John Gotti is a thug and a racketeer. He is the head of the largest organized crime gang in greater New York and probably in the country. Federal prosecutors say he is a murderer. He is also an anachronism.
Which is not to brush aside Mr. Gotti's trial on murder, conspiracy, extortion, racketeering, gambling and loansharking. It's a lot more than "GoodFellas" or "Bugsy" without the popcorn. Mr. Gotti commands a force of perhaps 400 hoodlums, one of the five notorious Mafia families in New York. They infest the docks, a few labor unions and some essential industries. They also bribe politicians, rig public contract bids, feast off the profits of prostitution, gambling and in some cases narcotics. And they kill people -- often each other.
Mr. Gotti has been tried in New York's federal courthouse three times before this, since he took over command of the so-called Gambino family in 1986. Each time he has walked away, dapper and smirking, earning himself the tabloid title "The Teflon Don." This time the smirk is forced, as he listens to an intimate associate describe how they plotted the murders of Mr. Gotti's ++ predecessor, Paul Castellano, and one of his men.
It is in the testimony of Salvadore Gravano, better known on the streets as Sammy the Bull, that the real significance of the trial lies. Whether or not Mr. Gotti is convicted, the spectacle of a senior mafioso's testifying in lurid detail against the most powerful boss in the country is a death knell for the Outfit, the Organization, the Cosa Nostra, or whatever it is properly called. For it survived on a mystique of secrecy and fear. If John Gotti's closest aide can turn his coat, no hoodlum is safe.
In reality the Mafia's brand of organized crime has been going out of style for some years now. Leaders of other organizations in places like Philadelphia and New England have seen their power broken by prosecutions like the Gotti case. Just as the Mafia supplanted other ethnic groups decades ago, new brotherhoods based on blood relationships are moving into its turf, often fueled by the profits of drugs that some of the old gangsters disdained. Even if John Gotti walks free again, he and his ilk are doomed.