Curtain Comes Down on the 'Oddfather'

Associated Press Writer

The days of surviving close shaves are over for "The Chin."

For 30 years, mob boss Vincent Gigante turned dementia into an art form, avoiding relentless efforts by federal authorities to put him in prison. The Genovese family chieftain was reputedly the nation's No. 1 Mafioso, even as he shuffled through Greenwich Village in pajamas and a bathrobe.

He rarely strayed from the neighborhood, yet controlled the New Jersey waterfront and allegedly ordered murders to settle a Philadelphia mob war.

Now, at age 74, Gigante's "Oddfather" ruse has run its course. The enfeebled boss sits in a Texas prison hospital, doing a 12-year term, awaiting trial Monday -- and another round of betrayals by cohorts turned witnesses.

The mob and the Chin ain't what they used to be.

Gigante is accused of running the Genovese family from behind bars. He already may be guilty of violating two precepts developed over a half-century in the mob.

For the first time, authorities say, they possess audiotapes of Gigante that prove his sanity -- tapes made as he entertained visitors in prison. Gigante directed Genovese business in "a coherent, careful and intelligent manner," prosecutors charged.

And Gigante allegedly involved his son, 45-year-old Andrew, in mob business -- a move he had long forsworn. Gigante felt his children deserved better than the mob life, Gambino underboss Sammy "The Bull" Gravano once recounted.

It's a strange finale to a lifetime in organized crime, where Gigante's mumbling, stumbling charade kept prosecutors at bay while other kingpins, from mentor Vito Genovese to nemesis John Gotti, died behind bars.

"Thirty years, and I'll tell you: Chin did a great job of it," said mob turncoat Henry Hill, who remembers Gigante -- then a Genovese capo -- padding around Sullivan Street in his "crazy act" during the early 1970s.

"He was odd. And then he'd give you the wink-wink, ya know?"

Gigante took command of the Genovese family in the early 1980s, reigning for more than two decades as it became the nation's most powerful Mafia crew.

While Gambino family boss Gotti wore $1,800 suits and hand-painted ties, Gigante preferred bedtime attire. His uncombed hair stood up like pine needles, and his 5 o'clock shadow bristled around the clock.

The bizarre look belied a hardened criminal.

Gigante's rap sheet dates back to 1945. Mob tough guys refused to speak his name aloud, instead touching their chins in deference to the boss and his paranoia about government bugs.

Even Gotti feared Gigante -- and with good reason, since the Chin had sanctioned his assassination in the 1980s.

At the height of his power, authorities said, the boss commanded an illegal domain that made money from the booths at Little Italy's San Gennaro Festival to the docks of Miami.

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One of six sons of Italian immigrants, Gigante was raised in the same Greenwich Village neighborhood where he wound up spending a lifetime.

Brothers Mario and Ralph allegedly followed him into organized crime, while a third brother, Louis, became a crusading Bronx priest, a city council member and Vincent's main defender. He still insists Gigante is mentally ill.

The Chin, after a brief and unsuccessful boxing career, was persuaded by seminal mob figure Charlie "Lucky" Luciano to join the mob.

Gigante became bodyguard/chauffeur for a capo named Vito Genovese, who fancied himself as the replacement for family boss Frank Costello. Gigante, then a hulking 300-pounder, was lined up to murder Costello.

On May 2, 1957, Costello entered the lobby of his building on Central Park West -- and found Gigante waiting. "This is for you, Frank," he announced, pulling the trigger.

Costello survived, but the experience hastened his retirement. Genovese became the boss, and Gigante was acquitted when Costello refused to identify him in court.

Gigante's alliance with Genovese was double-edged. Other mob bosses, upset by Genovese's power grab, set up the new boss on a bogus drug charge in 1959. Gigante and 23 associates were caught in the net.

Gigante was sentenced to seven years. After his 1964 parole, Gigante resumed his rise through the ranks: soldier, capo, consigliere. And he created his "Oddfather" alter ego.

Gigante first used the mental incompetence dodge in 1970, when he was accused of bribing the entire 5-man police force of Old Tappan, N.J., a small town where he maintained a residence.

Once it succeeded, Gigante adopted the defense as a lifestyle. On 22 occasions between 1969 and 1990, he voluntarily checked into a suburban hospital for treatment.

Admiring fellow mobsters referred to Gigante's stays as "tune-ups." But those were among Gigante's tamer stunts.

FBI agents serving Gigante with a subpoena once found him naked in a running shower, clutching an open umbrella. The shower gambit was apparently a rare event; mob turncoat Gravano once observed that the coat of filth on Gigante's unwashed skin would sometimes turn a "crusty white."

Another time, after spotting an FBI surveillance team, Gigante fell to his knees outside a Greenwich Village church and began praying.

In 1985, as Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno was indicted as head of the family, Gigante already had taken over from the aging Philip "Benny Squint" Lombardo.

"I know that Gigante was the boss," Genovese soldier George Barone recently testified. "Tony Salerno was never the boss, and Tony Salerno went to jail and died."

Barone, 79, a made man responsible for a dozen murders, turned federal witness after the Genovese family marked him for death. He's one of several former mobsters expected to testify against Gigante, an old school sort who never violated his oath of omerta, or silence.

That was perhaps the lone trait he shared with Gotti. When the "Dapper Don" took control of the Gambinos by whacking "Big Paul" Castellano in 1985, Gigante was infuriated.

He insisted on enforcing a mob law decreeing death for anyone who kills a boss without approval from the Mafia's ruling commission.

A car bomb intended for Gotti in April 1986 killed his underboss. Two other Gambino associates -- including Gotti's chauffeur -- also were murdered on Chin's orders, said Bruce Mouw, former head of the FBI Gambino squad.

"John Gotti was terrified of Gigante," Mouw said. Gigante, it seemed, feared nothing.

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But in the twilight of his years, the wise guy wasn't so wise.

His diminished capacity defense finally collapsed in 1996, when a federal judge ruled Gigante competent to stand trial. Gigante was faking, the judge said, even after the mobster told a psychiatrist, "God is my lawyer."

A year later, the Chin went away for racketeering and murder conspiracy, including the plot to murder Gotti. That led to the prison tapes where authorities alleged he was still in command. Next came the indictment of Gigante and his son.

Andrew Gigante allegedly ferried his father's orders from Texas to New York City.

At a February 2002 court appearance, the elder Gigante maintained the "Oddfather" persona, staring blankly at the floor. "I don't understand," he mumbled when asked if he had discussed the charges with his lawyer.

Gigante's image has softened with time, as the alleged hit man became a wheelchair-bound septuagenarian. A recent Jimmy Breslin book lampooned him with a character named Fausti "The Fist" Dellacava.

Although the head of an illegal corporation generating millions, Gigante never enjoyed the perks of most CEOs: Fancy car, sprawling home, exotic vacations. His success had kept him confined for a long time before prison.

The irony wasn't lost on Henry Hill.

"He lived with all that money, the power to kill and assassinate," the former Luchese associate said. "And he didn't leave a four-block area for 40 years."

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