DECEMBER 16, 1985: THE BEGINNING OF THE END
“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
For almost 40-years, my father was a moving target. He paused only for his yearly February trip to St. Bart’s, where our rented house, high in the Point Milou section of the island, was often filled with family and friends.
The first thing Jimmy and I would do upon arriving on the cosmopolitan French island was to pay a visit to La Cave, where we would fill the jeep to the brim with first and second growth burgundy and cabernet sauvignon from named French vineyards. Every third bottle was “corked” due to the usual bi-yearly hurricane that flooded La Cave and submerged some of the wooden crates of vino. Even so, the cost of these exotic wines on this French protectorate was a fraction of the New York price tag.
My father’s wine period was certainly influenced by the French and Italians, but his passion extended to the domestic front as well. Jimmy purchased a house on Paul’s Lane in Bridgehampton, New York, that had a teak-lined, humidity controlled wine cellar, which he filled with the best American wines he could get his hands on.
One of Dad’s young associates was foolhardy enough to store cases of expensive (though not quite at peak drinkability) American Pinot Noirs in Jimmy’s cellar, believing that they would be safe to age there. Oftentimes, after a raucous Saturday night meal, we would end the night with one of those pinots—as if to exact a kind of cockeyed storage commission.
Whether on St. Bart’s or in Bridgehampton, nothing made my father happier than the usual debate at 5pm sharp about which wine to open first. (For the record, Jimmy always stuck with his Kettle One or Grey Goose vodka to begin the evening.) After that was settled, he began to ruminate aloud on which wines to pair with dinner. I would occasionally razz him for his obvious obsessiveness. But the sheer joyfulness that he showed in these simple pleasures was one of the things I will always cherish about my dad.
From the politically charged Nadjari era, through his vast legal, political and business-related cases, to the most highly publicized mob trials of the day, Dad ping-ponged from court to court with a furious anti-government rage that only he could muster. His legal partners and young associate lawyers came and went—burnt to the crisp by the impossible pace.
As I attempt to make sense of my father’s blur of a professional life, one day, above all others, stands out.
Gambino Family Mafia boss Paul Castellano and his captain, Tommy Bilotti, were killed in front of Sparks Steak House on December 16, 1985, after leaving Jimmy’s office to deliver Christmas gifts to Dad’s personal secretary, Phyllis Mehl. Paul and Tommy had arrived at the restaurant thinking they were meeting Frank DeCicco, James Failla, and Thomas Gambino, Carlo’s son, who owned a trucking company. Instead, the two men were ambushed by elements of the family loyal to John Gotti, an up-and-coming Gambino captain marked as a rogue soldier by Castellano.
On the day of the Castellano assassination, I was twenty-six, living in Rome and writing for the International Courier. I was scheduled to fly home for Christmas two days later. When Italian television was pre-empted with news of the killings in New York, my heart sank. Amongst all the police and bloody bodies, I thought I saw my father’s limo behind Paul’s. Before I could become too unglued, my mother called to tell me Dad was okay. It wasn’t lost on any of us, however, that had Dad gone to eat with them that night, as he sometimes did, he would have been killed as well.
Jimmy’s long history with the Gambinos began soon after he left the Justice Department. By 1967, word had reached Carlo Gambino, the boss of bosses himself, that an exceptional young ex-prosecutor was now on the other side. Carlo’s right-hand man, Carmine Lombardozzi (and later, Carlo’s heir apparent, Paul Castellano), needed Jimmy in a big way. Dad was in the process of walking Lombardozzi through a maze of legal trouble, including filing a Writ of Certiorari on his behalf to the Supreme Court of the United States on January 28, 1971.
Gambino, Lombardozi, and Jimmy often met at a restaurant on the Upper East Side. By this time, Gambino had developed a grudging respect for Jimmy. The truth is, Carlo and Dad were lukewarm about each other. At one of their first meetings, Gambino had asked the young defense lawyer for a “personal favor.” A young girl, perhaps his niece, had been raped by a man then in jail and was awaiting trial. Carlo wanted Jimmy to orchestrate the man’s release so that the boss could settle the matter “the right way.” Jimmy explained that as an officer of the court, he could not help him.
It was a while before Jimmy again found himself breaking bread with the family boss. In those days, it was common to pay part of your lawyer’s fee in cash, as long as the income was reported.
