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Gravano's 1990 mugshot
March 12, 1945
|Other names||"Sammy the Bull"|
|Known for||Member of the Gambino crime family, Federal Informant|
Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano (born March 12, 1945) is a former underboss of the Gambino crime family. He is known as the man who helped bring down John Gotti, the family's boss, by agreeing to testify against him and other mobsters in a deal in which he confessed to involvement in 19 murders.
Originally a mobster for the Colombo crime family, and later for the Brooklyn faction of the Gambinos, Gravano was part of the group that murdered Gambino boss Paul Castellano in 1985. Gravano played a key role in planning and executing Castellano's murder, along with John Gotti, Angelo Ruggiero, Frank DeCicco, and Joseph Armone.
Five years after Castellano's death, Gotti elevated Gravano to underboss, a position Gravano held at the time he became a government witness. At the time, Gravano was the highest-ranking member of the Five Families to break his blood oath and cooperate with the government, as well as the second confessed underboss of an American crime family to turn informer. His testimony drew a wave of Cosa Nostra members to also become government witnesses.
Including time served, he was initially in prison for five years because of his state cooperation. However, in 2002, he was convicted of operating a large drug ring which led to his serving a further 15 years of a 17-year sentence. He was released early in September 2017.
- 1 Childhood and early life
- 2 Colombo associate
- 3 Made man
- 4 Gambino soldier
- 5 Construction magnate
- 6 Co-underboss and consigliere
- 7 Turning government witness
- 8 Later life
- 9 References
- 10 External links
Childhood and early life
Salvatore Gravano was born in 1945 to Giorlando "Gerry" and Caterina "Kay" Gravano. He was the youngest of three children and the only boy. His father ran a small dress factory and maintained a good standard of living for the family.
The Gravano family lived in Bensonhurst, a largely Italian American neighborhood in Brooklyn. Early on, one of Gravano's relatives remarked that he looked like his uncle Sammy. From that point on, everyone called Gravano "Sammy" instead of "Salvatore" or "Sal."
At age 7, Gravano started stealing two cupcakes every day from a corner store in Bensonhurst on his way to school. After being caught by a store employee, a distraught Gravano received a stern warning. At age 13, Gravano joined the Rampers, a prominent street gang in Bensonhurst.
At an early age, Gravano found a few people that had stolen his bicycle and went to fight the thieves. Made men who were watching from a cafe saw him take on a few people at once, and they gave Gravano back his bike. As he was leaving, one of the made men remarked on how little Sammy fought "like a bull", hence his nickname "The Bull".
Gravano did poorly in school, possibly due to dyslexia. However, teachers blamed his problems on his "being a slow learner".
Gravano was held back from grade advancement on two occasions. At first, other children taunted him about this, but the taunting ended after Gravano assaulted several bullies.
When Gravano reached age 16, the school refused to keep him any longer. Gravano's father tried to redirect and discipline his son, including forcing him to attend Mass, but had little success.
In 1964, Gravano was drafted into the United States Army and served in the United States. While an enlisted man, Gravano mainly worked as a mess hall cook. He rose to the rank of corporal and was granted an honorable discharge after two years.
Later in his mob career, Gravano was ordered to help arrange the murder of his brother-in-law, Nicholas Scibetta. Gravano is also the brother-in-law of Gambino caporegime Edward Garafola and Mario Garafola.[page needed] Gravano was a childhood friend of Colombo crime family associate, Gerard Pappa.[page needed]
The Mafia had been in Bensonhurst for a long time; several "wiseguys" hung around a bar that a young Gravano and his father frequently passed.
Despite his father's attempts to dissuade him, Gravano, like many of his Ramper colleagues, drifted into the Cosa Nostra. He first became associated with the Cosa Nostra in 1968 through Anthony Spero, whose uncle Shorty was an associate of the Colombo crime family under future boss, Carmine "The Snake" Persico. Gravano was initially involved in crimes such as larceny, hijacking, and armed robbery. He quickly moved into racketeering, loansharking, and running a lucrative poker game in the back room of an after-hours club, of which he was part owner.
Gravano became a particular favorite of family boss Joe Colombo, who used Gravano to picket the FBI Manhattan headquarters as part of his Italian-American Civil Rights League initiative.[page needed] Gravano's rise was so precipitous that it was generally understood that he would be among the first to become made when the Cosa Nostra's membership books were reopened (they had been closed since 1957).[page needed]
In 1970, Gravano committed his first murder—that of Joseph Colucci, a fellow Spero associate with whose wife Tommy Spero was having an affair. Gravano described the experience thus:
As that Beatles song played, I became a killer. Joe Colucci was going to die. I was going to kill him because he was plotting to kill me. I felt the rage inside me. ... Everything went in slow motion. I could almost feel the bullet leaving the gun and entering his skull. It was strange. I didn't hear the first shot. I didn't see any blood. His head didn't seem to move. ... I felt like I was a million miles away, like this was all a dream.[page needed]
The Colucci murder won respect and approval from Persico for Gravano. Gravano later became a mentor to Colucci's son, Jack Colucci, who became involved in the construction industry as a Gambino associate.
