Even after all these years, the late John Gotti remains the public’s poster boy for Cosa Nostra crime bosses. Known as “The Dapper Don,” the well-dressed, publicity-seeking, boss of the Gambino crime family in New York, was often in the news, even though Cosa Nostra was a secret criminal society.
Like Al Capone before him, Gotti was flashy and flippant around reporters and the public, and he was feared by other mobsters due to his murder of the previous Gambino boss, Paul Castellano, and other brutal and violent acts.
Gotti was also called “The Teflon Don,” as he was acquitted in a federal trial, and many believed the Feds couldn’t touch him.
That Teflon image would change in 1992 when Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gleeson became Gotti’s chief prosecutor. A former federal prosecutor, federal judge, and today a practicing defense attorney, Judge Gleeson was the lead counsel in the successful racketeering-murder trials of both Gotti and Vic Orena, the bosses of the Gambino and Colombo crime families.
Judge Gleeson offers a look back at the Gotti trials in his book, “The Gotti Wars: Taking Down America’s Notorious Mobster.”
“The Gotti Wars” recounts the story of Gotti’s rise in Cosa Nostra and his eventual downfall. Judge Gleeson prosecuted Gotti’s two federal racketeering prosecutions. In the first trial, Gotti was acquitted. Five years later, he was in charge of the second racketeering trial. He had the FBI’s secret recordings of Gotti’s conversations with “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, Gotti’s underboss, and consigliere Frank Locascio. All three were indicted and Gravano “flipped” and agreed to testify against Gotti.
I reached out to Judge Gleeson and asked him why he wrote this book after all these years.
“I wrote much of the book, including most of the events surrounding the Interlude and Second Trial parts, within 3 or 4 years of the verdict in the second case. But then life got in the way: two kids had come along, and I had to learn the job of being a judge, and I was teaching substantive courses at NYU’s law school for both semesters for more than 20 years,” Judge Gleeson replied “I also decided I needed to write the book not solely from memory but like a historian would, so I got the U.S. Attorney’s Office files and the trial transcripts from both cases. Rooting it all in those records, and writing about the first trial, was a painstaking process. Then in 2016, I started yet another new phase — private practice. So it wasn’t a matter of waiting all this time to write a book. I knew when they were happening these events should be memorialized. It just took me a long time to get the book over the finish line.”
How were you able to finally prosecute Gotti?
“We got the best possible evidence: recordings of him actually committing crimes. I learned from the first case and indicted only 3 people, even though we could have indicted dozens. We built a prosecution we could present efficiently — six weeks rather than seven months,” Judge Gleeson said.
How would you describe Gotti?
“A ruthless, extraordinarily violent, treacherous criminal, who decided to break the mold (and eventually the mafia as we knew it) by becoming the first Celebrity Boss of a Cosa Nostra,” the judge replied.
Why did Gravano flip and become a government witness?
“Several reasons, but the main one was he had heard snippets of a recording that sounded like John Gotti was fixing to kill him,” he said.
Do you regret striking a deal with Gravano, who admitted to 19 murders and served only five years in prison?
“Of course not. He helped us put almost 50 men in prison,” Judge Gleeson said. “Some of them had committed as many murders as Gravano and, but for his cooperation against them, they would no doubt have committed many more. The deal we struck with Gravano was great for law enforcement and the public.”
Did you need Gravano to convict Gotti?
“No. Gravano flipped just before trial; we would have convicted him, Gotti, and Locascio based solely on the Ravenite recordings,” the judge said.
Did your conviction of Gotti change Cosa Nostra and organization crime overall?
“Yes. By sticking his finger in the eye of the government by being a Celebrity Boss and the Dapper/Teflon Don, Gotti brought the talents of the FBI and the rest of the DOJ down on the entire mob, not just Gotti himself and the Gambinos,” Judge Gleeson said. “Those efforts, which were ratcheted up to an even higher level when Gravano flipped, ended the mob as we knew it.”
“The Gotti Wars” is a well-written and dramatic crime story and courtroom drama.
• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers.
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The Gotti Wars: Taking Down America’s Most Notorious Mobster
Scribner, $28.99, 368 pages