Sunday, April 01, 2001

Sammy Gravano and the Devil Dogs

Mob rat Sammy Gravano had a new name, a new home, and a lock on Arizona’s Ecstasy market. Then a gang of skinheads brought him down.

When 18-year-old Jordan Jarvis took off out of the keg party at 2658 East Gemini Street around 11:30 p.m. Memorial Day weekend in 1999, he was shaking. Streaming out of the house behind him in a blind rage were about 15 steroiders from Highland High in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert. These guys called themselves the Devil Dogs, and they were enormous. As they came after Jarvis, a couple of them stripped off their T-shirts.

“Emergency!” someone yelled. “Get that motherfucker!”

Jarvis ran to the street and almost cried with relief when he saw his friend Charles “Bubba” Cairns, 19, in his black open-top ’76 International Harvester Scout truck, the engine running. “Go, dude, go!” Jarvis yelled to Bubba, jumping into the front seat and buckling himself in. But then Bubba’s friend Alisha Larson, 17, lost her shoe as she was climbing into the backseat. She bent to pick it up.

The Dogs were upon them, screaming like lunatics. “You’re the motherfucker who beat up Riley Gilbert!”

“No, man,” Jarvis said. “I don’t even know who that—”

A fist slammed in out of the darkness and shattered Jarvis’s cheekbone. The Devil Dogs swarmed around the truck. They grabbed at Jarvis. His seat belt held him in. So one of them, a kid named Kevin Papa, climbed into the Scout, straddled Jarvis and began smashing his face, over and over. “Stop it! Stop it!” screamed 17-year-old Beth from the backseat. She tried covering him with her body, but the Dogs pulled her away and then took turns hammering his face. To Beth the flat smack of fists pummeling Jordan Jarvis “sounded like machine-gun shots.”

The attackers howled like a pack of mongrels. As they kicked and clawed and punched, they spit out expletives: “Faggot!” “Piece of shit!” “You fucking niggers!” It didn’t seem to make much difference that Jarvis and Bubba were both white.

Even though he was in a choke hold, Bubba managed to get the truck into gear. “White power!” someone yelled as they peeled away down Gemini Street. Beth looked down—her legs were spattered with blood. When she checked on Jarvis, she almost fainted. His face was unrecognizable, a red and purple mass. Jarvis’s nose was crushed, pushed flat into a mangled left cheek. Blood soaked his shirt, the seats, the windshield. As Jarvis fought to stay conscious, he thought, I’m going to die.

As they raced away, Jarvis dimly heard a sound fading behind them—the strange sound of human children barking like dogs.

Twenty miles to the west, a short, stocky 54-year-old man with graying hair relaxed with his family in Tempe, quietly enjoying the holiday. A few of his neighbors still knew him as Jimmy Moran, owner of a local construction firm. Close friends and family knew him by another name: Salvatore Gravano. The Bull.

Few would question his status as the most notorious Mob turncoat in history. After a 20-year career as an enforcer, hitman, and eventually underboss of New York’s Gambino family, Sammy Gravano turned informer in 1991. He nailed 39 mobsters and landed Gambino boss John J. Gotti in Federal prison for life. Despite admitting to 19 murders, his searing insider testimony earned him a sweetheart deal with the government. Then, in the kind of second act that Americans—especially mobsters—aren’t supposed to have, Gravano relocated to Arizona and quickly returned to the work he knew best.

In rebuilding a crime network from the ground up, Sammy the Bull didn’t reach out to the old-world Mafia. Instead, authorities say, he joined together with a new breed of vicious young suburban white-boy gangsters led by Michael Papa, 23, a brilliant and charismatic Arizona State University premed student, and Gravano’s own son, Gerard, 23. With Sammy as godfather and venture capitalist, and muscle provided by the violent white supremacist gang the Devil Dogs, the group sought to dominate the Phoenix market for a drug that burst like a supernova in the 1990s: Ecstasy. At its height the Gravano-Papa cartel was pulling in about $1 million profit per month.

Sammy and the Dogs. Together they rose, and together they fell. Gravano couldn’t have known it on that quiet Memorial Day weekend, but the Gemini Street attack would eventually set forces in motion that even the most powerful former Mob man in America would be unable to control.

