BROOKLYN, NY — Between the 1985 public execution of mob boss Paul Castellano and the 1990 FBI raid on his Ravenite Social Club in Queens, sharp-dressed gangster overlord John Gotti took pride in the nickname he’d acquired — “the Teflon Don.”
No charges ever stuck to Gotti, no matter how outrageous or obvious it was that, as the head of the Gambino crime empire, he had done it all — and more. Time and again, Gotti got busted and, time and again, he beat the rap.
Finally, though, on April 2, 1992, a rap beat Gotti into oblivion. At long last, a jury convicted him on 13 felony charges, including five individual murders, racketeering, conspiracy to murder, loansharking, illegal gambling, obstruction of justice, bribery, and tax evasion. Life behind bars loomed as Gotti’s likely sentence.
New York FBI director James Fox, who had worked relentlessly to dismantle the Mafia’s long-choking stranglehold on the city, happily noted of the verdicts: “The Teflon is gone, the don is covered with Velcro, and every charge stuck.”
Gotti’s conviction arose in large part from the turncoat testimony of Gambino family underboss Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano.
In exchange for a reduced sentence and subsequent freedom in the witness-protection program, Gotti’s second-in-command gave up all manner of goods on the godfather (later on, Gravano ran an ecstasy ring while in the program, and went back to jail).
During his mesmerizing testimony, Gravano rattled off a litany of atrocities that he and the boss pulled off. He began with the 1985 daylight shooting of Gambino chief Paul Castellano on a crowded Manhattan street — the murderous move Gotti made to place himself atop the organized-crime totem pole — and kept talking up to and beyond the three major cases that had previously failed to do in the Teflon Don.
By the end, Gravano implicated himself in committing 19 murders at Gotti’s behest. Throughout it all, Gotti cockily smiled and maintained his signature attitude of “Eh, who cares?”
Unlike all previous Mafia dons who actively and even violently shunned media attention, Gotti craved the spotlight and never saw a camera crew for which he didn’t ham it up.
Throughout the late 1980s, Gotti soared on his own self-aggrandizing power to become the first celebrity mafia figure since Al Capone. He loved it and, to his ultimate undoing, he always wanted more.
All the unwanted attention Gotti’s egotistical antics brought toward the mob’s otherwise super-secret operations reportedly figured as a key factor in Gravano and other Gambino soldiers turning state’s evidence against their boss. Flipping those guys stood as an unprecedented betrayal in the history of La Cosa Nostra.
The onslaught of guilty verdicts against Gotti made history, as well. Whereas Gotti had previously intimidated, bribed, or otherwise tampered with juries, New York authorities convinced this panel of 12 citizens that they were safe and that doing their duty would lead to greater safety for all.
On June 23, 1992, while flag-waving Gotti supporters wailed in protest outside the Brooklyn Federal Court building, Judge I. Leo Glasser sentenced the convicted crime kingpin to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
John Gotti spent almost all of the next 10 years at the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. He spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, being allowed out for just one hour each day, to exercise or to shower. Gotti ate meals by himself, and he got haircuts by sticking his head out a window in his enclosed cell. He died of throat cancer in 2002.
The severity of Gotti’s punishment, coupled with the remarkably effective Mob-busting crusade of District Attorney Rudolph Giuliani that helped get him elected mayor, effectively hobbled the Mafia’s preeminence in New York. Never again would the Italian-American gangster operation wield such dominance.
Following the boss’s undoing, wiseguys on every level took to cutting deals left and right. Up top, nobody wanted to assume a throne that could even possibly lead to a walled-in hellhole like the one in which Gotti suffered and died.
Thus, with the fall of John Gotti, an era in New York crime history ended by being contained, cut off, and shut down — just like the no-longer-Teflon Don himself.
Main photos: John Gotti [FBI mug shot]