In the early 1970s, Colombo soldier Ralph Spero, brother of Shorty, became envious of Gravano's success, fearing that he would become a made man before his son, Tommy. This rivalry culminated with the death of Ralph Ronga, another Colombo family associate in Ralph Spero's crew. After Ronga's death, a rumor had spread that Gravano had attempted to pick up Ronga's widow Sybil Davies at a bar, though Gravano maintained that Davies was the one hitting on him. Ralph Spero used this rumor in an attempt to gain support to have Gravano killed, or as an excuse to kill Gravano himself. Shorty Spero believed Gravano's side of the story over his brother Ralph. However, to avoid conflict, Shorty Spero allowed Gravano to leave the Colombo family and join the Gambino crime family.
Now with the Gambinos, Gravano became an associate of capo Salvatore "Toddo" Aurello. Aurello quickly took a liking to Gravano and became his mob mentor. Around this time, Gravano took a construction job (he later claimed to have considered leaving the criminal life).[page needed] A former associate, however, falsely claimed to the New York District Attorney's Office that Gravano and another associate were responsible for a double murder from 1969. After Gravano was indicted, he desperately needed money to pay his legal bills. He quit his construction job and went on a self-described "robbing rampage" for a year and a half.[page needed] One week into the trial, the prosecution moved to dismiss the charges. Gravano later said of this legal problem:
Gravano's robbery spree impressed Aurello, who proposed him for membership in the Gambino family. In 1976, the Cosa Nostra's membership books were finally reopened and Gravano became one of the first to be sworn in.
Gravano's loyalty to his dueling families was put to the test in 1978, when the erratic behavior of his brother-in-law, Nicholas Scibetta, attracted the attention of Gambino leadership. Scibetta, the brother of Gravano's wife, had developed an alcohol problem and soon started using cocaine. A series of altercations with mob associates followed, one of which ended with Scibetta having his adversary arrested, earning Scibetta a reputation as a rat. Scibetta sealed his fate when he insulted the daughter of George DeCicco, uncle of Gambino member Frank DeCicco. Hearing the news, Gravano gave his brother-in-law a beating in an attempt to forestall worse punishment. The elder DeCicco, however, was incensed and took the matter to boss Paul Castellano, who ordered a hit on Scibetta.
The order was given to Frank DeCicco, who was told not to inform Gravano. DeCicco gave the contract to Liborio "Louie" Milito and Josephy "Stymie" D'Angelo, Sr., two associates on Gravano's crew. After consultation, the three agreed it was wrong not to tell Gravano. DeCicco went to Castellano and persuaded him to give permission to inform Gravano, but Castellano also authorized DeCicco to kill Gravano if he opposed the murder. According to Gravano, he was initially livid at the news and threatened to kill Castellano, but DeCicco eventually convinced him opposition would be futile and Gravano acquiesced to the murder.[page needed]
The only part of Scibetta's body ever recovered was one of his hands, and he was declared legally dead in 1985. How Scibetta was killed, as well as the exact extent of Gravano's involvement, remains unknown.
Around this time, Gravano opened an afterhours club in Bensonhurst. The bar was the scene of a violent altercation one night, involving a rowdy biker gang intent on ransacking the establishment, which may have served as inspiration for a similar scene in the 1993 film A Bronx Tale. A melee ensued, in which Gravano broke his ankle and the bikers were chased off. Gravano then went to Castellano and received permission to murder the leader of the gang. Along with Milito, Gravano hunted down the leader, wounding him and killing another member of the gang. Castellano was flabbergasted when he learned the crutch-ridden Gravano personally took part in the hit.
Like his predecessor Carlo Gambino, Castellano favored emphasizing more sophisticated schemes involving construction, trucking, and garbage disposal over traditional street-level activities such as loansharking, gambling, and hijackings. Castellano had a particular interest in the construction business.[page needed] Gravano began to change his boss' cowboy image of him when he entered into the plumbing and drywall business with his friend, Edward Garafola. Gravano's construction and other business interests soon earned him a reputation as a "good earner" within the Gambino organization and made him a multi-millionaire, enabling him to build a large estate for his family in rural Ocean County, New Jersey.[page needed] Flush with cash, Gravano also invested in trotting horses to race at the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Gravano also became the operator of a popular discotheque, The Plaza Suite, in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn. Gravano reportedly made $4,000 a week from the Plaza Suite alone. Gravano also used the club as his construction racket headquarters.