The Bull Gets a New Life

Salvatore Gravano’s first hit was in 1970, on one of his closest childhood friends. He murdered the guy in cold blood as a favor to a more powerful friend, who lusted after the guy’s wife. Years later, some say, the Bull stood by calmly and watched his wife Debra’s brother get shot, a Mob murder he helped plan.

“If evil had to take on a form or a shape, Sammy is it,” said Rosanne Massa, the sister of one of Gravano’s murder victims. But to prosecutors he was the golden boy. And so, on April 19, 1995, Gravano stepped through the doors of an Arizona prison and into the Federal Witness Protection Program after just five years of jail time and $250,000 in fines. He still had millions, and a new taxpayer-supported life to spend them on.


His Fed handlers constructed a new identity for him. “James Moran” would hail from the backwater badlands of South Dakota, as far from the killing streets of Brooklyn as you can get. Gravano even had minor cosmetic surgery, a nip and tuck around the face on the government’s dime. “It was either for vanity or to disguise himself from Gotti’s assassins, but either way it didn’t work,” said a law-enforcement source. “He was still ugly, and he was still recognizable.”

In 1996, a year after he left prison, Gravano left the Witness Protection Program. “Too many restrictions,” he’d say later. “You couldn’t have contact with your family or anybody.”

Nobody came out of witness protection like Sammy. He produced the bestseller Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano's Story of Life in the Mafia, his chronicle of Mob life. He got to keep half of the $850,000 book deal—in violation of New York’s Son of Sam law prohibiting criminals from profiting from their exploits. He was interviewed by Diane Sawyer on Turning Point. He was the world’s first incognito with a press agent.

He liked Arizona. But he had to have his family around him. After all, he thought, what’s more important than family?

The Neighborhood Goes to Hell

When Vince Zajdzinski saw a middle-aged couple and a realtor across the street from his house, looking over the dilapidated acre-and-a-half property at 1207 East Secretariat, he recognized Sammy Gravano right away. “He has such a distinctive build,” Zajdzinski says. “He’s a small man, five-six, but he’s got that boxer body.” Zajdzinski, 62, a builder and former Chicago fireman, had just watched an A&E profile on Gravano.

Zajdzinski didn’t let on that he knew who his new neighbor was. Gravano introduced himself as Jimmy Moran. Sammy soon hired Zajdzinski to gut and rebuild his new home, a $500,000 job. Poring over blueprints one evening, Zajdzinski decided it was time for Gravano to come out into the open.

“Are we going to be putting gun turrets into this place or what?” he asked.

Sammy laughed. “You know who I am?”

Zajdzinski stared at him.“You’d be a hard guy not to know.”

The job dragged on. Gravano, Zajdzinski says, was maddening as a client, obsessive over details and not particularly knowledgeable about construction. One afternoon, after being informed by Zajdzinski that “he didn’t know shit,” the Bull charged. Lunging across the living room, Gravano whipped out a pistol and put it to his neighbor’s head. Gravano’s wife, Debbie, witnessing the scene, froze.

“Look, if it will make you feel better,” Zajdzinski said coolly, “just go ahead and shoot me.”

For a beat Gravano hesitated. Then he backed off and stalked away. “You’re not going to make me go back,” he snarled.

The incident didn’t break up the friendship. Months later Zajdzinski took Gravano to his evangelical church. When the minister announced the altar call, summoning anyone in the congregation to be born again, one man raised his hand.

The serial killer with 19 notches in his belt, Sammy the Bull.

Gravano soon gathered his extended family at the sprawling eight-bedroom Secretariat house—Debbie, Gerard, daughter Karen, Karen’s boyfriend David Seabrook, and a revolving series of friends and cousins. Sammy wanted to be surrounded by neighborhood people who still had his back.

Debbie and he had divorced, but they made a pact. Sammy could have his family life, but he also had to keep his own apartment a few miles away. He would have to spend nights at his place. That way if Gotti and company sent assassins, the hit wouldn’t take out the whole family.

