It’s a warm and clear autumn Sunday in a typical Long Island suburb. Patched into the middle of town is a small park where parents in windbreakers stand along the sidelines of their children’s elementary school football game. Some cheer intermittently. Some simply talk among themselves, vaguely aware of the game in front of them. On the other side of the field is John Gotti Jr. Yes, that John Gotti Jr. The same Junior whose father, John Gotti Sr., became a household name as the head of the Gambino family, and the face of the American mafia after the assassination of New York crime boss Paul Castellano. The same Junior who the FBI believes ran the Gambino crime family in the ’90s while his father was in prison. And the same Junior who nobody seems to believe when he tells them that he’s completely out of the family business.
“You think people would get mad if I lit up a cigar out here,” he asks aloud with a chuckle. He answers his own question: “Not here. Maybe at a high-school game. These are kids. I think the parents might get mad.”
He looks genuinely concerned for a moment and then chuckles again at how preposterous it sounds. John Gotti Jr. who survived prison, multiple FBI investigations, four trials, financial ruin and even a 2013 stabbing fears the wrath of a few irate soccer moms?
There was a time when he wasn’t so circumspect about smoking—even in the presence of people who held much more sway over his life. “The FBI, OCTF, Secret Service and NYPD all raided my office on Sutphin Blvd. [in Queens],” he says, recalling an incident from decades past. “All of my legitimate businesses were run out of that office. They come rushing in looking for files, going through drawers, taking pictures off the wall. I’m sitting there watching them like I don’t have a care in the world, so I decide to go into my desktop humidor and light up a cigar right in front of them. Then I go to lunch. When I came back, they took everything, including my humidor. Just to mock me, they left one cigar on my desk. I remember it was a Macanudo Vintage.”
Gotti never retrieved his computers, but he did recover his humidor seven months later.
“The agents took some of my cigars, and the rest of them dried out,” he says.
A coach’s whistle blows and Gotti claps. If FBI agents are hiding in the trees that day spying on Gotti (and it’s quite possible that they are), what they are observing is an enthusiastic parent who, like the many cookie-cutter SUVs parked in the lot behind him, is almost indistinguishable from the rest of the crowd. No entourage of trench-coated bodyguards surrounds him, nor is he decked out in a tailored Zegna suit with gleaming Gucci loafers. While sartorial bravado may have been the purview of his father, Gotti’s outfit of choice is simple—baseball cap, jeans, sneakers. He watches his eight-year-old son run across the field and even cheers on a few other kids whom he knows by name.
“I’d rather get hit by a bus than watch any of my kids get hurt,” he says. “It makes me sick, just the thought of it. I can’t relax.”
“I missed out on so many of my other kids’ games when I was in prison,” he adds with more than a bit of regret in his voice. “So now I make it to every game I can.”
It’s no secret that Gotti served a 77-month prison sentence handed down in 1999 after pleading guilty to loan-sharking and racketeering. His master plan was no secret either: serve out the sentence, leave mob life behind and live out the rest of his years in obscurity with his family, doing personal penance for so much lost time. The FBI, however, had an entirely different plan. It tried on four more separate occasions to put Gotti back in prison for murder. All four indictments went to trial. All four trials deadlocked in hung juries.
Since then, things have been pretty quiet. Perhaps too quiet. No statute of limitations prescribes murders, and the government is free to retry a case that ended with a deadlock. Gotti avoids obsessing about the what-ifs, but still holds a few grudges.
“You know I was never treated fairly by the press,” he says of his media coverage. “The [New York] Post and Daily News slaughtered me. We’d have a banner day in court, and you’d never read about it.” Gotti firmly believes that news outlets were spoon-fed courtroom info directly from federal sources with the express agreement that there was to be no pro-Gotti coverage.
“If a witness would come forward with testimony against me, it was all over the paper. But once the witness testimony was discredited, there was no retraction or updates the next day. There was no vindication.”
His most recent legal entanglement came in 2008 when Gotti Jr. was brought up on charges of racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder. They were built around the testimony of an FBI informant named John Alite, who claimed to be a trusted Gotti associate, but nevertheless fingered Gotti for masterminding three murders.
The general public may have forgotten the name, but mention Alite to John Gotti Jr., and he becomes animated, in-your-face—quick and focused. This 50-year-old from Howard Beach, Queens, is still fit, carrying plenty of the muscle on his frame that he built from another life, in another time. He tenses and his eyes narrow. If there were intemperate flashes of violence in his past, today Gotti, still intent on having a voice and clearing his name, only indulges the occasional rant.