Gravano further ingratiated himself to Castellano when he interceded in a civil war that had erupted within the Philadelphia crime family. In March 1980, longtime Philadelphia boss, Angelo Bruno, was assassinated by his consigliere, Antonio Caponigro, without authorization from The Commission. The Commission summoned Caponigro to New York, where it sentenced him to death for his transgression. After Caponigro was tortured and killed, Philip Testa was installed as the new Philadelphia boss and Nicky Scarfo as consigliere. The Commission subsequently placed contracts on Caponigro's co-conspirators, including John "Johnny Keys" Simone, who also happened to be Bruno's cousin. The Simone contract was given to Gravano.[page needed]
After befriending Simone through a series of meetings, Gravano, with the assistance of Milito and D'Angelo, abducted Simone from Yardley Golf Club in Yardley, Pennsylvania, (part of suburban Trenton, New Jersey) and drove him to a wooded area on Staten Island.[page needed] Gravano then granted Simone's requests to die with his shoes off, in fulfillment of a promise he had made to his wife, and at the hands of a made man. After Gravano removed Simone's shoes, Milito shot Simone in the back of the head, killing him.[page needed] Gravano later expressed admiration for Simone as a so-called "man's man", remarking favorably on the calmness with which he accepted his fate.[page needed] Despite Gravano earned praise from Castellano for the killing, he revealed that this was a hit he will never be proud of.
By the early 1980s, the Plaza Suite was a thriving establishment. Patrons often had to wait an hour to get in and the club featured high-profile live acts such as singers Chubby Checker and the Four Tops.
In 1982, Frank Fiala, a wealthy businessman and drug trafficker, paid Gravano $40,000 to rent the Plaza Suite for a birthday party he was throwing himself. Two days after the party, Gravano accepted a $1,000,000 offer from Fiala to buy the establishment, which Gravano had only valued at $200,000. The deal was structured to include $100,000 cash as a down payment, $650,000 in gold bullion under the table, and a $250,000 payment at the real estate closing.[page needed]
Before the transaction was completed, Fiala began acting like he already owned the club. He started remodeling it and hired his own bouncers. The final provocation was when Fiala moved into Gravano's private office and began breaking through an office wall. Gravano, enraged, stormed into the office followed by Garafola. Fiala was standing behind Gravano's desk. He sat down in Gravano's chair, smirking at the two men.
"What do you think you're doing?" Gravano growled. "This doesn't belong to you till the closing. Get the hell out of here." Fiala reached into a desk drawer, removed an Uzi machine pistol and aimed it at the two men. Ordering them to sit down, Fiala stated, "You fucking greaseballs, you do things my way."
Upon leaving the Plaza Suite, Gravano called Garafola and set up an ambush outside the club, involving Garafola, Milito, D'Angelo, Nicholas Mormando, and Michael DeBatt in the plan.[page needed] Later that night, Gravano confronted Fiala on the street as he exited the Plaza Suite among a group of people, asking, "Hey, Frank, how you doing?" As Fiala turned around, surprised to see Gravano, Milito came up behind him and shot him in the head.[page needed] Milito stood over the body and fired a shot into each of Fiala's eyes as Fiala's entourage and the crowd of people on the street dispersed, screaming.[page needed] Gravano then walked up to Fiala's corpse and urinated on his mouth.[page needed]
Although Gravano believed the entire neighborhood knew he was responsible for the murder, he was never charged for the crime: Gravano had made a $5,000 payoff to the lead New York Police Department homicide detective Louis Eppolito to ensure that the investigation yielded no leads.
Although Gravano evaded criminal charges, he incurred Castellano's wrath over the unsanctioned killing. Gravano attempted to lie low for nearly three weeks afterwards, during which time he called his crew together and made the decision to kill Castellano if necessary. Gravano and Milito were then summoned to a meeting with Castellano at a Manhattan restaurant. Castellano had been given the details of what Fiala had done, but he was still livid that Gravano had not come to him for permission to kill Fiala first. Gravano, however, was spared execution when he convinced Castellano that the reason he had kept him in the dark was to protect the boss in case something went wrong with the hit.
Fiala's murder posed one final problem for Gravano in the form of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The high publicity generated by the incident triggered an IRS investigation into Gravano and Fiala's deal for the sale of the Plaza Suite and Gravano was subsequently charged with tax evasion. Gravano was represented by Gerald Shargel and acquitted at trial.
Gravano's relief at being acquitted was tempered by news that a close friend, D'Angelo, had been killed by a Colombo family associate celebrating his having been proposed for membership. The killer was then murdered, himself, on orders from the Colombo family.
Aligning with Gotti
In the aftermath of the Fiala murder, Gravano continued to focus on his construction business, branching out into the lucrative concrete paving industry. New York City's cement industry was controlled by four of the Five Families, which made millions of dollars by manipulating bids and steering contracts. Gravano said in 1998, "I literally controlled Manhattan, literally. You want concrete poured in Manhattan? That was me. Tishman, Donald Trump, all these guys—they couldn't build a building without me."
Gravano eventually became embroiled in a dispute with business partner Louie DiBono, a member of another Gambino crew.[page needed] A sit-down with Castellano was held, at which an irate Gravano accused DiBono of withholding $200,000 in payments for subcontracts and threatened to kill DiBono.[page needed] Gambino underboss Neil Dellacroce intervened on Gravano's behalf and Castellano told the two men to end their business partnership, though Gravano's standing with the boss slipped as a result of the incident. Dellacroce, however, was rising star John Gotti's mentor, and when word got back to him that Dellacroce had supported Gravano, Gotti was impressed.
