Following the orchestrated assassination of Paul Castellano, John Gotti became the de facto head of the Gambino family. By December 1990, Gotti was about to be indicted for the Castellano murders. 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 their 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 saying, “Well, we’ll whack him.” Both men laugh. BINGO. That’s all Jimmy needed.
By the time John Gotti was ready to stand trial for the December 16, 1985 Castellano murders, Jimmy had his hands full in yet another classic mob trial. 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. 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 Dad from defending Wild Bill Cutolo, a flamboyant Brooklyn hotel owner charged with racketeering and murder. The government leveled the charge that Jimmy was ‘house counsel’ to the notorious Colombo crime family, and should therefore not be allowed to defend Cutolo. The attempt not only failed, but Jimmy fired back. He accused the Federal Bureau of Investigation of protecting and abetting a known hitman. Dad had been hammering at the FBI’s use of Gregory Scarpa, a member of the rival Persico gang, as a paid informant. He painted him as a wild killer as the feds tried to prevent him 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.
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 only two days of deliberating the fate of the Colombo’s — and with only four more shopping days remaining till Christmas — the jurors found the reputed mob captain and six associates not guilty of all charges. Jimmy 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 Columbo’s out the front door of Federal District Court.
John Gotti had no such hope of a Christmas verdict. On April 2, 1992, after only 14 hours of deliberation, the jury found the 52 year-old Gotti guilty on all charges. For the rest of his life, inmate number 182-053 was in such complete confinement in the Super Max Marion Prison that he may as well have been on Mars. Gotti would remain in 23-hour a day lockdown until his death in 2002.
Jimmy had coined the term ‘Disorganized Crime’ and the mob in the Gotti era bore that out in spades. Dad could see the writing on the wall as the world counted down to a new century. ‘The Life’ of organized crime would be over for all of them sooner than they could have imagined. September 11, 2001, radically transformed the resources of Federal law enforcement. Counterespionage and the Mafia had been the two uppermost FBI concerns for over a quarter of a century. Abruptly, the Mafia was reduced to a backseat status. The mob had become so inconsequential that after 9/11, almost the entire Organized Crime Federal Task Force was re-assigned to terrorist activities. Once the best organized and most affluent criminal enterprise in the nation, the mob was virtually eliminated by the time of Jimmy’s California exile.
The 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 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.
What Gotti didn’t see the day he ordered 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. If John Gotti had been a prescient man about what would follow the events of December 16, 1985, he would have dug another grave for himself.