Trial of the 'Teflon Don' points to end of era Gotti emblematic of the Mafia in decline

March 15, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Maybe this "Teflon Don" John Gotti isn't so slick after all.

How else to explain why he talked when he should have walked, why he trusted an underboss who turned rat, and why, no matter how expensive his suits and how silken his socks, the minute he opens his mouth he comes across like a high school tough who just discovered four-letter words?

Yet this is the same John Gotti who has avoided jail terms three times in six years because prosecutors couldn't make the charges stick and who is reputed to have battled to the top of the Gambino crime family, reigning dynasty of the Mafia.

So it is that some people now see Mr. Gotti as the most prominent symbol of the Mafia's imminent demise, for he is once again seated in a courtroom, smirking and wisecracking as he faces the most formidable evidence amassed against him to date.

"The traditional Mafia as we know it is finished," Ed Wright, chief investigator for the New York State Organized Crime Task Force, said last week. Even those who aren't as optimistic as Mr. Wright give the Mafia a life expectancy of only about a decade.

Mr. Gotti is charged with five Mafia murders, conspiracy in a sixth, gambling, loan sharking, tax evasion, obstruction of justice and racketeering -- and some of the most damaging evidence has come from his own mouth.

Investigators spent years painstakingly making him an unwitting star witness, by recording his conversations for hours on end at his favorite hangouts, chiefly the Ravenite Social Club, a storefront in Manhattan's Little Italy with bricked-up windows and a scrawl of graffiti on its battered door.

Like other reputed Mafia officers, Mr. Gotti grew used to such attention, and he often took precautions against being overheard by hidden microphones, especially after his acquittal on racketeering charges in 1987. Knowing that the club was probably bugged, "he made a practice at the Ravenite of going on these walk-talks," Mr. Wright said, meaning that Mr. Gotti took his sensitive confabs to the sidewalk, strolling and chatting while bodyguards kept their distance and noisy traffic rolled by.

"But then he'd circumvent that by going upstairs in the Ravenite and talking without even turning on a TV in the room," Mr. Wright said. "So it was like getting studio-quality tapes."

Then there's the matter of witness Sammy the Bull, a.k.a. Salvatore Gravano, the former boxer who became Mr. Gotti's trusted underboss. As Mr. Gravano testified in court Thursday, "I was a good loyal soldier. John barked and I bit."

But when federal investigators barked last fall about the possibility of a life sentence for Mr. Gravano, he decided to bite Mr. Gotti, and in October -- on Mr. Gotti's 51st birthday -- Sammy the Bull decided to become a Mafia rat. In appreciation for his testimony, the government has offered the prospect of a 20-year maximum sentence and a new identity under the witness protection program.

His accounts have been the highlight of the trial, with blunt descriptions of his part in 19 mob murders, nine of them since Mr. Gotti allegedly took over the Gambino operation in late 1985 with the slaying of former Gambino boss Paul Castellano.

That murder, carried out on a crowded rush hour sidewalk by men in trench coats and black furry hats, left Mr. Castellano and his underboss lying in a pool of blood by their limousine at the entrance to a midtown steak house, while crowds of pedestrians screamed and ducked for cover.

All the while, Mr. Gravano testified, he and Mr. Gotti idled in a nearby limousine, waiting to cruise by to confirm the kill.

Not that Mr. Gotti admits to any of this. His public posture is that of a $60,000-a-year plumbing contractor who's being persecuted because he leads a flashy lifestyle and likes to socialize with the boys in Little Italy and out in Ozone Park in Queens.

Mr. Gotti lives in Howard Beach, a Queens neighborhood of small, trim lawns and tree-lined streets. Folk singer icon Woody Guthrie once lived a few blocks up the same street.

The home of the Teflon Don looks like Ward Cleaver's, except that the Cleavers didn't have a surveillance camera overlooking the sidewalk. The house is two stories of white brick and white siding, with a pair of fake ducks squatting on the front lawn and a "Beware of the Dog" sign on the backyard gate. Two yellow ribbons are tied to a small, bare tree out front, awaiting Mr. Gotti's return (he has been jailed without bail since his arrest 15 months ago). A few neighbors have similar displays.

Atop his roof is a huge satellite dish. But all the neighbors have the ungainly zigzags of conventional antennae. Not even having Mr. Gotti around could bring cable TV to Queens.

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