4 min read
This is a New York kind of story about a New York kind of trip. I love traveling to that tough talking town and there was a special bonus this time: I got to cross paths with a couple of Wise Guys. Plus a future mayor of New York and a New York Times reporter. Like I said, it was a New York kind of trip.
At the time I was steeped in criminals, suspects, victims and trials. As a producer for an NBC show about all of the above, it was my job to take promising leads and turn them into entertaining real life crime stories. You know, television. Hence, I found myself winging from sunny L.A. to a darker, edgier New York.
And by New York, I don’t just mean the sleek runways of Manhattan. We’d also be spending time in the pot-holed, brown lawned, screen-door banging world of Queens.
This is where my story’s main character resided. His name was John Gotti, head of the Gambino crime family. He was known as the “Dapper Don” for his fine suits and also as the “Teflon Don”, having escaped multiple trials for assault and racketeering.
Unlike most New York Dons, Gotti was well known to the public for his debonair style, his trendy photo ops at clubs and his growing notoriety. The opposite of the other “Capo di Tutti Capi” - those Crime Bosses who quietly motored to syndicate meetings in their Eldorados - Gotti seemed to be everywhere, constantly quotable, always working on his brand. Not unlike another rising New York entrepreneur at the time.
In fact, both men always appeared in fine suits and each meticulously coifed his hair into a princely crown. Fitting, as each believed himself to be the Prince of the city. And, if the crooked lame-stream media is to be believed, both had friends and business associates in common. But I digress.
I was here to do a story on the demise of the New York mafia and its historic five families. My contact, interview and expert was a veteran New York Times reporter who knew the mob scene well. He had written a deeply researched expose of the Sicilian Mafia’s “Pizza Connection” – a huge heroin trafficking ring in New York.
That case featured such notables as Donnie Brasco (F.B.I. agent Joe Pistone) and launched the careers of investigator Louis Freeh, who later became head of the F.B.I. and U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani, who later ran for Mayor of New York, but lost.
This was just about the time I met the former prosecutor, to interview him for my mob story.
“You Gonna Run Again?”
That was one of the first things I asked Rudy Giuliani when I met him in his modest office.
“Absolutely!”, he exclaimed. Actually, it was more like a campaign promise.
While the crew was setting up their lights, I went through my usual producer routine, one item of which was shoving a legal release from the Network into the hands of my waiting interview subject. Like most network releases, it was completely one-sided and gave all future legal rights to the broadcaster and just about none to the interview subject.
But you know, nobody ever really looks at those things. They just pretend to read the two thousand words crammed onto one page. Everyone acts like they immediately understand the yards of legalese it took a team of expensive lawyers three weeks to draft. And then they quickly sign their lives away. It’s just one of those things we do to show strangers we really are grownups.
However, this former Associate Attorney General of the United States and U.S Attorney for the Southern District of New York wasn’t interested in impressing me. He actually gave the thing a pretty good going over.
“I’m not gonna sign that.”, was his dismissive reply as he tossed the release back to me.
I actually was impressed – no one had ever not signed. I was also a tad panicked. I had just flown three thousand miles to interview the guy. I couldn’t not interview him because he hadn’t not signed….
“Uhhh. Ok.”, was about all I could muster. I’d hand this to our crack para-legal back in L.A. She could go talk to the network. I’m a journalist, not an attorney.
The Mafia Commission Trial
The trial in which U.S. Attorney Giuliani “made his bones”, was the reason I was now talking to him. Giuliani had indicted eleven crime figures, which included the heads of New York’s five crime families.
“Our approach is to wipe out the five families.”, he informed the press at the time. And he came close. When the verdicts were read each of the bosses received sentences of one hundred years. The structure of New York’s crime organizations was all but demolished.
But not completely. John Gotti was still in business. And though Giuliani had worked to put the Don away, he had so far escaped conviction. It was known that TeamGotti excelled at jury tampering and witness intimidation. In fact, one key witness completely recanted his testimony, prompting The New York Post to issue the headline, "I Forgotti!”
Still, the groundwork had been set and within a few years, the Don’s famed Teflon coating would flake off as charges of murder, loansharking, racketeering and other sticky business clung to him for life.
However… Gotti also had it in for Giuliani. Although we didn’t know it at the time of our meeting, Gotti had wanted to hit Giuliani just a few years before. This wouldn’t be known for another seventeen years at which time mob sources revealed Gotti had pressed the other New York crime bosses to kill the zealous young prosecutor.
The five New York bosses had voted on the contract, with Gotti and Carmine Perseco wanting the hit. But the bosses of the Luchese, Bonnano and Genovese families voted against the measure. The nays had it and democracy won again. And so did my interview subject.
But as I said, nobody knew any of this at the time. Mr. Giuliani gave me a great interview with lots of quotable bites, which is what I came for. Who cares if he didn’t sign the release.
Kicking Down The Cobblestones
I’m from New York originally, so when I come back, I’m energized by the town’s unique landmarks: Ray’s pizza, Sabrett hot dogs, old cobblestone streets and lots of bridges.