Back in the Game

Phil Pascucci looked like what he was, East Coast Italian, so Gravano was standoffish toward the 35-year-old hustler when he met him in late 1997. After all, there were still Gotti allies out on the street. “I’m not their favorite person,” he told a friend. “They could motherfuck me up and down.” But gradually Sammy thawed out. According to affidavits obtained from defense sources, the two began a tight three-year relationship, during which Pascucci acted as part business partner, part surrogate son. Soon enough Gravano asked Pascucci to help him put together a large-scale pot purchase.

The practical-minded Pascucci balked. Too tough, he said. Instead, he steered Gravano in another direction: Ecstasy.

Gravano had never heard of the drug. Pascucci painstakingly explained the market in E to Gravano. How you could make a pill for 50¢ and sell it wholesale for $9 or $10. And how you could move 30,000 or 40,000 tabs a week.

Pascucci had a source, a lab in Texas. In early 1998 Sammy took over wholesale distribution, while Pascucci handled supply. As long as they were making money together, Pascucci was Sammy’s fair-haired boy. Gerard, Sammy confided to one of his men,“could never come in and be involved…because he doesn’t have what it takes. Some people do, some people don’t.” But when Pascucci’s E connection dried up in mid-1998, Gravano turned cold toward his surrogate son. It was time for Gravano’s real son to step up and become Daddy’s new supplier.

Like Father, Like Son

Gerard Gravano resembled his dad: short and squared-off, with deep-set, heavy-lidded eyes. But the kid seemed lost since moving to Arizona three years earlier. He had a lot to live up to. Few in his family thought he had his dad’s brains or street savvy. So when opportunity knocked, Gerard kicked open the door.


It was late 1998 when Gerard Gravano met a fellow transplanted New Yorker named Michael J. Papa in the VIP lounge at a Phoenix hot spot. Papa was one of the local club scene’s biggest E dealers, but he didn’t hawk his product on the dance floor like some street skell. He was way smoother than that.

A Long Islander from Jericho, New York, the tall and good-looking Papa had been captain of his high school football team, and a punter for the University of Buffalo in ’94. Now he was a 4.0 student at ASU with a thriving sideline. He was always holding—good stuff, too, foreign-made Ecstasy pills stamped with logos borrowed from corporate America or Hollywood—Calvin Kleins, Nikes, Pink Pussycats.

Ecstasy dealers were the new royalty of the club scene. “When Mike Papa and his guys came into a club,” said a young female ASU student who frequented the rave scene, “it was like the sea parted.” It didn’t hurt that Papa was bulked up on steroids and bronzed from tanning salons. The guy looked the part.

The Ecstasy scene in Phoenix seemed to bloom overnight. Fewer than one thousand pills had been confiscated in the whole state in 1999. A year later that number climbed to 75,000 in one week in the Phoenix area alone. Suddenly MDMA, 3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, a synthesis of mescaline and speed, was everybody’s favorite drug.

When Gerard Gravano met him, Mike Papa already had an Ecstasy distribution network in place centered around the clubs near ASU. He was moving up to 1,000 pills a week, with a markup of at least $10 per pill. If only he had the right backing, he told Gerard one night, he could be moving 25,000 a week.

In response, Gerard told Mike Papa who his father was.

The Punk Meets the Godfather

Sammy Gravano began providing seed money and leadership for Mike Papa’s Ecstasy organization in spring 1999. When he was around the Bull, the normally confident Papa became tongue-tied, staring at the floor as he talked. According to one member of Gravano’s inner circle, “Sammy would go up and down with Papa. One week he would be in, Sammy liked him; the next week he’d say, ‘This kid can’t be involved with us.’” But the upside was too great to resist. The arrangement was simple: Mike Papa would offer his supply of pills; Sammy would offer the weight of the Gravano name. And if further intimidation was necessary, Mike Papa would summon a horde of barking, shatteringly violent skinheads to do his bidding.

Papa had first encountered these teen freaks through his friend Jovan Isailovic, 20, a wild-eyed Czech. After meeting at Gold’s Gym in the East Valley suburb of Gilbert, Mike and Jovan became inseparable—lifting weights together, shooting steroids together, selling drugs together. For kicks they would sometimes get together with a bunch of Jovan’s sketchy friends, load up on drugs and booze, and engage in their own brand of extreme cage fighting, usually in an empty swimming pool. Two guys at a time would enter the pool and proceed to beat each other bloody. The one who could pull himself out afterward was the winner. Jovan Isailovic fought under the moniker “the Iceman.”

