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Undoing the ‘Dapper Don’? : Prosecutors say they can finally put John Gotti behind bars--and hasten the Mafia’s demise.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the night Big Paulie got whacked, John Gotti became a star. It was 5:25 p.m. on Dec. 16, 1985, and a long black Lincoln nosed its way through rush-hour traffic in mid-town Manhattan, halting in front of Sparks Steak House. Paul Castellano, the beefy, big-jowled boss of the Gambino crime family, lumbered out of the car and headed inside for a T-bone dinner.

But he never made it to the first course. Witnesses on the crowded sidewalk said that three men in dark trench coats suddenly rushed the car and opened fire with semi-automatic handguns. Castellano, 70, was killed instantly, as was his driver and aide, Tom Bilotti. The hit men sped off in a waiting auto, leaving their victims in a pool of blood.

In the bedlam that followed, New York tried to piece together its most dramatic gangland hit in 15 years. Soon, all eyes turned to a tough-talking goombah in the Gambino family--a man who, out of nowhere, seemed poised to take over the nation’s largest crime organization.

Squat, muscular and weighing in at 200 pounds, John Gotti was an obscure underling with prior convictions for attempted manslaughter and truck hijacking. A hot-tempered guy who dropped out of high school and had a taste for street brawling, the reputed mobster was foul-mouthed and crass and seemed strictly small-time.

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But he quickly became a prime suspect in the Castellano case, because prosecutors believed Gotti had been scheming to “whack"--or kill--his boss and gain control of the family business. As more police attention focused on him, Gotti’s media star began to soar. Soon, he became a household name, a handsome thug who wore $2,000 suits, fired off snappy one-liners and eventually made the cover of Time magazine.

Now, Gotti is due for even more publicity. Later this year, federal prosecutors will put him and two associates on trial in the murders of Castellano and Bilotti. The story has come full circle, investigators say, because the same case that catapulted the charismatic defendant to notoriety may be the crime that brings him down.

“It’s bizarre that it could turn out this way,” says Gene Mustain, a New York Daily News reporter who co-authored “Mob Star,” a biography of Gotti.

“Millions of people remember that Christmas shooting outside Sparks, because it paved the way for all of his media visibility since then. This could turn out to be one of the truly great mob trials.”

Today, the press calls Gotti the Dapper Don, because of his taste in clothes, and the Teflon Don, because he has avoided conviction in three racketeering and assault cases since 1986. Federal prosecutors hope to call him the Last Don--because Gotti, 50, is the one remaining head of a major U.S. crime family who is not serving a lengthy jail term.

The Gambino family is the largest of New York’s five crime organizations, with hundreds of lieutenants in the Big Apple, as well as Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Pennsylvania and Florida. Investigators say it makes $500 million to $1 billion annually through gambling, loan sharking, extortion, narcotics, prostitution, murder, pornography, labor racketeering, stolen cars and business fraud. While other families have been crippled in recent years by state and federal prosecutions, the Gambino network has flourished, its leadership largely intact.

For that reason, police say, Gotti is Public Enemy No. 1. And his upcoming trial, which could begin this summer, has a significance that goes beyond one man’s rise and fall. Many prosecutors believe that the Italian-American wing of organized crime has been routed in recent years, with convictions of crime bosses in many key cities. By putting the nation’s most notorious gangster in jail, they say, it will only hasten the Mafia’s demise.

“If these trends continue, the mob should become passe. It may just disappear,” predicts Notre Dame University law professor G. Robert Blakey, who helped draft the tough statutes used by federal prosecutors against mob leaders. Under these laws, known as RICO (Racketeer Influenced Corruption Organizations), prosecutors bring charges against defendants alleged to be part of an institutional conspiracy, such as an organized crime family.

“It took us 30 years to figure out that these people in the underworld really exist,” Blakey adds. “We now have the tools to finally put all of these bad guys away.”

So far, Gotti has wriggled off the hook. He avoided conviction in a 1986 assault case, when a frightened victim could not identify him in court. He was acquitted in a 1987 racketeering case for lack of strong evidence. He fought off assault charges last year when a victim, who was shot four times in the buttocks, insisted on testifying instead as a defense witness for Gotti.

Now, the alleged mobster denies any involvement in the Castellano and Bilotti killings. Although he refuses interviews, his flamboyant attorney, Bruce Cutler, dismisses the charges as “a frame-up, a vendetta.

“The prosecutors resent my client’s notoriety,” he says. “And they don’t like the fact that so many people admire him. They are pursuing him to further their own political ends.”

In the past, Cutler has described Gotti as a $60,000-a-year plumbing contractor and a humble garment company executive. These days, he offers another view of Gotti’s private world:

“It’s a life not involving crime, that’s how I characterize him,” says Cutler, who shares his boss’ penchant for silk suits, pocket hankies and tough talk. “It’s not the usual 9-to-5 existence. I’m not crazy enough to put that forth, and I shouldn’t. His lifestyle is . . . different. But it’s not a life of crime.”

Is it a law-abiding lifestyle?

“That’s all I say. A life not involving crime.”

In the years since the Sparks shooting, there has been extensive speculation about the crimes that Gotti allegedly has committed, ranging from murder, assault and drug dealing to loan sharking, extortion and gambling. Secret phone tapes made by federal and state investigators reveal him to be a profane, impatient man who threatens to beat up the people who cross him.

In one taped conversation, for example, Gotti railed at an underling, Anthony Moscatiello, who had failed to return his phone calls:

Gotti: “Listen, I called your (expletive deleted) house five times yesterday; now, if your wife thinks you are a (expletive deleted) dunceski . . . and you’re gonna disregard my (expletive deleted) phone calls, I’ll blow you and that (expletive deleted) house up.”