“Alite was a conscript for low-level jobs,” says Gotti dismissively. “And, we believed that he was always a CI (criminal informant) for the police anyway. Back in 1991, [Gambino soldier] Anthony “Tony Pep” Trentacosta found out through a corrupt NYPD officer that Alite was already a rat, cooperating with police and giving them information.”
What happened next, according to Gotti’s chronology, may seem ironic, but it’s a piece of mob history that few people are in a position to relate.
“I found out Alite was an informant back in ’91, so I chased him out of New York,” says Gotti. “But I didn’t want anyone else to know that he was a rat—it would have gotten him killed. I was actually protecting him by kicking him out because I didn’t want him dead. Alite went to Philly and I had nothing to do with him anymore.”
Despite Gotti’s attempts at complete excommunication, Alite’s name resurfaced one night a few years later at a dinner meeting with Robert “Bobby Cabert” Bisaccia, who handled the Northern New Jersey territory for the Gambinos.
“Bobby was our liaison to the Scarfo family in Philadelphia,” Gotti says. “Bobby asked me ‘Do we have a guy named Alletto in Philly?’ Alite was still flying our flag, calling himself Alletto to sound Italian and still trying to associate himself with the Gambinos without our permission. Bisaccia asked me if I wanted him dead. ‘No! Of course not!’ I said. So the Scarfos chased him out of Philly and he went to Tampa. That’s where agent Ted Otto flipped Alite. Otto just wasn’t going to let it go.”
A Gotti nemesis for years, FBI agent Theodore Otto was the frustrated operative assigned to the Gambino family. He was instrumental in building the three previous cases against Gotti Jr. Those charges included an alleged plot to kidnap and murder the radio talk-show host and Guardian Angel founder Curtis Sliwa. The case went to trial three times in New York between 2004 and 2006. All three trials ended in deadlock and Gotti walked away.
“The last indictment was handed down in Tampa because New York didn’t want it anymore and agent Otto knew it,” explains Gotti. “They tried me three times for the same thing in New York. [Judge] Scheindlin wasn’t having it again. Otto was venue shopping. Once the judge in Tampa realized that Otto was trying to bring a New York problem to Florida, he sent it back to New York. It was still RICO, but now for three counts of murder and drug dealing.”
Gotti shakes his head in disgust.
RICO is an acronym for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. A law aimed specifically at organized crime, it gives prosecutors wide latitude to confiscate the property of the accused.
“Lone-sharking? Sure. Racketeering? Yeah. I was a money guy and I did my time for that, but it wasn’t enough for Otto. Now, all of a sudden Alite is a new star witness. He was a liar and a junkie and thankfully the jury saw that.”
The witness’s lack of credibility undermined the prosecution’s case and again the jury was deadlocked. Federal Judge Kevin Castel declared the case a mistrial and Gotti went free on December 1, 2009.
The likelihood that the prosecution will go after Gotti a fifth time is very slim. But the lingering impression that he somehow got away with murder still bothers Gotti, which is why he’s so vociferous about discrediting Alite, even years after his defense attorneys have already done the job.
“I was a loan shark’s loan shark,” Gotti says frankly, and in the matter-of-fact tone of someone with nothing to hide. “I had millions and I never thought I would run out of money. I was like the Bank of New England. When I was young, I’d borrow for a point and a quarter and put it out on the streets for 2 ½ to 3 points. As I got older and had more money, I only lent to members of my own crew so that they could earn a living. Dominic [Fat Dom] Borghese borrowed about $300,000 from me in 1990 or ’91. At first, I charged him a point, then I lowered it to only ¾ of a point. He’d put it out for maybe 3 points or he’d gamble it. Sometimes I’d give out loans for ½ a point. Mikey ‘Scars’ [DiLeonardo] borrowed from me too.”
Before ever getting into the family business, Gotti Jr. had attended the New York Military Academy in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. “My father used to love to walk the grounds when he’d come to visit me,” Gotti says. “He’d smoke a cigar and was never followed by any FBI agents up there. I always knew my father was different, but it wasn’t until 1979 that I understood exactly how.”
Gotti was watching television with other cadets at the academy when a news program aired a special on the Gambino crime family. He didn’t think much of it until he saw surveillance photos of his father in front of the Ravenite Social Club in New York.