As Jimmy left the restaurant with a brown bag filled with money, the unluckiest robber in the world put a gun to his head. “Take it easy, buddy,” Dad said. “This bag is full of money and it’s all yours.” Before he could get the whole sentence out, Lombardozzi’s driver, who had been sitting in the restaurant, dispatched the robber with a single shot to the base of his head, rolled him into the gutter, picked Jimmy up, threw him into the back of the car, and sped off. “Mr. La Rossa! Mr. La Rossa! ARE YOU OKAY?” the driver yelled. Jimmy didn’t have a scratch. “Thank God,” the driver declared. “Carmine would kill me if anything happened to you.”
The first good watch I ever owned was a circa-1960s Oyster Perpetual Rolex that Dad gave me when I went off to college. I had never seen him wear the watch before. “It was a gift from Carlo Gambino,” he told me, and that explained it.
In the 1970s, the all-powerful Gambinos, led by Carlo, the undisputed family chief, adopted a way of doing business that the thuggish John Gottis of the underworld would not easily accept.
“Carlo was more interested in [the family] behaving like a sophisticated, legitimate business,” according to Jerry Capeci, the author and longtime “Gangland” column writer for the Daily News.
“Carlo Gambino felt that the way to keep from being prosecuted and sent to prison was to do it with your brains and not with your brawn. His brother-in-law [Paul Castellano] was a trusted businessman, so he picked him to be the boss.”
Carlo Gambino was not only the patriarch of the family but headed the overarching Mafia “Commission,” which ruled the five families. The Commission had been started in the 1930s by Charles “Lucky” Luciano to serve as the governing body for organized crime following a notoriously bloody period in which the mob came close to destroying itself. The Commission has been described as the Senate, House, and Supreme Court of the American Mafia.
“Before the 1930s, the families were constantly bickering and fighting over territory until a war broke out which resulted in the deaths of a lot of the leadership of the five families,” explained Michael Chertoff, the special prosecutor who later tried the Commission case under US Attorney Rudolph Giuliani.
Because I was the son of a well-known man, people often made comments to me about my father, and some were inadvertently insensitive. One of the most common was, “If you’re half the man your father is, you’ll be a great man.” That was a backhanded compliment if ever there was one. It’s true, he was great. My father was one of those guys who exuded power and success and had an unmistakable presence that extended beyond the courtroom.
When he was a little more than a young adult, Dad was leading a Marine Corps platoon in Asia. Later, while other young lawyers were playing in after-work basketball leagues, Dad led the Justice Department detail that thwarted a secret assassination attempt against President Lyndon Johnson. He also reviewed the gruesome Warren Report on the assassination of President Kennedy prior to its being classified.
Whenever he walked into a restaurant, it seemed like every eye turned to him. When he stepped into an elevator, everyone just cleared to the sides. He moved in a calculated and deliberate way that was hard not to notice.
Dad and I were once getting into a gondola on the Grand Canal in Venice. The gondoliers took one look at my father and thought better about their customary insulting banter and remained silent for the duration of the trip. I caught them saying in Italian slang, “Don’t mess with this guy. He’s someone.” Dad didn’t even speak Italian, but they somehow knew.
The sensational front-page killing of Paul Castellano shook me in a way I had not been shaken before. I could only kid myself for so long about the dangerous world that Dad inhabited. Sure, there were plenty of high-flying corporate boardroom clients, but my father seemed to prefer the smoky backrooms. I had long ago made peace with what my dad did for a living. They would have called the hit off once they saw my father was in the car, or so I rationalized for weeks, unable to face the fact that my “untouchable” father could easily have been killed that night.
I know it shook my mother to the bone. She remained stoic about what could have befallen Dad, but she could not hold her tongue about Paul’s death. Mom had really taken to Paul over the years, and Paul took to her. As a relatively young woman, my mother, Gayle, came across as a Lucille Ball-like character. When she laughed, she cackled, showing a slightly bucktoothed mouth of big pearly whites. She was a hoot and somewhat irreverent—a trait that appealed to the stone-faced mobster.