During this time, the FBI had intensified its efforts against the Gambino family and in August 1983, three members of Gotti's crew – Angelo Ruggiero, John Carneglia, and Gene Gotti – were indicted for heroin trafficking. Castellano was against anyone in the family dealing narcotics. Castellano planned to kill Gene Gotti and Ruggiero if he believed they were drug traffickers. Castellano asked Ruggiero for a copy of the government surveillance tapes that had Ruggiero's conversations. To save Gene Gotti and Ruggiero, Dellacroce stalled the demand. Eventually, one of the reasons for Gotti's killing Castellano was to save his brother and Ruggiero. The FBI had bugged Ruggiero's house and telephone, and Castellano decided he needed copies of the tapes to justify his impending move to Dellacroce and the family's other capos.
When Castellano was indicted for both his connection to Roy DeMeo's stolen car ring and as part of the Mafia Commission Trial, he learned his own house had been bugged on the basis of evidence from the Ruggiero tapes and he became livid. In June 1985, he again demanded that Dellacroce get him the tapes. Both Dellacroce and Gotti tried to convince Ruggiero to comply if Castellano explained beforehand how he intended to use the tapes, but Ruggiero refused, fearing he would endanger good friends.
Three months later, Gravano was approached by Robert DiBernardo, a fellow Gambino member acting as an intermediary for Gotti. DiBernardo informed him that Gotti and Ruggiero wanted to meet with him in Queens. Gravano arrived to find only Ruggiero was present. Ruggiero informed Gravano that he and Gotti were planning to murder Castellano and asked for Gravano's support. Gravano was initially noncommittal, wanting to confer first with Frank DeCicco. In conversation with DeCicco, both men voiced concern that Castellano would designate his nephew, Thomas Gambino, acting boss and his driver, Thomas Bilotti, underboss in the event he was convicted and sent to prison.[page needed] Neither man appealed to Gravano or DeCicco as leadership material, and they ultimately decided to support the hit on Castellano.[page needed]
Gravano's second choice to become boss after Castellano's murder was Frank DeCicco, but DeCicco felt John Gotti's ego was too big to take a subservient role.[page needed] DeCicco argued that Gotti's boldness, intelligence, and charisma made him well-suited to be "a good boss" and he convinced Gravano to give Gotti a chance.[page needed] DeCicco and Gravano, however, also made a secret pact to kill Gotti and take over the family as boss and underboss, respectively, if they were unhappy with Gotti's leadership after one year.[page needed] The conspirators' first order of business was meeting with other Gambino members, most of whom were disaffected under Castellano, and gaining their support for the hit. They also recruited longtime capo Joseph "Piney" Armone into the conspiracy. Armone's support was critical; he was a respected old-timer in the family, and it was believed he could help win over Castellano supporters to the new regime.
The next step was smoothing over the planned hit with the other families. It has long been a hard and fast rule in the Mafia that killing a boss is forbidden without the support of a majority of the Commission. Indeed, Gotti's planned hit would have been the first off-the-record hit on a boss since Frank Costello was nearly killed in 1957. Knowing it would be too risky to approach the other four bosses directly, the conspirators got the support of several important mobsters of their generation in the Lucchese, Colombo and Bonanno families. Gotti and Ruggiero then sought and obtained the approval of key figures from the Colombos and Bonannos, while DeCicco secured the backing of top mobsters aligned with the Luccheses.[page needed] They did not even consider approaching the Genoveses; Castellano had especially close ties with Genovese boss Vincent "Chin" Gigante, and approaching any major Genovese figure, even one of their generation, could have been a tipoff. Gotti could thus claim he had the support of "off-the-record contacts" from three out of five families. With Neil Dellacroce's death on December 2, 1985, the final constraint on a move by Gotti or Castellano against the other was removed. Gotti, enraged that Castellano chose not to attend his mentor's wake, wasted little time in striking.
Not suspecting the plot against him, Castellano invited DeCicco to a meeting on December 16, 1985, with fellow capos Thomas Gambino, James Failla, and Danny Marino at Sparks Steak House in Manhattan. The conspirators considered the restaurant a prime location for the hit because the area would be packed with bustling crowds of holiday shoppers, making it easier for the assassins to blend in and escape. The plans for the assassination were finalized on December 15, and the next afternoon, the conspirators met for a final time on the Lower East Side. At Gotti's suggestion, the shooters wore long white trench coats and black fur Russian hats, which Gravano considered a "brilliant" idea.[page needed]
Gotti and Gravano arrived at the restaurant shortly before 5 o'clock and, after circling the block, parked their car across the intersection and within view of the entrance.[page needed] Around 5:30, Gravano spotted Castellano's Lincoln Town Car stopped at a nearby intersection and, via walkie talkie, alerted the team of hitmen stationed outside the restaurant of Castellano's approach. Castellano's driver, Thomas Bilotti, pulled the car up directly in front of the entrance. As Castellano and Bilotti exited the Lincoln, the roughly half dozen shooters moved in and opened fire, killing both men in a barrage of bullets. As the hat-and-trench-coat-adorned men slipped away into the night, Gotti calmly drove the car past the front of the restaurant to get a look at the scene. Looking down at Bilotti's body from the passenger window, Gravano remarked, "He's gone."
