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King Rat: The Story Of Sammy Gravano

On 12 December 1990, at a closed meeting in a federal courthouse, Salvatore “Sammy” Gravano, Frank LoCascio and John Gotti were present for the playing of some truly extraordinary tapes. On those tapes, recording inside the Gambino family headquarters at the Ravenite Social Club in Queens, Gotti, the boss of that family, began to pour out his anger at his second in command.

Gotti and LoCascio had been alone in the apartment above the club, an apartment the FBI had bugged in the hope of capturing just such a moment. The boss and the consigliore were discussing the family business when the conversation turned to Gotti’s feelings on his number two.

According to Gotti, Gravano was ruthless, unbelievably violent and greedy, hell-bent on eliminating anyone he had to in pursuit of money, and it did not matter whether they were close friends or even relatives, like Nicky Scibetta, his own brother in law.

Gravano was mortified, and infuriated, by what he heard. To all outward appearances, there were no two closer friends in the mob than Gotti and Gravano. Whenever Gotti had a problem, it always seemed to be Sammy who provided the answer. When the boss had been under indictment it was Sammy who kept things ticking over as he focussed on his legal worries, and when it came to earning money, Gravano brought in more than anyone.

On top of that, a number of the hits over which Gotti was raging had been ordered by the boss himself. Gravano was the only underboss in the mob who regularly took part in the killings that were usually the province of the street soldiers.

Over the next few months, Gravano and Gotti became ever more estranged. Gravano had been waiting on, and expecting, an apology from the boss over the comments, but it never came. Instead, he was told he could not speak to a lawyer without Gotti being present. He was told that the defence strategy was “all in it together”, although he developed the impression that it would focus more on how Gotti was a boss constantly struggling to control an out of control second in command.

Gravano was facing indictment on everything from racketeering to murder. The number of charges was in the hundreds and if found guilty he knew he’d never see daylight again. Gotti’s anger on the tapes was so intense Sammy knew it would not matter if he was acquitted. Their relationship was wrecked. According to Gravano, he wondered whether or not Gotti might decide to kill him.

Gravano made his decision. He would give evidence against his boss, and whoever else the prosecution wanted to see put down. When he took the stand he was the highest ranking member of the mafia ever to testify for the state, and he paved the way for others, like Joseph Massino, to do the same. In many ways, Gravano is King Rat; the man who brought down the mob.

He was born in 1945, the only boy of three children, of which he was the youngest. His parents were different from other Italian Americans in the Bensonhurst district of New York in that they were comfortably well off. His father ran a dress making factory, and so Sammy had a good childhood. Despite that, he was stealing and getting into trouble from an early age.

From before his teens, Sammy was constantly fighting and when he was 10 he went up against two teenage boys who had stolen his bike. They weren’t just older, but bigger too, and Sammy was at a big disadvantage, which he didn’t let stop him. He went in swinging until a couple of local men – wise guys as it happens – came over and broke up the fight.

They were so impressed by his aggression that they nicknamed him Sammy the Bull; it was a name that was to stay with him for the rest of his life.

What a life that was turning out to be. He had been expelled from high school by the time he was sixteen, the final straw being a vicious assault on a classmate who had called him The Devil. That was the end of his formal education.

Gravano was already part of a street gang, called The Rampers. They were stealing cars and robbing stores soon enough, and Gravano had taken to carrying a gun. One evening, he and his crew got into a dispute with a group of men in a bar on 79th Street and shots were fired, and two were wounded. The group he and his people had mixed it up with were members of Crazy Joe Gallo’s gang … which was a major violation for a young up and comer.

Nevertheless, the hard men of the neighbourhood had already spotted Sammy’s potential, and a high level meeting, between the Gambino and Profaci organisations, settled the matter. Sammy’s name was now known to top tier players in two of the five families.

