It sure looks like a mob trial.
At the defense table sit two men named Gotti, wearing tailored suits and mutely trying to pass for sweethearts. On the stand are people like Jon Ragin, a former credit card fraudster now in the witness protection program and singing for the government in the hopes of shaving years off his sentence.
There's talk of semiautomatic weapons, revenge, tantrums, shooting, stabbing and bags of cash. There was some back-and-forth about whether you could actually cram 7,000 dollar bills into a shoebox. No way, argued the defense.
"I have $7,400 in my shoebox," Detective Anthony Castiglia proudly announced during Monday's proceedings, displaying a box for Adidas basketball sneakers stuffed with government-supplied greenbacks.
But this isn't a mob trial. These Gottis aren't even Italian and truth be told they're not really Gottis. They were born Irving and Christopher Lorenzo, and they are the founders of a record label called Murder Inc. -- redubbed The Inc. when all this legal trouble began -- the rap label that launched Ja Rule , Ashanti and others. When the Lorenzos' careers took off in the '90s they appropriated the Gotti name to add an aura of street cred and menace.
For the same reason, prosecutors say, the brothers also cozied up to Kenneth McGriff, aka Supreme, one of the most notorious and murderous drug dealers on the East Coast and leader of a Queens-based gang known as the Supreme Team. The feds have accused the Gottis of laundering more than $1 million in illegal profits for McGriff, much of it dragged to the Midtown offices of Murder Inc. in duffel bags.
"What the facts show is that they didn't just give themselves names like Gotti," says Sean Haran, an assistant U.S. attorney, during a pretrial hearing. "They wanted to be gangsters."
At minimum, these guys wanted to seem like gangsters. Which isn't that unusual, since much of the rap world has long nurtured a serious case of mobster envy. The weird part is just how one-sided this crush has been. It's not just that La Cosa Nostra dislikes rap. The mob is notoriously bigoted.
"Anyone who's listened to secretly recorded tapes knows that when it comes to blacks what you hear from the Mafia is nothing but bias and revulsion," says Selwyn Rabb, author of "Five Families: America's Most Popular Mafia Empires." "I've never heard them say anything complimentary. It's all prejudice."
Actually, if the Mafia were a legitimate business it would have long ago been sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Mafia has ushered Jews, Albanians, Russians and Hispanics into its ranks as "associates," essentially low-ranking members of a family. But not one black, says Rabb. In fact the Mafia has long taken it upon itself to keep blacks out of Italian neighborhoods. And in those areas where blacks eventually move in, the mob moves out.
Among those participating in the white flight: John J. Gotti. The namesake of the Lorenzo brothers and the former head of the Gambino crime family exited his original neighborhood in Brooklyn and relocated to Ozone Park in Queens because he didn't want to live among African Americans.
One of the lawyers for the Gottis -- Irv and Christopher, that is -- says all the mob stuff was for show.
"The name Murder Inc. was just a gimmick," Gerald Shargel says by phone. "The idea that these guys seriously modeled themselves after mobsters is ludicrous."
Shargel, by the way, is one of New York's most celebrated defense attorneys and a very popular figure among mafiosi in trouble. Among his former clients: the late John J. Gotti and his son, John "Junior" Gotti.
Irv and Christopher Lorenzo grew up in Queens, during the elder Gotti's heyday, after the Dapper Don had murdered his way to the top of Gambino heap. Irv started off with a considerably less-threatening image, as DJ Irv, a teenager who mixed songs in the basement of his family house and spun records at a public park. In an early demonstration of promotional skills, DJ Irv somehow pushed a track into the hands of a local disc jockey who played it on the radio.
His fans soon included LL Cool J and he eventually landed a job at TVT Records, where he discovered Ja Rule, among others. He moved to Def Jam and there so dazzled his employers that in 1997 he was given $3 million to start his own label.
By then he was Irv Gotti, and cultivated an image as the don of hip-hop. By then, too, he'd met Kenneth McGriff, who is 11 years older and was something of a local legend. As Supreme, he and some 200 fellow gang members sold crack out of a Queens project. He'd been hailed as a thug entrepreneur in the lyrics of several songs.
Gotti seemed in awe of the guy and the two struck up a bizarre relationship that mixed business and the high life. So why would an up-and-coming rap executive crave the company of a drug dealer?
"Irv Gotti was actually just a middle-class kid, who never hustled, never had a criminal record," says Ethan Brown, author of "Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent and the Rise of the Hip Hop Hustler."