Co-underboss and consigliere
The new regime
After Castellano's death, Gallo–the only surviving member of the hierarchy–convened a three-man committee to temporarily run the family, comprising himself, Gotti and DiCicco. However, it was an open secret that Gotti was acting boss in all but name, and nearly all of the family's capos knew he had been the one behind the hit. Gotti was formally acclaimed as the new boss of the Gambino family at a meeting of 20 capos held on January 15, 1986. Gotti, in turn, selected DeCicco as his underboss and elevated Gravano to capo after Toddo Aurello announced his desire to step down.
Gotti was duly recognized as boss by the other families, including the Genovese family, whose approval for the hit on Castellano had been deliberately bypassed by Gotti and his co-conspirators. Accordingly, he assumed the Gambinos' seat on the Commission. The Genovese family, however, was still upset that Gotti had proceeded without the full sanctioning of the Commission and cryptically announced that a Mafia rule had been broken, for which somebody would have to pay if and when the Commission, which was in disarray at the time due to the Mafia Commission Trial, met again.[page needed] Gravano and DeCicco had been hiding out in safe houses, but they took the other families' full recognition of Gotti as an indication that it was safe to resurface.[page needed]
The Genoveses made good on their veiled threat in April 1986, when DeCicco was killed by a car bomb outside of Castellano's former social club in Bensonhurst, then operated by Gambino capo James Failla. Gravano was at the club at the time and was blown off his feet by the blast.[page needed] Gravano attempted to pull DeCicco from the wreckage but realized it was no use when he saw various body parts scattered about.[page needed]
The attack was orchestrated by Gigante, with the backing of Lucchese leaders Vittorio "Vic" Amuso and Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso. The bomb was intended to kill both DeCicco and Gotti, who was supposed to be at the club for a meeting with Gravano and DeCicco. Gotti, however, couldn't make the meeting and rescheduled for later that evening at the Ravenite Social Club in Manhattan. Failla and fellow capo Daniel Marino were two of Castellano's closest associates before his death and both men were in on Gigante's plot. In exchange for a promise to be designated co-leaders of the Gambino family after the assassinations, Failla and Marino provided intelligence and tipped off the plotters to the planned meeting in Bensonhurst.[page needed] The plotters reportedly used a car bomb for the attack in order to divert suspicion. The method had its intended effect, as Gotti and Gravano considered and dismissed the possibility that Gigante was behind the plot, reasoning, "[H]e wouldn't use ... bombs."
"Nicky Cowboy" murder
The first person on Gravano's hit list after Castellano's murder was Nicholas "Nicky Cowboy" Mormando, a former member of his crew.[page needed] Mormando had become addicted to crack cocaine and was suspected by Gravano of getting friend and fellow crew member Michael DeBatt addicted to the drug. According to Gravano, Mormando started to act "like a renegade ... berserk".[page needed] The final straw came when Mormando announced he no longer wanted to be in the crew and planned to start his own gang. Gravano decided he "couldn't take a chance" because Mormando "knew too much" and he got permission from Gotti to kill Mormando.[page needed]
Gravano arranged to have Mormando murdered on his way to a meeting at Gravano's Bensonhurst restaurant, Tali's.[page needed] After assuring Mormando of his safety, Gravano told him to pick up Joseph Paruta on his way. Paruta got in the backseat of the car and shot Mormando twice in the back of the head.[page needed] Mormando's corpse was then disposed of in a vacant lot, where it was discovered the next day.[page needed]
Gotti was imprisoned in May 1986 at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, New York, while awaiting trial on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) charges. He was forced to rely heavily on Gravano, Angelo Ruggiero, and Joseph "Piney" Armone to manage the family's day-to-day affairs while he called the major shots from his jail cell.
In June, Gravano was approached by Ruggiero and, supposedly at Gotti's behest, given orders to murder capo Robert DiBernardo for making negative remarks about Gotti's leadership.[page needed] Gravano was friendly with DiBernardo and tried to get the murder called off until he had a chance to speak with Gotti after his trial.[page needed] Ruggiero claimed to have met again with Gotti and told Gravano that the boss wanted DiBernardo killed right away.[page needed] Gravano arranged a meeting with DiBernardo where Joe Paruta, a member of Gravano's crew, shot DiBernardo twice in the back of the head as the underboss watched.[page needed] Gravano later learned that Ruggiero was $250,000 in debt to DiBernardo and realized Ruggiero may have fabricated the orders from Gotti or simply lied to Gotti about what DiBernardo was accused of saying in order to erase the debt and improve his own standing in the family.[page needed] In any event, DiBernardo's death proved profitable for Gravano, as he took over the deceased man's control of Teamsters Local 282.
Gotti's trial ultimately ended in a mistrial due to a hung jury and the boss was freed from jail. Gravano's specific position within the family varied during 1986 and 1987. He started out as co-underboss with Ruggiero and later was shifted to co-consigliere with Armone. When Joseph N. Gallo and Armone were convicted on racketeering charges in 1987, Gotti turned to Gravano to help fill the void, promoting him to official consigliere and making Frank Locascio acting underboss.[page needed] By this time, Gravano was regarded as a "rising force" in the construction industry and often mingled with executives from major construction firms and union officials at his popular Bensonhurst restaurant, Tali's.