Yet, life was not going to be plain sailing for The Bull. He was soon drafted and sent to Fort Benning, where he was soon running rackets amongst his fellow GI’s. Before long he was transferred to Fort Meade where he became a bodyguard and driver for a Major. He was honourably discharged at the end of his two year stint. He was never to go to Vietnam, but this did not please him as it would have others. He felt like he had missed out on something.

“You get medals for killing people there,” he’s reported to have said.

When he got back from the army, he was impatient for his criminal activities to resume, and a friend in his old street gang, The Rampers, had an offer for him. His uncle was a mid-level member of the Colombo crime family, and he had heard Sammy the Bull’s name.

Gravano met Thomas “Shorty” Spero, and accepted his invitation to join the organisation. He was soon introduced to Carmine Perisco, “the Snake”, who would eventually rise to become the Colombo boss, and he was soon mixing with the upper echelons, working directly for Joe Colombo himself at times, most notably as part of the Italian American Civil Rights Defence League, where he actually picketed the FBI Headquarters.

As a member of Spero’s crew, he soon began to pull down serious money. He was clearly ambitious and capable of anything, and it was not long before the Colombo hierarchy were utilising his special talents for violence.

It was a matter of time before he became a killer, and when Joseph Colucci, a member of the Spero crew, discovered that Tommy Spero was having an affair with his wife he made the dreadful mistake of telling people he intended to kill Gravano as well as Shorty, to prevent their retaliating.

Gravano decided to strike first, and he murdered Colucci with a single gunshot to the head. It was a murder that changed Gravano’s perspective on himself forevermore.

“I realised I had taken a human life, and that I had the power of life and death. I was a predator. I was an animal. I was Cosa Nostra,” he said.

Gravano had won respect within the family at large, but his relationship with the Spero’s, in particular Tommy’s father, Ralph, created a schism that would not be healed.

Gravano already had an in with the Gambino’s though, and the Colombo’s sat down with some of their people and Gravano moved from one gang to another … an extraordinary move, which was to have huge consequences.

Salvatore Aurello, a captain who went back to the days of Albert Anastasia, took Gravano under his wing, but then, just at the moment when Sammy looked as if he might be moving up in the ranks, he made a bizarre decision to try and go straight. He began to work construction jobs and pulled away from his criminal life.

Yet a bizarre event was to change Gravano’s life again, and put him firmly back on the road to a career in organised crime. A former associate accused him, and another man, of a double murder and Gravano was arrested and indicted. Ironically, in light of future events, he was innocent of the charges. This, as well as the enormous legal fees he ran up, changed his perceptions and his life trajectory. He and his friend went on what he described as a one year spree of robberies as he sought to pay his expenses and put one over on the law.

The case was dismissed one week into his trial but by then Gravano had made the only decision that mattered; he was committed, fully committed, to a life of crime.

Aurello was so impressed by Gravano’s year long splurge that he nominated him for full membership. When the books were open, Gravano was one of the first men “made.”

It was 1978, and Gravano was moving up in the crime business. He was already fiercely loyal to the Gambino organisation, and willing to do anything to move forward in it. When his actual family life conflicted with that of the crime family in which he was a member, Gravano made the choice to support the Gambino’s. His brother in law, Nicky Scibetta, was a drug addict and an alcoholic. He was also a mob associate. When another associate, with whom he was in dispute, ended up in jail word spread that Scibetta was a rat.

When Scibetta insulted a family member of Frank DeCiccio’s, Gravano gave him a savage beating in the hope that DeCiccio would let the matter rest. He was wrong. The mobster went to Paul Castellano for permission to have Scibetta killed, and the Don granted the request. He gave the contract to DeCiccio and two members of Gravano’s crew.

They were not supposed to tell Gravano, but they believed he had a right to know. DeCiccio went back to Castellano and asked him for permission to inform Gravano of the pending hit. Castellano agreed, but with a vicious sting in the tail; he told DeCiccio to kill Sammy if he objected to the murder. DeCiccio not only told Gravano about the coming hit on his brother in law, but he told him about Castellano’s other order too.