In the early 1980s, my mother and father walked with Castellano and his wife through the Feast of San Genaro, the largest Italian- American festival in all of New York. As Castellano made his way down the street, crowds magically scattered, as if the pope was walking through St. Peter’s Square. Some people dared to kiss his hand.
When store owners spotted the Godfather in their midst, they ran out with bags of gifts, which Paul silently signaled should be given to my mother.
By the time the group reached the end of the feast, Gayle was struggling with thirty or so bags of gifts. As the roar of the crowd died down, my unknowing mother turned to Paul and exclaimed, “These are the nicest people. Look at all the gifts they gave me.” Jimmy and Paul could barely contain their laughter. That was Mom.
Two days after the killing of Paul and Tommy, the possibility that Dad could have perished with them was certainly on the minds of the tabloid press, who met my Rome-originated plane at JFK. I certainly hadn’t expected to see a couple of middle-aged guys with notepads as I cleared US Customs. They asked me the obvious questions.
What could I say? When I heard about the killing, I almost pissed my pants? NO. My father is among the most ethical lawyers to ever practice, and for him to die a violent death would be as unfair as it gets? Not that either, even though it was true. So I did what I often did in tight situations. I asked myself, “What would Jimmy say?” So I stopped, took a deep breath, and said, “Fellas, boys will be boys,” praying my voice didn’t crack, after which I hurried to find Dad’s driver, Neil, to head into the City. Neil had news radio on as we inched through the bumper-to-bumper traffic. The unmistakable voice of David Letterman was on the air. “I don’t know why everyone is making such a big fuss out of Castellano and his bodyguard. I feel sorry for the poor waiter who’s still walking around going, ‘Castellano, table for two. Castellano, table for two.’” I stifled a laugh. Neil gruffly turned off the radio.
Dad had first defended Paul Castellano in the Eastern District of New York in 1976. He picked away so effectively at the government’s case in pretrial arguments that the US attorney was left with a narrow amount of evidence. “It took some discipline [not to put on a big defense],” Dad recalled, so he “tiptoed” through the evidence so as not to give the government an opening. After the prosecution rested, Jimmy rose and filed a motion for dismissal, which the judge granted based on the government’s “weakened” case.
When Jimmy walked Castellano out the front door of the courthouse, the New York newspapers ate it up, as did the legal community. But there was more to it than that—a lot more. What no one could have predicted was that as Jimmy “tiptoed” through the evidence in October 1976, Carlo Gambino had just died a natural death. That meant that Castellano, who was a butcher as a young man, walked out that day on Jimmy’s arm as the anointed boss of bosses.
Paul often visited Dad at his office high above Madison Avenue. I always kissed my father hello and goodbye, so Paul, likewise, would draw me in close for a hug. I shook the hands of the four or five men who were always with him. Mr. Castellano was a big man, but he stooped slightly. His posture, along with the large thick glasses he always wore, gave him more the appearance of a lawyer or accountant than a mafia boss.
My most vivid memory of Castellano was at my grandfather’s funeral in 1984. It was a very large three-day wake—a show for Dad, really, more than for Pop. On the last day of the wake, Castellano walked in with a large entourage and went straight to kneel at Pop’s body and prayed. The mood in the room changed markedly. Though Castellano and my father could not have more opposite professionally, I was quite sure that Jimmy had a real fondness for Mr. Castellano. Paul spent a long time speaking with Dad and Mom. Then he and his men all stood in front of Pop’s body, made the sign of the cross, and walked out. Obviously, this was not their first wake.
My father’s behavior during the three-day affair was alarming to me; it was as if he was hosting a cocktail party. He smiled and laughed and milled about. I arrived at the funeral home the morning after the Gambinos had paid their respects. On the day of the church service and burial, I met an entirely different man. As the funeral people were about to close the casket, Dad looked exhausted and distraught. To buy some time, I asked for the large gold ring Pop wore and someone gently cut it off for me. I had been intermittingly crying for a week. For my father, the enormity of the situation showed the moment when he saw his father’s face for the last time. The coffin was closed and nailed shut, and that was that.
We had a big freezer in our garage in Connecticut. From the day Dad first walked Paul out of court a free man, the freezer would be neatly filled with an entire side of beef, cut and packaged, every six months or so. My friends loved coming over for steaks. A big Weber Cooker was always burning.
