The Dumbest Don

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.

The Feds don’t play fair,” says Eric Franz, whom Mikey Scars described as his “excellent” former attorney, before Scars became a cooperating witness. Franz illustrates his point:

“In 2002, when DiLeonardo was rearrested, they were holding him in the same Metropolitan Correctional Center cells where they’ve got Pete now. After four months of that, Mikey decides to cooperate, but he doesn’t tell me.

“All of a sudden, a compassionate two-weeks furlough I’d been trying for—Mikey’s mom was dying in the hospital—comes through! And Mike tries to use my office to set up a meeting [with Jo Jo Corozzo, now the Gambino consigliere] that the government wanted him to record … And I know nothing!”

The move could have put Franz’s life in danger—he’s a criminal lawyer who often represents alleged Mafia clients. Part of the Feds’ deal with Mikey was that he would try to tape gangsters he knew making the kinds of compromising comments John Gotti so infamously made in 1989 on a recording from a bugged apartment over the Ravenite Social Club, the Gambinos’ former Manhattan HQ on Mulberry Street. But Franz wouldn’t allow any meetings in his office, so Scars actually wore a wire at his dying mother’s hospital bedside, though nothing compelling resulted, and lawyers ended up playing the old ’89 Ravenite tapes again during the Gotti-Carbonaro trial. On those tapes, John Gotti, growling like a movie gangster, cursed Gravano’s greed and admitted ordering soldier Louis Di Bono’s murder: “I whacked him because he wouldn’t come in [to see the boss, a prime Mafia failure of “respect”]. He didn’t do nothin’ else wrong.”

The rationale for playing them was to impress on the jury who Pete Gotti’s blood relation was and to convict him of brand-name guilt. Prosecutors had begun their case against Pete by projecting a huge head shot of a scowling John Gotti on the courtroom screen.

“These guys know perfectly well that Pete and Junior are lightweights as mobsters,” says one mob attorney. “But the FBI and DOJ work on the same principles as Disney and Karl Rove do now—you get good publicity and funding by simplifying story lines and themes.”

The Gotti-Carbonaro scenario that the Department of Justice is retailing has Uncle Pete Gotti, seven years after his brother John was sent away for good, suddenly developing a lust to kill Sammy the Bull, at his business, Marathon Construction, a swimming-pool company in Phoenix, Arizona. According to a DOJ spokesman, Pete chose Huck Carbonaro to do the hit because he’d been in Sammy’s crew before Sammy flipped in 1991, and so was specially motivated to avenge John and clear any lingering doubts other Gambinos might have as to his loyalty, and chose “Fat Sal” Mangiavillano because he was a natural techno wizard, whose knowledge of computers and surveillance equipment would help Carbonaro track Sammy down.

“These guys know Pete and Junior are lightweights,” says a mob attorney. “But the FBI and DOJ work on the same principles as Disneyand Karl Rove: You get good publicity by simplifying story lines.”

The trouble was, Sammy didn’t need tracking. He was living openly in Tempe, a Phoenix suburb, giving interviews to Arizona Republic reporter Dennis Wagner—he’d even hired a publicist and “had some work done,” referring to himself as “the youngest, best-looking turncoat in Mafia history”! “Marathon” was the same name he’d used for his construction company in Gravesend, Brooklyn, back in the day, a front for his mob activities and the occasional hit, so he was thumbing his nose at the law and his old gangster pals simultaneously.

And Fat Sal was a bank robber, a floater who did work for several New York crime families. He’d cased banks in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix on the same trip he and Huck took together in December 1999 and January 2000, when he was supposed to be “tracking” Sammy. But he’d never killed anyone: “I once shot at a ceiling in a club when I was 18,” he’d told the court fecklessly, during Bondy’s cross-examination in November, “but yeah, there was certainly others [on the scene] more qualified than me to kill people.”

My informants tell me that Carbonaro, on the other hand, had been considered “a cripple” in the Gambino family, a poor earner, but a very dangerous man. Mikey Scars said on the stand that Huck’s rep was as “a killer.” Huck and Fat Sal drove to Phoenix, spent four days, drove to L.A. for four more days, then flew back to New York. They never saw Sammy, who was arrested about that time on statewide ecstasy-distributing charges. He’d been working through a white-supremacist youth gang called the Devil Dogs.

Fat Sal has already received the same deal Mikey Scars hopes to get for his government testimony, a letter from the prosecutor to Judge Casey recommending leniency. He cheerfully testified to the plot to kill Gravano, such as it was, at one point volunteering that he and Huck had considered trying to kill Sammy with a letter bomb, but abandoned the idea as too problematic.

One of the few pieces of physical evidence the prosecutors presented to bolster their case was a receipt for a massage Huck got in a Phoenix tattoo parlor.

That’s why the ratting testimony of Mikey Scars was key. He told the court that he’d heard Pete Gotti complain about Huck and Fat Sal, and that he’d gotten nothing for an alleged $70,000 investment to have Gravano killed. And while Scars agreed with Bondy’s unique defense that Pete Gotti was too dumb to be the boss, he left no question that, indeed, Pete Gotti had been the boss. Further, Mikey Scars portrayed the Gottis as the real betrayers of Mafia honor and respect, having allowed the Gambino family to devolve into chaos.

