Castellano Leadership Hit by Trials, Mob Experts Say

Times Staff Writer

Reputed Mafia boss Paul Castellano, shot to death outside a Manhattan steak house Monday, probably was killed because a series of racketeering trials had undercut his ability to lead the nation’s largest organized crime group, law enforcement officials said Tuesday.

But federal and state officials said they still do not know whether Castellano and his bodyguard, a longtime mob associate, were gunned down by rivals in an internal power struggle within the Gambino crime family, which Castellano headed, or were killed on orders from opposing crime family leaders. It may even have been both.

“We haven’t come down on the side of any one theory at this point,” said Joseph Valiquette, an FBI spokesman in New York. An FBI statement released in Washington noted the “emergence of a power struggle” in New York’s crime families, but FBI officials shied away from predicting an all-out mob war.

Couple of Weeks

“We’ll find out over the next couple of weeks,” Valiquette said. “If there are more hits or unexplained disappearances, then I guess we can conclude there’s a war on. If not, we reassess.”

“We’ll see real soon,” agreed Ronald Goldstock, director of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force. “If there is a lot of bloodshed, then it came from a factional fight. If there is relatively little, then it was sanctioned by the other families.”


One reason for the confusion is that “there are so many reasons held by so many people” to kill the dapper 70-year-old mobster known as “Big Paul,” Goldstock said. “Virtually everyone in the mob would say ‘we’re better off if he’s dead,’ ” he added.

Castellano and his bodyguard, Thomas Bilotti, 45, were shot six times each in the head and upper body with semi-automatic handguns as they stepped out of a black Lincoln on a busy East Side street about 5:30 p.m. Monday. Witnesses told police that two or three white men wearing trench coats and fur hats fired the shots, then ran down the street and jumped into a waiting car.

No Suspects Identified

A New York City police spokesman said Tuesday that detectives had not identified any suspects or found the killers’ car. The FBI is assisting police in the investigation.

Several officials noted that Castellano not only was on trial for a 78-count federal indictment involving racketeering, murder, car theft and prostitution, but faced at least four other pending or expected indictments for extortion, bribery, narcotics, murder and conspiracy. He was free on $2-million bail.

“He was tied up in litigation for the foreseeable future,” Goldstock said. “He was in court four days a week. He couldn’t meet with people. He couldn’t provide leadership. They were losing opportunities. They were losing money.”

Strong Pressure

Goldstock also said that Castellano was a potential target because he would face strong pressure to give evidence against other mob leaders if convicted and sentenced to a lengthy prison term. A federal indictment last February charged Castellano and the heads of New York’s four other Mafia families with running a “commission” that controls all organized crime activities in the region. Castellano allegedly headed the “commission.”

“He was in a position to bring down not only his own family but all the other families,” Goldstock said. The “commission” trial is scheduled to begin March 17.

In addition, Goldstock said, Castellano’s nine co-defendants in the current trial are potential suspects because of Castellano’s crucial role in allegedly masterminding the international car-theft and murder ring.

“If he went down, he’d bring the others with him,” Goldstock said. “But if he’s not involved, the others have a much stronger case.”

Move for Mistrial

Lawyers for the nine co-defendants quickly moved to declare a mistrial when trial resumed Tuesday. U.S. District Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy warned jurors to disregard news of the killing and said he will rule on the mistrial motions on Jan. 6. Federal prosecutors declined comment on the killing.

Several officials speculated that the hit may have come from within the Gambino crime group. Castellano assumed leadership after the death of his brother-in-law, Carlo Gambino, in 1976, but officials said he maintained an uneasy alliance with his second-in-command, Aniello Dellacroce.

Dellacroce, 71, died on Dec. 2 of natural causes, and officials said his followers might have killed Castellano to assert supremacy in the powerful crime group.

Times Staff Writer Ronald J. Ostrow in Washington also contributed to this story.