Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano (born March 12, 1945) was a high ranking member of the Gambino crime family. He is most known as the man who helped bring down family boss John Gotti by becoming a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informant.
Originally a soldier for the Colombo crime family, and later for the Brooklyn faction of the Gambinos, he was part of a conspiracy within the family to murder Gambino boss Paul Castellano. Gravano played a key role in planning and executing Castellano's murder; other conspirators included John Gotti, Angelo Ruggiero, Frank DeCicco and Joseph Armone. The conspiracy would elevate Gravano's position in the family to underboss under Gotti, a position he held at the time he turned informer. At the time, he was the highest-ranking member of the Mafia ever to turn informer. His testimony drew a wave of La Cosa Nostra members to become informants.
He never did very well in school; it turned out he had a severe case of dyslexia. However, when he was growing up, that condition was not well known, and his problems in school were dismissed due to him being a "slow learner." He was held back on two occasions. At first, this made him a target of jokes at school, but they ended after he beat up several of his tormentors. He continued to assert his physical presence through violence as he grew up, and his parents were forced to sign him out of school when he was 16 years old.
He began stealing when he was only 7 or 8 and would take two cupcakes from a corner store, in Bensonhurst every day on his way to school. Sammy sobbed when he was caught stealing from his corner shop at the age of 8 and was let off with a firm warning by the shopkeeper. However, by the time he was 13, he had joined the Rampers, a prominent gang in the area.
His father ran a small dress factory and could sustain a good standard of living for the family. When he saw Sammy drifting in the wrong direction, he tried all possible methods of discipline, even forcing him to attend Mass with him, but nothing worked.
He was drafted into the United States Army in 1964. While an enlisted soldier, Gravano mainly worked as a mess hall cook. He rose to the rank of corporal and was granted an honorable discharge. Gravano was not deployed to the Vietnam War. He married Debra Scibetta in 1971; they had two children. Later in his mob career, he was ordered to help arrange the murder of his brother-in-law, Nick Scibetta. He is also the brother-in-law of Gambino crime family capo Edward Garafola.
The Mafia had always been omnipresent in Bensonhurst; several "wiseguys" hung around a bar that Sammy and his father frequently walked by. On one occasion, they helped Sammy recover a stolen bike, and one of them was so enamored by his fighting ability that he nicknamed him "the Bull." The nickname stuck.
Despite his father's attempts to dissuade him, Sammy, like many of his Ramper colleagues, drifted into the Mafia. He first became associated with the "Honored Society" in 1968 through Tommy Spero, whose uncle, Shorty, was an associate of the Colombo crime family under its future boss, Carmine "the Snake" Persico. Gravano was involved in petty crimes, as he almost always had been, such as larceny, hijacking, and armed robbery. He was a particular favorite of family boss Joe Colombo; in fact, it was generally understood that when the Mafia's membership books were reopened (they had been closed since 1957), he would be among the first to become made. In 1973, he committed his first murder--that of Joseph Colucci, a fellow Spero associate who was reportedly planning to kill both Spero and Gravano. Ironically, one of the first companies Gravano became involved with in the construction industry was run by Joseph Colucci's son.
Gravano quickly acquired tremendous clout in the construction and trucking industries. The Aurello crew supervised the Gambino family's control over Teamsters Local 282, which had jurisdiction over building materials to all construction sites in the city. The Mafia's control over the city's construction industry was so absolute that it had effective veto power over all major construction projects in the city. For all practical purposes, no concrete could be poured for any project worth more than $2 million without Mafia approval. He soon became a multi-millionaire soldier in the family, which allowed him to build a mansion in rural Ocean County, New Jersey.
Along with a budding criminal career, Gravano was a devout bodybuilder and boxer and trained under Teddy Atlas at Gleeson's gym. According to several sources Gravano used large amounts of anabolic steroids to aid in his workouts that, according to former friends, associates and authors, caused Gravano to fly into a rage at the drop of a hat. Author Gerry Capeci wrote in his book Gotti that Gravano kiled two of his 19 victims before they knew what they had done wrong, possibly due to rage caused by steroid use but more probably caused by his psychopathic personality. Author Howard Blum wrote in his book Gangland Gravano spent $2,000 a week on anabolic steroids and Linda Milito, the wife of a Gravano crew member Louie Milito, wrote in her book Mafia Wife that not only did Gravano use enormous amounts of steroids, but fed his young son Gerard Gravano on the same drugs Sammy used. Milito also claimed Gravano once shot the family dog after it bit his son, Gerard, despite the fact that Gravano himself had trained the dog to attack. Gravano's boxing trainer, Teddy Atlas, recalled in an interview that he had told Gravano the most important thing for a fighter to overcome was his fear. Gravano told Atlas he had no fear, causing Atlas to make a mental note that he believed Gravano was lying, and that Gravano's steroid use could be an attempt to compensate. Although Gravano has never denied or acknowledged steroid use, steroids were found in his home during his 2000 arrest for ecstasy distribution in Arizona.