Mikey Scars’s grandfather had been a “blackhand” shtarker (enforcer) a hundred years ago in New York, and his father had been a wiseguy, too: “It was a career path, counselor,” Mikey not quite sneered at Bondy during his last day’s testimony, “that I followed from the time I was 12, banging kids on the head with stickball bats, copping their lunch money … you learned the rules in our set, just like you mighta learned your ways in St. Paul’s or whatevuh.”

“Gangsterism was your way of life,” Bondy plodded, maddeningly. “You grew up in it.”

Exotic look again: “Geez, counselor, I thought I was bein’ clear. You ever been in Bensonhurst? Tough nabe. We all grew up that way. Huck. Sammy. John Gotti Junior. I loved that life. I would rather they killed me than what they did.”

“Which was what, Mr. DiLeonardo?”

“They put me on the shelf. They broke me, soon after I was arrested. All of a sudden, I stop getting my share of the construction and Wall Street money. Who’s gonna take care of my family, my girlfriend? Huck comes to me in the MCC: ‘You’re onna shelf,’ he says. ‘Don’t expect nothin’ from us—no help with lawyers. Nothing.’ ”

Pete Gotti had found out that Mikey Scars had not reported members of his crew who’d been skimming money from payoffs. Huck had also skimmed and stinted tribute. A few times, DiLeonardo himself had held out on Gotti, like when he needed to make improvements on his Staten Island mansion. So did Mikey: “If I’d admitted any of this, counselor, I woulda got those guys killed [and himself as well]. In this life, there’s a lotta hypocrisy that you just learn to live with—like there’s a rule against dealing drugs, and Gene Gotti [another Gotti brother], is doin’ a long bit for that; you’re not supposed to go with other goodfellas’ wives—happens all the time; you’re not allowed to kill a big boss without the other families’ permission—John Gotti and Sammy whacked Nasabeak [Beak-nose Paul Castellano] and almost started a war.

“And you gotta remember: I was turnin’ in between $40,000 and $250,000 a month to this Pete anyway, counselor. This is gangster life.”

“And you still consider yourself a gangster, don’t you, Mr. DiLeonardo?” Joe Bondy plodded.

“Nah, sir. I ain’t no gangster. Ask Pete.”

But he really was a gangster, like Pete and Huck and the sprinkling of authentic tough guys who’d come to court to either show a little vestigial support for old Gotti or report back to their crew captains on what was being said in testimony and in the halls during recesses. Pete Gotti, former “acting boss,” a man who’d fallen off a dump truck in 1979 and collected a city Sanitation pension (as well as payoff graft) until he got convicted last year, came across as he always had (“My client was considered a dope by his own brother!” Bondy had proclaimed in his opening statement). Pete looked like a dangerous Art Carney, a big, white-haired uncle-ish mook, given to inappropriate asides. During a trial in the early nineties, I remember him telling wiseguy Frank Fappiano, sitting in the “blue-card” gangster spectators’ section before the jury came in: “Don’t forget the cannolis!” It echoed a line from The Godfather.

During his time as acting boss, roughly 1998 to the spring of 2003, Uncle Pete’s rep among his fellow Gambino leaders festered. Danny Marino, who’d been close to the assassinated Paul Castellano and whom the Gottis feared as a potential rival and unsuccessfully tried to have killed in prison, returned to Brooklyn in 2000 and, though on probation, quietly reemerged as an anti-Gotti force; Joe Arcuri and Jimmy Failla, though old and semi-retired for part of his “administration,” treated Pete with contempt, not even bothering to invite him to important “trash” meetings, sit-downs with other families, or talks on Brooklyn waterfront scams. Before he died, Joe “Butch” Corrao, a lower Manhattan captain and former favorite of John, reportedly showed Pete the same contempt his brother had. And other important capos and soldiers, like Big Lou Vallario, Frankie Fap, and Mikey Scars, though welded to the Gotti faction of the Gambino family, were “loyal” to the spirit of mob code, but not its letter.

They held out on tribute payments to the acting boss, made disparaging jokes about Pete and Junior (“They get in the back seats of their cars and wonder where the steering wheel is!”). Junior himself disobeyed his father and uncle in 1999 and cut the plea-bargain deal he was supposed to be concluding when the Feds indicted him again last summer. Discipline and respect had crumbled to street-gang level. The Teflon Don’s daughter, Victoria, was starring in a reality-TV show about trying to raise her teenage sons with the cursed Gotti name.

When Pete got hit with the racketeering rap in 2003 that he’s currently serving time for, he received minimal legal or financial support to fight the case, which wouldn’t indicate that his crime family feared or revered him much. Mikey Scars confirmed that impression on the stand. “When Pete offered me the consigliere job in 1998, I turned him down,” Mikey testified. “I didn’t think he had the qualifications [to be a boss]. Good skipper [capo], but the [bigger] management skills weren’t there.”

