The 'Velcro Don': Wiseguys Finish Last

The vainglory of John Gotti was so great that when anonymous Juror No. 1 stood up and responded to a reading of the first count of murder with the word "proved, " the Teflon Don's head snapped back like he'd been shot in the face. While Juror No. 1 went on and intoned "proved " and "guilty " on each of the other 43 federal charges of racketeering, multiple murders, loan sharking, gambling and even jury tampering, Gotti regained his composure - and his wiseguy smirk. Still, in that initial instant in federal court in Brooklyn, it was clear he really believed he would overcome this fourth try to jail him for the rest of his life.

Odd, since this time he hadn't managed to "reach " the jury foreman with a $60,000 bribe, as he allegedly did in 1987. Nor had his goons been able to bully a witness into fearful amnesia, as they had in 1986. And this time, the FBI bugs were far more incriminating-and much clearer than before. On top of all that, the boss of the Gambino crime family was betrayed by his underboss and longtime friend, Salvatore (Sammy Bull) Gravano, who testified against him for nine long days with perfect composure and deadly believability. "The Teflon is gone, " exulted James Fox, head FBI agent in New York. "The don is covered in Velcro, and all the charges stuck. "

The verdict was much more than a victory against a dimwitted hoodlum who murdered his way to the top of the nation's biggest Mafia family. During Gotti's seven troubled years in power, he had mired his Gambino borgata in drug dealing, " whacking " anyone who stood in his way. His soldiers taxed entire industries and looted legitimate businesses at will. In that, Gotti differed little from mobsters anywhere. What set him off was braggadocio. He was the self-styled plumbing salesman who wore $2,000 suits and strutted through the pages of New York's tabloids. "This verdict had great symbolic importance, " said Rudolph Giuliani, former U.S. attorney for Manhattan. " You can't say, like Gotti did, 'I am going to break the law and kill people and the hell with all of you.' That is a challenge that lawful authority cannot ignore. "

The challenge has been met with greater success than ever before, and not only in the Gotti case. Of New York's five crime families, one is nearly defunct, and the leaders of the others are either in jail or awaiting trial. Armed with the powerful Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, stiff federal sentencing rules and a new willingness of informers to talk, the Feds have had unprecedented success in putting away mafiosi. Not one of the nation's 24 Mafia families has escaped successful prosecution in recent years, and only a few are left with their leadership intact.

The Mafia also has suffered from social changes. The Old World traditions of the mob as an "honored society " bound by the secrecy code of omerta have unraveled; today's hoods are Americans first. Even Gotti's knowledge of Italian was so poor that when he was made a captain in the mob, he had to ask his boss what "La Cosa Nostra " meant, exactly ( "This Thing of Ours "). When Gravano testified about the Mafia initiation ritual of bleeding on a picture of a saint before burning it with a candle, folks in the courtroom laughed at the idea of grown killers being so silly.

In gangland now there's a kind of natural selection in reverse. The mobsters are aging-Gotti is 51, the youngest of all his top capos. The Gotti henchmen who sat in his cheering section at federal court looked more like a gaggle of overdressed bocce players than gangsters. There are few youngsters coming up to replace them, except their own kids. As the Little Italys moved to the suburbs, the Italian street gangs that once were the Cosa Nostra's farm clubs shriveled away. As the Feds pick off the bosses, the leftover scum rises to the top. "The quality of leadership keeps declining, " Giuliani said. "You go from a Carlo Gambino to a Paul Castellano to a John Gotti, a basic brute-level guy. This is just a mass murderer, another form of Jeffrey Dahmer, a person who enjoys killing. "

Even if he had been acquitted, Gotti's "rep " wouldn't have survived the damning FBI tapes played in court. They revealed the "Dapper Don " to be a foulmouthed street punk who took the name of his own mother in vain and played God with venomous delight. He'd order murders of suspected traitors-just in case, and sometimes just by mistake. "The taped conversations reveal that he is just a cheap thug, and not a particularly bright one, " said Ronald Goldstock, director of New York's Organized Crime Task Force.

Gotti always showed more bravado than brains. He was such a hapless gambler that he once lost $200,000 betting against the house in his own casino. Although he knew the Feds had been bugging him since 1979, as recently as November 1990 he was still blabbing away at his "social club " about everything from murder to mob diplomacy. He even ranted at his underlings to watch their big mouths. "And from now on, " he said in January 1990, "I'm telling you if a guy just so mentions 'La,' . . . I'm gonna strangle the c--. He don't have to say, 'Cosa Nostra,' just 'La,' and they go. Look, I heard nine months of tapes of my life. It was like being raped. "

These new tapes froth with vintage Gotti mouth. About one of his pals who was loyal to him: "This f-' rat m--f-, this f-' rat brother was a rat m-f-. A backdoor m-f--. This f--- bastard. " To Gravano, who turned on him and provided the most damning evidence against him: " These rats. Everybody in the city's got rats next to them, Sammy, but not us. " On Louis DiBono, an old pal and associate whom Gotti murdered: " I was in jail when I whacked him. I knew why it was being done. I done it, anyway ... He was talking about me behind my back. " Gotti's temper was so infantile that he would order the murder of another mafioso merely for failing to return his calls quickly enough. Observed lead prosecutor John Gleeson: " Murder is the heart and soul of this enterprise. " Gotti was convicted of murdering six men, including his former boss, Castellano.

Gotti made up in ambition what he lacked in brains. Hiding in an old lady's apartment on Mulberry Street in Little Italy in the hopes of evading federal eavesdropping, Gotti and his pal Gravano rhapsodized about a new era of Pax Mafiosa dawning in the underworld.

GRAVANO: It would be so united, we'd have somebody indicting the f--' agents and the f--' prosecutors ...

GOTTI: And not only that.

GRAVANO: F-- news guys.

GOTTI: And not only that.

GRAVANO: We'd be so close, for about it.

GOTTI: [We'd] send, send, send the five underbosses or the consiglieres. Together, Boom! This is my way, my thinking, because this thing [of ours], in other words, the five families, put together, Bi! Bah! Bang! [clap sound] That's the law!

The don was either too slow or too simple to notice that the real world has changed. "Gotti is no mob star in the underworld, " said Gold-stock. "As a leader, he has been a disaster for his family. " In Gotti's seven years in charge of the Gambinos, he spent half that time in jail awaiting trial, and most of the rest trying vainly to avoid prosecution. " His legacy is a lot of Fourth of July fireworks [at his parties], and three acquittals. So what? "

Count the Mafia down, but not out; it has proven staying power. Even with John Gotti's mismanagement, money kept pouring in from the Gambinos' varied illicit enterprises; Gravano put just the boss's annual take at $1.2 million. Today, gangs such as the Jamaican posses, Chinese tongs and Colombian drug dealers are all more violent or much wealthier than La Cosa Nostra. None of these groups, however, has so far managed to have the Mafia's success at infiltrating legitimate businesses, labor unions and government. And other immigrant-based criminal organizations have disappeared as their ethnic groups assimilated; during the past half-century the Mafia has hung on stubbornly. Partly that's because some of the public has tolerated the Mafia and even conferred folk-hero status on its leaders. No one cultivated that more earnestly than the Velcro Don. Perhaps the Feds' most important success in the case of United States v. John Gotti et al. will be to have put away the myth as well as the man.