John Gotti brought spotlight on Mafia to Queens

John Joseph Gotti Jr. was an Italian-American organized crime figure best known in the 1980s as the powerful, media-courting boss of the Gambino Mafia family. He was the fifth of 13 children born on Oct. 27, 1940 to John Sr. and Philomena.

Five of the Gotti brothers, including John, Jr., eventually became “made” members of the Gambino crime syndicate. The Gottis grew up in poverty, with a father unable to find steady work and prone to gamble away whatever he was able to earn. The future “Teflon Don’s” life of trouble and mayhem began early, as he developed a childhood reputation as a bully, truant and petty criminal. After marrying in 1958 and starting a family, he briefly tried his hand at a series of low-paying legitimate jobs before stints in jail spurred him on to a life of crime.

In the 1960s and 1970s he steadily rose through the ranks of the Italian Mafia while living and operating in Queens. He became boss of the Gambino family after orchestrating the notorious hit on boss Paul Castellano outside of Sparks Steakhouse in Manhattan in 1985 and was known throughout the 1980s for his flamboyant public persona and invincibility before the law. He was arrested on numerous criminal charges in 1990 and sentenced to life in prison. He died of cancer in 2002. He is buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Queens. Of his five children, John Angelo Gotti is perhaps best known for following his father’s footsteps into the mob life.

The future “Dapper Don” began his life of crime in the street gangs of New York around the age of 12. He began to establish mob contacts who would mentor and work with him as he embarked on a career on the wrong side of the law. After spending the early 1960s in and out of jail, he hooked up with Gambino capo Carmine Fatico and took to truck hijackings at Idlewild Airport and other places to support his growing family. After returning to jail for his thefts, the rising mob star moved into the Queens neighborhood of Howard Beach and rejoined his old crew working out of the Bergen Hunt and Fish Club in Ozone Park.

Gotti “made his bones” in the Mafia for his role in killing a gangster suspected of murdering a nephew of boss Carlo Gambino. Defended by famed attorney Roy Cohn, he was released from prison after serving only two years and soon became a “made” member of the Gambino family. John Gotti quickly earned a street reputation as a powerful enforcer and a good earner, eager to get into rackets such as construction, drug-dealing and stock fraud. However, he soon chafed under the leadership of family boss Paul Castellano, who did not want his crews dealing in narcotics. It was time for the mobster to make a move; “Big Paulie” would never make it to his sitdown at the steakhouse that chilly December evening.

After taking over leadership of the Gambino family, Gotti cultivated a hometown hero reputation in the working class streets of Howard Beach. He was often seen in public in expensive, bespoke suits with an entourage of mob associates. Skillful at corrupting juries, throughout the 1980s criminal charges could not stick to the “Teflon Don” as he expanded the criminal tentacles of the Italian Mafia. The family earned an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars during his reign.

But Gotti’s invincibility could not last forever. In December 1990 he was arrested with underboss Sammy “the Bull” Gravano and others at the Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy and was handed a slew of charges, including murder, loansharking, illegal gambling, bribery and tax evasion. With the government able to flip Gravano against his former boss, the Gotti empire soon came crumbing down. In 1992, John Gotti was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to life in prison, where he died 10 years later.

Notable quote: “I never lie because I don’t fear anyone. You only lie when you’re afraid.”

For further information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit our website at www.astor‌ialic.org.

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