Friday, December 07, 2007

Vincent "Chin" Gigante Kept Up 'Crazy Act' Even in Prison

Alone in a North Carolina prison cell, the nation's most powerful Mafia don welcomed a steady parade of guests each evening.

Small children, and dancing inmates.

Men in suits with matching hats, and women in long dresses.

A big black cat, and the original Boss: God.

It was summer 1997, and Vincent (Chin) Gigante faced a lengthy prison stint for racketeering. For the first time in decades, the former mob hit man's inspired dodge of using a demented alter ego to avoid jail had flopped and the Chin was forced to swap his ratty bathrobe and slippers for a prison jumpsuit. Wayne Dyer - Buy now and get a free gift 120x600

The Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, N.C., was a long way from the Greenwich Village streets where Gigante ruthlessly directed the fortunes of the Genovese crime family.

Within weeks of his July 26, 1997, arrival, it was obvious the mobster's change of address wouldn't mean a change in demeanor.

Federal prisoner No. 26071-037 never abandoned his off-kilter character through prison stops in Illinois, Minnesota, Texas and Missouri. For the next eight years, despite failed appeals and an April 2003 guilty plea in which he confessed to the scam, Gigante continued in crackpot mode until his demise behind bars nearly two years ago.

It was a show so breathtaking in scope that even those charged with evaluating his condition conceded they were in the presence of greatness. "Mr. Gigante's case is truly fascinating," raved one staff psychiatrist in 1999. "His ability to sustain his 'crazy act' over many years ... places Gigante in the ranks of the most cunning of criminals."

A four-star review for a guy who never took an acting class.

Gigante's dedication to his craft was revealed in hundreds of pages of prison records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act filing. The documents illustrate how Gigante's "mental state" led to increased paranoia - on the part of the government.

They offer glimpses of the Chin's previously unseen droll sense of humor. And they detail his cat-and-mouse game with prison officials. "I'm not crazy, doctor," Gigante said in August 1997, shortly after arriving at Butner. Maybe. Maybe not. But 12 days later, the Chin recounted how a group of children arrived one evening to perform a musical right outside his cell.

Gigante was unfamiliar with the Strasberg method of acting, but his performance after a 1997 racketeering and murder conspiracy conviction was fueled by tremendous personal motivation: The case was on appeal, with his lawyers arguing the Chin was mentally unfit. And so prison officials - intent on capturing the mob boss in an unguarded moment - kept close watch on Gigante's demeanor, monitoring his condition in his cell, recreation areas and psychiatric clinics.

Daily reports detailed his assorted nocturnal visitors, including a black cat he insisted made sleep impossible.

When Gigante arrived at the Springfield, Mo., prison medical center in December 1997, a nurse recorded their introductory conversation: "Reason for admission (in patient's own words): 'I don't know.'"

An April 1998 prison report noted Gigante "continues to hear God talking and that he talks to Him," and that he occasionally hears "bad people talking bad things."

In early 2002, at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minn., Gigante sat for yet another psychiatric evaluation. "I've hurt no one in my life," he announced with a grin. "I've got nothing to fear from anyone."

Asked about his legal history, the Chin responded, "Whatever it was, I'm innocent." And later, in an extremely random observation, Gigante told a hospital staffer, "I was there once, but not any longer."

What did that mean?

"You know," the mob boss replied, a smile on his lips indicating some appreciation of the moment's absurdity. It wasn't the only time Gigante, once arrested in a bathtub while clutching an open umbrella, offered prison officials a look at the man behind the (shower) curtain.

After arriving in a Minnesota prison in March 1999, Gigante told a staff doctor there was no need for psychological testing. "No disrespect, I love you people dearly, but I don't want to talk to you," he said politely. "How will it help to do another evaluation? I still have to do my time."

Months later, when a nurse returned from a two-week vacation, the Chin greeted her warmly: "Hi, Marsha. How have you been?"

Such incidents were short intermissions in the ongoing production. By summer 1999, Gigante was refusing to shower or shave and accusing the prison staff of torture and abuse.

The Supreme Court rejected his appeal in January 2000, and a new indictment two years later charged him with running the crime family from a Texas prison cell.

Undaunted, the Chin maintained his bizarre behavior. In January 2003, he informed a prison psychiatrist he was having trouble sleeping because of nightly visits from Satan.

Three months later, Gigante stood before Brooklyn Federal Judge Leo Glasser and admitted lying to doctors about his mental health. Then Gigante went back to prison and his strange ways, now nothing more than an exercise in self-delusion.

Gigante's health deteriorated after his guilty plea; the don grew frail from an assortment of physical ailments.

Mentally, his condition was unchanged. Gigante insisted he was mentally adrift, signing prison documents with a shaky "X."

In October 2005, Gigante was shipped to a special unit in the Forth Worth, Tex., federal prison, where inmates received intensive nursing care.

The final curtain was about to fall.

His prison doctor paid a Halloween visit, where a smiling Gigante offered a handshake and shared a pleasant, coherent conversation. Gigante asked about the doctor's family; the doctor explained about Gigante's new digs before heading back to the rest of the prison population.

One day later, a staff psychologist came by for a consultation. He met with a Chin who turned the other cheek.

Gigante insisted he could not remember the doctor's name despite their previous sessions. The psychologist later grudgingly hailed Gigante for the "sophistication of his malingering attempt."

Old habits, it seemed, die hard. Vincent Gigante died seven weeks later, alone in a Texas prison cell, at 5:15 a.m.

He was 77.

Thanks to Larry McShane

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