Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Real Dons Steal Sopranos Limelight

Friends of ours: John "Junior" Gotti, Vinny "Gorgeous" Basciano, Michael "Mikey Scars" DiLeonardo, Bonanno Crime Family, Lucchese Crime Family, John "Dapper Don" Gotti, Joseph Massino
Friends of mine: Louis Eppolito, Stephen Caracappa, Soprano Crime Family


While the acclaimed TV series bows out, New Yorkers are gripped by the drama of three real-life Mafia-linked trials

The final series of The Sopranos will go out on American TV a week today, beginning the last chapter of its epic chronicle of the lives, loves and murders of the nation's most famous Mob family. But one part of America does not have to wait with bated breath: New York. After all, who needs Tony Soprano and his fictional travails when real mafiosi such as John 'Junior' Gotti, Vinny 'Gorgeous' Basciano and Mikey 'Scars' DiLeonardo stalk the front pages.

In a throwback to the Mob's long-lost heyday, New York has gone Mafia-mad in the past week. No fewer than three high-profile trials are dominating the tabloid press and local TV stations, uncovering a mobster world of hitmen, assassinations and police corruption that even Tony Soprano's scriptwriters would have hesitated to invent.

Top of the heap is the dramatic trial of Gotti, alleged head of the Gambino crime family, whose father was known as the Dapper Don for his sharp suits and high profile on the social scene. Now the junior Gotti faces racketeering charges, including the kidnapping and attempted murder of Curtis Sliwa, a radio host and founder of the Guardian Angels crime-fighting volunteers. Another case involves Basciano, charged with killing one Mob associate and plotting the death of two others. He is alleged to be acting head of the Bonanno crime family. The third prosecution, set to start within weeks, has been called the 'Mafia cops' trial. It involves allegations that two top policemen, Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, worked as hitmen for the Lucchese crime family.

But it is the Gotti trial - with its mix of Mob glamour and death - that has grabbed attention. 'They can still draw a crowd,' said Jerry Capeci, who has written six books on the Mafia. Given the alleged crimes, that is no surprise. In one gripping piece of recent testimony Sliwa told how a gang killer tried to 'whack' him by shooting him in a taxi with its windows and doors rigged so they would not open. As he was travelling to work in Greenwich Village, a man suddenly popped up in the front seat, said 'Take this' and began shooting at him. Sliwa, bleeding from gunshot wounds that left him in hospital for two weeks, escaped by climbing through a broken car window as the taxi zig-zagged down the street.

In another of the trial's 'highlights', one witness, DiLeonardo, revealed that the late Dapper Don had fathered a child by a woman living on Staten Island. That triggered the sort of tabloid frenzy among gossip writers and paparazzi usually associated with Hollywood stars. The child was found to be a 19-year-old dental student. 'I feel bad for my daughter. It's 2006. We want to move on,' said her mother, Shannon Connelly.

The Gotti trial has been so highly publicised that tourists have been flocking to the Manhattan court for a dose of the real Sopranos. But all the court cases have exposed crimes that are hard to romanticise. Prosecutors say Basciano blasted one rival with a 12-gauge shotgun. The attack on Sliwa left him needing a colostomy bag after one bullet went through his intestines. There are drug rings, extortion, bribery and cold, hard killings: all revealed in sordid detail.

Yet the real story is that these cases have all been brought simultaneously, dealing what remains of the Mafia in New York a potentially fatal blow. The FBI and police have so successfully infiltrated the gangs over the past two decades that the Mob is a shadow of its former self. Many of the witnesses are turncoats from the highest levels of an organisation once thought impenetrable. The main evidence against Basciano comes from conversations taped by former don Joseph Massino, the first head of a Mafia family to wear a wire and betray his associates. Gotti's lawyer has used this as a defence, saying his client was born into the Mob family but wanted to leave due to the huge degree of betrayal. 'He saw a life where his father went to jail for the rest of his life, died locked away from his family, based on the testimony of a serial killer who was supposed to be his closest associate. He saw the treachery first hand,' said Charles Carnesi.

When it comes to the old values of silence and loyalty, it is other ethnic gangs in New York, such as the Russians and the Chinese Triads, who are far more of a criminal threat. Neighbourhoods dominated by Russians and Chinese are full of new immigrants vulnerable to gangs; meanwhile the Italians have moved to Long Island or New Jersey.

Yet despite the decline in the Mafia's power, it still dominates the headlines more than any other form of organised crime. That is far more to do with the media and Hollywood than reality. For the American love affair with the Mafia is one based on the entertainment industry.

Before the Gotti trial began last month the once-feared family's name had been best known recently for a tawdry reality TV show starring Gotti Junior's sister, Victoria, called Growing Up Gotti. It has been a steady decline from the Oscar-winning art of the Godfather movies to the high-class soap opera of The Sopranos and finally to reality television.

Tony Soprano would recognise that as a rule of the fictional gangsters: No one lives forever, everyone gets whacked in the end. Even, perhaps, the Mafia itself.

Thanks to Paul Harris

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