Thu, Jan 22, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Does Gotti trial herald the end of the US Mafia?

While the trial of John Gotti Jr in April is sure to stir interest, the once-feared mob has long been overshadowed by a new wave of criminal gangs

By Paul Harris  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

This summer a familiar tableau will play out in New York City. It will be a scene as quintessentially Big Apple as Broadway, yellow cabs and the Statue of Liberty. John A. Gotti (also known as “Junior Gotti”), scion of the famous Gambino Mafia family, will walk into a Manhattan courtroom. The prosecution will claim he is at the nexus of a web of brutal murder and crime. Gotti, a man known for his charm and wit, will protest his innocence. The tabloid newspapers will carry every breathless detail of the murders, beatings and robberies that form the prosecution’s case. A spotlight will be shone on the shadowy world of the Mafia. Cops, criminals and reporters will mix and mingle. For a while, The Mob Trial will be the best show in town.

It has all the marks of a classic showdown between the Cosa Nostra and the cops. Gotti, whose father, John Gotti Jr, was one of the mob’s most notorious dons, is charged with three gruesome killings and a host of lesser crimes. The Feds are determined to put him away for decades. Having beaten three previous cases against him, Gotti wants to walk free a fourth time. He says he has long retired from mob life and is a victim of police harassment. A jury of 12 New Yorkers will decide the truth.

But while the Gotti trial, which could start by April, is guaranteed to become water-cooler chatter across the US, it masks a far more complex and compelling story. For the fact is the Mafia in the US are in deep decline. The once-feared mob has been overshadowed by a new wave of criminal gangs from Russia, China, Albania and Jamaica. Its numbers have been depleted by endless FBI cases, its ranks penetrated by informers and its formidable code of silence shattered. The organization that could once decide the fate of mayors, police chiefs and senators is almost powerless. Worse still, it has become a cultural cliche. Wise guys and “made men” are rarely to be found on the streets of New York any more; they are found in repeats of The Sopranos and on reality TV.

A high-profile mob trial was once a fearful thing for New York, but as Gotti takes his place in the dock he will be a last hurrah for what was once the most powerful criminal conspiracy in the world, but which now seems fated to fade into history.

“Ten years from now we will reminisce about the Mafia. We will remember them fondly. But it will be part of the past,” said Thomas Nolan, a former police officer turned teacher of criminology at Boston University.

Among the many deaths that will be wheeled out in this summer’s trial will be the long, strange demise of the American Mafia itself.

The Feds came for Junior Gotti at 6am on Aug. 5 last year. As the sun rose over New York, FBI agents surrounded Gotti’s modest home in Long Island. There were no guns blazing. No last stands. Just a bleary-eyed, bespectacled Gotti being led out of the door of the home he shares with his wife and six children. He was wearing a blue shirt and sweatpants. He was in a Manhattan court a few hours later as a massive case file against him was unsealed. The judge did not grant bail and Gotti headed to jail. He’s been there ever since.

That was no surprise. Prosecutors say Gotti remains a senior figure in Gambino mob operations that span from drugs and extortion to illegal gambling and loan-sharking. They say he tried to extend those operations from New York to Florida and that, in his role as a mob boss, he organized the killing of three men. But these are far from the honor killings that movie mythology associates with the mob. The first was of low-level drug pusher George Grosso. He was shot on Dec. 20, 1988, and his body dumped in Flushing Meadow park. Then came the death of Louis DiBono, a construction worker. His giant, 140kg corpse was found slumped in a car parked in an underground garage at the World Trade Center on Oct. 4, 1990. He had been shot seven times; four bullets in his skull. The final victim was Bruce Gotterup in 1991. A threat to Gotti’s own drug-selling activities, Gotterup’s body was discovered on the boardwalk at Rockaway Beach, after staff at a nursing home heard late night gunfire. He was found face down and had been shot in the head.

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