John A. Gotti never took the stand in his five-week trial in Federal District Court on charges of kidnapping, extortion and other types of highly antisocial behavior, but he did get an unexpected chance to shout a few words in his defense. It happened Aug. 12, as a mob defector named Frank Fappiano coolly recounted life in the brutish and trigger-happy Gambino crime family, an organization that Gotti led through much of the '90s.
As Fappiano regaled the jury -- bang! -- a noise like the blast of a shotgun caromed off the walls. For a moment, everyone in Courtroom 26A assumed the worst -- that Fappiano had been whacked in plain sight and would sink to the ground, covered in blood. People momentarily bounced out of their seats, others gasped in fear.
But Fappiano was fine.
"I didn't do it!" Gotti yelled.
The sound had been a burst of feedback through the audio system. It took a while for the chuckles to die down.
Gotti's trial, which went to the jury Friday, had everything you might want from a mob drama, including senseless violence and silly nicknames. (One particular mook was referred to by various informants only as "Gas Pipe," for reasons that can only be guessed.) On hand to watch the show -- arguably the best theater in New York this summer, and no charge for a seat -- was a crowd of lawyers, media people, Gotti relatives and Gambino sympathizers. It looked like the guests for a wedding in which the groom hailed from the Upper West Side and the bride hailed from the New Skyway Diner in Kearny, N.J. Gotti's sister, Victoria, showed up for opening day, dressed in upscale moll-wear. The two sides rarely mixed.
You might think Gotti's shouted punch line simply rephrases his not-guilty plea. But the 41-year-old, who became acting boss when his father, John "the Dapper Don" Gotti, was sent to prison in 1992, isn't arguing that he's an innocent waste management executive, or that the Mafia is a figment of the DA's imagination. Instead, his defense boils down to this: Oh, I was in the mob all right, but I am so over it now. I quit.
"I am not saying he was never a gangster, because he was," Gotti's lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, told the jury on the trial's opening day. "I am simply saying he had enough and he wanted out."
Give Gotti points for nerve. Traditionally, there have been just two exit strategies from Cosa Nostra: through the door marked "Witness Protection Program," which requires you to rat out colleagues, or on a slab, which requires you to die.
Junior, as he's known to friends, doesn't want to sing and clearly wants to live. He yearns, the jury heard, to drive a minivan, raise his kids and lead a quiet, legitimate life. So in 1999, according to his lawyer, Gotti resigned from the Mafia.
That year Gotti pleaded guilty to a host of felonies and started a six-year prison stint.
He says he put out the word, while in jail, that he and the venal life were parting company, and for the past couple years the only mobster to visit him was his uncle. That, Lichtman explained at trial, was solely to plan for the funeral of Gotti senior, who died of cancer in 2002.
But the feds never bought Junior's I-quit story. They say that early in his incarceration, he demanded certain loan-sharking proceeds and on another occasion asked for the return of some machine guns. So last year, as Gotti prepared for his release, prosecutors filed new charges based on a new set of mob informants, announcing that Gotti would be tried for crimes in the '90s that nobody knew about until Fappiano and three other Gambino associates turned state's evidence. Among the counts in the new indictment: the 1992 kidnapping of Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels, allegedly in retaliation for nasty things Sliwa said on the radio about the elder Gotti. (Hey, pitch yourself as a crime fighter and who else do you go after?) The statute of limitations on all this malfeasance expired years ago -- unless. If Gotti is still part of an ongoing conspiracy -- which is to say, if the man is still in the mob -- the limitations clock never started ticking. On the other hand, if the jury decides Gotti actually withdrew from the Gambinos, it could conclude that he's served his time and set him free.
How the resignation defense will sit with jurors will soon be clear. But it doesn't play well with the experts. "You don't resign from the mob. There is no such thing," says Howard Abadinsky, a professor at St. John's University and author of "Organized Crime."
"It's possible that John Gotti has decided that he doesn't want to commit any more crimes. But if whoever now runs the Gambino family says 'We've got something important for you to do' and he doesn't do it, he's a dead man."
Canaries on Steroids
The case against Gotti, as well as co-defendants Michael Yannotti and Louis Mariani, rests largely on the bulky shoulders of those four mob defectors, all of whom agreed to blab in exchange for the possibility of reduced sentences. Though composed and polite on the stand, these men acknowledged crimes that range from ghastly to petty. One said he shook down teenagers stealing $500 a week from a bagel store where they worked. Another habitually robbed drug dealers. All seem to have serious anger-management issues.
One of them, Michael DiDonato, was asked by prosecutors if he had a volatile relationship with his wife.
"It was very volatile," he replied.
You expect a tale about spousal abuse, right? But that's not what you get. In April of 1988, DiDonato's wife admitted that she'd bought her car from a man down the street, not, as she'd told her husband, from a relative. This bothered DiDonato quite a bit.
"I didn't want my wife taking favors from other men," DiDonato said. "So I went to speak to him."
Well, that conversation turned heated. "He was screaming and yelling at me. I said some words back to him and . . . I shot him."
Shot him right in the head, actually, at a distance of two inches. Miraculously, the guy lived and DiDonato ended up serving time for attempted murder.