For most of the next decade, Paul followed Carlo’s roadmap and grew the Gambinos into the largest criminal enterprise in the history of the mob.
“Paul Castellano saw the economic future of the Mafia as combining legitimate business and illegitimate force,” said Chertoff. “By controlling concrete, by controlling transportation, he was able to use mob muscle to make money in a variety of legitimate businesses. The problem for the Mafia was that as Paul Castellano led them out of the shadows, the leadership became more exposed. It was eventually that visibility that allowed us to prosecute them.”
By the mid-1980s, the Gambinos had a hand in everything from politics to construction to Canadian baby back ribs available in eateries on every block in the City. The daily newspapers reveled in stories describing the mob’s unchecked stranglehold on New York City and America. Rudy Giuliani already had one eye on the Mayor’s office, but if he couldn’t break the mob, there was little chance the electorate would put the fate of the City in his hands.
On March 31, 1984, before the announcement of the case that would be Giuliani’s crowning achievement, Castellano and twenty other associates were charged in the Southern District. The fifty-one- count indictment included murders, extortion, theft, prostitution, and drug trafficking. This was the very trial that most onlookers believed Jimmy was on the verge of winning, prompting Gotti to act against Paul.
At an elaborate news conference on February 26, 1985, Giuliani announced a new, overarching federal indictment, charging the heads of all five Mafia families with racketeering, in what came to be known as the “The Commission” case. This would be the case of all cases. The heads of the Gambino, Colombo, Genovese, Lucchese, and Bonanno families were all named as defendants. Paul Castellano was listed first on the indictment. Giuliani had his sights on bringing down the entire Mafia in one fell swoop.
While Dad was leading the defense in the ten-week Castellano trial before Federal District Court Judge Kevin Duffy, Jimmy and his firm were simultaneously preparing for The Commission trial.
From the February announcement of the fifty-one-count indictment to the October 1985 trial date, Jimmy had picked away at the charges until the once massive case was reduced to allegations of operating a simple auto theft ring. As the original indictments were being decimated, Walter Mack, the federal prosecutor, recalled Jimmy telling him jokingly, “Now you know what it feels like to be a defense lawyer, Walter.”
By November, the government’s case was in serious jeopardy. On the days leading up to the murder of Castellano and Bilotti, The New York Times headlines were raising the possibility of a not-guilty verdict for Paul: “Gambino-Trial Defense Attorneys Assail Credibility of Key Witnesses” (November 7, 1985), “Key Gambino Trial Witness Admits Lying to Jury” (December 11, 1985), “Another Setback for Prosecution in Case Against Gambino Group” (December 15, 1985). The defense was flying high.
In his authoritative book, Five Families, New York Times writer and author Selwyn Raab recounts the Castellano case as it came to a close. “A former federal prosecutor and stellar trial lawyer, La Rossa was confident the prosecution’s case against Castellano in the stolen-car trial was collapsing, and cheered him by saying that the outlook was good. There were no witnesses to directly tie Castellano to the auto ring and no tape recordings implicating him. Agents in the FBI’s Gambino squad, many of whom had opposed naming Castellano in the indictment, privately agreed among themselves that the evidence against him…was flimsy.”
I am relying on four sources to paint an in-depth picture of what happened that day: 1. My numerous conversations with my father. 2. A History Channel biography about Jimmy called Mouthpiece: Voice for the Accused. 3. Information Dad provided Selwyn Raab for his book, Five Families. 4. Writer Ron Rosenbaum’s interview of Dad for an article published in the magazine Manhattan,inc. titled “Disorganized Crime: James La Rossa Defends the Late Paul Castellano.”
We know now that John Gotti was prepared for two scenarios: a prison sentence for Paul or, if he won the trial, an ambush. Jimmy’s dramatic impeachment of the main witnesses against Castellano the week before had put Gotti on pins and needles. Speculation was that Gotti could no longer wait for the inevitable not guilty verdict.
On the morning of December 16, 1985, my father was in the car with Neil at the wheel, heading south to his office. Dad was in good spirits. Park Avenue was decked out in Christmas lights. He was nearing summation time in US v. Castellano and was feeling as if he was about to score another big win.
