America has always loved gangster stories. Tales from the lives of larger-than-life characters both feared and respected have captivated film audiences and true crime readers. In my hometown of New York City, the Italian American mafia holds a firm place in the annals of the city’s crime history. Of all the mafia bosses, none was as flamboyant and media savvy as the late Gambino Family boss John J. Gotti (1940-2002). The media nicknamed him the “Teflon Don” due to the acquittals his lawyers obtained of a multitude of charges that could have put the mafia boss in prison for life. On March 13, 1987, Gotti and his co-defendants were acquitted of federal racketeering charges and the verdict left prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York licking their wounds. Gotti and his fellow mobsters were elated the Federal Government was far from finished. However, prosecutors knew that to convict Gotti, they needed irrefutable evidence of his crimes and witnesses willing to testify. As fate would have it, in time prosecutors would obtain all that they needed through a chain of events that began with wiretaps in the home of mobster Angelo Ruggiero, Sr. (1940-1989) known as “Quack Quack”. And leading the mission for the Government was lead prosecutor John Gleeson, also a former judge in the Eastern District. This is the story of how the United States Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn secured a conviction against America’s most notorious mobster.
Gleeson provides an early recap regarding the murders of Gambino Family boss Paul Castellano (1915-1985) and his driver/underboss Thomas Bilotti (1940-1985) in front of Sparks Steak House on December 16, 1985. Castellano’s death, less than a year after former underboss Aniello Dellacroce (1914-1985) paved the way for Gotti to assume the throne and removed the threat of death to mobsters whose crimes were discussed on the wiretaps from Ruggiero’s home. However, the murder was far from the end and only part of the downward spiral that culminated with Gotti’s conviction. After a brief discussion regarding his early life and how he arrived in Brooklyn, Gleeson moves on to the 1987 trial and defense verdict. Following Gotti’s acquittal, morale in the prosecutor’s office plummeted and its relationship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) was strained to say the least. Further, prosecutors soon learned that the mafia had its influence everywhere and dismantling that vice grip would not be a simple effort. Gleeson had his work cut out for him but that did not deter the young prosecutor and soon enough, he would prove himself as an able litigator.
Readers do not need prior knowledge of Gotti’s life to enjoy the book, however, a minimal understanding of the Gambino Crime Family will make the book more intriguing. Gleeson does include a short biography of Gotti’s life before moving on to his criminal empire. The crux of the book is undoubtedly the investigation, arrest, and conviction in the wake of the 1987 not-guilty verdict. But the most interesting part is how the case came together. As stated before, wiretaps had already been placed in Ruggiero’s home, but a second bug placed in the apartment of widow Nettie Cirelli located above the Ravenite Social Club helped doom the mafia boss. The story of how that wiretap came into existence is broken down by Gleeson who expertly narrates the developing case. As a sub-story, the current investigation also provides clues as to how the 1987 case was lost. It may feel at times as if the information being uncovered is overwhelming. The story is a roller coaster ride full of dark criminals, shady lawyers, and collateral damage. The Cirelli wiretap had captured Gotti himself on tape, but prosecutors still wanted an air-tight case. They eventually received the biggest surprise of their life when a high-ranking mobster wanted to talk.
As the story progresses, the case against Gotti begins to take shape and eventually he and several co-defendants are arrested. After early shenanigans at the hands of defense counsel, several of whom were dismissed and/or convicted of other crimes, the government begins to lay out its damning case against the mobsters with prosecutors becoming increasingly confident of a conviction. The mountain of evidence had cast a dark cloud over Gotti, but when Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano reached out to prosecutors through his wife Debbie, the case took an earth-shattering turn. Gotti had no idea the avalanche was coming towards him. Gleeson explains in detail the step-by-step secretive movements to debrief Gravano and protect his cooperation which required Gleeson to conceal his actions from his superiors as well. Gravano was a wildcard and at the time, no one knew for certain how he would affect the pending case against Gotti. But as he divulged information on the organization’s structure and crimes, prosecutors knew they had Gotti right where they wanted him. The events were dramatized for the silver screen in the 1996 HBO production ‘Gotti‘ starring Armand Assante as the mafia boss and the 2018 film of the same name starring John Travolta as the Teflon Don.
I appreciated how Gleeson explained the legal hurdles they faced during each trial. Each obstacle is explained in layman’s terms giving the book a reader-friendly narrative that does not require knowledge of civil or criminal litigation. Interestingly, the firm I work for had Gleeson as a presiding judge in the past and he was always seen as fair but stern. That code of conduct which became his trademark is on display here as he manages Gravano as a government witness and presents his case in front the jury who held Gotti’s fate in their hands. However, Gravano soon steals the show as he peels back the layers on crimes that mystified law enforcement. And what he reveals is nothing short of riveting and highlighted the cutthroat nature of life in the mafia. Honor, loyalty, and success are nothing more than smoke and mirrors in the mob with death lurking around every corner. The way in which people were murdered for reasons that were pure insanity discard any nothing of “family”. Life in the mob was far darker and less glamorous than Hollywood productions. The proof is contained here in this book that sets the record straight. Frankly, the mafia life is not one to be admired.
When Gotti was convicted, I remember the media frenzy and the shock that the “Teflon Don” was headed to jail. The mob boss had become a folk hero and a modern-day Robin Hood to those who loved him. For years, it seemed as if the mafia was untouchable. But that all changed on April 2, 1992, when the jury announced its verdict. It was clear to anyone paying attention that the once invincible mafia would soon be reduced to a lightweight crime faction far removed from the heights of its power. The government had proved without question that no one was above the law. If you like true crime, New York City history and have an interest in how the mafia met its demise, this is must-read.