06/10/2002

'Dapper Don' John Gotti Dead

Brought Down by Associate 'The Bull'

SPRINGFIELD, Missouri (CNN) -- Convicted mobster John Gotti -- the ruthlessly brutal but stylishly dressed New York Mafia chief with silver slicked-back hair who reveled in the public spotlight as the "Dapper Don" -- died of cancer at a federal prison hospital Monday at age 61.

An FBI spokeswoman said the death occurred about 12 p.m. (1 p.m. ET) but had no other details.

Gotti was serving a life sentence after being convicted of murder and racketeering.

Gotti had been suffering from cancerous legions on his tongue, neck and ears. He had been imprisoned at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield since 2000 when he was transferred from a maximum security federal prison in Marion, Illinois.

Gotti was a classic gangster straight out of central casting, with a larger-than-life appeal that sprouted from a contradictory mix of violent outbursts and an uncanny ability to win the admiration of his Queens neighborhood, where he was known for organizing picnics and giving handouts.

The New York tabloids nicknamed him "Dapper Don," for his $1,800 tailor-made suits and the air of importance he exuded as he walked down 101st Avenue to the Bergin Hunt and Fish Social Club, headquarters for the Gambino crime family.

He also was called the "Teflon Don" because government charges in three trials failed to stick. Indeed, he seemed untouchable with his multimillion dollar illegal operation that thrived on prostitution, extortion, gambling, theft and drugs -- until his downfall in the early 1990s.

Climbing Gambino crime family

"John Gotti is a stone-cold killer. He is responsible for the deaths of scores of individuals. He's a very vicious and ruthless boss," said retired FBI agent J. Bruce Mouw, who helped convict the notorious mobster.

Gotti was born October 27, 1940, in the Bronx, into a large blue-collar family. His father was a sanitation worker.

MORE STORIES * Profile of the last of the old-time gangsters * Timeline of Gotti's career

RESOURCES * TIME.com: Hitting the Mafia * CourtTV's A Family Affair

A grade-school dropout, Gotti was arrested five times on various charges.

In 1966, he made the fateful move to Ozone Park in Queens. There, he hooked up with the powerful Gambino crime family, headed by Mafia godfather Carlo Gambino. Gotti quickly graduated from small-time heists to big-time felonies.

In 1973, he earned his Mafia bona fides by taking on the assignment to kill James McBratney, a member of an Irish-American gang suspected of kidnapping and killing Gambino's nephew.

"Carlo Gambino, who was then head of the crime family in the '70s, got him a very smart lawyer, Roy Cohn. And, somehow, he managed to get a murder in which there were two eyewitnesses reduced to second-degree manslaughter," said Selwin Raab, a reporter who covered organized crime for The New York Times.

By the time Gotti finished serving a two-year prison sentence for the McBratney slaying, Carlo Gambino had died. Paul Castellano, Gambino's cousin, was anointed head of the family.

At the time, Gotti was a rising star within the family, and unbeknownst to Castellano, he was also a potentially deadly rival.

Mouw, the retired FBI agent, said the tension between the two groups in the family in the 1985 was a dispute over Gotti's alleged involvement in heroin trafficking.

Castellano didn't want to be involved in drug trade for fear there would be too much federal heat against the family, which was making more than enough money controlling discreet businesses such as construction and private sanitation services.

Brought down by the Bull

It was time for Gotti to make a move. He decided to kill Castellano and assume leadership of the Gambino family, authorities said.

On December 16, 1985, Gotti and a small band of Gambino family co-conspirators waited for Castellano outside the Sparks Steak House in Manhattan. Castellano never made it out of his car before he was pumped with bullets.

Within weeks, Gotti, with the consent of the various crew captains, or capos, of the Gambino family, was selected the new godfather.

Operating out of the Ravenite Social Club in Manhattan and the Bergen club in Queens, Gotti quickly consolidated his power.

He emerged unscathed from three criminal cases brought against him starting in 1986. The charges ranged from assault to racketeering. In the end, it was Gotti's propensity for the limelight and public exposure that would bring about his downfall.

Before long, prosecutors were ready to file a new racketeering indictment.

Although Gotti had proved untouchable in past attempts to convict him, this time the government had a secret weapon -- the testimony of Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, second in command in the Gambino family.

Gravano, a suspected killer, cut a deal with the government, trading his testimony, which would clearly define the Gambino family crime operations, for a lighter sentence. The government also had tapes proving Gotti could be heard ordering mob hits, prosecutors told jurors.

On April 2, 1992, Gotti was convicted on charges that included five murders. He was sentenced to life without parole. The Gambino family now seemed to be without a leader. In the Mafia, a boss either has to resign or be killed. Despite his prison sentence, Gotti was not about to retire.

From jail, Gotti appointed a committee that included his son, John Jr., then 28, to run the Gambino family. Eventually, he named his son the acting boss of the family. And in time, older, more experienced family members began to resent the younger Gotti.

On December 3, 1999, John Gotti Jr. copped a plea to federal racketeering charges, leaving the Gambino family in the care of the senior Gotti's brother, Peter.

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