Among Brian DuVall-Gambino's keepsakes are a scrapbook, a soft gray fedora hat, and an eighth birthday picture of him with his silver-haired godfather.
In a different place and time, they could have been criminal evidence. The hat, Duvall-Gambino says, once belonged to his late grandfather, Carlo Gambino, one of the founding fathers of American organized crime. The man in the birthday photo is the late John Gotti, former head of the Gambino crime family, whose love of stylish clothing earned him the nickname "The Dapper Don."
Today, Duvall-Gambino is a motivational speaker, minister, and activist against human trafficking. He now lives in Stark County and works as motivational speaker and leadership coach.
Born in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, he grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst. He describes his child as cloistered, as in no outsiders. Duvall-Gambino's mother is an Israeli. As a result, he had a bar mitzvah and a church confirmation. Convicted mob underboss Salvatore "Sonny the Bull" Gravano, he said, attended his confirmation, and John Gotti's name is on his baptismal certificate.
"Everything was like a family reunion; birthdays, bar mitzvahs, christenings," he recalled. "Everyone went on vacation together. People who weren't even blood family would come along. Growing up, I found out it was a trust issue. I questioned my father about why it was wrong when someone didn't show up, and he said family is more than blood; it was business."
Duvall-Gambino said that as a child, he had no clue what his late father, Joseph, did for a living.
"I thought my father was a stockbroker in downtown Manhattan," he said, laughing. "He always wore three-piece suits."
Duvall-Gambino said his initiation at 15 into the crime family was conducted by Gotti in Sicilian. The ceremony took place on Halloween 1992, he said. It included an oath of "omerta" and holding a blood-sprinkled, flaming saint's card of St. Francis of Assisi to illustrate eternal punishment if Duvall-Gambino betrayed the family's trust. His right palm still bears a burn scar.
As a soldier, or "goat," his said his job was to serve as a lookout at family-owned clubs and businesses when meetings were held and as a messenger and driver.
"I realized this was beyond stockbroking, beyond what my father was portrayed as," he said. "From that point on, I pretty much learned most of my (behavior) through Sammy the Bull. He was my skipper, my captain, and my adviser."
Duvall-Gambino said rules were bent and broken when Gotti took over the family. For instance, Gotti, he said, did away with excluding candidates who weren't full-blooded Italian or Sicilian.
"My uncle Tommy, the last living member of the Gambino children, his wife is Jewish," Duvall-Gambino said. "John Gotti's wife was a Russian Jew."
Gotti himself broke the ultimate rule, Duvall- Gambino said, by allegedly arranging the murder of Paul "Big Paul" Castellano, who was head of the family, without first securing permission from the other crime bosses.
All of the rules were starting to be broken at that point, he said. "The 1980s and '90s were an interesting era. If the old-school gangsters were alive, none of us would be alive. Rules were broken. The oath of Omerta has been broken."
Duvall-Gambino said he became a money collector and enforcer in 1994. He was 17.
"My job was, instead of killing people like Sammy the Bull did, I was using baseball bats to intimidate, beating the hell out of people. I would even firebomb places or cars as a warning," he said.
He said he soon launched his own gambling racket, adding bookmaking, pornography, and human trafficking.
"I was good with numbers and money," he said. "Money was our god and we made it any way possible."
Duvall-Gambino said he was arrested and charged with a juvenile felony on June 1, 1996, for racketeering under RICO laws. Under its "minor under 21" statute, he served three months in a juvenile facility. He said he was transferred to Riker's Island prison on his 20th birthday, where he was held in the prison's Juvenile Administrative Control Unit until he turned 21.
He said he had no interest in the prison's ministry outreach, adding "I hated religion. I thought everybody was fake."
A visit by TV evangelist Kenneth Copeland, he said, changed everything.
"He started speaking about blood covenants," Duvall-Gambino recalled. "Growing up Jewish and Italian, I'm like, 'What's this?' He came right up to me and told me God had a purpose for my life ... I started thinking maybe there's a higher purpose. What is is this religion stuff about?
"When you're in an 8-by-6 cell there's only so much you can do locked up 23 hours a day, so I started reading a lot to see if it was valid."
The prison chaplain urged him to ask God for proof.
Duvall-Gambino said he was released on Jan. 1, 2000, but was re-arrested in 2001 on assault charges. He was released in August of that same year with intervention by former mobster Michael Franzese, who had become a pastor. Franzese's autobiography "Quitting the Mob" was a bestseller and later became a movie.
Duvall-Gambino said Franzese also accompanied him to a meeting with John Gotti Jr. to announce he was quitting the life. The senior Gotti was in prison.
"I said, 'I'm learning; I'm on a quest. I want everybody to know I'm on this journey, trying to find out what is my life about, what do I want in life,' " he said. "He (Gotti Jr.) looked at me and said, 'Are you (expletive) kidding?'"
Duvall-Gambino said the Gottis were unhappy but said he could be an inactive family member.
"I said, 'If I'm going to find out what religion is, and God really transforms my life like people say, I'll be walking away,' " he said. "And that's exactly what happened."
"At the time when I got the news, I was already in the process of trying to straighten my life up," he said. "By this time, my father and I had broken ties, he kind of disowned me because he thought I was violating his trust by walking away from everything."
Duvall-Gambino said he studied for three years under Rabbi Jonathan Cahn's Hope of the World messianic-Christian ministry, becoming a credentialed clergyman in 2004. He had his probation transferred to Minneapolis that same year, following a divorce. He continued studying, found a job, and served as a church youth leader. He got active in the Republican Party and has done mission work with numerous churches and organizations.
In 2014, Duvall-Gambino was released from federal parole, unsuccessfully ran for governor as an independent Republican and launched Second Chance Ministries International. He moved to North Canton in 2016 and currently attends Star in the East Messianic Congregation in Plain Township.
"For most, a commitment of faith in Yeshua (Jesus) is with little risk or consequence," said Star in the East Rabbi Michael Oyler.
"However, for Brian Gambino, his commitment to follow and serve his master is not unlike the woman in Scripture with an issue of blood. In the same manner she courageously risked her life being unclean for the hope of being healed by grabbing hold of Yeshua's (fringe). Brian risked all, including his very unclean life, to grab hold of the promise of healing and restoration only God himself could provide ... Whatever is written, Brian's story should be much less about who he was, but who he has become and how God is using him."
Duvall-Gambino also is a business partner of Ken Roberts, owner of the Canal Warehouse, as a motivational speaker team-building and leadership coach.
"He's an example of second chances," Roberts said. "If you listen to his background, people might be intimidated to know him, but he's like the 'Prodigal Son.' "
"I never worked for the government, I never served as an informant. I never served in witness protection," Duvall-Gambino said. "I just got up and walked away. Religion was the means by which I did it. Because of it, it's changed my life. The message I bring is, 'Hey, there's hope, there's second chances, it doesn't matter how bad you've become. If you truly stick your mind to it, if you truly follow the rules God has for every area of life, you can walk away from where ever you are.' There are second chances in life."