Born: October 27, 1940, Bronx, New York
Died: June 10, 2002, Springfield, Missouri
Nicknames: The Dapper Don, the Teflon Don
Associates: the Gambino Family, the Five Families, the Commission, Paul Castellano, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano
John Gotti took control of the most powerful of New York’s Five Families by the old-fashioned Mob method of assassinating his predecessor. It was a huge prize. The Gambino crime family was one of the original Five Families of New York and for decades was the most powerful and profitable.
The Gambino family had for decades been one of the most public and most violent of Mafia families. Gotti ordered the murder of the previous boss, Paul Castellano, in 1985. Castellano had been appointed acting boss of the family by the aging Carlo Gambino in 1975. Gambino had moved into the family top spot in 1957 after arranging the murder of his predecessor, Albert Anastasia. Anastasia, in turn, had been elevated to boss after his predecessor, Vincent Mangano, disappeared and was presumed murdered in 1951.
Gotti’s elevation to boss came after members of his crew were indicted for selling narcotics. He reportedly was afraid that Castellano would kill him for violating the family’s rule against drug dealing. However, Castellano’s murder was not sanctioned by the other crime families and this was the basis for continuing resentment and hostility with the other families. Gotti also engendered resentment from other mobsters for being conspicuously flashy — for example, by posing for newspaper photos.
For years, that public presence didn’t seem to hurt him. Through methods that prosecutors would later prove included jury tampering and witness intimidation, Gotti was able to beat federal charges and trials in the 1980s for assault and racketeering, earning him the “Teflon Don” label from the media. The title wasn’t really indicative of Gotti’s legal history – he had served three years in a federal prison for theft and truck hijackings in 1968, and had been in and out of state prison since he was a teenager.
And he wouldn’t be Teflon for long. Local law enforcement and the FBI were winning cases against many of Gotti’s high-level associates while continuing to build their case against Gotti. In 1990, federal agents raided the Ravenite Social Club, a New York hangout where Gotti regularly did business (and which the FBI had successfully bugged for years). Among those arrested with Gotti was his lieutenant, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano.
Gotti was charged with racketeering and five murders, including the murder of Castellano, conspiracy to murder, illegal gambling, loan sharking, bribery, obstruction of justice and tax evasion. The evidence against Gotti was substantial and included incriminating wiretaps of the Ravenite Social Club. Those taps led to the court refusing bail for Gotti, and it also meant the disqualification of two of Gotti’s favorite lawyers on the grounds, the government argued, that they essentially were part of the criminal organization.
Worse yet, Gotti was heard on the tapes criticizing Gravano, who was disillusioned by his experience working for his boss. Gravano switched sides, and in the federal trial testified that Gotti led the Gambino family and ordered the murders. This time, Gotti was unable to get to witnesses or the jury, and he was convicted in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison. The Teflon Don, the FBI said, had become the Velcro Don.
In 1998, Gotti was diagnosed with cancer. It was treated, but returned, and in 2002 he died in a federal prison hospital. His son, John Gotti III, took control of the unraveling Gambino family after his father’s imprisonment. John Gotti III was arrested and charged with racketeering in 1998, convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. He was again arrested and charged with murder and racketeering in Florida in 2008, but the case ended in a mistrial.
John Gotti Jr.’s brother Peter Gotti took over as Gambino boss in 2002, but he was in power for only a year before being arrested and convicted of racketeering.