The mozzarella mobsters

The acting head of the Gambino family has pleaded guilty to racketeering. A true wiseguy would never, ever admit the existence of the mafia. What's the underworld coming to? By Peter Pringle

It would seem that mobsters just ain't what they used to be. John "Jackie Nose" D'Amico, Dominic "Fat Dom" Borghese and Willie Marshall, the "two-bit leg-breaker", will not be appearing as turncoat "rats" in a New York court next week to give evidence against John A "Junior" Gotti, reputed head of the Gambino crime syndicate. The reason: Gotti copped a plea this week, admitting that he had "conspired with a group of individuals forming an association", the requisite legal language for a mob confession.

Facing 18 years in jail for racketeering, the 35-year-old son of John "Dapper Don" Gotti, the most flamboyant crime boss of recent times, Gotti "Junior" couldn't take the heat. He settled for a guilty plea and six to seven years inside. It's one more sign that today's Italian mafia is mozzarella compared with the mobsters of yesteryear.

Even the charges against "Junior" were mush when put up against traditional "family" pursuits. "Junior" was accused of shaking down an upscale strip joint, running a gambling ring, robbing a drug dealer and, wait for it, fibbing on a home mortgage refinancing application. One measly count charged him with taking a cut from the strip club's coatroom.

Compare that with what his father was up to: organising the murder by a "button man" (hired assassin) of Paul Castellano, who was gunned down outside Sparks Steak House in mid-town Manhattan on a December evening in 1985. At the time of his demise, Castellano was head of the Gambino syndicate, a lofty mob position immediately assumed by the elder Gotti.

What made this murder especially daring was that it was not agreed to by the other dons, a break with Sicilian family tradition which says to never kill a boss without permission of the other bosses. Gotti Senior survived this disrespect, until the Feds pounced and put him away for life. No one dared seek revenge - not even Castellano's son, Joseph. Joseph, now 60, did not go into the family business. He's a pizza-maker with heart trouble who wants to live out his days in peace in Florida, and die in his own bed.

More and more, it seems, the sons of mobsters are forsaking the family business to graduate from law school, become doctors, or play by the rules in a legitimate business.

Such stories have the crime-busters patting themselves on the back - but it also has them just a little bemused. "What the mob does today is kid's stuff, it's like a street gang," said James Kallstrom, who used to run the FBI's New York office concerned with crime syndicates. "It still has a lot of bad characters, but these are different people, different times."

From its birth in the mid-1800s to the beginning of this century, the American Mafia was strictly local, and inflexible. Street gangs controlled the ballot box on behalf of politicians who in turn gave protection to saloons, brothels and gambling houses. The Mafia infiltrated Tammany Hall, the Irish-led political machine that dominated New York politics. But Mafia recruits were Italians and business expansion was limited.

With Prohibition in the Twenties, organised crime became more sophisticated and neighbourhood hoodlums became national businessmen. With it was born the peculiarly American institution of the "family".

The infamous "five families" that ran organised crime in New York - the Genovese, Bonanno, Gambino, Profaci, and Lucchese, had enormous power. Their leaders included Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and Joe Adonis. Luciano began eliminating the competition, and also the older generation. His family was dubbed "Murder Inc" by the New York tabloids and became the source of both fiction and films. Politicians and police officers launched their careers on smashing gangs. In the Thirties, Mayor LaGuardia banned Costello's slot machines, and Thomas Dewey put Luciano in jail for his prostitution ring.

The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 forced these syndicates back into gambling, labour-racketeering and, eventually, drugs. They also became big players in the concrete and construction industry, garbage, the garment district, and the vegetable and fish markets. By the Forties they had colonised Tammany Hall; you had to pay a certain percentage of your money to the mob, no matter who you were.

From 1952, district political leaders were chosen by direct election, and the Mafia started losing political power; by the end of the decade the ties to political leaders had been broken. The ageing bosses fought brutally for their declining turf, and by the late-Sixties Carlo Gambino emerged as the dominant organised crime leader in the city (he died of natural causes in 1976).

