Skip to main content /transcript




John Gotti: The Downfall of the Dapper Don

Aired September 8, 2001 - 11:30   ET



ANNOUNCER (voice-over): A Mafia boss whose picture graced the cover of "TIME" magazine.

JULIETTE PAPPA, JOURNALIST: He did have that star power, his aggressiveness, his looks, his dress.

ANNOUNCER: A cold-blooded killer wrapped in expensive clothing.

SELWIN RAAB, FORMER "NEW YORK TIMES" REPORTER: Hand-tailored silk suits made by Italian tailors, monogrammed socks, everything, flamboyant, flashy.

ANNOUNCER: The don of a dysfunctional mob family.

J. BRUCE MOUW, FORMER FBI AGENT: He's a stone-cold killer responsible for the deaths of scores of individuals.

ANNOUNCER: We're not talking about the fictional Tony Soprano but about the real thing. The story of John Gotti, now on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.


DARYN KAGAN, HOST: Welcome to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. I'm Daryn Kagan.

He became a legend, murdering his way to the top of one of the most powerful Mafia families. But ultimately, John Gotti couldn't escape the law, and now he faces death. He's in the advanced stages of cancer, still serving time in a prison in Springfield, Missouri.

CNN's Charles Feldman covered the celebrated don during his years in power and has this look back.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look this way, Jack.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you think about the witnesses?



CHARLES FELDMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): John Joseph Gotti, a mobster with a sense of style.

JULIETTE PAPPA, JOURNALIST: He was a thug in a great-looking suit, and there's that wonderful chemistry about that.

FELDMAN: The Dapper Don, they called him, a Mafia chief who broke all the rules, who murdered his way to the top, who reveled in the public spotlight and who, at least for a while, seemed to get away with it.

JERRY CAPACI, JOHN JAY COLLEGE OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE: He beat the case once, he beat the case twice, he beat the case three times. And, you know, he began to believe that he was the Teflon Don.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that John Gotti's a hero. I look up to him.

BRUCE BUTLER, GOTTI ATTORNEY: He is a most remarkable man. If you just think of the name John Gotti and what it conjures up, you see a person who has affected the world.

FELDMAN: To daughter and novelist Victoria, John Gotti was a commanding figure and just like any other dad.

VICTORIA GOTTI, JOHN GOTTI'S DAUGHTER: We had to remain a close- knit family, and I think that growing up, my dad executed the values and the morals that he wanted us to take through life.

FELDMAN: The now-retired FBI agent who helped put Gotti behind bars remembers him this way.

J. BRUCE MOUW, FORMER FBI AGENT: John Gotti's a stone-cold killer. He's responsible for the deaths of scores of individuals. He was a very vicious and ruthless boss.

SELWIN RAAB, FORMER "NEW YORK TIMES" REPORTER: He may have been the most celebrated or the most recognized crime boss during his brief reign, but he was also probably God's gift to the FBI and to prosecutors. He did more in five years to undermine the Gambino crime family than the FBI could have done by itself in 25 years.

FELDMAN: Effective or not, what cannot be argued is Gotti's larger-than-life status. But it certainly wasn't always that way.

John Gotti was born in 1940 in the Bronx. His own recollection of his father was that he was a drunk and a gambler. But he was also a laborer who went where the work was. So by the 1950s, the Gottis settled in the Brooklyn neighborhood known as East New York.

The Gottis were poor, and John Gotti had to learn the survival techniques of the street.

CUTLER: And this is one of 11 children who had nothing in life as far as money and opportunity. But he made his opportunities.

FELDMAN: In his youth, Gotti was arrested some five times on various charges, but in 1966, Gotti made a fateful move. He moved to Ozone Park in Queens, New York, and hooked up with the powerful Mafia family named after Godfather Carlo Gambino.

When the story of John Gotti continues, how a small-time hit man became the most celebrated mobster since Al Capone.


KAGAN: Just ahead, John Gotti's rise to power.

But before we break, a look at other newsmakers with "Passages."


ANNOUNCER (voice-over): Ms. Love goes to Sacramento. Rock star Courtney Love was joined by fellow musicians Don Henley and LeeAnn Rimes to testify in front of a California legislative committee about long-term recording contracts they feel are unfair.




