The Life and Death of John Gotti

In honor of A&E’s Biography event, 'GOTTI: Godfather & Son,' we take an in-depth look at rise and fall of the Teflon Don.
By Colin Bertram ,

John Gotti arrives at Manhattan Supreme Court where he was on trial on charges of conspiracy and assault for the 1986 shooting of a carpenter's union official.

Photo: Willie Anderson/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

John Gotti elevated the public’s notion of a mob boss to near mythic status. As head of the Gambino crime family in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he cut a colorful and extremely public figure not just in New York City but across the nation.

Tabloid newspapers called him the Teflon Don for his seeming ability to avoid prosecution. He was also known as the Dapper Don, due to his immaculate style, which consisted of double-breasted Italian suits from Brioni, hand-painted silk ties and his halo of perfectly coiffed hair.

Sixteen years after his death and still a huge figure in popular culture, Gotti is the focus of a two-night event GOTTI: Godfather & Son.

“He was the first media don,” J. Bruce Mouw, a former FBI agent who supervised the unit that helped ultimately convict Gotti in 1992, told The New York Times. “He never tried to hide the fact that he was a superboss.”

In public, Gotti cut an amiable figure and played to the cameras. In private, he was a tyrant and a narcissist with a hair-trigger temper, according to testimony from former mobsters and secretly recorded tapes that ultimately placed him behind bars for the remainder of his life.

Series of John Gotti mug shots. 

Photo: Getty Images

The fifth of 13 children raised by his Italian immigrant parents John and Frannie, John Joseph Gotti was born in the South Bronx on October 27, 1940. It was a hardscrabble life with Gotti’s father earning a living as a day laborer. The family moved often before settling in the East New York section of Brooklyn when Gotti was 12.

In his formative years, Gotti learned a life of crime by running errands for Carmine Fatico, a capo in the early days of the Gambino crime family. It was during this time he first met Aniello Dellacroce, who would become a life-long mentor to the future crime boss.

Gotti dropped out of Franklin K. Lane High School when he was 16 and led his own mafia-related street gang in his Queens, New York neighborhood called the Fulton-Rockaway Boys, which included future Gambino mobster Angelo Ruggiero.

Arrests for petty crimes such as street fighting and stealing cars were recorded prior to his first major arrest in 1968 when he, his brother Gene and childhood friend Ruggiero were charged by the FBI with committing three cargo thefts and truck hijacking near JFK international airport. All pleaded guilty to reduced counts with Gotti serving a three-year sentence. Following his release in 1971, Gotti was entrusted by Fatico to manage the crew’s illegal gambling operations.

In May of 1973 Gotti committed his first murder. As a Fatico crew captain, Gotti was assigned to find Jimmy McBratney, a rival gang associate who murdered a member of the Gambino family. The hit squad botched the abduction at a Staten Island bar and McBratney was shot dead in public view.

Victoria Gotti, John Gotti's wife, outside her Queens home in Howard Beach.

Photo: NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Gotti’s less than discreet actions (a future trademark of the crime boss) led him to being identified by eyewitnesses of the murder and he was arrested for the killing in 1974, receiving a four-year sentence for attempted manslaughter.

Outside of prison, Gotti lived in a modest Howard Beach home with his wife, Victoria, and their three sons and two daughters. Frank, Gotti’s 12-year-old son, was killed in 1980 after being struck by a car driven by neighbor John Favara while riding his bicycle. Though ruled an accident, four months later witnesses saw Favara being clubbed over the head and shoved into a van. Gotti was in Florida with his family at the time. Favara was never seen again and Gotti denied any knowledge of his disappearance.

Underboss Dellacroce died of cancer in 1985. In a move deemed disrespectful by Gotti, then-boss Castellano did not attend Dellecroce’s funeral. Two weeks later, Castellano was gunned down in front of Sparks Steakhouse in Manhattan.

Gotti was now boss of the Gambino crime family with Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano – who would later defect to become a government witness against Gotti – as his underboss. Gravano went on to testify that he and Gotti watched the shooting of Castellano from a parked car, saying Gotti had arranged the killing.