He really had a bad year. His wife, Catherine, found out about his ten-year relationship with girlfriend Margie Alexander and sued him for divorce. A daughter and the mother got most of his money. Margie wrote impassioned letters to Judge Casey when Pete was indicted on the Gravano charges, begging for mercy because of Pete’s age, poor eyesight, gout, and high blood pressure. This threw Pete, who is still a Gotti, into a rage, and he screamed at her. She committed suicide. Only his son, Peter Jr., a laborer unconnected to the mob, has remained loyal in the Gorky-ish denouement of his father’s life.

On December 22, the Mikey Scars–impressed and John Gotti–tape–horrified jury found Pete Gotti guilty on all counts—not a surprise to anyone but Bondy, apparently—and he essentially received a life sentence (50 years maximum) for his second, noncapital crime.

After his guilty verdict, Pete embraced Bondy with a real show of affection, and Bondy assured him that there were so many cursory, prejudicial sustained objections and blockages of defense lines of questioning on prosecution witnesses that there were “great grounds for appeal.” Beth Citron, Bondy’s attractive, blonde second chair, put her arms around him and looked sympathetic.

Huck Carbonaro, meanwhile, who appears to be a kind of cave creature—pale, bald, small, wearing a sweatshirt instead of a jacket—looked around furtively after his conviction, showing only the same opaqueness he’d exposed for the five weeks the trial had lasted. It was a chilling emptiness that must have been the last thing his victims had seen over the years. He caught the eye of a tough guy in the spectators’ section and shrugged: “Innocent of this, but what the hell,” he seemed to say.

Meanwhile, Sammy Gravano, who was never injured in the alleged Carbonaro-Mangiavillano conspiracy to murder him, and who’d admitted killing or ordering nineteen hits before his John Gotti testimony in 1992, was back in town, getting ready to say whatever the Department of Justice wanted him to say.

Why? He’d been indicted for fresh New York–New Jersey counts in the ecstasy case he’s currently serving nineteen years for in Arizona or Colorado—law enforcement won’t say where. And he’s looking at a murder charge that he didn’t admit to previously, the hired shooting of a corrupt cop, Peter Calabro, in 1980. So he’s ready to provide whatever show-trial evidence is required.

Uncle Pete’s comment: “What did you expect? They [the jury] don’t understand these things.”

The Gotti collapse, which will likely be complete by August, if Junior is convicted of trying to murder Guardian Angels founder and radio personality Curtis Sliwa (of all people), will leave four old guys as powers in what’s left of the Gambino family. They are Nicky and Jo Jo Corozzo, wiseguys from Canarsie; Danny Marino, who finished an eight-year racketeering bit in 2000 and has completed his parole; and Arnold Squitieri.

Nicky was John Gotti’s first choice as acting boss in 1992, when he got life without possibility of parole, but even then, savvy wiseguys weren’t anxious to step into what was clearly the FBI’s publicity searchlight. Nicky balked, reluctantly agreed to serve only on the panel, and moved operations to South Florida, where he was immediately arrested and went to jail anyway. But now the Feds are feeding the crime hacks who write about the mob as a daily soap for the tabs the line that Nicky is “hungry” for the boss’s job again, which hardly seems likely. Besides, his brother Jo Jo, the current Gambino consigliere, is looking after his interests without his having to face the Feds or a possible rival, Danny Marino.

“You have a coupla guys who are strong in there,” my old wiseguy tells me, “but you’d haveta be a lot dumber than they are to come into the open.

“Heat [attention] is the death of our business. Corozzo and Marino are sharper than that, so this ‘godfather’ bullshit shouldn’t tempt them much. Marino just got clear—why’d he wanna start all that again? You’d have to be a real mook, like Pete was, to even accept the fucking job!

“Look at Zeke Squitieri! He’s underboss, he steps down [Arnold Squitieri deposed himself in 2004]. Mikey Scars refused to serve on the ruling panel back in ’92, whatever, then again, in ’98, he turned down Pete’s offer to make him consigliere. Junior stepped down in ’96 from the job on the panel … You’da never seen that when Carlo was around. Guys got knocked down or were allowed to retire if they were old, but to step down in your strength?

“What’s gonna happen to the Gambinos? They’ll go on in some little half-assed ways, but the other mobs—the spics and slants and Russians—have the balls now. The Albanians are taking all our [card] games and [numbers] rackets in Queens! Jesus Christ!”

I ask what would happen to informers like Gravano and Mikey Scars, Fat Sal Mangiavillano and Frankie Fap, who’ve all gone into Witness Protection:

“I hear the Bureau’s gonna turn ’em into special agents,” my old soldier laughs.

“But I’ll tell ya who I really feel sorry for. These young prosecutors like Hou and McGovern? It’ll be harder for them to get jobs at Cravath, Swaine now, after the last Gottis are gone.

“Who’s gonna give you prime time or front page for a name like DiLeonardo? Or Mangiavillano? Nobody even remembers Gravano… It’s you guys who finished the mob.”

The Life, By the Numbers
There are procedures and rules that govern the induction of new Mafia members.

What’s Left of the Mob?
From Gotti to Gigante, the names atop today’s Mafia org charts are old ones. But the times have certainly changed for New York’s biggest families—and not for the better.

The Dumbest Don