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The Dumbest Don

John Gotti thought his brother Pete was a dope but still made him acting boss. How the Gottis imploded— And why the Feds will miss them.


Illustration by Jack Unruh   

Ace government witness Mikey “Scars” DiLeonardo turned out to be a defense-team nightmare in last month’s Peter Gotti trial, the one where the Department of Justice was trying to keep Peter Gotti, the late John Sr.’s older brother, and one of his hitters, Thomas “Huck” Carbonaro, in jail until senility set in. Uncle Pete, 65, was already doing nine and a half years for labor racketeering, extortion, and money laundering on a 2003 conviction, and the piling on of dubious additional charges—in this case a revenge-murder conspiracy to kill Sammy “the Bull” Gravano for ratting out his brother in 1991—was what mafiosi call the Feds’ “life on the installment plan” strategy: “If they don’t have enough to nail you good,” says my oldest informant, a long-retired Mafia soldier, “they cook up some half-assed stew and feed it to the dumb juries and press. So you end up doing life little by little.”

Anyway, Mikey Scars looked as tough as a Bensonhurst chop-shop operator—one of his many jobs during his long apprenticeship as a Gambino wiseguy in the eighties. He was sharp in charcoal suits and tasteful ties during four days of testimony in U.S. District Court at 500 Pearl Street, cooperating in order to beat a 25-years-to-life racketeering rap of his own. He would cock his head and pop his jaw muscles, easily parrying defense lawyer Joe Bondy’s attempts to nail him: “Did I fight and lie as a way of life, counselor?” he asked, feigning shock. “Of course I did, we all did, including your client [Peter Gotti]. And Huck, too”—DiLeonardo waved dismissively—“though I know he’s not your problem.”

Bondy is a handsome, bright 36-year-old from 60th and Second, who wore exquisite spread-collar shirts and a lie-down burr cut that swooped up discreetly in front, the metrosexual coif-of-choice for 2001, say, when Brad Pitt introduced it in Ocean’s 11. Worse, he spoke in excruciatingly detailed specifics that quickly bored his subway-rider jurors: “Mr. DiLeonardo, when [your soldier] brought you the payoff [from construction-extortion scams, Mikey’s main source of income], in the candy box with the bow around it? Did that happen often?”

“Nah, counselor. It was like a joke . . . you know, our way of kidding.”

“But the bow on the candy box, where was that delivered?”

“Tell you the truth, I don’t remember. Somewhere in Staten Island.”

“You mean you can’t remember where something as unusual as that occurred?”

Jurors began checking the courtroom clock. U.S. District Court judge Richard C. Casey, who’s legally blind, was rolling his eyes.

But Scars looked Bondy over as if he were something exotic: “I think it was my house. They mighta brought it to my place. Does that enlighten the picture for you, counselor?”

“You don’t remember if they brought a large payoff in a candy box with a bow around it to your home, Mr. DiLeonardo?” “Little Joe,” as some of the wiseguys in the spectators’ section had begun calling Bondy, persisted.

“I frankly don’t understand the relevance of this line of questioning, Mr. Bondy,” the judge said witheringly. “And if you’re going to go on in this vein, I think it’s a good time to take a break.”

Bondy blanched visibly. Scars popped his jaw muscles. The sergeant-at-arms left Courtroom 14C to fetch Barney, Judge Casey’s Seeing Eye dog.

When the Gotti-Carbonaro trial opened last November, Assistant U.S. Attorney Victor Hou argued the government’s case by painting the Gambino family as “one of the oldest, most powerful crime organizations this city has ever known.” In fact, membership is down to between 160 and 180 “made” men (full-time mafiosi) from an early-eighties high of 600 to 800. There was a time when the late Carlo Gambino could close down the Port of New York through control of Teamster and longshoremen’s locals; had control of trash carting in Brooklyn and Long Island via the James Failla (“Jimmy Brown”) crew; shared a lock on New York construction extortion with “Fat Tony” Salerno and Vincent “the Chin” Gigante’s Genovese mob; and had infiltrated Wall Street.

But in the wake of the vastly successful, rico-inspired “Pizza” and “Commission” cases of the middle eighties—which made Rudy Giuliani and broke the back of Italian-American crime in the city—and the devastating “Gotti IV” case in 1992 (Gravano’s deadly testimony, which doomed the former Teflon Don after three high-profile legal victories by defense lawyers Gerald Shargel and Bruce Cutler), the Gambinos were left without effective leadership. Despite government protestations to the contrary, their empire shrank enormously.

So in 1992, when John Gotti first entered solitary confinement in the federal pen at Marion, Illinois, he’d tried to keep control of the Gambinos through a purposely weak governing “panel,” consisting of Brooklyn capo John “Jackie Nose” D’Amico; Nicky Corozzo, a traditionalist from Canarsie; and his son, John Jr., a very unpopular “kid” with older Gambino bosses like Danny Marino, Failla, and Joe Arcuri. (There are chilling surveillance photos of the late Failla, who died in 1999, talking to Junior “like an uncle” as they walk in the street, just before young Gotti was arrested himself on massive federal racketeering charges in 1998; sources now allege Failla was part of a group determined to murder Junior then, to end what was seen as the Gottis’ disastrous reign, which was killing the Gambinos with publicity; the FBI effectively saved Junior’s life by picking him up.)

Still, Hou and Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael McGovern didn’t mention any of this in their presentations to the Gotti-Carbonaro jury. Instead, they portrayed a still-lethal Gambino crime machine, with Uncle Pete as the new godfather, suddenly coming into his own, shrewdly plotting to kill Sammy Gravano as a major revenge move for his brother’s betrayal, and seeking to emerge at last from under John’s long shadow. Uncle Pete, according to the Feds, wanted to be the millennial don, a Mafia boss in the great tradition—like his brother in the eighties, or Carlo Gambino in the seventies, or Albert Anastasia back in the fifties.

The whole thing was a riot to old-time mafiosi: “Pete was just a bagman” (graft collector), according to my old soldier: “A chidrule [dope] his brother could trust not to steal money, not a leader!” Before John’s fall in 1991, Pete would see him about once a week, on Sundays, at the Bergin Hunt & Fish Club in Ozone Park, to turn over the weekly extortion and shylock tributes collected from capos in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and lower Manhattan. It was enough brotherly contact for John: “If it doesn’t have to do with our mother or father, stay away from me!” he famously told Pete on a bugged FBI tape, also referring to him as a “moron.” “Yeah,” Mikey Scars testified at the Gotti-Carbonaro trial in December, “John had a condescending attitude. He talked down to everybody.”

But by 1997, all the members of the panel were in jail, a number of his capos who’d been close to “Big Paul” Castellano (the Gambino boss John and Sammy had killed in 1985 in order to take power) were in revolt, and there was no one left except Pete. John reluctantly appointed him acting boss.

Bondy was left denying the charges using a most unusual argument: essentially, that Pete Gotti was too dumb to be boss. And, of course, he was right—but it didn’t matter.

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