Paul Castellano paid a surprise visit to Dad’s office that day at 41 Madison Ave. Court was not in session that afternoon so “I wasn’t expecting to see him until the next day. He walked into our office and brought gifts for my secretary. Tommy Bilotti was with him as well. We spent about an hour talking about the case so far and what I believed was going to occur the next afternoon when we resumed.”
The three men huddled alone in Jimmy’s corner office.
“In effect, what I was saying to Paul was, ‘The trial is over for you. The rest of the witnesses are not going to implicate you.’ That opinion was based on discovery material. So we were talking about going to the jury. We were talking about summations. We were talking about the holiday break. We both talked about how much we needed it.
“We were feeling good about the trial. We thought we were going to win it. He wanted very much to hear the verdict.”
Jimmy rarely, if ever, made predictions. “I thought he had won. Paul thought he had won. Even the other defense lawyers thought we had won. If you read the Sunday Times article the week before he was killed, they said, in effect, that the government’s case fell apart. There was a similar feeling in the courthouse.”
That feeling, according to press reports and Dad himself, was brought on by Jimmy’s cross-examination of the key prosecution witness against Castellano the week before.
The witness was a guy named Montiglio, “and by the time I completed cross on him, he had admitted to committing perjury on six different occasions. He admitted to being addicted to cocaine during this period of time.
“He had never implicated Castellano until October 1985, when the jury had been selected. Notwithstanding that, he had been interviewed on sixty-eight different occasions by agents, assistant US attorneys, and in grand jury appearances, where he implicated dozens of other people but never once implicated Castellano. I think the jury disbelieved him, and I think that was evident in court.”
There was a point in the cross-examination of Montiglio where “seven or eight of the jurors actually turned their backs on him—in their juror’s chairs—to, quite literally, look at the wall. To look away from him, they were shaking their heads in disbelief.”
In the 1985 case, according to Jimmy, “I think the government just wanted Paul so badly, and by the time they had realized how vulnerable the case was, it was too late.”
Montilglio was not the only front-page cross-examination in the trial. In desperation, the government put on the stand a man the media had dubbed the “gay hit man,” Vito Arena.
Typical of Dad, he was ready for this curveball. Arena had heard enough stories to be scared to death of this well-dressed man in a perfectly tailored, dark-blue Brioni suit with a baritone voice. Years later in interviews for the History Channel biography, prosecutor Walter Mack recounted that every time Jimmy introduced a key piece of evidence against government witnesses, Mack would utter, “I wish we had known that.”
In Ron Rosenbaum’s article in Manhattan,inc., “Disorganized Crime: James La Rossa Defends the Late Paul Castellano,” Dad recounted, “Arena had admitted to three grisly murders that we knew about. We also discovered that Arena had demanded a litany of special privileges from the prosecution in return for his testimony, including the installation of his convict boyfriend in a cell adjoining his. I also got the hit man to concede on the stand that he demanded the prosecution provide cosmetic dentistry for his boyfriend’s teeth and Bruce Springsteen tapes.”
Here’s a small but telling part of the salient trial transcripts:
LA ROSSA: Now let me take you back to about just five weeks ago, Mr. Arena. Did you tell the prosecutor here, Mr. Mack, that you wanted a mini-operation to have the fat sucked out of your face, cheeks, chin, and neck? Did you say that?
LA ROSSA: Did you say you need a nice profile because you look like a Cyclops?
ARENA: I felt that my appearance was awful…
LA ROSSA: And did you further tell Mr. Mack, “La Rossa is going to dress up all the defendants, and I am going to look like a bad guy?” Did you say that?
Arena capitulated, completely discredited.
“There was similar speculation from other quarters that another kind of jury was observing the court room duel between Jimmy and the witnesses and coming to [their own] verdict on Paul Castellano,” wrote Rosenbaum in Manhattan,inc.
Just days after the notorious killing, a cryptic Jimmy Breslin column appeared in the Daily News. According to Breslin’s account, certain powers that be requested a progress report on the Castellano trial. “An observer reported back that ‘the nephew put the money in Paul’s hands, but [La Rossa] made him out to be a liar on the stand.’”
Dad later categorized Breslin’s theory as “gibberish.”
Knowing him as well as I do, I am quite sure he said that to keep his game face up. But, in 20/20 hindsight, Dad knew that the events were set in motion on the day the final witness capitulated. Feeling the wind at their backs after an optimistic meeting with their lawyer, Paul and Tommy set out for Sparks without a care in the world.
