I was sitting in Luna on Mulberry Street, enjoying some mezzanis (macaroni), when word hit the neighborhood that Junior had cut a deal. Luna is a nice Neapolitan restaurant, not a mob joint like Taormina or Cafe Biondo, but all of Little Italy simmers with a kind of informazione, whiffs of data that titillate the downtown cognoscenti – loan sharks, Jewish and Irish shtarkers, beat cops who seem to be more street guys than Giuliani employees – whenever mob “business” boils over.
“First independent move the little prick has made,” pronounced my companion, a “retired” Gambino whose former crew used to be loyal to Big Paul Castellano, the godfather whom Junior’s father, John Gotti Sr., had killed in 1985 in order to seize power himself. The old man, who for discretion’s sake I’ll call “Facciabrute” (ugly face), had been telling me for the past two years in what low esteem Junior and his dad were held within organized-crime circles: for clipping Castellano “without permission,” for preening like peacocks and drawing more media and government attention than anyone since Al Capone. He’d even agreed to an outrageous claim by a law-enforcement source that “these veteran wiseguys really hate Junior” and that “the whole Mafia is sick to death of the Gottis, and are even rooting for the prosecutors this time.”
“Yeah, can you believe it?” Facciabrute had snorted. “The kid was about a fart’s breath away from brucciapele burnt skin from a shotgun blast when they arrested him last year! We wanted the Gottis to go away. Why do you think so many guys were ratting Junior out? Now when they Feds get him packed up, maybe they’ll go bother the Chinks or Russians for a while and leave us alone!”
The problems began in 1992, when Junior’s father was sentenced to life without parole in Marion, Illinois, but refused to give up control of the Gambinos. Under one ruse or another, Gotti Sr. tried to direct things through his son, whom he’d made a capo in 1985 at age 21. Junior’s crew was called “the U.N.” in the family, made up of Greeks, Irish, Jews, and “half-breeds” – Junior himself is one-half Russian Jew – and had a reputation for lifting weights and getting pumped up on Deca-Durabolin, a popular eighties steroid, then looming ominously at places like the Blue Fountain Diner in Howard Beach. There, one night in 1985, Junior and his buddies Mike McLaughlin, Steve Kaplan, Anthony Ameruso – 1,000 pounds in the aggregate – encountered a tool-and-die man, Bruce Timper, having a noisy fight with his wife. Junior enthusiastically encouraged Timper to be more sensitive, and when the latter’s blood and teeth began covering the formica-topped tables, Danny Badillo, a rookie cop, tried to call for backup. The last thing heard on Badillo’s 911 message was Junior roaring: “Who the fuck do you think you are?” Then some heaving chunking.
He wasn’t the kind of leader the old streetwise capos like Giuseppe “Joe” Arcuri and Jimmy Failla could respect. When Junior called them in to discuss loan-shark payments or waste-hauling contracts, he tended to lecture and yell. If he sat down with rivals like the Genovese family, his arrogance and condescension cost the Gambinos money, because sharpers like “Tommy Barney” Bellomo and “Quiet Dom” Cirillo could negotiate rings around him. “He was like this fuck Edgar Bronfman Jr. that’s wrecking the Seagram’s fortune that his old man built up,” sneered Facciabrute, recollecting Junior’s stewardship. “When John Sr. killed Paul, we had 21 crews and grossed $100 million a year. When the Feds popped Junior last year, we had ten crews and were down to $20 million gross!”
Even when his father was free, Junior’s relationship with him was never more than “correct.” He tended to goggle at the old man while Gotti Sr. received his daily shave and expensive ablutions in a little professionally equipped room at the Bergin Hunt & Fish Club in Ozone Park. It was accepted by everyone in the family that “Johnny Boy,” as his dad called him, was second in his affections to Junior’s younger brother Frankie, killed in a traffic accident in 1980 (the neighbor who hit Frankie, John Favara, disappeared while the Gottis vacationed in Florida and was never seen again).
