Reputed Top Mafia Leader Slain in N.Y.

Times Staff Writers

Paul (Big Paul) Castellano, the reputed boss of the nation’s largest and most powerful Mafia family, was shot to death along with his bodyguard Monday as they got out of their limousine in front of a Manhattan restaurant.

Three men in trench coats used automatic weapons to gun down Castellano and Thomas Bilotti at 5:26 p.m. on a crowded sidewalk, police said. No one else was injured.

Castellano, 70, who was on trial in U.S. District Court for masterminding a car theft ring that allegedly shipped thousands of autos to the Middle East for resale, was killed instantly, as was Bilotti, 45, police said. Testimony at the trial also linked the ring to 24 murders.


Castellano also was indicted in February along with the heads of New York’s four other crime families on federal charges of participating in a “commission” that governs mob operations including murders, loan sharking, gambling, labor racketeering and drug trafficking.

The gunmen fled on foot through rush-hour crowds to an auto parked at the end of the block where the slayings took place. Both Castellano and Bilotti were shot repeatedly in the head, police said. Workers in office buildings and people on the street said they heard no shots, and police speculated that the killers may have used silencers on their weapons.

Federal prosecutors have said that Castellano, as head of the Gambino organized crime family, was “boss of bosses” of New York’s Mafia organizations. He was the brother-in-law of the late Carlo Gambino, and ran a criminal organization with operations in Las Vegas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and the New York City area, prosecutors alleged.

“Whoever authorized the hit, whoever takes his place, could well determine the future course of La Cosa Nostra in the United States,” said James D. Harmon Jr., executive director of President Reagan’s Crime Commission.

“Paul Castellano and his protege Thomas Bilotti talked too much. They provided much information to law enforcement when their conversations were bugged by the FBI,” Harmon added.

Dozens of detectives converged on the scene shortly after the twin killings. Castellano fell out of the right front door of the black Lincoln Continental sedan. Bilotti fell out the other door. Blood covered the sidewalk and the street.

‘Regular Customer’

Castellano’s car was parked in front of a tow-away sign near the front entrance to Sparks Steak House, a well-known Manhattan restaurant on E. 46th Street. Pat Cetta, Sparks’ owner, said Castellano did not have a reservation to dine at the restaurant Monday night but was a “regular customer.”

“We have many celebrities who come into Sparks,” Cetta said. “Movie stars, TV people. Lots of famous people. Castellano was a celebrity.”

Castellano was “head of the largest and most powerful organized crime family in the nation,” said Edward McDonald, head of the Federal Organized Crime Task Force in Brooklyn.

Longtime Bodyguard

Law enforcement intelligence specialists said Bilotti, Castellano’s longtime bodyguard, was also a captain in the Gambino organized crime network.

Some police intelligence experts speculated that the executions might be the beginning of a mob war. They said that in recent years Castellano was the Gambino family’s boss “in name only” and the real power in the family was Castellano’s underboss, Aniello Dellacroce. Dellacroce died earlier this month of natural causes.

“The mob bosses are getting older and it could be some Young Turks who want to change things,” said Thomas Sheer, deputy assistant director in charge of the New York office of the FBI.

Hit Men’s Weapons

The three gunmen were armed with hit men’s weapons. Police said they carried a .32-caliber semi-automatic handgun and a European .380-caliber semi-automatic pistol. They pumped at least six bullets into each man at close range, police said.

The shootings took place as office buildings all along 3rd Avenue in mid-Manhattan were emptying for the night. The streets were crowded with workers returning home.

Cetta, the restaurant owner, said he was meeting with his staff in the kitchen around 5:30 p.m. when “someone came in screaming about the shooting. I told everyone to stay down. If there was shooting outside, stay out of the way.”

As Castellano and his bodyguard were struck, some firms were holding Christmas parties. Just across the street from the ambush, trees were decorated with bright Christmas lights. A woman who ran panic-stricken into a nearby garage told garage attendants that both men had been struck by 12 shots, but she had heard no gunfire.

‘Silent Gun’

“They must have used some silent gun,” the woman told the workers before she claimed her car and left the scene. Employees of a Chinese restaurant down the block and a delicatessen just across 46th Street from the slaying also said they heard no shots being fired.

Police said the killers pulled the weapons from under their coats. The bodies lay on the street for more than two hours as detectives and FBI agents dusted nearby cars and even the restaurant’s brass awning supports for fingerprints.

Bilotti’s body lay in a pool of blood. Castellano, impeccably clad in a dark blue suit and black shoes, was sprawled face up halfway out of the right front seat of the car. His head and shoulders were in the car and his feet were on the sidewalk when police officers found him.

Convicted Once

Castellano had been convicted of only one crime, serving time in a Connecticut prison for robbery. But police dossiers contended that he had a long career in crime, beginning as a bootlegger during Prohibition. He was one of the youngest mobsters to attend the notorious meeting of major Mafia figures at Apalachin, N.Y., in 1957.

He was held in contempt of court for refusing to discuss the Apalachin conference with law enforcement authorities.

Police said he owned a meat packing and fat rendering business and behaved more like a successful businessman than an underworld leader. He lived on Staten Island in an expensive brick home where he mounted security cameras in trees to scan the street.

Legitimate Millionaire

“He’s a millionaire purely on his legitimate businesses,” a law enforcement official said. “He doesn’t need to get involved” with overt crime.

“If you handed him a gun, he’d jump out the window,” said a police organized crime specialist several years ago. “If you handed him some heroin, he’d run a mile in the opposite direction.”

Police said that in recent years, Castellano would never travel far from home without Bilotti. A U.S. Senate report in July, 1983, estimated that the Gambino crime family had 250 members and 550 associates. The report said the group was involved with gambling, unions and the food, entertainment and jewelry industries.

Sophisticated Ring

Most recently, Castellano and nine other men were on trial on charges that the prosecutors said involved a highly sophisticated car theft ring that “operated like a division of General Motors” and involved “murder, money and stolen cars.”

The 78-count indictment in March, 1984, charged the 10 with car theft, extortion, narcotics trafficking and racketeering. The indictment also detailed 24 murders that some of the defendants were said to have conspired in or committed to protect the ring.

The trial opened on Sept. 30, but defense lawyers had not presented their case, according to Matthew Dontzin, one of Castellano’s lawyers.

Walter S. Mack Jr., head of the Organized Crime Unit for the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, told the jury in October that there was “no evidence” that Castellano “shot anyone or stole any cars. He was the president. He had to oversee the operation,” Mack charged.

John Mitchell, one of Castellano’s defense lawyers, said he met his client for a strategy session around 4 p.m. Monday at his law firm in lower Manhattan. “He was doing very well,” Mitchell said. “Everyone was very optimistic about the case. He seemed to be in good spirits.”