Gravano soon became discontented with Castellano's distance from the more violent elements of the family; despite his rise in stature, he always considered himself a hoodlum at heart. His standing with Castellano diminished a bit after Gravano and a member of his crew, Louis Milito, shot and killed Frank Fiala, a self-proclaimed drug kingpin, outside of Gravano's Brooklyn nightclub, the Plaza Suite. Gravano had not asked permission to kill Fiala before doing so, which is a strict mob rule. A sit-down was held between Castellano, Gravano, and Milito, and Gravano was forgiven, however Castellano later complained to Milito that he should have killed Gravano after the Fiala hit. Another setback occurred when Gravano threatened to kill fellow made man Louie DiBono, a captain in the family Gravano had been working with in the construction industry. Gravano became suspicious that DiBono was robbing Gravano of some of the construction profits and when DiBono denied it, Gravano told him he better get his money or Gravano would kill him. Again a sit-down was called. This time Castellano, family underboss Neil Dellacroce, and family captains including John Gotti and Frank DeCicco attended. Instead of denying the accusations of threatening another made man, Gravano openly admitted it, and screamed at DiBono that he was robbing Gravano and the family. He then offered to kill DiBono if one of the men would produce a gun for him. Neil Dellecroce interviened, claiming DiBono had been robbing the family and that Gravano could have simply denied the accusations. Gravano was given a pass, however his standing with Castellano dropped.
Gravano eventually became close to John Gotti, a Queens-based Gambino captain who was a protegé of underboss Aniello Dellacroce, and who had despised Castellano. Gotti had reached out to Gravano, Frank DeCicco, Joseph Armone, and Frank LoCascio. Gravano and DeCicco, after some vacillation, agreed to back the move--but secretly agreed that if Gotti stepped out of line, they would kill him. Had this happened, DeCicco would have become boss with Gravano as his underboss. They joined Gotti, Armone and LoCascio to form the "Fist of Five," which plotted the murder of their boss.
On December 16, 1985, Castellano and Thomas Bilotti were gunned down in midtown Manhattan outside of Sparks Steakhouse, while Gotti and Gravano watched from across the street. Gotti was installed as the new boss of the family, and Gravano's importance quickly rose. Aurello had used him as acting captain of his crew for some time, and shortly after Gotti's installation, Gravano formally took over the crew.
Gotti named DeCicco his underboss, but just months after Castellano's murder, DeCicco was killed in a car bomb attack orchestrated by Vincent "Chin" Gigante, the boss of the Genovese crime family, in an assassination-plot that also included Lucchese crime family leaders Vittorio "Vic" Amuso and Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso who agreed to have Gotti killed. Gigante ordered the bombing because the Castellano hit had been carried out without the consent of the Commission, the Five Families of New York. It was a standing Mafia law that a boss could only be killed with the express consent of the Commission, which Gotti had not sought. The car bomb was actually intended to kill Gotti, but killed DeCicco by mistake. The hit took place outside of Castellano's former social club, which was then operated by captain James "Jimmy Brown" Failla, who along with captain Daniel "Danny" Marino, were two of Castellano's closest associates before his death. Allegedly, both Marino and Failla had been involved in the assassination plot. Ironically, Gigante had been the trigger man on the last unsanctioned hit on a New York don--Vito Genovese's unsuccessful attempt to kill Frank Costello, in 1957.
