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Iconic Newsmaker #8: John Gotti

Gambino family crime boss John Gotti leans back during a break in testimony in New York Supreme Court in Manhattan, Jan. 23, 1990. (Getty Images)

A high school dropout from the South Bronx, John Joseph Gotti would steal headlines and hapless hearts until his death in a federal prison. A notorious mob boss and head of the ruthless Gambino crime family, Gotti was a made man and for many, a man's man. His humble beginnings gave way to a vicious lifestyle and violent ending at the hands of cancer.


⇒Complete 1010 WINS Iconic New York Series⇐

Early Life

Born October 27, 1940, Gotti was one of 13 children in a small household run by Italian immigrant parents. Said to have felt disdain for his day laborer father who struggled to feed the large brood, Gotti was readily seduced by neighborhood street gangs and by Carmine Fatico, a captain in the local Gambino Family who ran an underground club in the Gotti's new East New York neighborhood. The Gambinos were one of the five Italian-American families known as the "New York Mafia."

A known bully at school, Gotti's teenage years were categorized by ever-increasing criminal activity. He became a gang leader to the Fulton Rockaway Boys, showing promise as a carjacker and thief. He finally dropped out of school at 16. By 18 he was already known to the local police and ranked as a Fatico crew member.


The Criminal Life

As a young man, Gotti's arrest record grew. Despite serving minor amounts of jail time, he was arrested five times before he turned 21 for crimes including street fighting, drunkenness and stealing cars.

He married 17-year-old Victoria DiGiorgio. The couple already had one child and were expecting their second when they finally tied the knot. Gotti tried to go straight for the sake of his new family, getting odd jobs and earning a salary, but his stab at the honest life didn't stick. He reconnected with old friends and soon became a top player for the Gambinos. He eventually served major prison time for hijacking and cargo theft near Kennedy Airport.

By 1973, Gotti, now Captain of Fatico's notorious crew, committed what is thought to have been his first murder. The victim, Jimmy McBratney, was a rival gang member and murderer. More jail time ensued, despite cutting a deal with the court.

Upon release from prison, Gotti found his crime family now run by Paul Castellano who was placed in charge after the death of former boss Carlo Gambino. The two clashed. Gotti's $30,000 a night gambling habit, personal style and rising prominence within the family irked the new boss. Despite a long tradition of protecting bosses from being murdered themselves, Gotti, along with the help of other high ranking mobsters, are thought to have arranged to have Castellano hit. The mob boss, along with several underlings, were shot dead supposedly while Gotti watched from his car.


A Boss' Life

Now boss of the family, Gotti was unaware that the group's Queens-based headquarters, the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club, was under FBI surveillance. Gotti's extravagant lifestyle had caught the eye of the feds, who now had enough evidence to indict the mobster for racketeering. He was acquitted on all charges. A later discovery solidified the theory that jury tampering had occurred, resulting in an innocent verdict. Gotti became a popular figure of celebrity-level status in his Howard Beach neighborhood, despite common knowledge that he had had a neighbor brutally murdered years earlier after his son was accidentally killed in a car accident. He was now known as the Teflon Don, an invincible figure against whom charges would never stick. Yet, eventually, stick they did.


Prison Life and Prison Death

Infuriated by the trial gone wrong, the FBI went after Gotti with a vengeance. Gambino Family underboss Sammy "The Bull" Gravano testified against Gotti and a conviction against the violent mob boss was finally procured. Found guilty of racketeering and murder, Gotti was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He died in a prison hospital at the age of 61 after choking on his own vomit and blood -- a complication resulting from throat cancer.


⇒Complete 1010 WINS Iconic New York Series⇐

Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at

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