Before long Papa had more than just a close friend: He had an enforcer. “Mike Papa could say, ‘Jovan, sic ’em,’” says former Gilbert officer Mike Sanchez, “and Jovan would just pound the crap out of whoever it was without even thinking about it.” But there was more to the relationship. Jovan, like many of his cage-fighting buddies, had been a charter member of a group of Highland High School white-supremacist muscleheads called White Power. Since 1993 each class had seen its own gang, and Jovan had kept close ties to each. Every year they called themselves something different—Chindo Squad or A-Team or Dog Pound. The class of ’99 found its name in an epithet the Germans threw at the Marines in World War I: Devil Dogs.

Bad Dogs

Jovan’s pretty, flame-haired little sister Jovanka, 17, started going out with Mike Papa’s little brother, Kevin, while they were both students at Gilbert’s Highland High. At five-seven Kevin was smaller than his brother, but that only made him look up to Mike more. He was dying to prove himself to his older sibling.

On his 17th birthday, Kevin’s mom, Mary Ann Papa, saw the words “Devil Dogs” scrawled on a card her son received from Jason Lee, a hulking six-one, 245-pound skinhead friend of his.

“What does that mean, what Jason wrote?” Mary Ann asked.

Kevin just laughed. “Jason is an idiot,” he said. But at Highland, Kevin was spending more and more of his time with Lee and the other Dogs, often wearing a uniform ripped from the skinhead book of style: white sleeveless “wife beater” Ts, jeans, black Doc Marten boots with fat white laces. Even though much of the group’s hatred was aimed at blacks, one of its members, Marquis Wonsey, was the child of a white parent and a black one. “We’re OK with Mark,” said one Dog. “He’s no gangsta. He dresses white and he talks white.”

They were a loose group, perhaps 20 core members, but they liked to make their impact felt—with their fists. “We go out and hunt pussies and homos,” one Devil Dog said in June 1999. The violence of the random beatings seemed to increase every weekend. One victim lost a tooth in the shoe of an attacking Devil Dog. Another showed up at the Gilbert police department with a boot-print-shaped bruise on his forehead. But it was the beating of Jordan Jarvis on Memorial Day weekend—outside the home of Jovan and Jovanka Isailovic—that got the cops interested for real. The kid’s ruined face was impossible to ignore. Gilbert police antigang officers Sanchez and Terry Burchett began hauling in the Dogs, including Kevin Papa, for questioning. Witnesses fingered Kevin as the one who was “dropping bombs”—throwing great looping punches—on Jarvis that night. He admitted that the Devil Dogs jumped victims “almost every week, especially at concerts.”

As the investigation widened throughout the summer of 1999, two things became clear. If you wanted Ecstasy in Gilbert, the guy to see was Mike Papa. Also, Mike Papa was connected. Heavy connected. Mob connected.

The cops couldn’t believe what they were hearing. “None of us would’ve ever believed these kids were tied to former mobsters,” recalls Sanchez. “It was too good to be true. It was huge.” It was also time to call in reinforcements.

Consolidating the Drug Market

Michael Papa liked to boast. “I’ve got a new boss,” he started saying that July, dropping the name Gravano as a veiled threat.

He also began crowing of a connection “high up in the Israeli Mafia.” Papa’s seemingly bottomless supply of E came from a smuggling organization run by a 45-year-old Israeli named Jacob “Koki” Orgad. It was made in Israeli labs. The ring pumped at least 9 million pills into the U.S. market from 1997 to 1999.

Orgad specialized in hiring white trash from Middle America to act as drug mules. Based in L.A., Orgad had tentacles in every major metropolitan area in America. His man in New York City, Ilan Zarger, became Michael Papa’s source for drugs.

That summer Mike Papa and Gerard Gravano began a campaign of consolidation. Prompted by Sammy, backed by Jovan and the Dogs, they clawed their way into a bigger and bigger share of the Ecstasy market.

Early in July 1999, Gerard and Mike Papa waited in darkness outside a club called Pompei near ASU. Inside the club was James Keller*—one of the most visible Ecstasy dealers in Phoenix, a flamboyant, cash-flush kid who wore a long black leather duster, even in the stifling Arizona heat.