Gotti was imprisoned shortly after the DeCicco bombing to await his day in court on RICO charges. During this time Gotti relied heavily on Gravano and Angelo Ruggerio to run the families day to day operations while he called the shots from the MCC. Ruggerio and Gravano began to butt heads, particularly over the murder of Robert DiBernardo, a captain in the Gambino's who ran the Gambino's interest in the pornography business. Gravano was approached by Ruggerio to kill DiBernardo after Ruggerio reported to Gravano Gotti had ordered DiBernardo to be killed after hearing DiBernardo had made several negative remarks about Gotti's leadership of the Gambino's. According to Gravano, he disputed this with Ruggerio, as Gravano was good friends with DiBernardo, and asked that the murder be called off until after Gotti's trial. After supposedly meeting with Gotti once more, Ruggerio informed Gravano Gotti wanted DiBernardo murdered right away. Gravano arranged a meeting with DiBernardo where Joe Paruta, a member of Gravano's crew, shot DiBernardo in the back of the head twice while Gravano watched. DiBernardo's body has never been found. Gravano would find out later on the Ruggerio was $250,000 in debt to DiBernardo and speculated that Ruggerio may have bad mouthed DiBernardo to Gotti in order to clear his debt and better his chances at becoming the family underboss. Gravano himself profited from DiBernardo's death by assuming control of DiBernardo's ties to Local 282 of the Teamster's Union. Ruggerio would eventually be put "on the shelf" by Gotti due to Gotti's disenchantment with Ruggerio over his indictment on heroin distribution and being caught on FBI wiretaps. Ruggerio soon contracted terminal cancer and, despite the urging of Gravano and Gotti's brother Gene, Gotti refused to visit his oldest friend, despite Ruggerio being on his deathbed. Gravano later claimed he and Gene had to drag Gotti to Ruggerio's funeral.
Prior to the murder of DiBernardo, Gravano had murdered a member of his own crew named Nick Mormando. Known as Nicky Cowboy, Mormando had become addicted to crack cocaine and had claimed he was going to break from Gravano's crew to form his own. While riding in the front seat of a car, Mormando was shot in the back of the head by Joe Paruta. His body was found in an empty lot. Gravano was following behind the car in which the murder took place. Mormando wasn't the only crew member murdered by Gravano due to the drug epidemic. Michael DeBatt, the son of a late friend of Gravano's had also become addicted to crack cocaine. DeBatt's wife came to Gravano pleading for help. She told Gravano DeBatt stayed up at night with a gun claiming "they were coming to get him." Gravano had taken DeBatt under his wing after the elder DeBatt's death, as he had done with Joey D' Angelo. Gravano responded to DeBatt's wife's cry's for help by having DeBatt shot to death at Gravano's bar Tally's. The shooters emptied the cash register and left DeBatt in the bar to make it look like a robbery.
Not long after this, Gravano became the family's consigliere and his old crew was taken over by Louis "Big Lou" Vallario. Louie Milito, Gravano's old buddy from the his childhood days with the Rampers, was not pleased with this decision. Milito made the mistake of telling other crew members that it was he who should have been given the top spot in Gravano's crew after Gravano's promotion, and not Valario. Gravano claimed in his book Underboss that before the Castellano hit, Milito had become much closer to Castellano and Bilotti. Castellano had informed Milito that Gravano should have been killed after the unsanctioned murder of Frank Fiala as well as after Gravano threatened fellow made man Louie DiBono. With John Gotti and the Bergin crew in hot water with the indictment of Angelo Ruggerio on heroin distribution charges, Milito feared Gravano and his crew could be in danger of being killed same as Gotti once Neil Dellacroce died. Milito, according to Gravano, severed business ties with Gravano and started a loanshark operation with Tommy Bilotti. When Castellano and Bilotti were murdered, Milito was in prison. Upon his release, Gravano claims Gotti wanted Milito killed. Gravano claims he stood up for Milito and stopped the murder from happening. After reading Milito the riot act, Milito returned to Gravano's crew, only to badmouth his old friends choice of Valario as captain after Gravano's promotion. Milito was called to a meeting to discuss the murder of a Gambino associate. Gene Gotti, John Carneglia, Louie Valario and Arnold Squitieri were present at the meeting as well as Gravano. While Milito was drinking some espresso, Carneglia shot him to death. Milito's body has never been found. Milito's wife Linda claims in her book Mafia Wife that when Louie Milito did not come home or call, she went to see Gravano at his home. Gravano gave her $5,000 and cut all ties to her according to Linda Milito. Linda also wrote that a friend saw Gravano driving Louie Milito's Lincoln and was able to identify it by damage done to the car before Louie Milito went missing. Linda Milito would cry foul in her book after Gravano testified he had not been the shooter in Louie Milito's murder after a Gambino family member would latter tell her that it was infact Gravano who had shot and killed Louie Milito, contrary to what Gravano told the FBI. Gravano, however, claims in his book Underboss that after Milito was killed he finished the construction work Milito was having done on his home and continued to support Linda Milito and her family.
