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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The murder that made the Dapper Don John Gotti

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(Originally published by the Daily News on December 14, 2010. This story was written by Larry McShane.)

The Black Lincoln Town Car pulled to the curb on E. 46th St., ignoring the "No Parking" sign outside Sparks Steak House.

Inside, prime rib awaited Gambino family boss Paul "Big Paul" Castellano. Outside, four men in matching fur hats and trench coats awaited Castellano.

It was Dec. 16, 1985, the night that spawned John Gotti, mob star - and eventually destroyed all that the gaudy gangster professed to love.

Gotti's quartet of killers left Castellano and his driver splayed dead across a street lined with holiday shoppers and tourists.

In a personal touch, Gotti coolly drove past the carnage to ensure the job was done.

By the time Gotti reached his Howard Beach home, the "Dapper Don" was transformed from Queens thug to boss of the nation's largest crime family. He later boasted, on a federal wiretap, of "a Cosa Nostra until I die."

The reality: It took just seven years for Gotti's reign to turn ruinous; all he touched turned toxic - from the Family to his family.

His legacy, 25 years after the hit, is this: The Gambinos in disarray, his key men dead or in jail.

Howard Abadinsky, a St. John's professor and mob expert, says Gotti's tenure is memorable for all the wrong reasons: "It was exemplary of what people in organized crime in the 21st century should NOT be doing."

A powerful enemy

While Gotti's ascension came courtesy of his loyal killers, his demise was entirely self-inflicted.

By killing Castellano without approval from Genovese boss Vincent "Chin" Gigante, Gotti made a powerful enemy.

The Chin had two of the "Big Paul" plotters whacked, and put out a contract on Gotti.

In contrast with the old school Gigante, the new boss reveled in his role. Gotti flitted around in $2,000 suits and hand-painted ties, tweaking law enforcement.

He even landed on the cover of Time magazine in an Andy Warhol portrait - something that made him the FBI's top target.

"This is supposed to be a secret society," said Bruce Mouw, former head of the FBI's Gambino squad. "And he's holding court in the Ravenite, so the capos can kiss the ring and pay homage."

Gotti's high profile converted the Ravenite from Little Italy mob den to tourist attraction.

The New York Daily News published this article on Dec. 14, 2010.

Government bugs planted there captured the latter-day Capone jabbering with Sammy (The Bull) Gravano, the underboss who later turned informant.

Gotti's voice detailing his murderous ways was more devastating than Gravano's testimony.

Gotti ran the Gambinos for seven years before his 1992 conviction - and the next decade before his death in federal prison.

"The best witness against John Gotti," Mouw said, "was John Gotti."

'Growing up Gotti'

For the don and his relatives, "Growing Up Gotti" became a harsh reality show that included hard time for many of them.

Brothers Gene and Peter are likely to die in prison. Youngest brother Vincent is doing time for murder conspiracy.

Brother Richard was released five years ago; his namesake son is still in jail. Gotti's former son-in-law was nailed for tax evasion.

And then there was John A. "Junior" Gotti, installed as Gambino boss by his incarcerated dad.

"That was one of the things I didn't like about Gotti," said Mouw, who pursued the mob boss for years.

The father knew "full well the career path was either getting whacked or going to jail," he said.

Although "Junior" worshiped his dad, the mob scion became disillusioned about "The Life."

Lawyer Ron Kuby remembers a jailhouse meeting with a wrung-out Junior Gotti in spring 1998.

"John made it clear to me," Kuby recalled. "I think the words he used were 'sick of this life.' He wanted to take a plea, serve his time, get out and rejoin his biological family."

Junior did six years - then withstood four emotionally and financially draining Manhattan Federal Court trials in five years. All ended in mistrials.

Gotti Jr., who declined an interview request, is working on a book and a screenplay about his mob career.

Gotti Sr. never went that route, abiding by omerta to the end.

Kuby remembered the elder Gotti, after his 1992 sentencing, joking about the $50 fine imposed with his life term: "He looks at us and smiles, and says, 'Boy, that special assessment. They sure know how to hurt a guy.'



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