ANNOUNCER: Love is suing her record label to get her band, Hole, out of its contract. The Widow Cobain claims the recording industry locks in hungry artists with unfair contracts for their entire careers.

Nineteen-fifties idol Troy Donahue died this week in California. The blond-haired matinee hunk played the golden boy in films like "A Summer Place." His luster had faded by the '70s, and eventually led to substance abuse and a year in Central Park, homeless.

He had picked himself up by the '80s and appeared in films like "Crybaby" and "Assault of the Party Nerds." Donahue was 65.

Anne Heche has traded in the Her and Her towels for a set of the His and Her variety. The actress married cameraman Coleman Laffoon almost one year after the ending of her high-profile romance with comedienne Ellen DeGeneres. In her new book, Heche claims she had an alternate personality from another planet. The title, appropriately enough, "Call Me Crazy."

Wondering, What were they thinking? Pick up this week's special issue of "People" magazine, featuring the best- and worst-dressed celebrities of the year.

We'll be right back.




FELDMAN: With Carlo Gambino firmly in charge of his crime family, John Gotti quickly graduated from small-time heists to big- time felonies.

While still a mobster in training, Gotti's turf was John F. Kennedy International Airport, where Gotti and his crew hijacked freight to earn money for the Mob.

But in 1973, he earned his Mafia bona fides by taking on the assignment to kill James McBratney (ph), an episode dramatized in the HBO movie "Gotti." McBratney was a member of an Irish-American gang suspected of kidnapping and killing the nephew of Carlo Gambino.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I want you to do this for me.



FELDMAN: Gambino was grateful, and Gotti was on the way.

RAAB: Carlo Gambino got him a very smart lawyer, Roy Cohn, and somehow he managed to get a murder in which there were two eyewitnesses reduced to second-degree manslaughter.

FELDMAN: By the time Gotti finished serving a two-year prison sentence for the McBratney slaying, Carlo Gambino, who ordered the hit, had died. Paul Castellano, Gambino's cousin, was anointed head of the family.

While Castellano had a following among the older family members, Gotti's brash, even flamboyant, style appealed more to the younger Gambino family generation -- a generation that, unlike Castellano's, saw big bucks to be made in the heroin trade.

MOUW: In 1985, there was a serious dispute between the Gotti faction of the family and the boss, Paul Castellano. And the main issue was that Castellano suspected the Gotti crew of engaging in heroin trafficking.

FELDMAN: It wasn't that Castellano was against drugs per se. It was the fear that drug dealing would bring too much federal heat against his family, which was making more than enough money controlling discreet businesses such as construction and private sanitation services.

MOUW: There were a couple other issues involved. Other members of the family were worried about Castellano, quote, "losing his marbles." He'd been indicted. They thought he might become a government witness. He had thrown his wife out of his house, living with his maid. So there was a lot of other reasons for this rift, but the big reason was the narcotics issue.

FELDMAN: It was time for John Gotti to make his move. He decided to kill Castellano and assume the leadership of the Gambino crime family. Mafia rules at the time required Gotti to seek approval for the hit from the heads of the other four main Mafia families in New York City, collectively known as the Commission.

(on camera) Now, Gotti didn't go to the Commission, did he?

MOUW: What Gotti did is that he secretly reached out for two other families and had their, quote, "secret" support. But this is very shaky, as we all know. So he didn't get the approval of the Commission. He decided to go ahead and act. He did it, and he was successful.

FELDMAN (voice-over): On December 16, 1985, Castellano was going to have dinner at Sparks Steak House in Manhattan. By the time Castellano and his driver arrived, Gotti and his hit team were already there. Castellano never even made it out of his car before he was pumped with bullets.

Within weeks, John Gotti, with the consent of the various crew captains, or capos, of the Gambino family, was selected the new godfather. Operating out of the Ravenite (ph) Social Club in Manhattan and the Bergen Hunt and Fish Club in Queens, New York, Gotti quickly consolidated his power. Success changed John Gotti.

RAAB: And he changed overnight from windbreakers. He was suddenly wearing hand-tailored silk suits made by Italian tailors, monogrammed socks, everything.