Despite Gravano's rise in status to consigliere, Gotti continued to use Gravano for the task of murder. In May of 1988, Gravano and Robert Bisaccia, a New Jersey crime family soldier, murdered Francessco Oliverri. Oliverri had beaten a Gambino family crew member to death. Bisaccia shot Oliverri to death while Gravano waited in a stolen get-away car. After Oliverri, John Gotti had finally got around to taking care of Wilfred "Willie Boy" Johnson. Johnson had been a childhood friend of Gotti's and a long time crew member while Gotti was captain of the Bergin crew. However at Gotti's RICO trial, Diane Giacalone, the head prosector, revealed the Johnson had been an informant for the FBI for years. Johnson refused to testify for the prosecution. In Underboss Gravano claims that Gotti met with Johnson during the trial and informed Johnson that as long as he never testified against Gotti he and his family would not be harmed. Johnson would never be allowed to participate in mob matters again, however. Johnson asked Gotti to swear on his dead son, Frank Gotti, who had been killed in a tragic accident years ago. Gotti swore. Now Gotti was having second thoughts. "John discussed how it should go, using me to bounce off ideas about the best way to do it. That was my only involvement," Gravano explained. Johnson was shot while walking to his car to go to work in front of his house in May 1988. In 1990, Gravano was involved in two murders, the first of which was Eddie Garofalo, a demolition contractor who mad ethe mistake of running afoul of the Gambino's. On August 9, 1990, Garofalo was shot to death in front of his home as arranged by Gravano.
The last murder to involve Gravano was the murder of Louie DiBono, the made man Gravano had threatened to kill. Gravano described the reasons for the murder in Underboss:
"He was still robbing the family and I asked for permission to take him out. But John had a meeting with DiBono, and DiBono told John that he had a billion dollars of drywall work that was coming out of the World Trade Center. John bit, hook, line and sinker, and refused my request. John said he would handle DiBono personally and become his partner. But DiBono was up to his old tricks double-dealing. He had obviously been bullshitting John. So when John called Louie in for meetings to discuss their new partnership, DiBono didn't show up. John was humiliated.This meant an automatic death penalty. John gave the contract to DiBono's captain, Pat Conte. Conte botched an ideal opportunity to kill DiBono. Then, as Gotti grew increasingly impatient, Conte explained that the problem now was trying to corner DiBono again. Whenever a meeting with him was arranged, DiBono never appeared.It was a joke, what was going on. I couldn't help laughing to myself. I told John why didn't Pat simplify everything. Just call Louie up and tell him to hang himself. Ten months went by. John looks like an asshole. He was too embarrassed even to ask me for help."
A construction associate of Gravano's unkowingly informed Gravano of DiBono's activities. Gravano informed Gotti and DiBono's body was found in his car in the parking lot of the World Trade Center in October of 1990. Gravano's intentions for this murder would be called into question as it was suspected Gravano may have had different reasons for wanting DiBono dead due to his jealousy of DiBono's drywall business.
With Gotti's permission, Gravano set up the murders of longtime friend and made man Liborio Milito, capo Robert DiBernardo, Tommy Spero, and several other Gambino associates. Eventually, Gotti would name Gravano his underboss, and move LoCascio to consigliere.
When Gotti was tried for racketeering and assault charges in the winter of 1986-87, Gravano paid a juror to vote not guilty regardless of what happened. It was this trial that allowed Gotti to make his reputation as "the Teflon Don."
After being acquited of the shooting of union official John O'Connor, Gotti received word from a mole that indictments were coming down for Gotti, Gravano, Gambino consigliere Frank LoCascio, and captain Thomas Gambino. Gotti ordered Gravano to go on the lam to avoid arrest so that if Gotti was arrested, Gravano could run the family while on the run himself. Gravano hid out in various places on the east coast for two weeks before being ordered to return for a meeting at the Ravenite Social club in Little Italy. On the night of the meeting, Gotti, Gravano, and LoCascio were arrested by the FBI. In court proceedings Gravano heard FBI tapes of conversations in which Gotti disparged him for being too greedy and "creating and family within a family." Gotti also discussed several murders in which Gravano was involved and worded it to sound like Gravano was a greedy "mad dog" killer. When confronted about his comments, Gotti, according to Gravano, told Gravano it was his fault and Gravano shouldn't have been so greedy. Gotti's behavior became increasingly strange while locked up with Gravano in the Metropolitan Correctional Center; for instance, he ordered Gravano and LoCascio to cheer for Iraq while they were watching coverage of the Gulf War.