Gravano's success was not without a downside. First, his quick rise up the Gambino hierarchy attracted the attention of the FBI, and he was soon placed under surveillance. Second, he started to sense some jealousy from Gotti over the profitability of his legitimate business interests. Nevertheless, Gravano claimed to be kicking up over $2 million each year to Gotti out of his union activities alone.
Michael DeBatt, the son of a late friend of Gravano's, had also become addicted to crack cocaine. DeBatt's wife came to Gravano pleading for help. She told Gravano that DeBatt stayed up at night with a gun claiming "they were coming to get him." Gravano had taken DeBatt under his wing after the elder DeBatt's death, as he had done with Joey D'Angelo. Gravano responded to DeBatt's wife's cries for help by having DeBatt shot to death at Tali's, Gravano's bar. The shooters emptied the cash register and left DeBatt in the bar to make it look like a robbery.
Not long after this, Gravano became the family's consigliere and his old crew was taken over by Louis "Big Lou" Vallario. Louie Milito, Gravano's old buddy from his childhood days with the Rampers, was not pleased with this decision. Milito made the mistake of telling other crew members that it was he who should have been given the top spot in Gravano's crew after Gravano's promotion, and not Vallario. Gravano claimed in his book Underboss that before the Castellano hit, Milito had become much closer to Castellano and Bilotti. Castellano had informed Milito that Gravano should have been killed after the unsanctioned murder of Frank Fiala as well as after Gravano threatened fellow made man Louie DiBono. With John Gotti and the Bergin crew in hot water with the indictment of Angelo Ruggerio on heroin distribution charges, Milito feared Gravano and his crew could be in danger of being killed along with Gotti, once Neil Dellacroce died. Milito, according to Gravano, severed business ties with Gravano and started a loanshark operation with Tommy Bilotti. When Castellano and Bilotti were murdered, Milito was in prison. Upon his release, Gravano claims Gotti wanted Milito killed. Gravano claims he stood up for Milito and stopped the murder from happening. After he was read the riot act, Milito returned to Gravano's crew, only to badmouth his old friend's choice of Vallario as captain after Gravano's promotion. Milito was called to a meeting to discuss the murder of a Gambino associate. Gene Gotti, John Carneglia, Louie Valario and Arnold Squitieri were present at the meeting, as was Gravano. While Milito was drinking some espresso, Carneglia shot him to death. Milito's body has never been found.
Milito's wife Lynda claims in her book Mafia Wife that when Louie Milito did not come home or call, she went to see Gravano at his home. Lynda said Gravano gave her $5,000 and cut all ties to her. Lynda also wrote that a friend saw Gravano driving Louie Milito's Lincoln and was able to identify it by damage done to the car before Louie Milito went missing. Lynda Milito would cry foul in her book after Gravano testified he had not been the shooter in Louie Milito's murder; she said that a Gambino family member later informed her Gravano had shot and killed Louie Milito, contrary to what Gravano had told the FBI. Gravano, however, claims in his book Underboss that after Milito was killed, he finished the construction work Milito was having done on his home and continued to support Lynda Milito and her family.
Despite Gravano's rise in status to consigliere, Gotti continued to use Gravano for the task of murder. In May 1988, Gravano and Robert Bisaccia, a New Jersey crime family soldier, murdered Francessco Oliverri for beating a Gambino family crew member to death. Bisaccia shot Oliverri to death while Gravano waited in a stolen get-away car. After Oliverri, John Gotti had finally got around to taking care of Wilfred "Willie Boy" Johnson. Johnson had been a childhood friend of Gotti's and a longtime crew member while Gotti was captain of the Bergin crew. However, at Gotti's RICO trial, Diane Giacalone, the head prosecutor, revealed that Johnson had been an informant for the FBI for years. Johnson refused to testify for the prosecution. In Underboss Gravano claims that Gotti met with Johnson during the trial and informed Johnson that as long as he never testified against Gotti, he and his family would not be harmed. Johnson would never be allowed to participate in mob matters again, however. Johnson asked Gotti to swear on his dead son, Frank Gotti, who had been killed in an accident years ago. Gotti swore. Now Gotti was having second thoughts. "John discussed how it should go, using me to bounce off ideas about the best way to do it. That was my only involvement," Gravano explained. Johnson was shot while walking to his car to go to work in front of his house in May 1988. In 1990, Gravano was involved in two murders, the first of which was Eddie Garofalo, a demolition contractor who made the mistake of running afoul of the Gambinos. On August 9, 1990, Garofalo was shot to death in front of his home as arranged by Gravano.