The killings went down as follows:
John Gotti and his right-hand man, Sammy Gravano, are in a car on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 46th Street to alert the four gunmen, by walkie-talkie, of Paul’s arrival. The shooters, dressed similarly, are already in position in front of Sparks. (Witnesses erroneously reported the shooters were dressed identically in long coats and Russian-style hats. This became part of the accepted “lore” of the killings.) They know that Paul is on trial, so they know that neither man will be armed.
When the car pulls up, one of the shooters opens the door for Paul and greets him by name. Paul starts to get out of the right rear door to greet the “friend,” while Bilotti opens the driver’s door and throws both feet to the pavement. The shooters open up with all they’ve got. Both men are hit in the head and body and are dead instantly. Bilotti falls out of the car into the street, flat on his back. Paul is splayed out on the street, his head resting against the floor of the large back seats.
Judge Duffy, who was as close to my father as a federal judge could allow, suffered from acute migraine headaches his entire life and, to nurse them, would often recline in his darkened chambers. When federal agents disturbed his solace with the news of the shootings, he ordered a group to the site. “Make sure Jimmy La Rossa didn’t get caught up in all of this,” he said.
To my knowledge, this has never been reported: After federal agents at the scene notified Jimmy by phone of what had transpired at Sparks, he walked, coatless, out of his office without a word to anyone, and began to walk up Madison Avenue in a daze before his law partners, Mike Ross and John Mitchell, ran after him and persuaded Dad to return to the office just as the agents dispatched by Judge Duffy were pulling up outside.
Paul had made a full-court press to get Dad to join them for dinner that night, but it was a big trial day the next day and Dad was in his groove, so he wasn’t about to drink and carouse with the “the boys.”
Jimmy was once quoted in People magazine that when it came to being a first-class trial lawyer, scrupulous “preparation was the difference between the artist and the mechanic.” Knowing Dad as I do, there was no way he would take the chance of discussing the trial in front of subordinates over dinner. That is what ultimately prevented my father from refusing a steak and a bottle of Opus One.
I used to join Dad at a midtown restaurant on Mondays following New York Giants games, where two or three players and the manager often held forth about the game as we ate lunch. After they spoke, we could ask them questions. These invitation-only lunches were always a lot of fun, though often it was difficult to get a word in edgewise when Bo Dietl, the good-natured NY cop turned celebrity PI, was in attendance.
My father and I always sat at table #1 with an assortment of “the boys.” After one such lunch, Dad gave me a ride. As we settled into the car, I asked my father why everyone at our table drank liquor like guys going to prison the next day, while he and I nursed club sodas. He smiled. “We work. Mobsters don’t. That’s what they do, every day.” I had never considered the obvious. So the reason that Dad didn’t go to Sparks was, pure and simple, because he had more work to do to crush the government’s case.
Journalist William Flanagan, writing about an unrelated case in which Jimmy led the defense, wrote, “The New York Bar Association had voted La Rossa ‘Criminal Law Practitioner of the Year.’ [The award Mr. Flanagan refers to is the Ostrow Award from the New York Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.]
“The bar association should know. When lawyers get into trouble with the law, they hire La Rossa. When judges need top legal help, they turn to La Rossa. And when mobsters need the best defense that money can buy, La Rossa often gets the call.
“Indeed, La Rossa himself might very well have been gunned down right along with Big Paul and his bodyguard that night. ‘Castellano had just come from La Rossa’s office,’ recalled Joseph Coffey, then commanding officer of NYPD Organized Crime Homicide Task Force.
“Coffey not only knew who killed Castellano, he knew what kind of men they were. ‘If La Rossa is in that car…outside Spark’s, he’s a dead man.’
“But La Rossa’s career was built on skill, not luck. His successes in court have brought him a lot of deep-pocketed clients, from organized crime figures to white-collar miscreants, including bankers caught up in the BCCI scandal. He has also earned a lot of enmity from some federal prosecutors, who don’t like losing to him.”
Following the orchestrated assassination of Paul Castellano, John Gotti became the de facto head of the Gambino family. But by December 1990, Gotti was about to be indicted for the Castellano murder in federal court. There was speculation that Gotti wanted Jimmy or Jerry Shargel to represent him, but in a stroke of blind luck, both Jimmy and Jerry were precluded from representing Gotti.
