Dapper Don who headed one of New York's crime families

 

John Gotti, who died on June 10th aged 60, was the best-known American gangster since Al Capone, and one willingly assimilated by popular culture. But if the Dapper Don perceived himself to be at the pinnacle of a milieu epitomised by the operatic grandeur of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, in the end the more appropriate analogy was The Sopranos television series.

Tapes of John Gotti's prison conversations produced observ-ations more suited to the on-screen lexicon of James Gandolfini than that of Marlon Brando. Prison food: "Give me some prosciutto with some f . . king mozzarella." Improving literature: "How many times I tell you I don't read murder mysteries?" The Clinton sex scandal: "If he had an Italian last name, they would have electrocuted him."

The head of the Gambinos, once the most powerful of New York's five great organised crime families, spent the last 10 years of his life in jail. Before that he had constructed a camera-friendly fame, an image in suits costing thousands of dollars, a diamond ring on one little finger, and topped off with his perfectly groomed silver mane. This put him on the cover of Time magazine, between the covers of several biographies and on silk-screens by Andy Warhol.

John Gotti acquired a celebrity commensurate with those who drew on his legend for their art, winking at the law enforcement authorities and, if not exactly endearing himself to the public, earning its respect as an operator who knew how to beat the system. Finally, though, the FBI's relentless pursuit put him on trial in 1992 for murder, conspiracy to murder, illegal gambling, loan-sharking, obstruction of justice, bribery and tax evasion.

John Gotti was born on October 27th, 1940, and was the fifth of 11 children, brought up poor in New York's south Bronx; in time, the family moved to East New York, in Brooklyn. By the age of 12, he was doing small jobs for hoodlums on street corners and, four years later, he finally left the school he had never bothered with much in the first place. Stealing cars and robbing drunks were the stock in trade of his Fulton-Rockaway Boys, and, by the age of 21, he had been arrested five times.

He even tried his hand at legitimate jobs - as a presser in a coat factory, then as a truck driver's assistant - after he married Victoria DiGiorgio in 1962. But work did not stick, and by the time he joined a Gambino hijacking crew in 1966, he had been jailed twice for theft. The gang had a particular liking for the traffic in goods at John F. Kennedy Airport, and, in 1969, he was on his way back to prison, from which he emerged in 1971. "I don't know what he does," said his wife. "All I know is he provides."

Jarry Capeci and Gene Mustain, writing in Gotti: Rise And Fall, were more specific: "He was fierce, violent, foul-mouthed and clever." These qualities were sufficient to put him at the head of his Gambino crew, though not enough to earn him the rapid promotion he craved from the boss, Carlo Gambino, who liked to quote from Machiavelli's The Prince.

Two events secured the early John Gotti legend. The first was the killing of Jimmy McBratney at the Snoope bar and grill on Staten Island in 1973. McBratney was in a gang that, improbably, made a good living kidnapping crime family members and demanding ransoms for their return. John Gotti was among the three men who shot McBratney dead and, at his trial three years later, he cut an advantageous deal: in return for a plea to attempted manslaughter, he served fewer than two years.

Free again, he was obliged under the terms of his parole to take a proper job, and this time he chose a plumbing and heating firm.

Later, his 12-year-old son was killed in a traffic accident. John Favora, the driver of the car - and a near neighbour of the Gottis in Howard Beach, Queens - endured four months of death threats until the day he was shot, abducted and never seen again.

By this time, the Gambino boss was Paul "Big Paulie" Castellano, a more remote figure who fancied himself as a businessman - and who did not hold in high regard streetwise individuals such as John Gotti, whom he considered uncouth and unreliable. Nor did John Gotti's gambling habit - around $30,000 a night in the late 1970s and early 1980s - help his case for promotion.

Big Paulie was a considerable problem. He had got the top job over John Gotti's mentor, Aneillo "Mr Neil" Dellacroce, and he was an adherent to the old rule against narcotics: "You deal, you die." Or, at the very least, don't get caught.

When Dellacroce died, the buffer between John Gotti and the boss went. Many believed also that Big Paulie, holed up for much of the time in his replica of the White House on Staten Island, was about to do a deal with the FBI. On top of that, he wanted to close the Ravenite social club, on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, where the John Gotti crew liked to gamble and carouse (much of it caught on tape by FBI bugs).

On a street crowded with Christmas shoppers in December 1985, Big Paulie's driver pulled up outside Sparks steak house in Manhattan. Four gunmen in trenchcoats and fur hats approached the car and Castellano died instantly from six bullets in the head, while John Gotti and Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, the architect of the hit, looked on from a Lincoln limousine.

Soon John Gotti was the Gambino boss. His was not an easy reign - a year after taking control, he was in court accused of assault. The victim failed to appear to give evidence. When he did make it to the stand, he said that he was unable to identify John Gotti. Case dismissed. "I Forgotti," read the New York Daily News headline.

The first four days of jury selection in his next trial were marked by a bomb scare, absent defendants, allegations of witness intimidation and the murder of an associate, whose car was blown up.

When the jury went out to consider the case, George Pape, one of their number, told the rest of the panel: "This man Gotti is innocent. They are all innocent; as far as I'm concerned there is nothing left to discuss." Pape had been paid $60,000 for his evaluation of the evidence. Not guilty. John Gotti applauded the jury.

Arrested again for assaulting a union official and conspiracy, John Gotti told the arresting officer: "I'll lay you three to one I beat it." He did, helped in no small part when the victim, who had been shot four times, gave evidence for the defence.

Five years after Big Paulie's death, John Gotti was picked up for the last time. And this time there was to be no escape. The prosecution persuaded the judge that members of his legal team should be disqualified because they might be called as witnesses. The jury was out of reach, anonymous and kept in isolation; there was the FBI tape from the Ravenite club; five of the six defence witnesses were ruled ineligible; and, crucially, Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, irked at his old friend because of disparaging remarks on the tape, joined the other side.

Gravano, who conceded that, yes, he had been involved in 19 murders, told all, and John Gotti was sentenced to life without parole for the murder of Big Paulie and his bodyguard and other charges.

John Gotti is survived by his wife Victoria, two daughters and their two surviving sons. Of these, Junior, who became the acting boss in the absence of his father, is serving 77 months for extortion, loan-sharking, illegal gambling, fraud and tax evasion.

John Gotti: born 1940; died, June 2002