The last murder to involve Gravano was the murder of Louie DiBono, the made man Gravano had threatened to kill earlier. Gravano described the reasons for the murder in Underboss:
He was still robbing the family and I asked for permission to take him out. But John had a meeting with DiBono, and DiBono told John that he had a billion dollars of drywall work that was coming out of the World Trade Center. John bit, hook, line and sinker, and refused my request. John said he would handle DiBono personally and become his partner. But DiBono was up to his old tricks double-dealing. He had obviously been bullshitting John. So when John called Louie in for meetings to discuss their new partnership, DiBono didn't show up. John was humiliated. This meant an automatic death penalty. John gave the contract to DiBono's captain, Pat Conte. Conte botched an ideal opportunity to kill DiBono. Then, as Gotti grew increasingly impatient, Conte explained that the problem now was trying to corner DiBono again. Whenever a meeting with him was arranged, DiBono never appeared. It was a joke, what was going on. I couldn't help laughing to myself. I told John why didn't Pat simplify everything. Just call Louie up and tell him to hang himself. Ten months went by. John looks like an asshole. He was too embarrassed even to ask me for help.
A construction associate of Gravano's unknowingly informed Gravano of DiBono's activities. Gravano informed Gotti and DiBono's body was found in his car in the parking lot of the World Trade Center in October 1990. Gravano's intentions for this murder would be called into question as it was suspected Gravano might have had different reasons for wanting DiBono dead due to his jealousy over DiBono's drywall business.
With Gotti's permission, Gravano set up the murders of Tommy Spero and several other Gambino associates. Eventually, Gotti would name Gravano his underboss, and move LoCascio to consigliere. When Gotti was tried for racketeering and assault charges in the winter of 1986–87, Gravano paid a juror to vote not guilty regardless of the evidence. It was this trial that allowed Gotti to make his reputation as "the Teflon Don".
Turning government witness
Eventually, Gravano and several other members of the Gambino family became disenchanted with Gotti's lust for the media and high-profile antics, feeling they brought too much heat. Several members of the family informed Gravano that Gotti's high profile and large gatherings of mob members at the Ravenite Social Club were constant targets for the FBI and that the media attention put a large spotlight on the Gambinos. Many members of the family, according to Gravano, complained to him about Gotti's use of Gravano in murders despite Gravano's position as underboss of the family. Members were also concerned about Gotti's frequent appearances in court. He was first tried for assaulting a refrigerator repairman over a parking space. Through witness intimidation, he was acquitted. Gravano had paid a juror in Gotti's second trial to vote in favor of an acquittal allowing Gotti to beat the RICO charges lodged against him. Gotti's third trial on state assault charges ended the same way. Gotti's ego began to bother Gravano as well as several other members of the family. Gotti was first known as the "Dapper Don" in the press for his Brioni suits and hand-painted ties as well as his well-combed hair and quick wit with reporters. Gotti required Gravano and Gambino consigliere Frank LoCascio to be at the Ravenite social club five days a week and all of his captains to make an appearance once a week. When Gravano warned Gotti about the negative attention from reporters as well as the constant surveillance from the FBI, Gotti instructed Gravano not to worry about it, as Gotti said that he knew what he was doing.
After being acquitted of the shooting of union official John O'Connor, Gotti received word from a mole that indictments were coming down for him, as well as Gravano, LoCascio, and captain Thomas Gambino. Gotti ordered Gravano to become a fugitive to avoid arrest so that if the former was arrested, the latter could run the family while on the run. Gravano hid out in various places on the East Coast for two weeks before being ordered to return for a meeting at the Ravenite Social club in Little Italy. On the night of the meeting, Gotti, Gravano, and LoCascio were arrested by the FBI. In court proceedings, Gravano heard FBI tapes of conversations in which Gotti disparaged him for being too greedy and "creating a family within a family". Gotti also discussed several murders in which Gravano was involved and worded it to sound like Gravano was a greedy "mad dog" killer. Gotti was heard on tapes questioning why everyone who partnered with Gravano wound up dead, with Gravano always having an excuse as to why each of his former partners needed to be killed. Gravano also would make money every time a partner was killed. Gravano was also angered that Gotti was openly rooting for Iraq in the Persian Gulf War; as a veteran he found this extremely unpatriotic.
Gravano had been consulting a hypnotist named Halpern to deal with fears he had. Gotti's lawyers wanted to call Halpern as a witness, but the judge refused. Gravano had told Halpern he was deathly afraid of going to prison. Gotti informed Gravano he would not be allowed to converse with his lawyers unless Gotti was present. Gravano claimed Gotti's defense to consist of Gotti's lawyers portraying Gotti as a peace-loving boss falling all over himself to restrain the kill-crazy Gravano, resulting in a conviction for Gravano and an acquittal for Gotti.
On November 11, 1991, federal prosecutors announced that Gravano became a cooperating government witness. Gravano would later testify against Gotti and other high-ranking mobsters in exchange for a reduced sentence. John Gotti received a sentence of life imprisonment. As part of Gravano's cooperation agreement, he would never be forced to testify against his former crew. On September 26, 1994, a federal judge sentenced Gravano to five years in prison. However, since Gravano had already served four years, the sentence amounted to less than one year.