Moscatiello: “I never disregard anything you. . . .”

Gotti: “Well, you call your (expletive deleted) wife up and you tell her, or I’ll get in the (expletive deleted) car and I’ll go over there and I’ll (expletive deleted) tell her.”

The fifth of 13 children, Gotti was born to a poor family in the South Bronx. He dropped out of high school at 16 and fell in with one street gang after another. Before 1969, he was arrested nine times in New York and Long Island for street fighting, public intoxication, car theft, gun possession and burglary, serving short sentences in county prisons.

In 1969, Gotti was sentenced to three years in federal prison for a bungled truck hijacking at Kennedy International Airport. He received a four-year sentence in state prison after pleading guilty to attempted manslaughter in the 1975 murder of a Gambino family foe in a Staten Island bar.

The Gotti rap sheet is well known. Yet there is still a public fascination with the man whom New York Post columnist Mike McAlary calls “the silk thug.” In some New York neighborhoods, he has become nothing less than a modern folk hero.

When he was acquitted of racketeering charges in 1987 and 1990, for example, residents of his middle-class neighborhood in Howard Beach, Queens, tied yellow ribbons around the trees in his front yard and hung signs over the streets welcoming him home. When Gotti dines in Little Italy, tourists and other strangers offer best wishes to his wife and four children.

The image of Gotti as a tough guy with a heart of gold is reinforced every year, when he throws a Fourth of July barbecue for neighbors in Queens. The media is also filled with stories of him giving $20 and $50 bills to homeless people who await him on the courthouse steps.

“Much of this hero worship is really naive,” says author Mustain. “It overlooks the grim reality of what John Gotti is. The same people who stand on the street corners when he comes out of the courthouse are the truck drivers or construction workers or people in the garment district whose wages aren’t as high as they could be because of rake-offs going to the Gambino family. They’re being ripped off, but they don’t know or care.”

For some New Yorkers, Gotti inspires fear and paranoia. In 1980, a neighbor accidentally ran over and killed Gotti’s 12-year-old son, Frankie. The man, John Favara, had received threatening phone calls after the incident and was planning to move out of the neighborhood. But witnesses said he was beaten up by several men as he walked in front of his home and was then stuffed into a car. His body has never been found.

“This is not a guy you want to cross,” says one Queens homeowner, who has never socialized with Gotti but has spoken periodically to members of his family. “They’re rough people. They’ll push you around, so you gotta keep your distance.”

Another neighbor remembers doing some contract work for a Gotti lieutenant and coming up short on the payment. “I asked him about the extra money and he said, ‘I already paid you.’ ” The man decided not to press the issue, reasoning that “it wasn’t a good career move.”

In a grocery store near the Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy, where Gotti conducts family business, a clerk smiles when asked about his famous neighbor. Business is good on Mulberry Street, he points out, and the less said about Gotti the better.

“John who?” he laughs. “No, really, I don’t like to talk about him. He’s a businessman, and so am I. Anyways, a lot of people around here are certainly willing to give him a break.”

One reason may be that the Sparks shootout was simply grand theater. It reminded millions of New Yorkers that old-style gangsters in fedoras and pinkie rings are not extinct.

“You have to remember, these killings took place in the Christmas season with hundreds of people looking on,” says Edward McDonald, former chief attorney for the federal Organized Crime Strike Force in New York. “If it had happened outside a diner on Staten Island, people might not have paid so much attention. But it happened in Manhattan, better than any movie.”

It’s been one of New York’s longest-running shows, but prosecutors now believe they are on the verge of closing it down. Andrew J. Maloney, U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, says his office will use wiretaps made at Gotti’s secret hangouts to link him to the Sparks rub-out.

Investigators also promise to unveil a surprise eyewitness who will allegedly place Gotti at the scene of the crime and tie him to the murder. They hope to prove that the reputed mob lieutenant, who was known to be feuding with Castellano, carefully orchestrated the execution.

“He’s a murderer, not a folk hero,” Maloney said, announcing Gotti’s indictment last December. In a bold move, prosecutors are seeking to disqualify Cutler as Gotti’s attorney. They also have persuaded a judge to keep the defendant in protective custody until the trial begins.

Things are looking grim for the Dapper Don. But even though he is behind bars, Gotti still has an aura of invincibility.

As Cutler sits in his office, beneath framed newspaper accounts of Gotti’s past acquittals, he predicts that there will be strong public pressure to leave his famous client alone if he dodges the bullet a fourth time.

“The government has had Mr. Gotti under surveillance since 1979, and he hasn’t been convicted of a crime in 16 years,” Cutler says, waving a cigarette nonchalantly. “Knock wood, if we prevail, I think this vendetta will end.”

THE RAP SHEET

Before 1969--John Gotti is arrested nine times in the New York City area on charges including street fighting, public intoxication, car theft, burglary and gun possession. He is sentenced to no more than six months in a county prison in any of the cases.

1969--Gotti is sentenced to three years in a maximum-security federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., after he pleads guilty to cargo theft and truck hijacking at Kennedy International Airport.

1975--Gotti pleads guilty to attempted manslaughter in the death of James McBratney, the suspected kidnaper of a nephew of mob boss Carlo Gambino, in a New York bar. He is sentenced to four years in state prison.

1986--A New York state judge dismisses assault and robbery charges against Gotti after the victim, beaten in a parking dispute, fails to appear in court and then says he cannot identify Gotti.

1987--Gotti is acquitted in a federal racketeering case on charges he was engaged for more than 18 years in a criminal enterprise involving at least three murders, loan sharking, illegal gambling and armed hijackings.

1990--Gotti is acquitted of assault and conspiracy in the shooting of a labor union official in 1986.


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