PAPPA: He loved the limelight, which the other families weren't too happy about, but it was a star performance. And the media eats that up. It is something to talk about, it is something to report on. And it was something new for organized crime to see someone here in New York that flashy. That hasn't really been around for decades, I would say.

CAPECI: Well, I think he loved himself more than the media loved him. I mean, he certainly, you know, flaunted it whenever he could. He always had a smile on his face.

FELDMAN: But what really made Gotti's reputation was the fact that over an almost four-year period beginning in 1986, he managed to beat not one, not two, but three criminal cases against him, on charges ranging from assault to racketeering.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We find him not guilty.


FELDMAN: He appeared invincible.

Already America's most infamous gangster, Gotti further enraged law enforcement by throwing annual Fourth of July block parties for his old Ozone Park neighborhood.

RAAB: The Fourth of July parties were essentially another way of defying authority.

PAPPA: People loved it. I think they chose not to see what he did for a living...

FELDMAN: Throughout all this, his long-time attorney, Bruce Cutler, refused to acknowledge that Gotti ran one of the most powerful crime families in America. In fact, as is still the case, Cutler won't say exactly how Gotti earned his money.

(on camera): You said, Bruce, that he was a man of great strength.

CUTLER: Yes, and principle, and pride...

FELDMAN: And pride?

CUTLER: And dignity, yes.

FELDMAN: And an inspiration to others.


FELDMAN: What I'm asking is...

CUTLER: Courage.

FELDMAN: Courage.

CUTLER: He's a leader.

FELDMAN: He's a leader. What the heck did he lead? What did he do?

CUTLER: What he did is, he fought the government on his own terms. He never took a step backwards. He never ran away from the people with whom he grew up. He never left his family. He never left his principle. He never left what was important to him, which is his way of life. He's not a nine-to-five worker. You don't need to be a genius to figure that out. But that doesn't mean I have to sit and rationalize what he did for a living...

FELDMAN (voice-over): The smiling John Gotti the public often saw was a far cry from the private John Gotti, the one whose conversations were captured on numerous FBI surveillance tapes, tapes that include chilling instructions from the godfather of the Gambino crime family.


JOHN GOTTI: You tell this punk (EXPLETIVE DELETED), Me, John Gotti, will sever your mother-(EXPLETIVE DELETED) head off, you (EXPLETIVE DELETED) sucker. (EXPLETIVE DELETED) you, listen to me! You tell him... UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm listening.

GOTTI: ... sever your mother-(EXPLETIVE DELETED) head off!


FELDMAN: When the story of John Gotti continues...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He become bigger than life, and appeared to be mocking the system.


FELDMAN: ... the downfall of the Dapper Don.


KAGAN: The Mafia boss is betrayed.

But first, our weekly feature, "Where Are They Now?"


ANNOUNCER (voice-over): Actor Mickey Rourke burst onto the movie scene in 1982 with the film "Diner." He followed that up with starring turns in the 1986 film "Nine and a Half Weeks," and in 1987, in the critically acclaimed "Barfly."

The one-time Miami bouncer crossed paths with John Gotti when Rourke consulted with the Dapper Don to help in research for urban- type roles. He was among one of the celebrities that testified on behalf of Gotti in 1992.

So where is Mickey Rourke today? Rourke's star faded after he turned his back on Hollywood to become a professional boxer 10 years ago. Although he went undefeated, Rourke admittedly regrets his decision. Now 48, he's trying to revive his acting career, and he's had roles in recent movies like "The Rainmaker" and "Get Carter."

We'll be right back.




FELDMAN: By 1986, John Gotti had consolidated his power at the top of the Gambino crime family. But the Teflon Don was becoming careless.

CAPECI: He basically conducted his business on Mulberry Street, you know, Broadway and downtown Manhattan and Little Italy, and invited the FBI to come and take pictures of all the gangsters in his crime family who came to visit from New Jersey, Connecticut, the Bronx, Queens, whatever.

FELDMAN: FBI cameras captured it all, from a surveillance post blocks away from Gotti's headquarters in Little Italy.

