In Gotti, John Travolta stars as John Gotti, the late mobster who in the 1980s was among the most powerful gangsters in the United States. As the head of the Gambino crime family in New York, Gotti oversaw a wide array of organized crime activities and was directly responsible for murder. (Check Gotti’s entry on Wikipedia and you’ll see quite the list of “occupations:” Crime boss, mobster, extortionist, racketeer.)
Travolta’s film will tell you Gotti’s story. Before the movie arrives in theaters on June 15, let’s revisit the tale of one of the biggest made men in America, who for a time seemed so untouchable he was dubbed the Teflon Don.
The Early Years
Gotti was born in the Bronx in 1940 to a poor family that eventually had thirteen children; John Gotti was the fifth child. Gotti’s father struggled to provide for his family, a fact worsened by a gambling habit which fueled the young John’s rebelliousness and teen criminal behavior.
The man who would become a crime lord was associated with street gangs beginning at age 12 and quickly moved from general thuggish behavior into car and truck theft, hijacking trucks out of the airport that was eventually renamed as JFK in New York.
The gang Gotti joined was affiliated with the Anastasia crime family, an organization which would eventually become the Gambino family. Gotti’s brazen attitude earned the attention of Aniello Dellacroce, a capo in the Anastasia family who, in his youth, would evade cops and rival gangsters by walking around New York dressed as a priest. (Stacy Keach plays Dellacroce in Gotti.)
A Mob Mentor
Dellacroce mentored Gotti but wasn’t able to teach him everything about staying away from the feds. By the mid-‘60s he had been in jail more than once, and then in 1968 he was arrested by the FBI for hijacking goods at the airport. While out on bail he was arrested again for stealing cigarettes (a lot of cigs: $50,000 worth) and ultimately he spent just under three years in jail.
Gotti was paroled in 1972 and went right back to his old mob activities. He and Dellacroce grew closer in the early ‘70s as Gotti proved his worth to the crime family, especially as he work as an enforcer. Gotti was named as an acting capo – the head of a unit of mobsters, basically – and he was soon tasked with killing the man who organized the kidnapping and murder of a nephew of the head of the Gambino family.
While the man responsible was killed, Gotti was not the triggerman. He was identified as being associated with the killing, however, and arrested in 1974. Thanks to Roy Cohn, the attorney who worked with figures such as Senator Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump, Gotti was able to bargain his charges down to attempted manslaughter, with a four-year sentence. Around this time Gotti also killed another low-level mobster.
In 1977, after spending two years in prison, Gotti was released. Soon after he was formally initiated into the Gambino family as a made man. This is the point where Gotti’s activity truly ramped up, and where his infamy escalated exponentially.
He ran loansharking and drug rings, took part in planning the Lufthansa Heist, during which nearly $6m worth of cash and jewelry was stolen, making it the largest cash robbery ever in the US. (You’ve seen part of this dramatized in Goodfellas.) In 1980, after Gotti’s 12-year old son was killed in an accident, the man responsible disappeared, presumably under orders from Gotti.
Throughout these years the acting head of the Gambino family was Paul Castellano. The rank and file didn’t care for Castellano, and he and Gotti had several points of rivalry. Gotti wanted to escalate into drugs, which Castellano forbade.
Gotti got his chance to make a move in the mid-‘80s, but the process required extensive planning. Castellano was indicted multiple times in 1984-85, and Gotti began to consolidate his power. He had a power base within the Gambino family, and consulted with figures in other crime families to legitimize the idea of killing his boss. On December 16, 1985, Gotti watched from his car as a squad of assassins shot and killed Castellano and several other men at Sparks Steak House in Midtown Manhattan.
A month later Gotti was confirmed as the head of the Gambino family, and the general understanding that he had killed his former boss only added weight to his role. 1986 saw Gotti wielding his power with great ferocity. He earned the “Teflon Don” nickname by threatening witnesses, buying off jurors, bombing informants and rivals, and ordering murder.
Eventually Gotti also reorganized the Gambino family as underlings were indicted. He took control of a New Jersey crime family, expanding his power base. But he also set up weekly meetings with capos, a power play which also created a one-stop shopping option for FBI surveillance. Just as with Gotti’s own efforts to consolidate power this surveillance didn’t bear immediate fruit. But the FBI was able to slowly gather data that made Gotti’s life more and more difficult.
No Longer Untouchable
In 1990 Gotti was arrested on racketeering charges, and was also accused of five murders, conspiracy to murder, loansharking, illegal gambling, obstruction of justice, bribery and tax evasion. The feds had surveillance tapes which helped sow discord in the Gambino family, and eventually convened an anonymous jury which was kept fully sequestered to prevent tampering. In 1992 Gotti was found guilty on all counts, and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. He never left federal custody.
Gotti opens on June 15.