In a highly ironic twist of fate, it was the US Attorney’s Office that did the dirty work on Jimmy’s behalf when John Gotti was to stand trial for the killings. The government had tapes of Gotti complaining to his captain, Sammy Gravano, about the “La Rossa/Shargel law firm’s exorbitant fees.” Sammy tells Gotti that he doesn’t think Jimmy will represent him anyway. Afraid that the senior defense lawyer will “embarrass him” by refusing the case, Gotti is recorded as saying, “Well, we’ll whack him.” Both men laugh. BINGO. That’s all Jimmy needed.
“That potentially puts me in the witness box, precluding me from representing him,” Dad said to me, a twinkle in his eye. (Gotti’s longtime lawyer, Bruce Cutler, was also prevented from participating in the defense.)
By 1992, when Gotti was ready to stand trial for the 1985 murders, Dad had his hands full in “yet another classic mob trial.” According to Flanagan, “It featured murder, mob rivalries, alleged mobsters with colorful nicknames—in this case William ‘Wild Bill’ Cutolo— as well as paid informants and stool pigeons, ratting others out to reduce their own sentences. It was an old-fashioned Mafia trial, and even attracted the interest of columnist Jimmy Breslin.
“In a backhanded tribute to his skill, the feds tried to prevent La Rossa from defending Cutolo, a flamboyant Brooklyn hotel owner charged with racketeering and murder. They charged that La Rossa was ‘house counsel’ to the notorious Colombo crime family, and should therefore not be allowed to defend Cutolo. The attempt not only failed, but La Rossa fired back. He accused the Federal Bureau of Investigation of protecting and abetting a known hit man named Gregory Scarpa, Jr., because he had turned informant. The FBI, La Rossa charged, had let Scarpa continue his deadly career as long as he kept on supplying them with information.”
Dad had been hammering at the FBI’s use of Gregory Scarpa, a member of the rival Persico gang, and a wild killer, as a paid informant. When the Feds tried to prevent Dad from even taking the case, Jimmy fought back, claiming that Scarpa had committed murders while on the FBI’s payroll. Eventually, Dad prevailed.
The Cutolo trial lasted through November, right up until a few days before Christmas. “It was that fortuitous timing that clinched Breslin’s appearance in the courthouse on the last day of the trial,” wrote Flanagan.
Breslin, no stranger to courtrooms, smelled a Christmas verdict. “Cutolo’s fond wish,” Breslin wrote in his column, “is that sometime this week, when the jurors go home, they will pass through the winter night streets ablaze with Christmas lights that reflect on the faces of the happy cheerful people. They will become disgusted at the thought of stool pigeons and be so moved by the lights of the night that they will exclaim, ‘Send those men home to their wives and families.’”
After court the next day, Breslin wrote about another case where the jury came in just before Christmas. “La Rossa, the attorney for Cutolo, was remembering another Christmas verdict for an extortionist. ‘It was a nullification verdict,’ La Rossa said. ‘The foreman walked past the defendant and said, ‘Don’t ever do it again.’” Presumably, the jury had just enough time to hit the stores for gifts.
After only two days of deliberating the fate of the Colombos, and with only four more shopping days remaining before Christmas, the jurors found the reputed mob captain and six associates not guilty on all charges. La Rossa and his defendants had gotten a Christmas verdict. Of course, there was more to it than that. But Breslin had his story.
“Merriest Christmas in the World,” blared the headline.
“I’ve got the best lawyer. This is the best present ever,” Cutolo said after the verdict was read. Jimmy walked the entire leadership of the Colombos out the front door of the Federal District Court.
John Gotti had no such hope for a Christmas verdict. On April 2, 1992, after only 14 hours of deliberation, the jury found the fifty- two-year-old Gotti guilty on all charges. For the rest of his life, inmate number 182-053 was in such complete confinement in the supermax Marion Prison that he may as well have been on Mars. Gotti would remain in twenty-three-hour a day lockdown until his death.