Victoria Gotti, daughter of John Gotti, leaves her father's house in Howard Beach, Queens, carrying her son.

Photo: Paul DeMaria/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Gotti assumed command of the Gambino family when it had 23 active crews, about 300 inducted (made) members and more than 2,000 associates. Investigators estimated at the time that the syndicate was grossing around $500 million a year, according to The New York Times. According to Gotti, his declared income was derived from a $100,000-a-year salary as a plumbing supply salesman and work with a garment accessories company. Mafia informants told prosecutors Gotti received more than $10 million in cash each year as his share of the Gambino’s criminal activities. Gravano put Gotti’s annual take at over $1 million from construction industry shakedowns, alone.

Now a recognizable figure around New York City due to his headline-grabbing acquittals and penchant for impeccable suits and daily haircuts, Gotti was once reportedly asked if he disliked being referred to as the Dapper Don. “No, this is my public,” he said. “They love me.” It was even rumored he kept a spare suit available to change into during lunch recesses at his trials.

Such a recognizable and public figure, his whereabouts were easily followed. By the late 1980s the FBI had installed eavesdropping equipment in an apartment above the social club Gotti frequented, recording conversations implicating him, Gravano and family consigliere Frank Locascio.

Gotti was arrested in December 1990. Not only did authorities have the tape recordings, but they had Gravano, who had made the deal to flip and testify for the prosecution. The trial was a media sensation, with around 1,000 supporters gathered outside the courthouse at various times in support of Gotti.

But this time Gotti would not avoid a guilty verdict. He was convicted on all 13 counts against him including federal charges of loan sharking, racketeering, multiple murders, jury tampering, and gambling. Gotti was sentenced to life imprisonment, while informant Gravano received a five-year sentence.

On the day of his conviction, James Fox, head of the New York FBI office, said, “The Teflon is gone. The don is covered in Velcro and all the charges stuck.”

John Gotti is escorted by an unidentified man through the crowds during a lunch break in his assault trial. Later, a jury acquitted Gotti of all charges in the shooting of a Union leader.

Photo: Getty Images

“This verdict had great symbolic importance,” Rudolph Giuliani, former U.S. attorney for Manhattan, said of the verdict. “You can't say, like Gotti did, ‘I am going to break the law and kill people and the hell with all of you.’ That is a challenge that lawful authority cannot ignore.”

“He was obsessed with his own importance,” Mouw said following the conviction. “He was convinced that no jury would ever convict him because he was John Gotti, a Caesar, an emperor.”

The self-styled emperor spent half his seven years as head of the Gambino family in jail awaiting trial, the rest trying to avoid prosecution. In prison from 1992 to 2000, Gotti was kept in virtual solitary confinement. In 1998, he was operated on for neck and head cancer that would ultimately claim his life.

Gotti died June 10, 2002, at the federal prison hospital at Springfield, MO. He was 61.

In death as in life, Gotti’s funeral was big and bold. Twenty-two black limousines, 19 flower cars and hundreds of private vehicles crawled the streets of Ozone Park, Howard Beach and sections of Queens. Alongside his son Frank, Gotti was interred at St. John Cemetery, a graveyard that is the final resting place of many a noted New York mobster. Though none, perhaps, as famous as the Dapper Don.

At the time of his conviction in 1992, Gotti named his eldest son, John A. Gotti (known as Junior), acting boss of the Gambino family. Between 2004 and 2009, Gotti Jr. was a defendant in four racketeering trials. All ended in mistrials.

But for Gotti Jr., following in his father’s footsteps was not a course he ultimately wished to continue pursuing.

“Unfortunately, when you hear the name Gotti, it’s become metaphoric for organized crime, with the streets,” Gotti Jr. says in the Biography documentary, in which he explains his decision to leave the mafia life behind. “I don’t see any way you could extricate yourself from this. I don’t see any way it could be done. As hard as I try, it’s extremely difficult.”

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