Gravano began to see the writing on the wall when Gotti informed Gravano he would not be allowed to converse with his lawyers unless Gotti was present. Gravano suspected Gotti's defense to consist of Gotti's lawyers portraying Gotti as a peace-loving boss falling all over himself to restrain the kill-crazy Gravano, resulting in a conviction for Gravano and an acquital for Gotti.
In 1991 Gravano famously turned state's evidence and testified against Gotti in exchange for a reduced sentence. John Gotti received a sentence of life imprisonment. Gravano, who confessed to taking part in nineteen murders, was convicted of a token racketeering charge and sentenced to five years. As part of Gravano's cooperation agreement, he would never be forced to testify against his former crew, which included Louis Vallario, Michael DiLeonardo, Frank Fappiano, Edward Garafola, Thomas Carbonaro, Joseph DeAngelo and many other career criminals and wiseguys.
Gravano was released early and then entered the U.S. federal Witness Protection Program, but he left it in 1995 and relocated to Arizona. Ironically, Gravano began living very openly in Arizona, giving interviews to magazines and appearing in an interview with Diane Sawyer. He appeared on live tv after having had plastic surgery to hide his appearance from the mob. In one interview with Howard Blum, Gravano boasted:
Gravano wrote a book called Underboss with author Peter Mass, which became the target of the families of his victims, who filed a $25 million dollar lawsuit against him for damages. Gravano even hired a publicist, despite the fact Gravano complained often about the publicity seeking Gotti. During an interview Gravano gave to the Arizona Republic, Gravano claimed federal agents he had met afterturning state's evidence had become his personal friends and stopped by his home when on vacation. By 1998, however he had resumed his life of crime and partnered with a local white supremacist youth gang known as the "Devil Dogs" after his son became friends with the gang's 23-year-old leader Micheal Papa. Gravano and the Devil Dogs started a major ecstasy trafficking organization, selling over 25,000 tablets a week.
But by February 2000, the law caught up with him and he was convicted in October 2002. He is currently serving a 19-year sentence in an Arizona state prison. His son was also imprisoned for 9 years for his role in the drug ring. His wife and daughter were also charged but were not imprisoned. Ironically, Gravano's downfall was due to informers among his own associates.
On February 24, 2003, New Jersey state prosecutors announced they would pursue murder charges against Gravano for allegedly ordering the hit on decorated NYPD detective Peter Calabro on the night of March 14, 1980.. The charges were later dropped, however, when the star witness, imprisoned hit man Richard Kuklinski, died of unknown causes before he could testify. Kuklinski's claims have been highly questioned as Gravano himself was an accomplished hitman and would therefore have no reason to hire Kuklinski to kill someone his crew was perfectly capable of killing. On top of this Kuklinski has also claimed responsibility for over 300 murders including Paul Castellano, Carmine Galante, Roy DeMeo, and Jimmy Hoffa, making his claims highly unbelievable. Federal inmates who served time with Gravano, however, say the mob turncoat privately admitted to his role in the 1980 killing of a New York cop. Inmates claimed Gravano bragged about killing many more than 19 people. Linda Milito claimed in her book Mafia Wife she had heard Gravano had smothered an elderly woman to death during a robbery gone wrong and that she was informed by Gravano's former crew members that Gravano had shot her husband Louie Milito twice in the back of the head and once under the chin, contradicting Gravano's former statements that he had simply been standing by the night Milito was shot. John Gotti's lawyers brought accusations that Gravano had been involved in the murders of two other individuals not disclosed to the FBI, however these accusations were never proven. If proved that Gravano lied about how many people he killed, appeals by people he helped put in prison could follow.
Since Gravano's imprisonment on drug charges he has contracted graves disease, a thyroid disorder which causes fatigue, weight loss with increased appetite, and hair loss. Gravano appeared at his drug trial missing hair on his head and eyebrows and appeared to have lost a good amount of weight. In Phillip Carlo's book Confessions of a Mafia Boss, based on the life of Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso, Casso, who is housed in the same Colorado Supermax facility as Gravano, claims that Gravano only ventures out of his cell to get food and that Casso has only seen him in the mess hall a couple of times. According to Casso, Gravano looks like "a dying AIDS patient" and shakes uncontrollably.