Before Castellano’s murder, Jimmy had planned to plunge into the broader Commission case accusations and prepare for that separate mega-trial, in which he would lead the defense, and the heads of all five crime families would be on trial at once. The government had not as yet turned over its discovery materials to defense lawyers, so Dad was unaware of the contents of the tapes that the FBI had obtained from bugs planted in Castellano’s house and in the sanctuaries of the other Commission defendants.
As the world counted down to a new century, Dad could see the writing on the wall. He stayed in the background during this circus of a trial, in which one of the defendants did more harm than good by acting as his own attorney.
The Commission Trial outcome was a fait d’accompli. Generally, in a trial of this size, the other lawyers would be smart enough to let Jimmy coordinate the overall strategy. This time, Dad played it cool, trying to separate his client, Lucchese Crime Family boss Christopher “Christie Tick” Furnari, from the other notorious defendants in the hopes of a lesser sentence.
The reign of the Gambinos was over. The very life of organized crime would be over for all of them sooner than they could have imagined. The Commission Trial was the nail in the coffin of the American Mafia.
Author Selwyn Raab describes a fascinating historical phenomenon about the Old World Mafia. In the old days, when the Sicilian Mafia was under siege, they would say, “We’re going back to the caves,” to protect themselves and to regroup. If there was ever a time for the American Mafia to “go back to the caves,” it was at that very moment in time.
September 11, 2001, radically transformed the resources of federal law enforcement. Counter-espionage and the Mafia had been the two uppermost FBI concerns for over a quarter of a century. Abruptly, the Mafia was reduced to backseat status. The mob had become so inconsequential that after 9/11, almost the entire Organized Crime Federal Task Force was reassigned to terrorist activities.
The federal RICO statute was, arguably, the most successful anti- crime tool in American history. Once the best organized and most affluent criminal enterprise in the nation, the mob was virtually eliminated by the time of Jimmy’s last-minute retreat to California.
For many decades, the New York mob largely eclipsed the entire Italian Mafia. Nevertheless, the Sicilians watched and waited from their caves. Then in 2002 and 2004, Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi promoted legislation to make the climate less favorable for Mafia convictions. New laws limited the use of testimony from defectors, restricted the use of bookkeeping evidence to implicate mobsters in frauds and shake-downs, and hampered the recruitment of pentiti (cooperators). I can only imagine that if Dad had been in better health during his west coast retirement, the grandchildren of the original dons of Italy’s crime families would have made the trek from Rome or Tuscany to seek out his advice and services.
In the irony of all ironies, while Mr. Gotti waged a public war throughout the Northeast United States, Sicily’s modern godfathers adopted low-profile policies known as Pax Mafiosa (Mafia Peace). Fearful of rekindling public outrage against their organizations, “the new bosses avoided violent confrontations with law enforcement,” Raab writes.
Meanwhile, Jimmy had coined the term “disorganized crime,” and the mob in the Gotti era bore that out in spades. It was more than a little ironic, and historically disingenuous, that when the Commission Trial indictments came down, Rudy Giuliani was quoted as saying, “It’s about time law enforcement got as organized as organized crime.” The mayor’s office was already in Rudy’s sights. His life as the white hat crusader was coming to an end, so he threw what spaghetti he could against the wall, hoping a few strands would stick.
What Gotti didn’t see when ordering the Sparks assassinations was that his day in the sun as boss would be fleeting and he would die hard and alone long before his time.
For the record, Jimmy had always dismissed Gotti’s threat, much like he stamped Breslin’s last column as gibberish. “Boys will be boys,” Dad had said to the press, stealing my line, as he left the courthouse and the new don to his final sentence.
Much to his credit, Gotti didn’t say another word. He took his lumps and never saw daylight again. His reign was over.
Before leaving Jimmy’s office on that fateful day to head to his rendezvous at Sparks, Paul asked Dad for the address of a perfume shop on Fifth Avenue, where he wanted to buy some other Christmas gifts. As they walked down the long corridor of 41 Madison Avenue to the elevators, Castellano whispered to Dad that he was very pleased with how the trial was proceeding. “I’m very happy, Jimmy” were his last words, and that was that.
If John Gotti had been a prescient man about the events that would follow December 16, 1985, he would have dug another grave for himself.
Last of the Gladiators, A Son’s Memoir of Love, Redemption and the Mob, will be available from Bancroft Press in hard cover in March 2019.