Frankie, along with Junior’s older sister Victoria, a pulp novelist, was seen as the “brains” of the Gotti household. Junior was a “chooch,” a plugger at best, who’d gotten merit awards for neatness and marksmanship at the New York Military Academy but never even considered college: “If John Sr. had been able to keep out of prison, his son would never have been put in such an untenable spot,” says an investigator who has been tracking the Gottis for years. Junior’s so-called leadership “was about desperation – the father had no one else he could trust. If you could hear the sealed tapes the government made at Marion, where in his monthly visits Junior tries to minimize the damage he’s been causing to the Gambinos, you’d think the father was going nuclear. He sounds like Mike Ditka blasting the New Orleans Saints after they’ve lost another game.”
Starting around 1995, Junior was allegedly trying to “make up” for his losses in the lucrative construction and usury rackets by pathetically getting into shakedown deals at topless nightclubs such as Scores, which had been effectively subsumed a few years earlier by two separate Gambino crews. Louis Ricco’s outfit, plus Craig DePalma from Junior’s own crew, were – the government charged – taking no-show salaries, skimming profits, and “washing” kickbacks from nude dancers, hat-check girls, and parking-lot attendants – a de-evolution back to the crude “protection” scams of Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano in the twenties, before Lucky Luciano got crime organized.
“John Gotti the father was a mook mouth, like his hero, Albert Anastasia founder of Murder, Inc., who also used to dress up and show off,” Facciabrute, who knew all of the principals, summed up. “He put Junior in a terrible position. He ruined the borgata organization with publicity – him and his cafone clown lawyer, Bruce Cutler – and then he tried to rule through his dummy son. It couldn’t be done, and a lot of guys feel better now that this strunze twisted balls Junior is finally acting like a man.”
There were signs of strain in Junior’s defense as early as last summer. By that time, he’d been sitting in a county jail in Valhalla near White Plains for eight months, denied bail by U.S. District Court judge Barrington Parker as “a danger to the community.” He was facing a 60-count rico indictment that charged him with “supervising the criminal activities of the Gambino family,” including murder conspiracy, multiple acts of extortion, and money laundering, which could have put him away for twenty years. Characteristically, his father had insisted that he drop his old lawyer, Richard Rehbock, a brilliant if prolix small fry who’d pleaded guilty himself to tax evasion in 1997, in favor of Gerry Shargel and Bruce Cutler, the trophy attorneys of the Gambino “black collar” bar during Gotti Sr.’s glory days in the mid-eighties as the “Teflon Don.”
But Junior had liked Rehbock. He seemed less close to the Spielbergian Shargel, a cool customer who gained his victories in the abstract by amassing mounds of contradictory detail to raise “reasonable doubt,” or to the voluble Cutler, whose personality mirrored his father’s, and whom the cops had nicknamed Il Duce for his flamboyant baldness and fists-on-hips bellicosity.
By August 1998, Cutler, who is not accustomed to secondary roles, was already restive about Shargel’s emergence as chief counsel: “These defense meetings,” Cutler had complained to me, “they’re not my style. I like to take a stance and go for it. But they’re second-guessing and strategizing, preplanning every hiccup.” “Yeah, Bruce shows up once in a while,” Rehbock dismissively remarked in February. Earlier, he’d described Cutler as “crazy,” as having been carried away by his many headlines and TV sound bites while defending Gotti Sr. ten years ago, and Cutler had called Rehbock “a madman – he can’t shut up” around the same time; last June, Cutler said Shargel was “a stiff.”
By December, Junior, now 35, having finally been released on $10 million bail, was enjoying life in his Oyster Bay mansion with his wife, Kim, and his kids, Frankie, Nicolette, and John, and badly wanted to take the government’s offer of a six-year guilty plea.
His mother talked him out of it, on orders from his father, but by January, Junior had grown more hard-shelled: He re-installed Rehbock over everyone’s objections, and on April 5, just before jury selection began, when the government simultaneously offered another deal (this time for seven years) and announced additional tax charges against him, he assertively threw in the towel.
Immediately, he looked much better. “My mind is clear for the first time in years,” Junior told WABC-TV. He let Cutler share the spotlight for a little while, then discreetly withdrew his arm from the lawyer’s grasp. He took off the uptown wire-rims someone had instructed him to wear in order to look more respectable. He folded them and put them in his pocket.
He walked toward his car, then turned and waved, like a free man.