Book and interviews
In 1994, Gravano was released early and entered the U.S. federal Witness Protection Program. The government moved him to Tempe, Arizona, where he assumed the name Jimmy Moran and started a swimming pool installation company.
However, in 1995, Gravano left Witness Protection and relocated to Scottsdale, Arizona. A Federal prosecutor later said that Gravano did not like the constraints of the program. Gravano began living very openly, giving interviews to magazines and appearing in a nationally televised interview with television journalist Diane Sawyer. He appeared on live TV after having had plastic surgery to hide his appearance from the mob. In one interview with author/journalist Howard Blum, Gravano boasted:
They send a hit team down, I'll kill them. They better not miss, because even if they get me, there will still be a lot of body bags going back to New York. I'm not afraid. I don't have it in me. I'm too detached maybe. If it happens, fuck it. A bullet in the head is pretty quick. You go like that! It's better than cancer. I'm not meeting you in Montana on some fuckin' farm. I'm not sitting here like some jerk-off with a phony beard. I'll tell you something else: I'm a fuckin' pro. If someone comes to my house, I got a few little surprises for them. Even if they win, there might be surprises.
|Booknotes interview with Peter Maas on Underboss: Sammy The Bull Gravano's Story of Life in the Mafia, August 24, 1997, C-SPAN|
In 1997, Gravano wrote the book Underboss with author Peter Maas. In it, Gravano claimed that he became a government witness after Gotti attempted to defame him at their trial. Gravano finally realized that the Cosa Nostra code of honor was a sham. At this time, Gravano also hired a publicist, despite the fact Gravano complained often about the publicity-seeking Gotti. After the publication of Underboss, several families of Gravano's victims filed a $25 million lawsuit against him. Also in 1997, New York State took legal action to seize Gravano's profits from the book.
During an interview Gravano had with the newspaper The Arizona Republic, he claimed federal agents he had met after becoming a government witness had become his personal friends and even visited him in Arizona while on vacation. Gravano later claimed that he didn't want The Republic to publish the story, but relented after the paper allegedly threatened to reveal that his family was living with him in Phoenix. The story so incensed his former mob compatriots that they forced the Gambinos to put a murder contract on him. The FBI alleged that Peter Gotti ordered two Gambino soldiers, Thomas "Huck" Carbonaro and Eddie Garafola, to murder Gravano in Arizona in 1999.
By the late 1990s, Gravano had re-engaged in criminal activity. He partnered with a local youth gang known as the "Devil Dogs" after his son, Gerard, became friends with the gang's 23-year-old leader, Michael Papa. Gravano started a major ecstasy trafficking organization, selling over 30,000 tablets and grossing $500,000 a week.
In February 2000, Gravano and 47 other ring members—including his wife Debra, daughter Karen, and Gerard—were arrested on federal and state drug charges. Gravano was implicated by informants in his own drug ring, as well as by recorded conversations in which he discussed drug profits with Debra and Karen. On May 25, 2001, Gravano pleaded guilty in a New York federal court to drug trafficking charges.
On June 29, 2001, Gravano pleaded guilty in Phoenix to the state charges.
On September 7, 2002, after numerous delays, Gravano was sentenced in New York to 20 years in federal prison, to run concurrently with the 19-year Arizona sentence. Gerard Gravano received nine years in prison. Debra and Karen Gravano also pleaded guilty and received several years on probation.
In 2013, National Geographic Channel dramatized Gravano's ecstasy ring in a scene in the Banged Up Abroad episode "Raving Arizona", televised worldwide. The episode told the story of ecstasy dealer "English" Shaun Attwood, who was Gravano's main competitor in the Arizona ecstasy market.
On February 24, 2003, New Jersey state prosecutors announced Gravano's indictment for ordering the 1980 murder of NYPD detective Peter Calabro by contract killer Richard Kuklinski. Prosecutors later dropped the charges when Kuklinski, the star witness, died before he could testify.
Gravano has been the object of many unproven charges. Federal inmates who served time with Gravano claimed that he privately admitted to a role in the 1980 killing of a New York cop. Inmates also claimed that Gravano bragged about killing many more than 19 people. Lynda Milito claimed in her book Mafia Wife she had heard Gravano had smothered an elderly woman to death during a botched robbery. Milito also claimed that Gravano's former crew members told her that Gravano had shot her husband Louie Milito twice in the back of the head and once under the chin. In his court testimony, Gravano had claimed to be a bystander when Milito was shot. John Gotti's lawyers also accused Gravano of being involved in two other murders that were not disclosed by the FBI.
After Gravano's imprisonment on drug charges, he was diagnosed with Graves' disease, a thyroid disorder that can cause fatigue, weight loss with increased appetite, and hair loss. Gravano appeared at his drug trial missing hair on his head and eyebrows and appearing to have lost weight. In Philip Carlo's book Confessions of a Mafia Boss, mobster Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso, also imprisoned at Florence, claimed that Gravano only ventured out of his cell to get food and was rarely in the mess hall.
Gravano was listed as being in the Arizona state prison system at a CO Special Services unit. He was not to be released until March 8, 2019; however, he was released eighteen months early on September 18, 2017.
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