“He had a bandage around his hand,” Gotti recalls of the photo. “He’d hit a biker in Miami. The journalist on television identified him as an enforcer for the Gambino crime family, along with an entire cast of characters. They called him a captain. It gave me a bit of a celebrity status on campus, but the news wasn’t a total shock. I was raised around guys like this in Howard Beach. I never used words like ‘captain’ or ‘crime family’—those terms were unfamiliar to me at the time—but yeah, it was kind of normal.”
Far more tragic news from home reached Gotti Jr. upstate when he found out in March of the next year that his youngest brother, Frankie, was fatally hit by a car while riding a minibike. He was 12 years old.
Driving the car was neighbor John Favara. Favara disappeared that July and was never seen again. No arrests were ever made for his disappearance, and Gotti Jr. claims no inside knowledge of the incident, but when asked in a “60 Minutes” interview if he thought his father was involved in Favara’s disappearance, Gotti answered: “Probably. Knowing John, and how he was, and how he felt about a lot of things, especially regarding his own children, he probably was. Do I know with certainty? No. He’d never discuss that with me.”
Gotti Jr. never finished the academy. Rather, he returned to Howard Beach and began installing coin-operated Joker Poker gambling machines and running a football tickets racket. Later, he said his father fronted him the money to enter the trucking and carting business, picking up and dropping off construction materials and debris. He did this from 1984 to the 1990s. “In 1983 I had a salary of $250 per week.”
Gotti recalls Christmas Eve 1988, a pivotal day when he was, as he puts it, “officially brought into this world” and became a made member of the Gambino crime family.
“When my father wasn’t in prison, he’d be at the Bergin Hunt & Fish Club. That’s where we’d bond. He smoked cigars sometimes too. Everybody there was an uncle to me. But when I became a made member, I was treated with more respect. Now, my father is not just my father anymore, he’s my superior, but I still reported directly to another person. I couldn’t just go around the chain of command because I was the boss’s son.”
What his father’s management style also did not include was yelling at captains and crewmembers in front of others. According to his son, if he had a problem, he gave a private reprimand—unless the dressing-down was for a violation of one of Sr.’s cardinal rules.
“When someone was locked up and you had to visit their wife at home for whatever reason, you never, ever went alone,” says Gotti. “You always had to have somebody with you. Some things with my father you could argue your way out of, but not this. One time somebody broke that rule and he screamed at him in front of everybody. If you went a step further and actually messed around with someone’s wife while their husband was in jail, you wouldn’t see the next day.”
That incident was one of two times Gotti Jr. ever saw his father publicly embarrass his own crew members. The second time Jr. himself was the target of his father’s temper. “Sometimes we put someone ‘on the shelf’ meaning that they did something wrong and we’re no longer associating with them. One time we had a guy on the shelf, but he had cancer. I felt bad and went to go visit him and gave him some money. My father found out and was furious.”
Junior continued to operate out of the public eye until his father, the highest-profile gangster of the era, was convicted of a series of crimes that included murder. Most know the story of one of the most sensational mob betrayals in mafia history. Called “The Teflon Don” after escaping a series of murder charges, Gotti Sr. was finally brought down when his underboss, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, turned state’s evidence in 1991. The FBI contends that Gotti Jr. went on to run the Gambino crime family while his father was in prison. Gotti Jr. denies the claim.
“I was never as high up as my dad was. My father was the boss and I always reported to someone. The government kept flip-flopping on their theories as to who ran the family. When it served their purposes for me to be the acting boss, I became the head of the Gambino crime family just like that. I never was. Then I was arrested in January of 1998.”
The arrest was not a complete shock to Gotti Jr. The FBI had been storming Gotti properties since 1997. That same year, the Feds raided another property, seized over $300,000 in cash and found the notorious list that detailed made members under the Gambino umbrella. It made the front page of The Daily News. In January of 1998 Gotti was arrested and eventually pled guilty to charges of loan-sharking, bookmaking and extortion. That’s when he decided that he wanted out of mob life.
“I wanted to give my kids and family as normal an existence as possible,” says Gotti of his decision. “I left tons of money in the streets and walked away. My father was disappointed. I was walking away from him and his way of life. I live with his disappointment to this day, but I report to nobody and nobody reports to me.”
Nearly two decades later, he is able to recount many of the stories from that time with a comedic tone. Like the time someone had asked him to carry out a mob hit—on a dog. “The only reason I even gave this guy the time of day in the first place was because his cousin worked for me. He tells me how his neighbor’s dog is keeping his family up all night and was seriously asking if I’d arrange for the dog’s assassination. Who did this guy think I was?” Gotti says with a laugh. “I said to him, ‘Go tell your cousin what you just asked me to do.’ The next day, his cousin comes to me crying in embarrassment, literally tears in his eyes, pleading that his cousin has mental problems and didn’t know what he was saying.”
