Trials Why Is "Sammy the Bull" Singing?

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With his stocky build, thick neck and gravelly voice, Salvatore Gravano lives up to his nickname, "Sammy the Bull." But as he said on the witness stand last week, his enemies are more likely to start calling him by a new moniker, "Sammy the Rat." In five days of often chilling testimony, the former Gambino family underboss calmly described the secret inner workings and rituals of La Cosa Nostra and provided gory details of the 19 killings he admitted taking part in. Most of all, he tried to hammer nails into the legal coffin of John Gotti, the head of the Gambino crime family, who is on trial in Brooklyn for racketeering, gambling, tax fraud and murder. Known as the Teflon Don because of his acquittals in three previous trials, Gotti may find that his luck has finally run out.

Gravano, 46, was originally supposed to stand trial along with Gotti and Gambino lieutenant Frank (Frankie Locs) Locascio. But last fall, after learning that the government had witnesses ready to link him to several killings, Gravano struck a deal with the feds. In return for a maximum 20-year sentence, which he will probably serve in a high-security witness-protection cellblock, Gravano agreed to testify in Gotti's trial and others to come. He thus became one of the highest-ranking mafiosi ever to turn state's evidence and perhaps the most important gangland informant since Mob soldier Joseph Valachi turned on his Genovese bosses in 1963. Prosecutors hope Gravano's testimony, along with that of other witnesses, will help get the don out of his trademark double-breasted suits and into a prison uniform for the rest of his days.

A onetime boxer and lifelong hoodlum who dropped out of school at 16, Gravano had plenty to say about the workings of the Gambino family. Until their arrest in December 1990, Gravano was the don's right hand and heir apparent. On FBI surveillance tapes, Gotti was frequently heard speaking of his love for Sammy and once told his men, "Soon as anything happens to me, I'm off the streets, Sammy is the acting boss." As the man who controlled the Gambino business interests in the New York City construction trade, Gravano claimed to have passed along to Gotti as much as $100,000 a month in kickbacks and other illegal payments. Gravano said other Gambino captains made similar "turn-ins" from the industries they had muscled in on -- including private trash collecting, the docks and the garment trade -- as well as $3,000 cash tributes to Gotti on Christmas and his birthday.

But it was Gravano's testimony about what he called "hits" and "whacks" that could damage Gotti the most. Under questioning by prosecutor John Gleeson, the witness testified that Gotti ordered 10 of the killings in which Gravano admitted having a hand. "Sometimes I was the shooter," said Gravano. "Sometimes I was a backup guy. Sometimes I set the guy up. Sometimes I just talked about it." Foremost among these rubouts: the 1985 murder of Gambino boss Paul Castellano and his bodyguard Thomas Bilotti outside a New York City steak house -- an execution that put Gotti in the top job. Gravano says he and Gotti planned the killing because Castellano had got too greedy and "was selling out the family for his own basic businesses." According to Gravano, he and Gotti watched the shooting from behind the tinted windows of a Lincoln Continental parked nearby, then coolly drove past the bullet-riddled bodies. Recounted Gravano: "I looked down at Tommy Bilotti ((and)) I said he was gone."

Gravano also spoke about the aggravations that went with being a Mafia headman -- including constant electronic FBI surveillance of the Gambino- family clubhouse in Little Italy. Whenever they wanted to talk business, Gotti and his pals were obliged to take walks or retire to another apartment upstairs. They felt it was safe, Gravano explained, "because an 80-year-old woman owned the apartment." That was a big mistake: the flat was bugged, and tapes made there provided key evidence against Gotti and his chums.

As for Gotti's success with juries in the past, Gravano suggested that there may have been more to it than luck. The Bull claims to have personally handled a $60,000 bribe for one of the jurors who acquitted Gotti in 1987. The juror was charged last month with obstruction of justice in the alleged bribe-taking incident. At the present trial, jurors are identified only by number and are sequestered in an undisclosed location guarded by federal marshals. Even so, Judge I. Leo Glasser replaced two of them last week with alternates after they asked to be excused. One was reported to have made the request because his girlfriend complained of being frightened.

In his cross-examination of Gravano, Gotti's attorney Albert Krieger tried to paint the Bull as a traitorous opportunist who betrayed a longtime friend because he feared for his own neck. Krieger asked Gravano if people in his old Brooklyn neighborhood had a word for someone like him.

"Informer," Gravano replied.

Krieger came back at him. "Is there another word?"

"A rat," Gravano said.

Gravano is just one of a number of high-ranking mobsters who have turned state's evidence recently, including Philadelphia underboss Philip Leonetti and Lucchese family boss Alphonse D'Arco. One reason for the rash of defections may be that prison conditions are getting less congenial these days for the Mafia. "There was a time when Mafia guys ran the jails," says Joseph Coffey, a top investigator with the New York State Organized Crime Task Force. "They were like country clubs. Now the blacks run the jails, and mobsters are second-class citizens."

Even if Gotti is acquitted, law-enforcement officials say, his hold on the family leadership has been seriously weakened because the don has caused too many headaches for his Mob colleagues. "He's been a disaster for the Gambino family," says Ronald Goldstock, head of the New York task force. "Even though he knew that he was a target of law-enforcement and electronic surveillance, he was unable to avoid ((arrest))." Though the media have often portrayed Gotti as a new-style yuppie don with a penchant for smart suits, he is also a throwback to the gun-crazy gangland bosses of the past at a time when the Mob prefers to keep a lower profile.

Goldstock says most of the Gambino crime operations could function even with a leadership vacuum at the top. The trouble will start if the family becomes involved in disputes with other Mob families about dividing the take in shared territory, such as construction or private trash carting. Some organized-crime experts predict that Gotti could meet the same fate as Castellano -- a Mob assassination -- if he ever goes free. The same goes for Gravano. By breaking the sacred code of omerta, or silence, he has committed a capital crime in the eyes of his Mafia brothers. "This is a guy who lived and breathed the Mafia attitude all his life," says a federal agent familiar with the case. "What he's doing now is contrary to everything that he believed in since he was a child."

Last week Gravano described his 1976 induction into the Gambino family, a solemn ceremony over which Castellano presided. The man whose murder Gravano would later help orchestrate pricked the novice's trigger finger and dripped blood onto the picture of a saint, which was then set on fire.

"He told me that if I should ever divulge any of the secrets of this organization my soul should burn like this saint," Gravano said.

"Is it fair to say you are violating that oath by cooperating with the government?" asked Gleeson.

"Yes," Gravano replied.

Just 20 feet away, a silent John Gotti looked on.