When Keller stepped out of Pompei that night, Gerard Gravano suddenly appeared out of the shadows. Gerard wasn’t physically intimidating, but lately he had been packing. Mike Papa materialized behind him. Sweeping a steroid-enhanced forearm around Keller’s windpipe, Papa caught the dealer in a naked choke hold, a classic Brazilian jujitsu move.

“This is our fucking turf!” Gerard screamed into the guy’s face.

Mike Papa dropped the slumping dealer to the pavement. Then he and Gerard stomped Keller’s face to a pulp.

The heavy muscle was repeated all over the rich drug bazaars along Scottsdale Road. The Phoenix Ecstasy market had been a series of small duchies, each run by an individual dealer. That summer it became a single empire, run by Sammy the Bull.

Keller turned out to be a Zarger man, and he whined to New York about his treatment. Zarger sent a burly bodyguard named Macho to Arizona and talked openly about having Sammy “whacked.” Weller and two Zarger goons demanded a meeting.

The dispute was settled in Cosa Nostra fashion, with a sit-down in mid-July 1999. Practiced in the art of intimidation, Sammy made sure it took place on his own stomping ground—Uncle Sal’s (as in Salvatore Gravano) Italian Ristorante, the Scottsdale place where Debbie and Gerard worked and which served as a de facto headquarters for the Gravano family.

Flanked by Mike Papa and Gerard, Sammy was in rare form. “I own Arizona,” he said. “It’s all locked down. You can’t sell pills here without going through me.”

Maybe it was the threat of violence. Or maybe it was the cheap red wine. But the Zarger people caved. Sammy agreed to let them continue their business; they agreed to give him 25¢ from every pill they distributed in the state. The threat of a hit vaporized. If Gerard and Mike hadn’t had a monopoly on the Phoenix Ecstasy market before this, they sure did now.

High on the Hog

The money rolled in in fistfuls, and it went out just as fast. Everyone had a new Lexus—Sammy, Debbie, Gerard, David Seabrook. “It looked like a friggin’ Lexus dealership over there,” said one neighbor of the house on Secretariat.

The renovation had transformed the place into a $750,000 showcase, all built to Sammy’s order. A custom front door of knotty alder, complete with a speakeasy-style peep window. Miniature horses in a paddock out back. A swimming pool complete with waterfall and 65 tons of surface-select boulders.

The pool helped support Sammy’s cover as a pool excavator. His company, Marathon Development, stood out amid the junked-up industrial park landscape, a neat pea-gravel yard around a cappuccino-colored office. Most days Sammy sat at a desk at the rear, near the access to the parking lot, where he could watch the front and back doors at the same time.

Michael and Gerard sometimes did 25,000 pills a week, and they were branching out to Columbus, Albuquerque, San Francisco. The cash was flowing. But as any dealer knows, cash can be as much of a headache as the drugs. It has to be dealt with.

On the night of October 25, 1999, Michael Papa left the office of Marathon Development. Driving with his girlfriend, Laurel, in her black Nissan Altima, he headed north toward the club district of Scottsdale. They never made it.

Phoenix police officers Ronald Sterrett and Rose Choulet stopped the Altima under the guise of investigating a traffic violation. They searched his wallet. “What’s this?” Sterrett asked. A deposit slip showing $17,729 placed in a Wells Fargo account.

“I just invested $15,000,” Papa quickly explained. “I became part owner of a pool company called Creative Pools.” It was a subsidiary of Marathon Development. The cops gave Papa a citation for driving with a suspended license. They kept the deposit slip: hard proof of a business relationship with Gravano.

Business continued without a hitch. Throughout this period, Sammy Gravano continued warm relationships with his contacts in the federal government, many of whom made it a practice to drop by whenever they were in Arizona. They might have been impressed by the number of FedEx packages coming into Sammy’s firm—shipments of Ecstasy, mostly from New York.

In September 1999, Gravano spoke at a conference of FBI supervisors in Phoenix. Fifty or so Feds listened as Gravano talked about lessons gleaned in his career as a Gambino gangster. When Gravano returned to Marathon Development that afternoon, he never noticed a tiny pole camera mounted in the parking lot, which had a peeking view into his office.

Someone was watching.

