John Gotti was born into a poor Bronx family in 1940, the fifth of 13 children, the son of a laborer who wasted a lot of his money gambling. Growing up in East New York, Gotti was resentful that his father was a poor provider, and he and his brothers were soon drawn to the quick buck promised by a life outside the law.
By the time he was 16, he was leading a street gang and had dropped out of Franklin K. Lane High School. His activities caught the attention of Charlie and Danny Fatico, two mobsters with the Gambino crime family, and he got into the organization through them, according to Mafia expert Jerry Capeci, who co-authored the Gotti biography “Mob Star” and writes a weekly column on organized crime at ganglandnews.com.
Gotti’s street smarts and Machiavellian ruthlessness propelled him to the top of the family.
“He proved to be a willing mob associate and became a ‘made guy’ in the late 1970s, when he was released from prison after serving only two years behind bars for the murder of a gangster who had been suspected of kidnapping and killing a nephew of Mafia Boss Carlo Gambino,” Capeci said in an email to the Queens Chronicle.
But Gotti didn’t just draw the attention of fellow mobsters. He also made himself a prime target for law enforcement and, especially after ordering the murder of Gambino leader Paul Castellano so he could take over the family in 1985, he made himself a celebrity.
Much of the public, weaned on gangster movies from “The Public Enemy” to the “Godfather,” was willing to look not so much at the homicides, drug dealing, assaults and robberies that really make up “the life,” but instead almost saw Gotti as a character from one of the films. He fit the bill well as he ran his empire from the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club in Ozone Park, wearing expensive suits and keeping his hair perfectly styled, earning the nickname “the Dapper Don.”
“He was the perfect picture of what everyone imagines Mafia bosses to be,” Capeci and co-author Gene Mustain wrote in “Mob Star.” “He was gravel-voiced and smart-alecky, and handsome in a dangerous-looking way. He was good on his feet. He did for the Mafia what JFK did for politics 25 years before; he made it entertaining.”
But the leader of a secret criminal society is not supposed to entertain, he’s supposed to operate in the shadows. Gotti’s refusal to do that helped the government to finally bring him down — along with audiotapes and the testimony of turncoat hitman Sammy “The Bull” Gravano. Gotti was convicted in 1992 on racketeering charges that included five murders and went to prison for good, dying there in 2002. He was buried at St. John’s Cemetery in Middle Village.
“His conviction was a well-needed boost for the FBI and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn who nailed him, after three losses in state and federal court,” Capeci said. “For mobsters, it also re-established the principle that Cosa Nostra grew powerful by operating as a secret society, and not by daring the law to catch their leaders.”