'Dumbfellas' spell trouble for the mob

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The Independent Online
"I'M A MAN'S man," said John Gotti, son of the famous "Dapper Don", as he was sentenced to six years in prison on Friday. "I have to accept my medicine."

It was the sort of stoical tough-guy talk that typifies the public image of the mobster. Yet Gotti's imprisonment says more about the decline of La Cosa Nostra than the survival of Sicilian values in modern New York. The mob is in trouble across the US, crumbling from within as the old generation passes on and the younger arrivals botch the job.

Gotti, or "Junior", was always an unlikely mobster, but when the Dapper Don was put away for life in 1992, dutifully he took control of the Gambinos, New York's reigning crime family. He proceeded to let the thing get totally out of control and disintegrate, culminating in his imprisonment. He and his co-conspirators "should never be sent to jail. They should all be sent to the insane asylum," said Gotti Sr when he found out how his son had left stacks of cash lying around with lists of mob associates. "I wanna know what part of this was intelligent."

One newspaper called Junior "Dumbfella". He was lampooned in the press for his training shoes and jeans, quite unlike his father's neat three- piece suits, for his taste in cars, a people mover rather than a traditional mafia staff car, and his preference for fried chicken over good cooking from the old country. In the past few years, he became best known for spending $8,000 at Toys 'R' Us on Tickle Me Elmo dolls.

The case against him was hardly vintage stuff. The charges centred on a topless bar called Scores, not on murders in the dead of night and bodies dumped in the East River. "It's not that kind of mob case," said Ronald Goldstock, former director of the state Organized Crime Task Force when Gotti was found guilty. "You might not get those much anymore."

The case also relied on testimony from his former associates, which is increasingly common in mob cases. Gotti Sr was found guilty after Salvatore "Sammy the Bull'' Gravano gave evidence against him. (Gravano expressed contempt for Junior, and amazement that his father had made him join the family business. "I myself would be dead set against it" he wrote in his book Underboss. "I wanted my son to be legitimate, to have nothing to do with what I did.")

But it is not just the New York mob which is falling apart, as events an hour's drive south in Philadelphia reveal. Ralph Natale and Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino were arrested two months ago on drugs charges, and Natale, the former head of La Cosa Nostra in South Philadelphia, decided to talk - one of the first mob chiefs ever to turn on his own.

Then, early last Saturday morning, Steve "The Gorilla" Mondevergine, a former police officer turned enforcer, was returning home after a night's drinking when he was shot six times, putting him in intensive care. He was head of the local chapter of the Pagans, a biker gang which ran security for the mob. The future of the mob in Philadelphia is in question, and it has more to do with the organisation itself than the efforts of the police.

Celeste Morello, a local historian, grew up around the mob, which has been in existence in Philadelphia for more than a century, subsisting in the local working-class Italian community. Her great-grandfather came from Monreale in Sicily, and she has little time for the new generation. "They didn't grow up on the street," she says, but absorbed the culture later, and didn't understand it. She believes Natale probably could not face the prospect of spending years in prison and so he broke the principle of omerta or silence.

Ms Morello says the organisation has been declining for 20 years, but in the past five has started to disintegrate. "They've broken all the rules," she says, in terms of who is qualified to be a "made man", the informal operating procedures and the areas of operation. "For an organisation to be corrupted, it has to be corrupted within itself," she argues. And the latest generation are physically small and unintimidating, dim and not that good at what they do. "They're not mental giants and they're not entrepreneurs," she adds.

The "New" Mafia will not necessarily be any nicer than the old ones. "We are facing a new generation of the LCN [La Cosa Nostra], which differs significantly from its predecessors," said Senator William Roth at hearings into the mob. "They lack respect for tradition and for the family, they have succumbed to the influence of drugs, both as traffickers and as users. As a result, they have become more greedy, selfish, more violent. Many have chosen to forsake omerta, the traditional vow of silence, and turn in other family members to save their own skins."

But many are asking why the old mob survives in a world where the Italian- American community is now integrated into the American mainstream and finds it an embarrassment. Why should gamblers go to the mob when they can play legal lotteries or bet among themselves? Why should the drug dealers turn to them when they can get security elsewhere?

One theory about the shooting of "The Gorilla" is that a new group is moving in to take over from Skinny Joey and his friends. "I hope not," says Ms Morello. She lives a few blocks from an area where respect for the mob has always been solid. All that has changed, she says. "The word on the street is why should there be an LCN any more?"