One week ago today marked the 30th anniversary of a tragic day that changed the course of the American Mafia, and signaled the start of the reign of the most famous mobster in modern day history. On December 16, 1985, Paul Castellano, boss of the all-powerful Gambino Family, was whacked outside of Sparks Steakhouse along with his underboss Thomas Bilotti. The assassination was orchestrated by John Gotti, who would go on to rise to be don of the Gambino clan. The assassination went down in La Cosa Nostra lore as “The Hit of the Century.”
Castellano got his start as a high-level mafioso when he became a caporegime in the Mangano Family (what the Gambino Family before Carlo Gambino rose to power) under the legendary Albert Anastasia. He approached mob life with a more business-like approach than others. He made huge profits for the Mafia through his poultry distribution company, Dial Poultry, which supplied 300 New York City butchers and a couple of supermarket chains (they were coerced into buying from Dial through intimidation). “Big Paulie” also made a lot of money through his concrete ventures. He basically had his hand in all of the concrete poured for all major building projects in New York and Long Island.
The iconic Carlo Gambino named Castellano as his successor. Castellano became boss after Gambino’s death in 1976. Many in the Gambino Family were not pleased with decision. Naysayers wanted to see Aniello “Neil” Dellacroce assume the role as boss. Dellacroce had his hand in more traditional mob businesses (i.e. extortion, hijacking, gambling, robbery, loansharking, murder), and he was seen as more of a “gangster” than Castellano. Many felt as though Castellano was soft. The decision was polarizing and in-feuding began in the family.
One Dellacroce loyalist was then-capo John Gotti. Gotti was on Castellano’s shit-list anyway, because he was secretly selling heroin, and narcotics trafficking was a huge no-no. Castellano had plans of breaking up Gotti’s crew. Gotti’s crew ended up getting caught up in a federal sting. When it was learned that government tapes were given to the attorney of Angelo Ruggiero talking about the heroin trade, Castellano demanded that the tapes be turned over to him. The tapes gave him the proof he needed to have Gotti whacked. He was egged on even more to kill Gotti by Genovese boss Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, who was known for walking around in pajamas and a bathrobe (he did so to appear insane, so he could be case after case).
Gotti found his boss vulnerable when the Mafia Commission Trial was announced in 1985. Led by then-US Attorney Rudy Giulliani, federal forces brought RICO charges against all of the bosses of the Five Families and other key players in the mob. Castellano and Dellacroce were two of the nine charged. Never before had a RICO case been levied against La Cosa Nostra. Previously, only individuals were brought to justice. With RICO charges, the entire operation could be hit hard. The case was made by bugs placed in key bosses’ places of business, including Castellano’s luxurious Staten Island mansion nicknamed “The White House” (as well as Lucchese boss “Tony Ducks” Corallo’s Jaguar and Genovese (perceived) boss “Fat Tony” Salerno’s candy store/social club). Gangsters-turned-rats (most notably Colombo hitman Gregory “The Grim Reaper” Scarpa) and the previous infiltration by Joe Pistone a.k.a “Donnie Brasco” also played significant roles in the case.
Giulliani and the feds were successful and got all of the bosses locked away forever, and proved for the first time, without a doubt, that there was a Mafia. However, Castellano and Dellacroce never saw the end of the trial. Dellacroce died of terminal cancer during the trial. Castellano was out on bail at the time, but failed to attend Dellacroce’s wake. This was seen as disrespect by Dellacroce’s guys, especially Gotti. Gotti also wanted to be the Gambino boss, so he saw this as the perfect opportunity to take Castellano out.
Initial plans were to whack Castellano outside of his mansion, but it was way too hot with all the feds watching. Gotti learned that Castellano and underboss Bilotti were going to dinner at Sparks Steakhouse. Gotti assembled his crew. There were about 15 guys on the street at the time, mostly lookouts. Gotti waited in a car driven by hitman Salvatore “Sammy The Bull” Gravano, who communicated with the four shooters laying in wait by walkie talkie. When Castellano and Bilotti drove up and exited their car, the shooters ran up and unloaded on them, leaving the boss and underboss lying in pools of blood on the street.
Not too long after, Gotti was named boss of Gambino Family, and brought a flash to the Mafia that hadn’t been seen in awhile. “The Dapper Don” was a superstar on the streets and in the media. However, he was not out of the woods yet. To kill a boss, one needs to get permission from the Commission (the Mafia’s ruling body). Gotti didn’t get permission to kill Castellano. Most angered was Gigante who made millions with Castellano. He enlisted Lucchese underboss Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso to kill Gotti. Gaspipe almost got Gotti with a car bomb, but Gotti didn’t get in the car. Gotti’s underboss, Frank Decicco, however was killed by the last. A war ensued and more blood was spilled. Eventually, Gotti, Gigante and Casso came to the table and agreed to a truce. Gotti went on to lead a legendary Mafia career until his conviction in 1992, made possible by Gravano’s flipping. Gotti died in prison.
Nevertheless, the John Gotti-led assassination of Paul Castellano changed the face of La Cosa Nostra forever.