Reporter's Notebook: Gotti, a Mob Icon

N E W  Y O R K, June 10, 2001 -- It was Dec. 16, 1985. No one had ever heard of a mid-level hood named John Gotti.

Big Paul Castellano moved in his lumbering way through the Madison Avenue law offices of his mouthpiece, Jimmy LaRossa. Big Paul, the boss of the Gambino crime family, was doling out Christmas presents to his lawyer's secretaries. Each got a small trinket or a bottle of expensive perfume.

Paul had reason to be nice. He was counting on the legal team to help him beat the rap in a Mafia conspiracy case that could of put him away long past his life expectancy. Of course, he was far too optimistic. He actually had less than an hour to live.

Just after 5:30, Castellano rode in a shiny black Lincoln Town Car down East 46th Street. His driver, Tommy Bilotti, stopped at the light at the corner of Third Avenue. In the next car, Sammy "the Bull" Gravano nudged John Gotti. "That's him," Gravano said.

At the same moment, Gravano picked up a walkie-talkie and signaled the team of men who were waiting outside Sparks Steak House. Bilotti pulled the Town Car into a parking space just west of Sparks' front door. As Castellano hauled his huge frame up and out of the passenger side, Bilotti was exiting the driver's side. Half a dozen men, dressed in matching white trench coats and Russian style fur hats, came at both men shooting.

Big Paul went down on the sidewalk in a huge, bleeding heap. His hand slipped just underneath the car door, surrounded by shell casings from the bullets. Bilotti was face up, in the middle of East 46th Street in a widening pool of blood.

Gotti’s Handiwork Earns Him ‘Boss’ Title

On the other side of the intersection, the light had changed. John Gotti drove through the intersection, slowing to admire his dark handiwork. Gravano looked out the passenger side window and said simply, "He's gone." The men in the trench coats disappeared into the evening chill. Carols played over a loud-speaker mounted just across the street.

It was nine days before Christmas and John Gotti had given himself an early present: The title of "Boss" of the Gambino Crime Family.

The next morning I was staked out in front of a red brick storefront that was known as the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club. New York police and the FBI were quick to agree that a man named John Gotti had been behind the Castellano hit.

It was a daring move. The murder of a mob boss, unless sanctioned by LaCosa Nostra's ruling "Commission," is a crime punishable under the mob's code by swift and certain death. Had Gotti, a mere captain or "capo" in the Gambino family, actually had the nerve to whack his own boss, take over the family and expect to live? So it appeared.

When Gotti emerged from behind the red door of the Bergin club, I jumped out of our car and chased him with a camera crew. Within seconds, the crew and I were all tangling with members of Gotti's crew, some of whom, we would later learn, had been among the shooters from the night before.

John Gotti was a big story. And getting footage of him became a priority. In January, when he showed up for a court appearance on a truck hijacking and murder indictment. I ran up next to him as he was leaving, shoved a mike in his face and asked, "Is it true what they say, that you're the boss of the Family?" Gotti replied without skipping a beat: "Yeah, my family, my wife, my house, my kids." And he was swept away in a gaggle of cameras, microphones and wires.

Growing Into His Role

As I continued to cover Gotti, I noticed he was growing into the role of boss. Gone were the brown Lincoln and the sweatsuits. Now Gotti was driven everywhere in a shinny black Mercedes Benz. He wore $2,000 Brioni suits that were hand-tailored for him on a bust that matched his precise measurements. The bust was kept in the back of store called DiLisi in the St. Regis Hotel (remember, that's where Moe Green got whacked in The Godfather) and the owner, Steve, went to great pains to make sure that Gotti's suits fit like a glove.

One day, while conducting surveillance on Gotti, it occurred to me that our tactics at trying to interview him were failing for a reason: He had his own tactics to avoid us. It was like a football play. If anyone approached Gotti with a camera near his headquarters, his two bodyguards would move forward, block the camera, Gotti would drop back and vanish into his clubhouse.

But I noticed there was a chink in his armor. Ever suspicious of electronic surveillance inside his club, Gotti would hold meetings with the top members of the Family by walking around the block. That meant that half way around the block, he was as far as possible from his normal refuge.

I set a plan into motion. I would bring four camera crews. That would leave two to tussle with Gotti's bodyguards, and still leave two to focus on him. The plan worked better than expected.

One fall evening in 1986, I had the four crews staked out around the corner from Gotti's club. The first time he came around the block he had four of his men with him. It seemed too evenly matched for my taste. But the next time he came around, he was with just two: Frankie "Locs" Locascio and Sammy "the Bull" Gravano. The boss, the underboss, and the consiglieri. In short, the senior management of the Gambino family, all in one place.

When I gave the signal to move in, it was like clockwork. The first camera crew approached, and Sammy the Bull and Frankie Loc sprung into action to block the lens. Gotti doubled back, but walked straight into the second crew. Frankie took off after that one. Then the other two crews moved in.

The mobsters were overwhelmed. I started a series of polite questions about John Gotti and the Mafia, which he declined to answer. Frankie and Sammy were still running after all the cameras, but there were too many to cover, so Gotti tells them in Italian to knock it off.

So there we were, four camera crews, the boss, the underboss, the consiglieri and me walking down a quiet street in Little Italy, chatting. All Gotti said was, "You know, I always treated you like a gentleman, John. You're not acting like a gentleman." I explained that most of the time, my crews and I ended up rolling around on the sidewalk with his crew, and that wasn't so gentlemanly either. So we made a deal that night. I could approach Gotti and ask him anything. He might not answer, but everyone would be polite.

In public he had a certain charm. From then on he answered most of my questions with a question, or a one-liner. Interestingly, he often ended our encounters with "Tell the truth, John. Tell the truth." What he meant was that I should hold the FBI and the prosecutors to the same scrutiny that I held the mob. Gotti always felt the law was playing dirty.

Gotti Becomes an Icon

As he beat one case, and then another, and then another, he became an icon, an anti-hero. He was the Dapper Don, the Teflon Don, he was on the cover of Time magazine. Andy Warhol had been commissioned to do the art for the cover.

Gotti was a gangster celebrity and when he walked into a restaurant, everyone turned. Some even dared to say hello. Gotti was all smiles and charm. He even talked about "my public." I can remember nights in Regine's when he used to tip the piano player in hundreds to play "The Wind Beneath My Wings." It was never clear who had "always been his hero," though.

Behind the scenes there was another John Gotti. He could be, and often was, a mean-spirited, cranky ,egotistical tyrant. He would go on and on, overheard by hidden FBI bugs, talking about his own crime family members, friends and even lawyers in the most disparaging terms. During one trial, I read a transcript in which he referred to me in unprintable terms. I later grabbed his lawyer, Bruce Cutler and said, "Hey, I thought you said he liked me!" Cutler replied, "He does. Look what he said about me!"

Cutler was right. Referring to Jerry Shargel, another lawyer, Gotti had said, "I'm gonna show him a way to leave his office without using the elevator." Shargel's suite was on the 44th floor.

What pierced the veil of Gotti's charm more than anything else were the tapes recorded after he was sentenced to life in Marion Federal Penitentiary. Gotti railed against everyone, even his own family, during those visits.

Sure, he got what he had coming. He was convicted of being the boss, running the crime family and ordering mob hits.

Even though he was recorded on bugs talking about all that, he blamed everyone else. "It took them $80 million in three lying cases and seven rats that killed 100 people in the witness protection program to finally frame me," Gotti said.

But Gotti was right about one thing. He was no shrinking violet. He was our generation's Al Capone. He summed it up himself this way to his brother Pete during a prison visit:

"You'll never see another guy like me if you live to be 5,000!"