Sammy was incensed, and he considered murdering Castellano himself, although it would have been a monumentally dangerous move. DeCiccio talked him out of that, and he finally accepted that it would have to be done.

There remains speculation over the precise role Gravano played in the murder. Many believe he actively took part in it, and Sammy has consistently refused to discuss the precise details about what went down. Nicky Scibetta disappeared and the only part of Gravano’s brother in law that was ever found was a single hand.

Despite his initial problems with Castellano, Sammy the Bull was soon earning the family fortunes in the usual pursuits of loan sharking, gambling and hijacking. In addition, he had found a way to impress the boss by getting involved in quasi-legitimate pursuits like construction and trucking and garbage. Castellano liked that, because he wanted to move the family away from the traditional criminal enterprises, and Sammy thrived in those roles.

He further cemented his good relations with Castellano, and their relationship was strengthened even more when Gravano played a role in settling an internal dispute in the Philadelphia organisation after the assassination of the local boss, Angelo Bruno. His killer, his consigliore Antonio Caponigro, had acted without authorisation from The Commission, who sentenced his death. In his place, they put Philip Testa, and he moved swiftly to have the rest of the conspirators killed too.

One of them was a man named Johnny Simone, and the contract for that job was given to an eager Gravano, who organised the man’s abduction. Sammy and his associates took him into the woods where Simone asked for his shoes to be removed and requested that he only be killed by a “made guy”. Sammy Gravano did the honours, and later paid tribute to the man he had murdered, and how calm he had been at the moment of his death.

Another of Sammy’s victims did not go down so quietly, and it caused another split with Castellano.

In 1982, a drug trafficker named Frank Fiala rented out Gravano’s swish nightclub The Plaza Suite, paying the Gambino solider $40,000 for the night. Fiala clearly enjoyed himself, and liked the place, because two days later he offered Gravano a cool $1 million for it, which Sammy was only too happy to accept, as he had valued the place at one fifth of that.

The deal was to be paid in instalments, with a $100,000 cash down payment, $650,000 in gold bullion which was not to be declared and $250,000 at the actual signing of the deal. But before that had happened, Fiala had moved into the club, hired his own staff, including security men, and was even trying to redecorate. Gravano was enraged, and confronted him one night in the office, reminding him that the place was not yet his.

Fiala pulled a sub machine gun from a desk drawer, and he threatened Gravano and his brother in law, telling them that he now owned the club and that they would “do things his way.” Gravano decided, there and then, that Fiala would die, and he and his brother in law, Edward Garafalo, left and immediately begun to plan the hit.

They enlisted the help of a group of mobsters, including two men with whom Gravano was to have his own reckoning, Louis Milito and Michael DeBatt. They positioned themselves outside the club, and when Fiala came out with his entourage, Gravano called his name to get his attention and Louis Milito shot him in the head.

Gravano had taken part in a public execution, and although he had taken care of the legal side of things by bribing a corrupt police officer to assure the case went nowhere, he still had to face the wrath of Castellano who believed events like this were a distraction, and brought the family the very sort of negative attention he was determined to move them beyond.

Gravano slipped out of that net by telling the boss that he’d acted quickly, and without permission, so Castellano himself could not be implicated in the killing, and he was relieved when Big Paul accepted that. Nevertheless, it had damaged their relationship once more.

When Gravano became involved in a dispute with another Gambino soldier, Louie DiBono, over $200,000 Sammy believed should have gone to him, he found the boss less sympathetic than he once might have. Castellano looked set to rule against Gravano before the intervention of the family underboss, Neil Dellacroce, who took his side. This brought Gravano into the Dellacroce orbit for the first time, and into the same constellation as the family’s rising star, John Gotti.

