Paul Castellano, head of the Gambino crime family and “boss of all bosses,” lay dead on the sidewalk. He was wedged between the open Lincoln Town Car door with a bullet in his face and five more in his chest and abdomen. He never stood a chance, and neither did his underboss, Tommy Bilotti, who tried to come to his rescue. Bilotti also took six rounds from the four button men, who then disappeared into the Manhattan night.
Big Paul Castellano Takes Control
Weeks earlier, the die had been cast. Big Paul had learned that Angelo (“Quack Quack”) Ruggeiro, a Gambino soldier and underling of John Gotti, was heard on a wiretap talking mob business. He earned the name “Quack Quack” because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut, which, as anyone knows, is a big problem in the world of organized crime.
Ruggeiro broke two cardinal laws of La Cosa Nostra: He was dealing heroin and, as usual, running his mouth about family business. This time it was recorded. Ruggeiro had to go, but he was in good company. The boss of all bosses wanted the whole Gotti crew whacked for their sins.
The streets were talking. The Gotti crew were as good as dead. They knew there was only one way out of this, but it was a longshot. They needed to build an alliance, play on Big Paul’s indiscretions and send him to “sleep with the fishes” instead.
After all, they weren’t the only ones breaking the rules; Big Paul himself had committed an unforgivable sin or two. He blew off the funeral of underboss Aniello (“Neal the Lamb”) Dellacroce. Dellacroce was a gangster’s gangster, a beloved La Cosa Nostra leader and a father figure to John Gotti.
Not attending his funeral was like spitting in Gotti’s face. To be sure, a lot of wise guys have mistresses, or “goomahs”; it’s a perk of being a mobster. But under the same roof with his wife and kids? That was unforgivable.
But mere rumors and missed funerals would not be enough to kill a sitting boss. They needed permission, and that required a person who could persuade others, a diplomat of sorts. John called on Salvatore (“Sammy the Bull”) Gravano. Sammy was a stone-cold killer and an earner. Wise guys, both young and old, respected him, and he was able to reason with the families. Without their permission, the hit would look like a power grab by the younger mobsters and would start a war.
The Gotti crew made themselves scarce while the politicking was going on. Luckily, for the drug-dealing crew, Paul Castellano was not well liked, and with him out of the way, everybody stood to make more money. It was that simple, and permission therefore granted.
While laying low with their ears to the streets, the Gotti crew got just the piece of information they needed. Castellano and his new underboss, Bilotti, had an upcoming meeting at Sparks Steak House.
On Dec. 16, 1985, members of the crew were lying in wait around the intersections at the Midtown Manhattan steak joint. Wise guys in cars had all the choke points covered. There would be no escape from this kill zone.
The Heat Is On
Crash cars were standing by to ram police cruisers if they gave chase. Gotti and Gravano sat in a tinted-out Lincoln. Gravano, with radio in hand, communicated with the team. Just before 5:30 p.m., Castellano’s car pulled up alongside Gotti and Gravano at a red light. The Bull radioed the team.
Four men in trench coats and Russian fur hats took up their positions and readied themselves in front of Sparks. While the Russian hats made the men stand out in Manhattan, they also made one shooter indistinguishable from another. It was all part of Sammy’s plan.
As the long, black Lincoln pulled alongside the curb and came to a stop in front of Sparks, Castellano and Bilotti stepped out of the car. Immediately, they became swarmed by the gunmen. The four shooters let off a volley of gun fire. They kept firing until they were sure that their prey was dead. With the sidewalk littered with shell casings, the shooters ran off and disappeared into a crowd.
In the aftermath, Gotti and Gravano slowly crept by the scene and took in the carnage. Both men lay in pools of their own blood. Big Paul and Bilotti were dead, and there was a new “boss of all bosses,” “The Teflon Don”—John Gotti.
The hit marked an end of an era. No more old-school rules. No more discreet mobsters. The old ways soon replaced with drug dealing, Brioni suits and a new, flamboyant mob boss.