The trial of John A. Gotti is bringing people together. For the most part, these people hate each other and on several occasions may have tried to kill each other, and perhaps, given the opportunity, they may try again. But Monday they kept that hatred to themselves.
For the most part. There was a brief outburst during the first day of testimony when a mobster-turned-informant named Frank Fappiano took the stand to testify for the government and explained the basic rules of the Mafia. To join, he said, you have to be 100 percent Italian and you need to have killed at least one person. No homosexuals allowed, because that would be "embarrassing." And absolutely no blabbing to the government. All rats, he quietly explained, have to be killed.
"Ironic!" barked a huge man sitting in the audience. "[Expletive] rat."
There were times during the proceedings in federal court near City Hall in Lower Manhattan that you couldn't help but return to the same thought: "The Sopranos," the HBO mob drama, got it so right. Small things, like when Gotti entered the courtroom in the morning and gave his lawyer that total body hug everyone on the show is constantly giving everyone else -- a hug that says, We are in this together. And big things, too, like the sense that the Mafia is in steep decline, riven by tattlers, besieged by the feds and run by violent and colorful sociopaths.
Even the crimes Gotti, 41, stands accused of seem ripped straight out of the "Sopranos" playbook: extortion of construction companies, loan-sharking, pump-and-dump stock swindles, assault. The most dramatic charge is that he ordered the 1992 kidnapping of Curtis Sliwa, founder and head of the Guardian Angels, the anti-crime organization. According to authorities, Gotti had by then ascended to the top of the Gambino crime family, following in the footsteps of his father, John "The Dapper Don" Gotti, who at the time had just begun a life sentence for murder and racketeering.
Apparently the younger Gotti hated Sliwa for ranting against his father on Sliwa's daily radio show. On his way to work the morning of June 19, Sliwa hailed what he thought was a regular old yellow cab, according to the prosecution's opening arguments. It wasn't. As soon as the ride began, a husky man wearing a mask popped up from the passenger side of the car and fired three bullets into Sliwa. He tried to get out but both doors were locked shut. Amazingly, Sliwa survived by hurling himself out the open front window on the cab's passenger side. Yes, he went right through the guy with the gun.
"There is no reason I should have escaped," Sliwa said Monday by phone, recounting the ordeal, which left him bloodied at the corner of Sixth Street and Avenue B in the Lower East Side. "I know martial arts but that had nothing to do with it. It had to be the Guy Upstairs deciding it wasn't my time to go."
Sliwa is slated to testify at the trial, and said Monday he wished he could have been the first witness on the stand. This is surely why Gotti's lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, spent some of his nearly hour-long opening statement Monday tarring Sliwa as a liar and publicity freak.
"Sliwa would do anything for publicity," Lichtman said. "He's a fraud and a snake oil salesman."
Lichtman has the pugnacious and highly entertaining style you expect from the lawyer of a man accused of mob crimes. The younger Gotti, also known as Junior, pleaded guilty in 1999 to racketeering charges and has spent the last six years in prison. According to Lichtman, Junior has left the life of crime behind him, renounced the mob and forsworn his wicked past.
"John pled guilty and did his time," Lichtman told the jury. A father of five, the guy just wants to get on with his life and drive those kids around in a minivan, his lawyer maintained. Lichtman tried to tug a bit on the jury's heartstrings, too, suggesting that the senior Gotti, who died in prison in 2002, was a neglectful and distracted father who never took his son fishing or to a ballgame. When Junior wanted to spend time with Dad he had to visit the Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy, where the don held court.
"We all know what it's like to want the approval of your father," Lichtman said. That's good family psychodrama, and very "Sopranos" when you think about it.
The government's case rests almost entirely on informants like Fappiano, all of whom are currently in prison and have flipped in the hopes of reducing their sentences. The heart of Gotti's defense will be these men are murderers and miscreants who would say anything to save themselves and can't be trusted.
"With brothers like these," Lichtman said, "I'll take two ferrets and a snapping turtle."
The trial is once again highlighting just how hobbled the mob is these days. The basic structure is still in place, including the administrative hierarchy of soldiers and captains, underbosses and bosses, says Ronald Goldstock, former head of the New York state organized crime task force. There are still five families in New York City. But it's not like it used to be.
"It's unrecognizable," Goldstock says. "It's like a bridge where the parts have been replaced one by one with weaker parts. From a distance it might still look a bridge, but it's nowhere near as strong."
Law enforcement has gotten better at combating La Cosa Nostra, Goldstock says, and flipping Mafiosi gets easier every year. The Mafia had been up and running for decades before the government persuaded the first insider to squeal, in 1963. At a recent trial, Goldstock said, the running joke was that the number of mob cooperators outnumbered the agents.
Nobody in the mob-friendly part of the gallery Monday seemed to be laughing. Except one guy. When a marshal came by to split up a pew filled with Guardian Angels -- it wasn't exactly clear why -- one burly character with a cross on his chest made an offer.
"I'll scoot over," he chuckled, sarcastically and with just the right hint of Paulie Walnuts menace in his voice. "Let one of 'em squeeze in here."