Gotti was a young, ambitious, smooth operator like Sammy. He was acknowledged to be Neil Dellacroce’s prodigy, with the aging underboss treating him more like a son than an underling. Gotti was already on the wrong side of Castellano because some years before he had ordered the murder of one of his men, surviving only because Dellacroce had spoken up for him in front of the former head of the family, the legendary Don Carlo Gambino.

Castellano and Gotti’s frosty relationship had become even colder when the old Don had died. Most people had expected control of the family to pass straight to Dellacroce, who’s position as underboss put him in line for it, but they had foolishly underestimated Don Carlo’s loyalty to the blood ties that bound him to the Castellano’s, and Big Paul had been chosen over Gotti’s mentor, which had infuriated not only the up-coming captain but many in the family’s ranks.

As Gravano continued to grow rich in the construction business, branching out into the paving and cement industries, Gotti was becoming embroiled in a difficult and dangerous situation. Three of his key associates, Gene, his brother; his closest confidante Angelo Ruggiero and John Carneglia, had been picked up on a heroin conspiracy, which, in itself, was a death sentence. What made it worse was that Ruggiero’s house had been bugged and amongst his criminal comings and goings the tapes included a number of explosive statements about Castellano and others.

Gotti was furious with the three men, and with Ruggiero in particular, but he was also fiercely loyal to his people and he was determined to protect them from their stupidity, although he knew Castellano would simply have him killed too.

Gotti and his crew stalled for time, initially by refusing to hand over the tape recordings to the boss, despite his demands. Castellano knew he would need them if he were to get Dellacroce and others to agree to the hits, and Gotti and his people simply refused to give them up.

Their strategy paid off when a bug in Big Paul’s own house brought Castellano face to face with his own idiocy. The warrant to plant the listening device had been granted largely on the basis of what was on the Ruggiero tapes, and that was the moment Gotti realised he had to act if he was to save the lives of his people, and himself.

With Neil Dellacroce dead now too, and the last restraining influence removed from Gotti, he asked another Gambino solider, Robert DiBernardo, to approach Sammy the Bull about meeting to discuss the situation. Gravano agreed, and at a sit-down with Angelo Ruggiero he was asked if he would support the murder of Paul Castellano.

Gravano talked it over with Frank DeCiccio, and agreed to the move, although he was concerned when he discovered that it was Gotti himself who intended to take over. Unknown to the others in the family, the two men decided to allow Gotti his moment in the sun, giving him a year. If they were unimpressed after that, they would discuss murdering him too.

The most famous mob hit of the modern era took place on 16 December 1985, outside Sparks Steak House in Manhattan. Half a dozen shooters, dressed in long white trench coats and black fur Russian hats, approached Castellano’s Lincoln as it came to a stop. As he and Thomas Bilotti got out the gunmen fired a volley of shots, and both men fell to the sidewalk.

Gotti was now head of the Gambino family, and he brought Gravano into the upper echelons almost immediately, formally appointing him as a captain. He was to move even higher, and more quickly than he imagined, when the Genovese family attempted to murder Gotti in retaliation for the Castellano murder, over which they had not been consulted.

They used a car bomb, expecting Gotti to be riding in the vehicle. It exploded outside the Ravenite Social Club, the boss’s headquarters with Frank DeCiccio behind the wheel. Gravano was inside the building, and the explosion almost blew him across the room. Nevertheless, he was one of the first men outside, and he was ready to rush to the car to try to save his friend, but he saw the wreckage, with body parts strewn over the road, and knew it was hopeless.

DeCiccio had been Gotti’s underboss, and his death left the post vacant. He installed Gravano and Ruggiero as co-underbosses, and Sammy had once again moved up through the ranks.

Gotti’s elevation to boss had made him the lightning rod, and it wasn’t long before he found himself under indictment in a RICO case. Aside from helping to fix the jury in that case, Gravano began to take more and more control of the day-to-day running of the family, and he used this opportunity to begin consolidating his power.

