The Bull is back on the streets.
Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, once John Gotti’s loyal underboss until he flipped and joined the feds, walked out of an Arizona prison this month after doing nearly two decades on a drug conviction, authorities said. The now 72-year-old Mob killer, who confessed to 19 murders, was convicted in 2001 for dealing ecstasy after leaving the arms of the federal Witness Protection Program.
The Brooklyn-born Gravano still faces parole for the rest of his life – likely spent in an undisclosed location. It’s a drastic change from his first go-round as a defendant. Back then, after agreeing to testify against his boss and dozens of other Mafia stalwarts, he received a sweetheart deal from prosecutors: a mere five years in prison for his multiple homicides and key role in assorted other Gambino family illicit businesses.
Gravano was indicted along with Gotti during the crackdown on New York’s five families in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Though regarded as Gotti’s right-hand man atop the Gambinos, he opted to change sides in October 1991 after learning the boss had bad-mouthed him on government wiretaps inside their Little Italy headquarters, the Ravenite Social Club. The decision to go rogue spared Gravano from the fate that eventually faced Gotti: a life sentence and death behind bars.
Gravano, who once said he was inspired to a life of Mob crime after seeing The Godfather, served as the Gambino family’s brutal bite to Gotti’s bark. Though an eighth-grade dropout, he made millions in the mobbed-up construction businesses of New York City. He was among the plotters when Gotti decided to murder
then-boss “Big Paul” Castellano in December 1985 – and was seated alongside Gotti when the hit went down.
The pair drove past Sparks Steak House to examine their killers’ handiwork, the first act in the rise and fall of the notorious Gotti. The two were arrested and charged with the memorable Mob execution, and he later took the witness stand in federal court in Brooklyn against ex-friends and co-defendants Gotti and consigliere Frank “Frankie Locs” Locascio. Both were convicted.
Gravano testified repeatedly over the next six years, helping to jail three dozen mobsters – including rival Genovese boss Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, Colombo family head “Little Vic” Orena and an assortment of other Mafia bigwigs.
“I was a hero,” he bragged to reporter Diane Sawyer in a nationally televised interview. He also boasted about keeping millions of dollars in crooked cash from his Mob days, money he purportedly held on to as part of his plea deal.
But Gravano, a former boxer, couldn’t find sanctuary after moving to Arizona with a new face (courtesy of plastic surgery) and a new lease on life. The first problem came with the release of his best-selling biography Underboss, a move that submarined his usefulness as a witness.
Defense attorneys were now using his book as a roadmap for cross-examination of Gravano. There were lawsuits brought by the families of his victims, too. And then, in February 2000, Gravano was busted – along with his son – for running a multimillion-dollar drug ring in his new Southwestern home. In a cruel twist of fate, the testimony of informants helped authorities make their case against the Bull. Both Gravanos entered guilty pleas in June 2001.
Larry McShane works for the New York Daily News. He is a 37-year veteran city reporter who worked for The Associated Press as a national writer and in the Baltimore and New York City bureaus. He is the author of three books: Cops Under Fire, Chin: The Life and Crimes of Mafia Boss Vincent Gigante and Last Don Standing: The Secret Life of Mob Boss Ralph Natale.