Joey Gallo, imprisoned during a struggle with the Profacis, was freed in 1971 and wanted to bring blacks into the family, but he was shot dead in Little Italy a year later. Carmine Galante, who had taken over the Bonanno family, was killed at a restaurant in Brooklyn in 1979.

Then Congress passed Rico - the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization laws - which made it easier to prosecute the Mafia by loosening the laws on criminal conspiracies, and giving prosecutors the ability to impose heavy fines and seize assets of criminal enterprises.

Mario Puzo's novel, The Godfather, with its depiction of the dons as guardians of ethnic pride - old-fashioned men of honour who supplied needed, if morally questionable, services - came at the end of an era. The Mafia's image was by then sullied by its involvement in the heroin epidemic of the Seventies.

In those days, each "family" had three to four hundred members and another 1,000 associates to do the don's bidding. The don himself could pick up $100,000 a month from personal shakedowns on construction sites. "You just don't find anything happening like that today," said Kallstrom.

In the Eighties, New York City's federal prosecutor, the budding mayor Rudy Giuliani, now famous for his Zero-Tolerance policy in the city, made his name on a series of Rico cases - especially in the Fulton Fish Market and the garbage pick-up business.

And the old bosses? They died of natural causes, if they were lucky, or, like the elusive John Gotti, they were finally locked up.

New rackets and new gangs appeared. Asian gangs thrived in Chinatown, across Canal Street from Little Italy. Black and Latin American gangs took over Mafia operations in Harlem. The Italian dons lost big time in 1987 when the Feds busted the "pizza connection", a heroin-smuggling ring run out of pizza parlours.

So, are the Five Families headed for dissolution? Salvatore (Big Sal) Miciotta, a former capo in the Colombo crime family, was quoted recently as saying: "Only a real gavone (lowlife) wants for his kids what we got... Idiots and wannabes are who's attracted to this life now." In other words, the Godfathers of yesterday are advising their sons today that it is time that they got out of the business.

This is not quite the image portrayed by the Gotti parents, however. When Junior used to visit his dad in jail - so the videotapes show - he spent almost the whole time sulking in a chair while his father yelled at him, possibly about mistakes he'd made in the "family" business. Last year, when Junior first considered copping a plea, his mother threw a fit and told him to straighten his spine.

But before the idea takes hold that these vicious criminals have suddenly become the "Gang That Can't Shoot Straight", it must be remembered that Gotti Junior may not be a good example from which to develop a trend. The fact is that he was not good at running anything; even legitimate businesses he opened soon crashed. And the "family" business went down hill fast. When Gotti Senior took over the Gambinos, he inherited 21 crews- groups of "soldiers" led by capos, and supplemented by associates. Today, the family is down to about 11 crews, with influence waning in the garment district, the Teamsters, construction and garbage.

Junior's sister, Victoria Gotti, a successful romance novelist, had to help bail him out of jail. The bail terms were so stiff - including house arrest and $24,000 a month to pay for private security guards to watch over him - that he asked the judge to put him back in prison because he couldn't make the payments. And he never managed to adopt the studied elegance of the high-crime chieftains. He has a weight problem. He dresses badly. And he drives a mini-van. No one in the Mafia likes him, so it is said.

"He's a laughing stock," said one FBI mob-chaser. "The Genovese family won't even meet with him. A lot of the family's earnings are gone. They lose in sit-downs with other families over loan-sharking and extortion beefs - the family is in ruins."

Maybe he is the symbol of the new era. FBI wiretaps of crime syndicates used to reveal murder plots, blood feuds and betrayals. Now they reveal mobsters who are in retirement in Miami discussing their prostate problems.

Even monuments of past feuds, such as Umberto's Clam House in Manhattan's Little Italy where Joey Gallo was gunned down in 1972, have disappeared. The restaurant moved a block north, avoiding the encroaching Oriental cafes from Chinatown. In its new location, Umberto's menu is the same as ever. Last Wednesday, I had half-a-dozen Little Neck clams on the shells, mussels with biscuits and Italian beer - but the cooks came from Latin America.

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