The crumbling fortunes of the Mafia for the last few decades is usually attributed to advances in surveillance techniques, better coordination among law enforcement agencies and so on. But it's not just that the good guys are getting smarter. The bad guys are getting dumber. One informant needed a definition of the word "implied."
DiDonato served up this memorable exchange with Judge Shira Scheindlin, who stepped in periodically to clarify questions.
Judge: Up until that point in time had you ever heard him [Gambino captain Nicholas Corozzo] order you to murder anybody?
DiDonato: At that point in time he did not tell me to murder him.
Judge: No, I say at that point in time had he ever told you to murder anybody?
DiDonato: There was another instance a few months before where he told me to teach someone a very valuable lesson.
Judge: What lesson did you teach that person? Was he murdered or beaten?
DiDonato: No, we shot him. We attempted to take his life.
A shooting, it seems, would be a very valuable lesson. But nobody in the Mafia ever seems to learn. No surprise there. Now that big companies like Merrill Lynch are loaded with second- and third-generation immigrants, only the dimmest of aspiring financiers need to know how to break legs to lend money. The Mafia has become the enterprise of last resort.
The only applicants for job openings, such as they are, tend to be violent dopes.
Less Than Angelic
It's tricky, relying on the testimony of gangsters who've flipped to put away gangsters who haven't.
Every witness called by the government knew that the more dirt they dished, the better the chances that a judge will go easy on them come their day of reckoning. This, according to the defense, created incentives for witnesses to lie in ways that incriminated their clients. As every one of these informants admitted, lying comes easily -- even under oath.
"The government would rather call upstanding pillars of the community," prosecutor Michael McGovern told the jury. But those people "don't participate in murder. Law-abiding citizens are not invited to discuss plots and schemes."
The defense lawyers hammered relentlessly at the credibility of the informants, and vilified prosecutors for raising the possibility that these miscreants might soon walk the streets. "My advice: Be careful who you argue with over a parking space some day," Lichtman told the jury.
The most glaring weakness in the government's case, surprisingly, wasn't the former Gambinos. It was Curtis Sliwa, who arrived in court with a posse of satin-jacketed Guardian Angels in tow, ready for a face-off he'd been boasting about on his WABC radio show for years.
He came to describe the ordeal of June 19, 1992, when he flagged a taxi on his way to work. A few blocks into the ride, up from the front passenger seat popped a guy with a mask and a hat who shot Sliwa several times in the stomach. Sliwa escaped by hurling himself out a window.
The government says Junior ordered that attack -- which for complicated legal reasons was labeled a kidnapping at the trial -- and that co-defendant Yannotti pulled the trigger. This, at any rate, is the version of events offered by Michael "Mikey Scars" DiLeonardo, another of the Gambino defectors to testify at the trial.
When the defense had a chance to cross-examine Sliwa, he admitted that during his early days, he'd perpetrated a few hoaxes to publicize the Angels, but added that his hoax days were behind him. The more he talked, though, the clearer it seemed that he had a very casual relationship with the truth and no real idea who'd shot him. His description of the assailant, when he first spoke to police, bore little resemblance to Yannotti. Presented with some perp photos at the time, he said he was "nine out of ten" sure that he'd been shot by a man named Steven Kaplan.
Worse, Sliwa seemed to fib almost nonstop on the stand. Initially, he said his speaking fee was $1,000 to $5,000. A few questions later, that figure stood at $25,000. One of the stories he tells when he gives those speeches sounds suspiciously like a fable. It concerns a dollar coin given to him by the late Hasidic leader Rabbi Schneerson. It was the only thing, Sliwa claims, that wasn't covered in blood the morning he was shot. What are the odds?
Those bullets, he grudgingly admitted on the stand, had been bad for his gut but pretty good for business, raising his profile and landing him some lucrative speaking gigs.
By the time he left, Sliwa had shed the mantle of victimhood. He just seemed like an opportunist.
Which, come to think of it, might describe John Gotti. Or it might not. Little aside from his "I didn't do it" was heard from the man at the center of this trial. He decided at the very last minute, just as the defense wrapped its case, that he wouldn't take the stand, leaving it to Lichtman to explain the peculiar and tragic trajectory of his life.
"Sometimes a son will do anything just to be around his father, accepted by him," Lichtman told the jury. "When your father is John Gotti, the flamboyant Mafia boss that everyone wants to be around, the oversized personality everyone wants to touch, it is even harder to get a minute with him."
So, Junior signed up to get some quality time with a parent. Very few sentiments are heartwarming and appalling at the same time, but this one, if true, pulls it off. Whether he sells this version of growing up Gotti to the jury -- and that's a monumental if -- Junior won't exactly be free. His Family will decide whether he can join his family. And that verdict won't be read in court.
John Gotti, foreground, listens to the testimony of Frank Fappiano, one of four mob defectors who the prosecution called as witnesses during the trial.
The elder Gotti at federal court in 1986; he died in prison in 2002. At right is Victoria Gotti, the defendant's sister.
Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa arriving at court last month to testify. Prosecutors allege that Gotti ordered an attack on Sliwa in 1992.