Once Gotti was convicted in 1999, the government moved to financially demolish him as well. Properties were confiscated, assets seized and bank accounts emptied, as per RICO.
“It wasn’t just the government,” says Gotti with some indignation. “Do you know what it costs in legal fees to fight four trials? Especially when you have no access to your own money. I lost my house. Up until last year, the house I’m living in now was in foreclosure.”
So how does he claim to support himself outside of the mob life? Real estate. Gotti owns industrial properties in the New York City borough of Queens, and leases them to a series of automotive businesses—body shops, garages, car dealerships and tire distributors. He’s not carrying out canvas bags full of cash, but it’s lucrative enough to keep him living in Oyster Bay, an upscale hamlet of Long Island. His home is a whimsical curiosity, but nothing like the bloated, faux-Roman compound so prevalently shown in the reality television show “Growing Up Gotti,” which starred his sister, Victoria.
“That show would have never happened if I wasn’t away,” Gotti says. “Growing Up Gotti” first aired on the A&E network on August 2004 while Gotti was serving out his prison sentence. The show was cancelled in early December 2005.
“I never watched it. Not a single episode,” he says. “Just the commercials for the show would irritate me. Prison guards would try to bring it up. I didn’t want to hear it.”
This Gotti home does not open to a marbled lobby or strain good taste with a double staircase. Rather, its fairly modest entryway brings you to a small foyer that, like the entire house, still has the original stone-slab floor laid over 100 years ago. It takes unexpected turns into smaller rooms, and the main floor does not get much natural light. Gotti lives there with his wife of 24 years, Kimberly Albanese, and five of his six children, who range in age from eight to 24 years old. An angelic picture of Gotti’s father sits on an easel ceremoniously placed in the living room. Around every corner is a bronze statue with a Native American motif—some are reproductions, some are originals. “I used to have some real Remingtons,” Gotti says, “but I had to sell them off.”
A room on the side of the house monopolizes most of the sunlight. It’s cordoned off by double doors and Gotti calls it “The Indian Room.” This is where he spends most Sundays, smoking cigars and watching sports on television with his sons. He prefers mild to medium-bodied cigars and smokes three to four cigars a week. Native American statues and headdresses compete for attention with portraits and photographs of the late John Gotti Sr.
“I loved my father,” Gotti says. “He’s the only reason I got into the business. Once he was out of the equation, I completely lost interest.”
Gotti Sr. died in prison of throat cancer on June 10, 2002.
“The prison medical report said that my father’s throat cancer was caused from cigar smoking. That was bullshit!” shouts a now angered Gotti. “He hadn’t had a cigar in eight years! My father had periodontal disease and the water at Marion Penitentiary was carcinogenic. Everybody knew that, which is why everybody drank bottled water. When they took away my father’s commissary, he had to drink and brush his teeth with the tap water with open wounds in his mouth. That’s when the tumors appeared.”
Gotti Jr. himself was in jail when his father died, but he tells a story about his father’s final days. The account came from his younger brother, Peter. It’s impossible to tell how much license he takes, but Gotti Jr. tells it as though he were right there, which he no doubt wishes he had been:
“My father is in a room, all bandaged up, tumors on his neck bleeding through the bandages and a priest comes in, trying to read him last rites. My father, unable to speak, lifts his arm and waves him off. The priest tries again, but my father just shoos him away until he leaves. You’ve heard the saying ‘There are no atheists in the foxhole?’ Bullshit. Whoever said that didn’t know my father. Now that he was dying, in his final moments his convictions were stronger than ever. He didn’t want forgiveness. Love him or hate him, you have to respect that.”
Gotti has spent much of last year cloistered in a private office writing a memoir, which is full of court documents and transcripts that the public never had the opportunity to see. Entitled Shadow of My Father, it echoes much of the sentiment expressed here: the undying love for his father and the declaration that he’s completely out of the criminal life despite the FBI’s expensive and fruitless efforts to prove otherwise.
“The streets have accepted that I’m out,” says Gotti soberly. “It’s the government that won’t. And they don’t want anyone to know that you can get out of the criminal life without them. What they want you to think is that there are only two ways out. Either you die, or you cooperate with the FBI. I’m proof that’s not true.”