Before long, prosecutors were ready to file a new racketeering indictment.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It charges Mr. Gotti with four murders and conspiracy to murder another person, obstruction of justice, loan sharking, illegal gambling, and tax evasion.

CUTLER: If the government frames him enough times, maybe they'll get lucky once. But I certainly hope not.


FELDMAN: Unknown to Gotti's attorneys, this time the government had a secret weapon. For the first time, a Mafia family's underboss turned against his godfather, the proverbial nail in John Gotti's coffin.

Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, as he was known on the streets, feared Gotti was about to turn on him. A killer himself, Gravano cut a deal with the Feds -- his testimony in court in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Mafia history was about to be made.

(on camera): What was that like to be there when you have the underboss, and a notorious killer in his own right, Gravano, taking the witness stand to testify against John Gotti, of all people?

MOUW: When Gravano testified, it was the highlight of the trial, of course, and the tension in the court was so thick you could have cut it with a knife. Sammy gulped a few times and swallowed and went through his initiation rites, how he was inducted into the Mob, and once he went through that, we all knew this was going to be fine.

FELDMAN (voice-over): The government tapes and the turncoat Mafia witness, Sammy the Bull, proved too much for the Teflon Don. On the tapes, prosecutors told jurors Gotti could be heard ordering Mob hits.

RAAB: He never used the word "kill," but he -- but -- but he really damaged himself this time in the last trial because he had Gravano, who could come up there, and who was in on most of those tapes, and could interpret it, and say, This is what we really meant. This was a contract to kill so-and-so.

FELDMAN: Gravano was the Rosetta Stone prosecutors needed to guide the jury through the dark underworld of a Mafia family.

PAPPA: He sat on that witness stand, and he was a very compelling witness, and he testified about John Gotti, about the inner workings of that crime family.

FELDMAN: On April 2, 1992, Gotti was convicted on charges that included five murders and sentenced to life without parole.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Teflon is gone, the don is covered with Velcro, and every charge in the indictment stuck.


FELDMAN: The news nearly sparked a riot among Gotti's supporters.

(on camera): But he's not ready to give up running the family just yet, is he?


FELDMAN (voice-over): In the Mafia, a boss either has to resign or be killed. Despite his prison sentence, Gotti was not about to retire.

From prison, Gotti appointed a committee that included his son, 28-year-old John Jr., to run the Gambino family. Eventually,he named his son acting boss of the family. But older, more experienced family members resented Gotti's son.

MOUW: He was just an immature kid who was over his head in running a major crime family. He cared about one thing, money. Long as he made the money, everything else could go to hell. He had a tremendous ego like his father and didn't know what he was doing. And the other families had no respect for him. And so he was a very, very ineffective, mediocre boss.

FELDMAN: Before long, on December 3, 1999, John Gotti, Jr., copped a plea to federal racketeering charges, leaving the Gambino family in the care of the Dapper Don's considerably less fashionable brother, Peter.

But with the powerful John Gotti out of the picture, the Gambino crime family is a shadow of its former self.

RAAB: They're wounded, but they're not dead, and they never will die. I mean, not in our lifetime, not in my lifetime, certainly.

FELDMAN: As organized crime, or whatever remains of it, changes to fit a new century, John Gotti's image will surely fade. Or will it?

PAPPA: I think the Dapper Don will remain an image of the 20th century. I don't know if there will be one in the 21st century. But I think his looks, his power endures. I think he was an image that was unique to the time. He was perhaps a throwback to older times that you didn't really see any more. And he did have that star power.

FELDMAN: John Gotti was a Mob boss who dared us to watch him, even like him. And the public ate it up.

PAPPA: His aggressiveness, his looks, his dress, the image that he liked to portray was definitely out there. It was something sort of new in the sense that it was a powerful and feared man running a huge organized crime family that sort of dared to be out there in public almost flaunting it.


KAGAN: Interested in even more on John Gotti? Then log onto our Web site,

Coming up next week, he has made cooking cool. Now Emeril Lagasse is hoping his new TV sitcom will kick it up a notch. From his kitchen to your TV, the essence of Emeril.

I'm Daryn Kagan. For all of us here at PEOPLE IN THE NEWS, thanks for watching.



Back to the top