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Curtain Comes Down on the 'Oddfather'

For 30 years, mob boss Vincent Gigante feigned dementia to avoid prison. Now authorities say they have evidence proving his sanity.

March 23, 2003|Larry McShane | Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — The days of surviving close shaves are over for "The Chin."

For 30 years, mob boss Vincent Gigante turned dementia into an art form, avoiding relentless efforts by federal authorities to put him in prison. The Genovese family chieftain was reputedly the nation's No. 1 Mafioso, even as he shuffled through Greenwich Village in pajamas and a bathrobe.

He rarely strayed from the neighborhood, yet controlled the New Jersey waterfront and allegedly ordered murders to settle a Philadelphia mob war.

Now, at age 74, Gigante's "Oddfather" ruse has run its course. The enfeebled boss sits in a Texas prison hospital, doing a 12-year term, awaiting trial Monday -- and another round of betrayals by cohorts turned witnesses.

The mob and the Chin ain't what they used to be.

Gigante is accused of running the Genovese family from behind bars. He already may be guilty of violating two precepts developed over a half-century in the mob.

For the first time, authorities say, they possess audiotapes of Gigante that prove his sanity -- tapes made as he entertained visitors in prison. Gigante directed Genovese business in "a coherent, careful and intelligent manner," prosecutors charged.

And Gigante allegedly involved his son, 45-year-old Andrew, in mob business -- a move he had long forsworn. Gigante felt his children deserved better than the mob life, Gambino underboss Sammy "The Bull" Gravano once recounted.

It's a strange finale to a lifetime in organized crime, where Gigante's mumbling, stumbling charade kept prosecutors at bay while other kingpins, from mentor Vito Genovese to nemesis John Gotti, died behind bars.

"Thirty years, and I'll tell you: Chin did a great job of it," said mob turncoat Henry Hill, who remembers Gigante -- then a Genovese capo -- padding around Sullivan Street in his "crazy act" during the early 1970s.

"He was odd. And then he'd give you the wink-wink, ya know?"

Gigante took command of the Genovese family in the early 1980s, reigning for more than two decades as it became the nation's most powerful Mafia crew.

While Gambino family boss Gotti wore $1,800 suits and hand-painted ties, Gigante preferred bedtime attire. His uncombed hair stood up like pine needles, and his 5 o'clock shadow bristled around the clock.

The bizarre look belied a hardened criminal.

Gigante's rap sheet dates back to 1945. Mob tough guys refused to speak his name aloud, instead touching their chins in deference to the boss and his paranoia about government bugs.

Even Gotti feared Gigante -- and with good reason, since the Chin had sanctioned his assassination in the 1980s.

At the height of his power, authorities said, the boss commanded an illegal domain that made money from the booths at Little Italy's San Gennaro Festival to the docks of Miami.


One of six sons of Italian immigrants, Gigante was raised in the same Greenwich Village neighborhood where he wound up spending a lifetime.

Brothers Mario and Ralph allegedly followed him into organized crime, while a third brother, Louis, became a crusading Bronx priest, a city council member and Vincent's main defender. He still insists Gigante is mentally ill.

The Chin, after a brief and unsuccessful boxing career, was persuaded by seminal mob figure Charlie "Lucky" Luciano to join the mob.

Gigante became bodyguard/chauffeur for a capo named Vito Genovese, who fancied himself as the replacement for family boss Frank Costello. Gigante, then a hulking 300-pounder, was lined up to murder Costello.

On May 2, 1957, Costello entered the lobby of his building on Central Park West -- and found Gigante waiting. "This is for you, Frank," he announced, pulling the trigger.

Costello survived, but the experience hastened his retirement. Genovese became the boss, and Gigante was acquitted when Costello refused to identify him in court.

Gigante's alliance with Genovese was double-edged. Other mob bosses, upset by Genovese's power grab, set up the new boss on a bogus drug charge in 1959. Gigante and 23 associates were caught in the net.

Gigante was sentenced to seven years. After his 1964 parole, Gigante resumed his rise through the ranks: soldier, capo, consigliere. And he created his "Oddfather" alter ego.

Gigante first used the mental incompetence dodge in 1970, when he was accused of bribing the entire 5-man police force of Old Tappan, N.J., a small town where he maintained a residence.

Once it succeeded, Gigante adopted the defense as a lifestyle. On 22 occasions between 1969 and 1990, he voluntarily checked into a suburban hospital for treatment.

Admiring fellow mobsters referred to Gigante's stays as "tune-ups." But those were among Gigante's tamer stunts.

FBI agents serving Gigante with a subpoena once found him naked in a running shower, clutching an open umbrella. The shower gambit was apparently a rare event; mob turncoat Gravano once observed that the coat of filth on Gigante's unwashed skin would sometimes turn a "crusty white."

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