Corralling Sammy 'The Bull'

When convicted mobster Sammy (The Bull) Gravano emerged from federal prison five years ago, he was a new man. Placed in the federal witness-protection program, the mob stool pigeon--whose courtroom testimony helped put New York Mafia boss John Gotti away for life--was given a different identity, plastic surgery to alter his face and a fresh start thousands of miles away from his former New York stomping ground. Phoenix, Ariz., had a new citizen: Jimmy Moran, a contractor from South Dakota.

It didn't take. Last week Sammy the Bull was back in jail. After a seven-month undercover investigation, local and federal authorities charged Gravano with helping to run a multimillion-dollar drug ring in Arizona and New Mexico. Police say the 54-year-old Gravano and several associates dominated the regional market in ecstasy, a hallucinogen popular among teens and college students. Each week their network of distributors and dealers allegedly sold as many as 25,000 pills, mostly in dance clubs. Painted like candy canes or adorned with Nike swooshes to appeal to high-schoolers, they were sold under street names like Blue Panda and Pink Triangles for as much as $25 a pop. Authorities say the business was a family affair: Gravano's wife, Debra, his 27-year-old daughter, Karen, and his 23-year-old son, Gerard, were also arrested--along with 32 others, including members of an organization called the Devil Dogs, which police say was a white-supremacist group.

In court last week, Gravano--trying his best to appear unconcerned--turned on the old Sammy swagger. "In my history of crime this is a minor thing, even if it's proven," he told the judge. "And I don't think it can be proven." The speech flopped. The judge set bail at a steep $5 million--cash. (Attempts to contact Gravano's lawyer were unsuccessful.) Now Gravano sits in the Maricopa County jail, forced to wear the standard-issue uniform of pink underwear and prison stripes imposed on inmates by Phoenix's no-nonsense sheriff. Last time Gravano ran afoul of the law, he wriggled free by ratting out his boss. This time it may not be so easy for Sammy the Bull to get off with a slap on the wrist.

Why would Gravano, after escaping life behind bars just a few years ago, get into the drug trade? According to those who knew him, the ex-mobster became bored in the witness-protection program and quit in 1995, after less than a year. "Too many restrictions," he later complained. "You couldn't have contact with your family or anybody."

Gravano apparently longed for the notoriety he had enjoyed as a feared New York gangster. He has publicly admitted to planning or committing 19 murders, including the killing of Gambino crime boss Paul Castellano, Gotti's predecessor, who was gunned down outside Sparks Steak House in New York while Gotti and Gravano watched from behind tinted limousine glass.

In Arizona, Gravano continued to go by his new name but couldn't resist telling friends and neighbors his real identity. He was delighted when autograph seekers stopped him on the street. His wife was partial owner of an Italian restaurant, Uncle Sal's, in a Scottsdale strip mall (Sammy's given name is Salvatore). His best-selling 1997 memoir, "Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano's Story of Life in the Mafia," featured his post-plastic-surgery picture on the cover, and he flacked the book in an in-person television interview with Diane Sawyer. If Gravano was hiding, it was in plain sight. "Starting about four years ago, the FBI got calls from citizens and reporters asking us if we knew Sammy was living in the valley," recalls retired Phoenix FBI agent Jack Callahan. "He might as well have put a billboard up on I-10."

"Jimmy Moran" was supposedly in the excavation business, running two modest companies--Marathon Development and Creative Pools--out of a small stucco building in east Phoenix, across the street from a junkyard. His name doesn't appear in company records, but his wife and son are listed among the officers. He lived alone with a dog, moving every year or two from one nondescript apartment to another. (Gravano and his wife have long maintained separate residences.) Most recently, he had a place in a drab two-story complex on Tempe's University Avenue.

Yet Gravano and his family seemed to have plenty of flash cash on hand. In 1997 his wife bought a ritzy stucco house among Tempe's wealthy "horse properties," complete with a pony corralled in the backyard. Gravano was a frequent visitor, showing up in a fancy green Lexus. His wife and kids also drove luxury cars. "He seemed to own half a Lexus dealership," says a neighbor.

Police and prosecutors say Gravano didn't earn that money digging pools. Federal and state law-enforcement officials tracking the drug trade began to suspect that Gravano and his family were involved in drug trafficking last August, when agents from the U.S. Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Agency got a tip about a shipment of ecstasy coming into the United States. They tracked the package to 23-year-old Michael Papa, a founder of the Devil Dogs, some of whose members were believed to be involved in drug dealing. Papa was also an old pal of Gravano's son, Gerard. Working their way up the chain, investigators discovered Gravano's alleged involvement.

Federal and state agents set up 24-hour surveillance on Gravano and his associates, tracking overseas drug shipments to a Mail Boxes Etc. in Phoenix. The Feds say Gravano and Co. made classic mistakes. Though Gravano's business wasn't particularly successful (the DEA claims he dug only two pools), the company made regular cash deposits in the bank. The family spent lavishly at restaurants and nightclubs, and paid cash for their fancy cars. When the police raided the homes and businesses of the alleged traffickers, they found a total of 23 guns, $230,000 in cash and 23,000 ecstasy pills. "This was a textbook case on how not to run a narcotics network," says DEA spokesman Jim Molesa.

According to DEA officials, Gerard introduced his father to the drug trade, telling him about Papa's alleged narcotics business. Gravano, the Feds say, cut himself in, agreeing to manage the money and mentor Papa in the tricks of the underground trade. Gravano "saw the opportunity for a small investment making a lot of money," Molesa says. The Feds say the group used Gravano's notoriety as a ruthless mob hit man to frighten off competitors. For a brief moment, it seemed, Sammy the Bull was back. Now, if convicted, he faces a lengthy prison stretch. Compared with that, the boring, anonymous life of Jimmy Moran, Phoenix pool digger, might not seem half bad.

Corralling Sammy 'The Bull' | News