"He comes from Hollis, which is a part of Queens that has some rough parts. But those are the streets below 205th. Gotti was raised at like 210th. That might not sound like a lot of distance, but people from that part of Hollis weren't considered serious."
The mob lingo, the Al Capone suits, all that hanging around McGriff -- to Brown it smacks of overcompensation. Which might explain why Gotti took the whole mob shtick as far as he did. Rap is a genre obsessed with the image of the outlaw, and it helped the careers of people like 50 Cent, Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg that they had actual criminal records. Gotti, to his apparent grief, had grown up as a law-abiding citizen.
Ultimately, associating with McGriff proved a fiasco for the Gottis. An internal audit found that Murder Inc. had generated more than $50 million during its first five years in operation, but not long after the Gottis were indicted in January, Def Jam severed its relationship with the label. Other major labels have reportedly declined the opportunity to partner with the pair. The finances of the place are said to be a disaster.
Irv and Christopher Gotti are hardly the first luminaries in rap to swoon for the mob.
"There's too many mob references in rap to even count," says Ronin Ro, author of "Gangsta: Merchandising the Rhymes of Violence." "It started in the early '90s with Kool G. Rap, this mid-list rapper signed to Warner's who rhymed 'lobster' with 'mobster.' But then it became really fashionable and everyone was doing it. This became the era of black Italian."
Rappers started referencing lines from "The Godfather," "Goodfellas" and "Scarface." Snoop Dogg borrowed the "Godfather" font for his album, "Tha Doggfather." Jay-Z slipped a "Goodfellas"-quoting skit between the tracks of "In My Lifetime, Vol. 1." There's a rapper named Scarface, a group called the Three 6 Mafia. The Wu-Tang Clan sometimes calls itself the Wu-Gambinos. And on and on.
This is all in the realm of metaphor, typically. Rappers are drawn by the idea of danger, power and authority, plus the emphasis on family, riches and the no-snitch code of honor. Also, silly nicknames. The mob ethos, says Ro, has faded in popularity in recent years, eclipsed by the street-hustler image taking its style and iconography from movies like "Boyz n the Hood." Maybe it just went out of fashion, or perhaps somebody realized that no one in rap has any firsthand knowledge of mob life. It's all the Hollywood version.
"It's sort of pathetic," says Ro. "They watch too much television. The real mob is nothing to glorify, but rappers don't know anything about the scummy day-to-day business of being a mobster."
It was from television, in fact, that Irv Gotti learned about Murder Inc., the 1930s crime syndicate.
"A&E is running this thing called Gangster Week and they do this special on Murder Incorporated," he once told the Los Angeles Times. "I thought, 'I'm going to call my artists murderers, because they put out hits.' "
No one has accused Gotti of putting out the other kind of hit. In court this past week, however, testimony suggested he consorted with some genuine lowlifes. Among them the aforementioned credit-card con man, Jon Ragin.
Ragin for years had a lucrative business selling merchandise -- like flat-panel televisions -- that he and his underlings had purchased with credit cards made in his living room. When the cops knocked on his door to arrest Ragin in 2003, he hurriedly tossed a printer off a balcony, a rather lame attempt at damage control.
Ragin was on hand to testify about "Crime Partners," a straight-to-video movie that was co-written by McGriff and filmed on locations around Queens. The Gottis allegedly sank $65,000 into the film as investors, but the prosecution says the brothers merely helped McGriff hide his own contributions to the cost of the movie, in the event the IRS audited the production. (The Gottis wrote a check to McGriff's movie company, claim the feds, then were promptly paid back by McGriff.)
Unfortunately for the government, Gerald Shargel cross-examined Ragin, and torched the witness's credibility in under 45 minutes.
"You were a pimp, right?" Shargel asked. Indeed Ragin was.
"And you had your recruiters bring you 18-year-old women, didn't you?"
It took some prodding but eventually Ragin said yes to that question, too.
Frankly, none of what's been seen so far seems very promising for the government. Even before the defense mounts its case, the evidence against the Gottis sounds well shy of the slam-dunk a guilty verdict would require.
But whatever the outcome of this trial, the dangerous glamour of the mob isn't what it used to be. Even the attorneys for Junior Gotti spent a good portion of his racketeering trial over the summer claiming that the man's last name is a horrendous burden that he can't shake. Count on Irv and Chris to bring the name Lorenzo back if they beat this rap. The Gottis might walk, but "Gotti," it seems, is a goner.