Nineteen murders as a mobster, 14 convictions as a star witness. Salvatore (Sammy Bull) Gravano has proved almost as deadly working for the Justice Department as he was working for the Mafia.
In less than 2 1/2 years, Gravano has gone from the Gambino family's No. 2 man to the federal government's No. 1 informer. The unflappable Gravano has handled hundreds of questions on the witness stand, but two big ones remain unanswered as his midsummer sentencing approaches:
Will his work pay off in a sharply reduced jail sentence?
And, if so, what kind of message will that send?
The prosecutors and FBI agents who worked with Gravano say that the stocky, tough-talking killer has earned a break, and that a reduced sentence will persuade other mobsters to cooperate.
Defense lawyers say Gravano's agreement for a 20-year maximum term already sends a disturbing message: Cutting a deal with the government means absolute absolution, with no repercussions no matter what the crimes.
"The government, to use the vernacular, makes offers that people can't refuse," said Gerald Lefcourt, a prominent defense lawyer. "People will say anything to avoid a mandatory life term."
Which is what Gravano, 48, was facing--life without parole. His deal with prosecutors guarantees the most he will serve is 20 years, or about 54 weeks for each person he admits he killed or arranged to kill.
The list of those victims is long, from Gambino family boss "Big Paul" Castellano to turncoat soldier "Tommy Sparrow" Spinelli.
But the list of convicted organized crime figures jailed with Gravano's assistance is almost as long and even more impressive: Gambino family boss John Gotti. Gambino consigliere Frank Locascio. Colombo family boss Victor (Little Vic) Orena. Gambino family capos Thomas Gambino, James (Jimmy Brown) Failla and Robert (Bobby Cabert) Bisaccia.
Gravano was an unlikely candidate for the Witness Protection Program. He was fiercely loyal to Gotti, and was seated beside the Dapper Don when Castellano was gunned down a half-block away on Dec. 16, 1985.
When Gotti became the nation's most notorious mob boss, Sammy became his underboss. Gotti was the Gambino family's bark; Gravano was its brutal bite.
The Bull was persuaded to switch sides by government surveillance tapes that captured Gotti bad-mouthing his underboss. "Sammy told me, 'I knew even if I was acquitted, because of what John said, I'd have to kill him,' " recalled James Fox, ex-head of the FBI's New York office.
Prosecutors were not keen on accepting Sammy, convinced their cache of secretly recorded tapes was enough to convict Gotti without the problems of cross-examination.
"When Sammy cooperated, I had mixed feelings," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Laura Ward. "Those tapes killed Gotti. Up until then I thought, how can you cross (examine) a tape?"
But tapes don't guarantee convictions. In 1990, Gotti walked on a charge that he ordered a hit on a union official despite a recorded conversation where he said, "We're gonna, gonna bust him up."
Gravano helped avoid a repeat, moving quickly from unlikely to devastating witness. Federal officials say they were overwhelmed by the eighth-grade dropout's honesty, memory and testimony.
"He's been fantastic," gushed Ward, who has worked with Gravano since he turned. "He really is phenomenal. He's not an actor. He's very bright."
And very effective. His track record: 14 convictions, including five plea bargains in April. One acquittal. One hung jury--and that case will be retried this summer.
He was also a key witness against the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, an allegedly mob-controlled union that cut a March deal giving the federal government control of the organization for 2 1/2 years.
Gravano testified at the sentencing of Venero (Benny Eggs) Mangano--a 71-year-old Genovese captain who received a stiff 15-year prison term. With five bodyguards in tow, he testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on organized crime's involvement in boxing.
"Gravano is a prosecutor's dream," Fox said. "He has a photographic memory."
In the Castellano hit, Sammy was able to provide incredible detail, right down to the outfits worn by the triggermen: "White trench coats and black Russian hats."
Gravano has proved unshakable on cross-examination, outlasting some of the nation's top defense lawyers and their tactics: Albert Krieger and his sarcasm, Bruce Cutler and his bombast. This Krieger question, from the Gotti trial, is typical:
"You don't care what happens?" Krieger asked Gravano in mock disbelief. "Let the jury come in guilty, let the jury come in not guilty. Means nothing to you. That's what you are telling the court and the jury, correct?"
"In a way," Gravano coolly responded. "They're the jury. And I'm not a juror."
Gravano doesn't even need to testify to land some guys in jail. Two of the Gambino family's top captains--Failla and Daniel Marino--both took seven-year prison terms in an April 5 plea bargain rather than hear Sammy sing.
"People make him out to be a dumb thug, a killer," said Fox. "My experience is he has some pretty good damn common sense."
The Gravano story, laid out during nine days on the witness stand at Gotti's racketeering trial, is fairly simple. He grew up in Brooklyn, dropped out of grammar school, served two years in the Army, and started a life of crime that never stopped.
Gravano started small--"armed robberies, burglaries, shylocking," he testified. He graduated to "murder, shylocking, construction." He became friendly with an up-and-coming Gambino family thug known as "Johnny Boy"--John Gotti.
When Gotti ascended, Gravano received his reward: An annual illegal income of $250,000 to augment his reported construction business earnings of more than $500,000 a year.
Now he awaits another kind of payment from the government. Gravano has one last criminal case to handle: The trial of reputed Genovese family boss Vincent (The Chin) Gigante.
U.S. Dist. Judge I. Leo Glasser will then decide to give Gravano the full 20 years or something less.