When another captain, Robert DiBernardo, was accused of talking Gotti down Gravano took responsibility for the hit, and had one of his associates pull the trigger. It kept him in Gotti’s good graces, but it also allowed Gravano to take over the dead man’s businesses.

Gotti beat the prosecutors and was soon back out on the street, and Sammy became the consigliore for a time. Louis Milito had expected to take over Sammy’s crew, but that promotion went elsewhere and Milito began to question Sammy’s judgement. That was all the excuse Sammy needed. He went to Gotti for permission to carry out the hit and when that was granted Sammy called Milito to a meeting where, according to Gravano later, Joseph Carneglia shot him in the back of the head whilst he was drinking coffee.

Gravano’s reputation as someone who could handle murder meant Gotti still used him on hits, although his position in the family put him far above such traditionally street level stuff.

One particular thorn in Gotti’s side was a man called Willie Boy Johnson, a former Gambino associate who the state had turned, and who had appeared on the witness stand in the boss’s RICO trial. Johnson had refused to testify after Gotti got word to him that his life, and that of his family, would be spared, but the Gambino boss had been angry when the prosecutor revealed that Johnson had been an FBI informant for years.

Gravano said later that his involvement in the hit had been limited to simply discussing it with Gotti, but there have been persistent rumours that he carried it out himself. Whatever the truth, Willie Boy Johnson was gunned down outside his home in May 1988.

More killings were to follow, including the murder of Louie DiBono, who Gravano told Gotti he had long suspected was stealing from the family. His body was found in a parked car at the World Trade Centre in October 1990, and as with other murders, there were questions as to what Sammy’s real motives were, as he quickly took over DiBono’s drywall contracts.

Things were starting to come apart for the Gambino’s though. Gotti had been indicted, put on trial and acquitted three times already, earning him the nickname The Telfon Don.

Gravano and others knew this run of luck could not last, particularly as it offended the sensibilities of the federal authorities who were always watching. When Gravano heard a new series of indictments were coming down he went on the run, but Gotti called him back to New York for a meeting at their familiar hangout, The Ravenite Social Club.

Gravano turned up, and on that same night the FBI carried out a raid of the premises. He was scooped up alongside Gotti and LoCascio and they were remanded.

During the discovery hearing, the FBI produced the tape recordings they’d gotten from the bug in the apartment above the social club, and Gravano heard, first hand, the recordings of Gotti and LoCascio discussing his greed and violent nature.

Gotti was also heard to suggest the Sammy sometimes manufactured reasons for why people died, and then took over their territory or their business after they were gone.

Gravano knew that Gotti’s words on the tape had sunk them both, and he also knew he could never again trust the man he had worked alongside and killed for a dozen times. Worse, although he knew Gotti would never testify against him, it was clear the defence strategy would be to try and paint Gravano as the worst of the two, as an out of control hireling who the boss had been unable to contain. That was what decided it for him.

Gravano entered the witness protection program, with the announcement coming on 11 November 1991. His former friends were stunned. At the subsequent trial of Gotti, LoCascio and others they were all found guilty, and Gotti received a life sentence.

On 26 September 1994, Gravano was given a five year jail sentence, less time served, which meant he would spend only a year in jail. He moved to Tempe, Arizona, on his release, where was named Jimmy Moran, a man who made his living doing pool installations.

In 1995 he left the program, and his family, to move to Scottsdale, because he did not like the constraints placed upon him. He spoke to the media, more or less going about his business openly, telling the world that he would kill anyone who came looking for him.

The old Sammy was still there, and it was no surprise that he returned to his old ways. By the late 90’s he was running a major drug ring, selling Ecstasy pills.

In February 2000, he was arrested along with his wife, his daughter and 47 others as part of a major federal and state operation. He received a sentence of 20 years.

Amongst the evidence that sent him down were taped conversations … and the evidence of rats.

Karma’s a bitch, right?

This article was originally posted in Goodfellas & Faces magazine.

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