What started as the Devil Dogs beating case had blossomed into a full-blown investigation run by the Phoenix police and the DEA. Authorities painstakingly compiled surveillance reports and 16,000 wiretapped conversations. Heat was coming from inside, too—Zarger and Orgad had both been arrested that summer, and federal authorities were turning their distributors into informants, using classic connect-the-dots techniques to trace the drugs to Arizona. But if anything, Mike Papa became more reckless. His most brazen move furnished investigators with its most solid link between the Devil Dogs and Sammy Gravano’s E cartel. On the night of January 8, 2000, wiretaps monitored Mike Papa’s desperate calls for help to shake down Kevin G. Purser, 37, owner of a Tempe restaurant, for payment of a debt. Soon the parking lot was full of Papa’s closest allies. When he strolled inside to make his play, about a dozen buddies walked in with him.

Mike Papa and his goon crew were in the restaurant for almost a full hour. (Kevin Purser denies any shakedown occurred.) All during that time, cars and trucks driven by high school–age white males with shaved heads slowly circled the parking lot, cavalry support for the ground troops inside.

Snaring a Bull

Like many small men, Sammy owned a small dog—a Chihuahua he insisted was a miniature Doberman. It was barking in the early morning of February 24, 2000, when a small army of Phoenix police and DEA agents swept down on Gravano’s apartment. They confiscated guns, marijuana, and a cache of Viagra.

A few miles to the south, a police tactical team in full protective gear used a steel battering ram to smash down the alder door of the Secretariat house. All across the East Valley, the busts went down simultaneously. Sammy Gravano. Debbie Gravano. Karen Gravano. David Seabrook. Gerard Gravano. Mike Papa. Jovan Isailovic. Forty-five people in all.

During initial court appearances, Gravano father and son struck a defiant tone. Gerard complained bitterly of lack of access to counsel. “You might as well line us up and shoot us in the head,” he said. Sammy was positively dismissive. “In my criminal life,” he told the judge, “this is a minor thing.”

Representatives from the Arizona state attorney general’s office asked for $5 million bail, declaring the former hitmen a danger to the community. The judge agreed. Gravano’s family, Mike Papa, and Jovan Isailovic were released on bond, but Sammy himself fell into the hands of Maricopa County’s famed Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America.” Sheriff Joe dresses his inmates in lipstick-pink boxer shorts, which, he says, curtails their macho tendencies. Sammy the Bull in pink undies. It was an image to warm the icy cockles of John Gotti’s heart.

Aftermath

Shortly after the February 24 Ecstasy-ring bust, Kevin Papa finally faced sentencing for the Devil Dogs’ beating of Jordan Jarvis. Five of the Devil Dogs were charged, convicted, and received jail time. Kevin Papa got the harshest stretch of all—two and a half years in the state penitentiary in Yuma.

Over 18 months, Jarvis himself endured repeated bouts of reconstructive surgery—three operations, with more to come. His doctors scraped bone spurs from the misshapen planes of his face and took cartilage from his ear to rebuild his nose.

Debbie Gravano sold the house on Secretariat, but she and her children remain in the Phoenix area awaiting trial. Uncle Sal’s enjoyed a brief surge in popularity after the busts but has since been padlocked.

Sammy Gravano’s state trial on 181 counts of conspiracy, drug distribution, and running a criminal enterprise is scheduled to begin June 4. This winter new federal charges were piled on Sammy, Gerard, and Mike Papa in New York, based on the investigation of the drug network of Ilan Zarger and Koki Orgad.

The federal government is paying in full for Sammy Gravano’s defense. “I think the Feds are going to offer Sammy a deal,” former Gotti defense attorney John Mitchell told Court TV. “Sammy knows a great deal of information that was never disclosed…I don’t think [they] want that to come to light, and they’re going to step in and take care of their boy.”

Jovan Isailovic pleaded guilty to Ecstasy distribution charges. His sister Jovanka sent Kevin Papa their junior prom portrait. “I can’t believe this is the last time we kissed,” she wrote.

Kevin Papa says he is tormented by his cellies at Yuma, who taunt him about Michael Papa’s connection with Gravano.

“They ask me, ‘What’s your brother doing with that rat?’”

He never knows how to answer.

Thanks to Gil Reavill

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