There’s thousands of beautiful bridges in New York City including about ten big suspension bridges. There are so many spans connecting the five boroughs, from above it looks like they’re holding the town together. Snip a few spans and Coney Island might float off to Jersey.
Anyway, the New York Times reporter, the crew and I packed ourselves into our little van. We were leaving Manhattan for Ozone Park in Queens - Gotti country. But first we had to cross over the 59th Street Bridge, one of my favorites, on our way to spot a Gotti. We were looking for fun and feeling groovy.
New York City isn’t just Manhattan, it’s actually comprised of five boroughs. But, when you leave “the city” as we call Manhattan and land in Brooklyn or Queens or Staten Island, there’s a different city that greets you.
It’s a little slower, a little less intense. On Manhattan’s frantic streets it’s hard to imagine anyone taking note of you. But here in Queens, and especially in Ozone Park, where we now landed, there’s lots more space and time for faces behind living room windows to check you out.
That was the feeling I got as I surveyed John Gotti’s street and his nearby house. Also, we had a big camera with us. We were clearly outsiders. I turned to The New York Times reporter who had brought us here. For some reason, the thought popped into my head that he was our protection.
I’m With Him
Why? I don’t know. He was from the New York Times. I grew up revering the New York Times. It was the paper of record. It was important. They couldn’t touch us.
None of that made any sense. Yet, that was the way I decided to experience this moment. We were good as long as we were with him.
The veteran newsman was an encyclopedia of mob information: the characters, the connections, the deals. He was our mob tour guide – of course we were safe.
Then he pointed to a young, burly man in sweats walking toward us.
“That’s Gotti Jr.”, my protector announced. But he didn’t say it like he was our infallible tour guide, showing off some interesting neighborhood character. The sudden uncertainty in his voice felt more like he had just spotted the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa. I got the feeling he would rather be back in the Times’ newsroom. So would I.
As one, we shuffled back. I don’t believe my cameraman was shooting. That’s OK. I forgot to tell him to shoot.
Jr. was not only a “made man”, he was already a capo or captain in the Gambino family. He slowed down to check us out. I got a funny feeling in my legs. Was this the fight or flight syndrome? If so, it was definitely flight for me. In fact, our group kept inching away from the Junior Don.
But the young capo turned his gaze away from us and headed toward the Gotti home. He was probably used to cameras. We just weren’t used to him.
We did get lots of footage of the house, the neighborhood, the bars and street life. But no Gotti Sr. So the reporter led us to a Gambino family hangout – the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club. A hunt and fish club? Of course there was no hunting and no fishing, just a couple of Wise Guys out front. Only in Queens.
There was also no sign of the Godfather, so we decided to trek back to Manhattan to another Gotti hangout, The Ravenite Social Club. A Social Club? Well maybe that’s not as ridiculous as it sounds, after all a social club is a place where people meet around a shared interest or activity, for instance: chess, painting, quilting, loansharking or extortion. These could all be considered common interests.
The Ravenite was located in Little Italy, home to some of New York’s best restaurants and historic mob activity. These are the ‘mean streets’ long depicted in gangster lore and movies. As a film student I had spent time here years ago. In fact, I had worked as a PA or schlep on the mob movie, “Mean Streets”, hauling electrical cable up to the roofs of tenements.
Up there, we watched a young Martin Scorsese direct a couple of young actors portraying budding Wise Guys. The actors went on to become Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro – but we didn’t know it at the time…. And I’ve digressed again.
But, it was also around that same time a much younger John Gotti was making his bones nearby at the Ravenite Social Club... and throughout the greater metropolitan area.
So, here I was, twenty years later, back in Little Italy, staked out across the street from the social club with my crew and the reporter. It was New York cold - the wind had turned mean. I interviewed the reporter using the Ravenite Club as the background. As he spoke fluently about the mob and all things Gotti, he shivered from the cold. So did I. But he kept on going… and then I saw something.
There were faces peering at us through the Ravenite’s windows. One clearly had the coifed silver mane of the Don himself. Once again I got that jellyfish feeling in my legs. It was becoming familiar - that Gotti family feeling.
I wrapped up the interview and we got the hell out of there.
This Ravenite Social Club was the place that ultimately did in Gotti. Of course we didn’t know it at the time… but the FBI had infiltrated the place, thoroughly bugging it. The Feds had counted on the Don’s penchant for being just a little too public and a little too noisy.
It was from that bug that much of the final incriminating murder evidence of John Gotti was secured. And so Rudy Giuliani would also get the credit for putting the last big Don away.
Mr. Gotti subsequently took a one-way trip to the Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois.
Mr. Giuliani subsequently ran again for mayor and won. See, never give up.
The New York Times reporter subsequently wrote a book about John Gotti.
Me? The next day I jumped on a plane back to my family in sunny L.A. And although I didn’t know it at the time… my bag was on a different plane, heading elsewhere. However, unlike others who had crossed paths with John Gotti, the bag did not disappear forever.
In fact, a friendly, smiling messenger brought it to my house the following day. Everyone and everything ended up in its rightful place. Just like it was supposed to.
Jon Lapidese is a travel copywriter and blogger.