The modern mob’s New York meltdown began on December 16, 1985, on East 46th Street in Manhattan, when a dropout from Franklin K. Lane High School and a degenerate gambler named John Gotti engineered the assassination of the Mafia’s incumbent godfather, Paul Castellano, and took over the city’s biggest crime family. This transfer of power through gunfire became emblematic of the mob’s brain drain, and the loss of its old-world codes of respect, secrecy, and discipline.
When Gotti killed Castellano, the past annulled the future. The streets invaded the suites. The animals were let out of their cages.
Paul Castellano was a shrewd and miserly mob boss who spent more time in banks than in social clubs. He was steering organized crime into more sophisticated and complicated rackets involving construction, stocks, unions, and food distribution. He set up his sons—who never became members—in a profitable meat-and-chicken-distribution company.
Other mobsters used to say that Castellano “never put his hands in cold water”—meaning he had never killed anyone himself.
Gotti felt he had to kill Castellano’s strict prohibition against dealing heroin. And Castellano’s lawyers were about to be given tapes, as part of pretrial-discovery material, on which Gene Gotti talked about Castellano and his own heroin-distribution ring. In Gotti’s mind, it was kill or be killed.
So Castellano and his capo and driver, Tommy Bilotti, were ambushed in front of Sparks Steak House, where Castellano had been lured for a sit-down. “He had to use shooters who weren’t made because the Commission never sanctioned this killing of a family boss,” said an old-school wiseguy of my acquaintance. “I couldn’t believe it. It was a throwback to a time before rules and respect.”
This unauthorized cowboy assassination speeded up all the trends that were already eating away the mob’s power and cohesion. It was the grand power play by the first American-born, suburban generation of the mob. This was Scores and Dix Hills taking over from the old Italian neighborhoods that bred cohesion.
Gotti and his crew were into topless bars, steroids, drugs, swagger, and immediate gratification. Gotti and his cohorts grew up watching the Godfather movies, instead of studying how to be a godfather from the old dons, like Gambino, Tommy Lucchese, Joe Profaci, and Frank Costello, all of whom died of natural causes in their own beds.
The older generation had a sense of strategy, patience, caution, and longevity. Carlo Gambino, a stowaway from Sicily, never allowed his voice to be recorded by the FBI. Gotti was captured on tape admitting to three murders—Robert DiBernardo, Louie Milito, and Louis DiBono.
Sammy “the Bull” Gravano becoming a witness for the government in November 1991 was another benchmark of the mob’s decay. From 1900 till 1963, there were no witnesses from inside the mob. When Gravano flipped, he became the first underboss to abandon the Sicilian blood oath of silence.
After Gravano, a whole aviary of canaries flew the capos’ coop. After Gravano defected—and wasn’t killed--omertà came to mean “Get me a book deal and I’ll cooperate.”
Gravano’s testimony helped convict Gotti and others, but the Bull turned out to be as much of a mook as the rest of the impulsive, undisciplined new breed of Americanized hoodlums. After being given a new identity by the government, Gravano was caught running a drug ring in Arizona, with his son. The Bull is now in the joint for a very long time.
The mob’s most recent moment of iconic idiocy took place in 1997, when government agents found actual typed Mafia membership lists in the basement of a home maintained by Junior Gotti. Junior was then the CEO of the Gambino family, as a result of his jailed father’s insistent nepotism.
When the seizure of the membership lists of a supposedly secret society became known in 1998, the front page of the Daily News roared DUMB FELLA, with a photo of Junior scowling under a baseball cap. DUMB FELLA will stand forever as the final epitaph for the modern mob in New York.