dapper Don's Last Ride

Crime: To many along the funeral route, mob boss John Gotti was a hero. He died last week in a federal prison.

June 16, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — He was a killer, an arrogant crime boss who inspired fear. But when John Gotti was buried Saturday in an elaborate mob funeral, many New Yorkers hailed him as a hero--a man who had been true to his code.

Under drizzling skies, Gotti's gray hearse rolled past his favorite neighborhood haunts and his home in Howard Beach, Queens, before reaching the gates of St. John's Cemetery, where he was laid to rest in a family mausoleum next to his son Frank. Following close behind were more than 100 cars and limousines, thousands of onlookers and a media horde.

Gotti, former boss of the Gambino crime family, died of throat cancer last week. He was serving a life sentence at a federal prison in Missouri on a racketeering conviction that included counts of murder, loan-sharking and extortion.

Although Gotti had disappeared from view after his 1992 conviction, he remained America's most notorious Mafioso. And the passing of the Dapper Don, known for his love of expensive Italian suits, prompted strong, visceral reactions from those straining for a glimpse of his coffin.

"This man was a hero, he never cheated on his wife and he kept his neighborhood safe from crime," said an emotional Mary Adams, who said she drove from out of state to pay her respects as Gotti's funeral cortege passed. "The government hounded him while he was alive, and they tried to turn him into a monster, but he deserves every bit of the send-off he's getting today."

Others viewed the scene with skepticism. "I don't know how you make a hero out of someone who was so violent," said Craig Wessel, watching with his teenage daughter, Andrea. "How can you forget that?"

Gotti's funeral was a case of life imitating Hollywood: As chunky wise guys patrolled the streets in front of Papavero Funeral Home in Maspeth, Queens, federal agents snapped photos from an undercover van. Emotional family members, some collapsing with grief, were helped into waiting limousines, which stretched for three city blocks.

While helicopters buzzed overhead, aides stuffed huge wreaths of flowers--some shaped like a cigar, a martini, a royal flush, the Yankees logo and an Italian flag--onto trucks to lead the procession. When Gotti's large, gold-covered coffin was brought out, many in the waiting crowd burst into applause, shouting "Bravo!"

Although the throng lining the procession route fell short of the 10,000 predicted by members of the Gotti family, the turnout underscored Gotti's enduring celebrity in a culture that has romanticized the mob.

It was fitting, some said, that Gotti was being buried on a leafy hill in St. John's Cemetery, a gangster's Valhalla that is also a resting place for Salvatore "Lucky" Luciano, Vito Genovese, Carlo Gambino and others.

"I've seen all the Mafia movies, like 'The Godfather' and 'Goodfellas,' " said Eddie Schubert, an office manager who joined hundreds jammed in front of the cemetery gates, as Gotti's funeral procession came into view. "But you tend to forget that all this stuff is real, that it actually happens in the world, and somehow we're all part of it today."

Some were not impressed by what they saw. Enduring taunts and obscene comments from people in the crowd, Ceci Finkelstein and her friends held up a handmade sign in front of the cemetery reading: "Why glorify?"

Finkelstein said the pomp and ceremony sickened her "because it's sending the wrong message to children in this country. If we glorify John Gotti, we're glorifying a man who killed people brutally for a living. I really can't believe we're serious about this kind of adulation."

"What are you yelling about, lady?" shouted a man standing nearby, clearly irritated by her sign. "You don't know anything about Gotti."

"Oh yeah?" she answered. "What about John Favara?"

In March 1980, Favara, a neighbor of Gotti's, accidentally hit the mobster's son Frank with a car, killing him. Favara got death threats and was preparing to move his family out of the neighborhood that summer, but on July 28 he was grabbed on the way to work, clubbed and tossed in a van. He was never heard from again.

Gotti insisted he had nothing to do with Favara's disappearance but told federal agents probing the incident: "I'm not sorry the guy's missing. I wouldn't be sorry if the guy turned up dead."

Asked by a reporter Saturday about this incident, Bruce Cutler, Gotti's longtime attorney, dismissed the question as being in poor taste. "Did you know John Gotti?" he demanded. "Do you know what really happened? John Gotti was a man of courage. That is how we're going to remember him."

As Cutler spoke, members of the Gotti family climbed into limousines for The Don's last ride. But some were not on hand. Gotti's older brother, Peter, was arrested two weeks ago along with other alleged Gambino crime family members on racketeering charges involving the New York City waterfront. A younger brother, Gene, is serving a 50-year sentence for heroin trafficking.

Gotti's oldest son, John Jr., is also in custody, serving six years for racketeering and gambling. Friends and family had hoped to give Gotti a Mass of Christian Burial service, but the Brooklyn Diocese refused. Bishop Thomas Daily invoked a church precept known as "Scandal," the belief that the church faithful would get the wrong message if a funeral Mass was granted to someone who, like Gotti, had lived outside the church's teaching.

Church officials noted, however, that the decision was not meant to be a judgment about Gotti's lifestyle, since they believe only God can make that decision.

"May he rest in peace," said Mary Adams, as the procession disappeared from view and the street in front of Papavero Funeral Home became quiet once again. "Whatever you think about him, we won't forget Mr. Gotti."

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