Convicted in 1992 of racketeering and conspiracy charges, as well as five murders, the man who was boss of the Gambino crime family since 1986 attained legendary status on both sides of the law.
Some remember John Gotti, who died on Monday, as a ruthless thug who wriggled out of three previous attempts to convict him, while others hail him as a friendly man who generously bought ice cream treats for Ozone Park youngsters.
Within an hour of Gotti’s death in a Springfield, Missouri federal prison hospital, neighbors and family friends were carrying food and flowers into his 85th Street home in Howard Beach and local Ozone Park residents were arranging flowers and candles in front of the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club on 101st Avenue.
Gotti, 61, who suffered from head and neck cancer for the past four years while serving a life sentence, achieved folk hero status in the minds of many, even though his criminal activities included gambling, loan-sharking, stealing and hijacking; extorting money from unions, garment manufacturers, garbage-carting companies and food suppliers; engaging in stock frauds; and association with drug trafficking and murder.
“Well, that was his business, wasn’t it,” said Linda Donofrio of Ozone Park as she stood in front of Gotti’s Ozone Park social club. “He never hurt anyone in this neighborhood.”
She and her husband, Joe, placed a lit candle on the stoop and a sign on the red door of 98-06 101st Avenue that read: “To John Gotti: You were and always will be the heart and soul of Ozone Park and Howard Beach.”
It was nearly 35 years ago that the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club came to 101st Avenue. It was the meeting place for a Gambino crime family gang that had originated in East New York, Brooklyn.
Gotti began running the Bergin crew in the early 1970s and, soon after, made his home in nearby Howard Beach.
The Donofrios said things had not been the same in Ozone Park since Gotti was imprisoned 11 years ago.
“He kept this neighborhood straight. Crime was down. He was kind to children and used to buy them food. None of this graffiti was here then. He wouldn’t have allowed it.”
Local resident Marianne Purpura stopped by the 101st Avenue club after having walked blocks in search of a place to buy flowers late Monday afternoon.
“Gotti was always good to people,” she said. “He was always ready to help anyone in need.”
Purpura told of a time about 30 years ago when she sent her seven-year-old son to the store for ketchup. “He dropped the bottle and it broke. The men inside heard him crying. They gave him money to go to the store for more ketchup.”
Many Ozone Park residents still lament the fact that Mayor Rudy Giuliani put a stop to the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club’s annual July 4th fireworks display and community barbeque. Gotti began the tradition nearly 25 years ago and it continued even after his incarceration.
It was in 1996 that Mayor Giuliani had the area around 101st Avenue and 99th Street completely surrounded by police officers in an effort to make sure a damper was put on the Independence Day fireworks extravaganza. Members of the community came out in force to protest the change. Many wore hats and T-shirts that read, “Free John.”
Linda Donofrio regretted that she hadn’t worn the seven-year-old hat on Monday. “I started to cry when I heard he died. He was so handsome and debonair.”
Dubbed the “Dapper Don” by the media during his notorious stint as crime boss, Gotti was known for having impeccably styled hair and sporting custom-tailored Italian suits. He earned the nickname “Teflon Don” when he kept slipping away from federal convictions.
Born in the South Bronx on October 27th, 1940 to poor parents, themselves the children of Italian immigrants, Gotti was the 5th of 13 children.
It was just last week that his eldest brother, Peter Gotti, 62, of 89th Street in Howard Beach, was indicted on racketeering charges. Another brother, Richard Gotti, 59, was also indicted. Younger brother Gene Gotti, 55, is serving a federal prison term for heroin trafficking.
The Gotti clan moved to the battleground of East New York when John was 12. He attended Franklin K. Lane High School in Woodhaven, but dropped out when he was 16.
By the time he was 18, Gotti was reportedly well-known to police as a low-level associate in the Gambino crime family. Between that time and his first big conviction, Gotti had an arrest sheet that included everything from street fighting and public drunkenness to burglary and possession of a weapon.
By the time Gotti was arrested on federal hijacking charges and sentenced to three years in prison in 1969, he had married Victoria DiGiorgio and the couple already had four of their five children.
In 1974, Gotti was arrested for the mob murder of James McBratney. He pleaded guilty to attempted manslaughter, for which he served two years. When he was paroled, Gotti was made head of the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club crew.
Gotti’s 12-year-old son, Frank, was killed in 1980 when he steered his minibike into the street near the family’s Howard Beach home and was struck by an oncoming car.
Although police ruled the incident an accident, the driver of the car, neighbor John Favara, 51, disappeared four months later and has not been seen since. Witnesses saw him abducted and taken away in a van.
In 1984, Gotti was arrested on assault and robbery charges, which were later dropped when the plaintiff developed amnesia on the stand.
Gotti was charged with federal racketeering in 1985, the same year that Gambino boss Paul Castellano was gunned down outside of Sparks, a Manhattan restaurant. Eventually acquitted of the federal charges, Gotti took his place as the new head of the Gambino family.
Arrested on state conspiracy charges after allegedly ordering the shooting of a carpenter’s union official in 1989, Gotti was once again acquitted.
When he was arrested on racketeering and murder charges in 1990, it was the testimony of Gotti’s right-hand man, “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, that helped put him away for life. Federal wiretaps and bugs further incriminated the crime boss.
While in prison, Gotti developed cancer of the throat and neck. A malignant tumor was removed in 1998.
Since then, Gotti’s condition has worsened and he suffered many setbacks. Recently he was put into in a medically-induced coma to relieve pain and was unaware that two of his brothers and a nephew were arrested last week.
Knowing that he had terminal cancer, Gotti started discussing funeral arrangements with his family more than a year ago. He reportedly wants to be buried next to his son, Frank, in a mausoleum at St. John’s Cemetery in Middle Village.
One possible glitch in plans to inter Gotti at St. John’s would have been the position of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens, which has denied some mobsters funeral masses and burial in consecrated cemeteries.
However, the most recent reports indicate the diocese will allow Gotti to be laid to rest near his son, but the family is denied permission to hold a Mass of Christian burial.
Although there were rumors that the service might be held at a funeral home on Grand Avenue in Maspeth, as of press time, his family had not yet announced funeral plans.
If Gotti is interred in the 125-year-old burial ground, he will be in the company of more than a dozen other mob bosses, including his predecessor, Carlo Gambino.
Gotti is survived by his wife, Victoria; his son, John A., who was the acting boss while his father was in jail and is now in jail himself; his son Peter; daughter Victoria Gotti Agnello, a successful novelist; daughter Angela Gotti Forca; and 11 grandchildren.