by Jeff Canarsie
It's the stuff legends are made of. It's also one of the most brazen mob hits to ever happen. Granted, some may argue that the hit on Albert Anastasia was one of the biggest ever, but those were also the days when whacking a mob boss wasn't unheard of. It just so happens that the Castellano hit and the Anastasia hit have three degrees of separation. Why? It was Carlo Gambino who set the hit of Anasta
sia in motion, and he was also the one who gave Big Paul the reigns of the Gambino crime family over Aniello Dellacroce on his deathbed.
What has been written over time about the Castellano hit has been diluted. I say diluted because so many people have written about that night in 1985, that the reasons behind the murder of Paul Castellano and Thomas Bilotti have gotten lost in the headlines sprayed by blood and brain matter.
Some writers have gotten the facts down. Yes, we know Castellano was murdered. We know the players involved, but along the way there have been some facts, at least from a street level that haven't been discussed at length, nor have they been accurate. It's time to do both.
What is known, or what's been reported, is this. Paul Castellano was named de facto boss of the Gambino crime family in 1976on Carlo Gambino's death bed. Carlo had a decision to make between street mobster Aniello Dellacroce, and his cousin Paul Castellano. At the t
ime, both were capo's, but Castellano had been semi-acting as an interim boss as Carlo's health was failing.
From the Dellacroce perspective, he was a street thug, tough guy, with a long history of being loyal and being incredibly violent when asked. He was essentially every single Joe Pesci character ever played in every mob movie but with one subtle difference. He was highly intelligent.
On the Castellano front, he was blood. He was loyal, but he was anything but a gangster. He was more of a businessman than a mobster. It wasn't that Castellano wasn't capable of being a ruthless killer, but
he molded himself and fancied himself like Frank Purdue of Purdue chicken fame. He erred on the side of business rather than the side of gangster. Paul took his cues from his cousin, and and he employed mob shake down tactics to line his pockets with his blue ribbon meats company, he just didn't have the acumen for murder. Not that he wasn't capable, he just preferred business over murder.
When Carlo Gambino made his decision, he set in motion perhaps two key factors. The first was that the Gambino crime family would grow in size while continuing to be profitable, and the second was that he would throw his cousin into the flames which would essentially get him killed. Carlo felt that have someone business minded was best for his family, and so the
decision came down and Big Paulie Castellano became the boss of the Gambino crime family.
This decision by Carlo had a negative effect on other members of the crime family. For starters, many of the crews operating under the Gambino umbrella felt that Aniello Dellacroce was the better fit. He was working the streets like the rest of them, and he fit the mold perhaps better in the eyes of those around him. He represented them, whereas Paul represented more of a business tycoon who had not really earned his position other than by being related to Carlo.
If Dellacroce was upset by the move, it would be short lived. As an olive branch Castellano made Dellacroce the underboss, which was more likely to cool heads than to put the family into splinters. The problem was, the family would splinter under Castellano's reign.
As Castellano took over, he began to legitimize illegal profits. In simpler terms he began taking illegal profits and turning them into legitimate businesses much in the way Michael Corleone told Kay he would. The problem in that, is that it gave the appearance to street level guys that he was above the muck and grime that they were trudging through. Granted, a boss should NOT have to do the grimy work because they have "earned" their position, but that wasn't the overwhelming feeling on the street.
As the family grew and more illegal businesses began to flourish, Castellano made his first major mistake. He became greedy. Under Gambino members would filter money up from the capo's to Carlo and everyone made enough to feel satisfied. Nobody was starving on the streets. Under Castellano however he demanded 15%+ of all illegal activities in the city, and from his own men. Keep in mind Castellano had many legitimate businesses including the blue ribbon meats which had already made him a multimillionaire. In other words, he wasn't hurting for money. The problem was guys began to struggle on the streets financially, while Castellano sat in his mansion barking orders and bellyaching about money non stop as if he were poor. This enraged nobody more than John Gotti.
Gotti had two issues with Castellano. The first issue was Gotti felt Castellano wasn't a gangster. He felt that Aniello had been passed over, and in accordance with the street, the rightful boss should have been Dellacroce. He complained to Dellacroce, but accepted the fact that Castellano was boss even if he didn't like it. The other issue Gotti had with Castellano was profits from drugs. It was one thing if the boss was going to issue an edict about drug sales, but it was another for a boss to systematically choke his own men, meanwhile taking drug profits of his own. There was a hypocrisy there, and Gotti saw it and loathed it. To paraphrase the thought, "You mean to tell me I have to pay this and this and this, but I can't make money doing this? Even when you're doing it?"
While historians will say that Gotti should have just fallen in line and done what he was told to do, I believe there was a resounding agitation from all street guys over Castellano's orders and hypocrisy. The edict by Carlo Gambino has been misrepresented for a long time by reporters and authors. Carlo Gambino made huge profits off of heroin. There was never an edict that said "Sell drugs and die." That's Hollywood bullshit right there. Silently, the edict was "get caught selling drugs and die." Which would be a lot more appropriate. The mob never had a moral compunction against drug sales, the problem was the risk was often to high, and the prison sentences were extremely lengthy. The idea that "It was a dirty back stabbing business," as quoted by Marlon Brando in The Godfather was simply just a side note to a bigger problem the mob faced if caught moving narcotics.
When Angelo Ruggiero was caught discussing drug trafficking, which led to an indictment, all bets were off. A part of the problem was, Angelo had a loud mouth. With new RICO statutes at the Government's disposal, it meant that Paul Castellano could be charged with narcotics trafficking because he was the boss of the Gambino crime family.
Castellano had already been under indictment, but the Ruggiero tapes created a real problem for Castellano. On one hand, he was in his right to kill the entire crew involved, which John Gotti oversaw, but the reality is, Castellano would have ended up in prison the rest of his life anyway at the commission trial. It was Ruggiero's taped conversations that got Castellano indicted on the second set of charges.
Castellano's house had already been bugged, and over 500 hours of conversations which included profits and rackets had been openly discussed by Castellano. The one thing Castellano seemed to be bothered by was Ruggiero and not his own loose lips. While he waited for his own trial to begin, he asked Dellacroce to get the tapes, which should have been in the defense attorney's hands already, so he could listen to them and figure out how to beat the case, and how to deal with the Gotti crew. He bellyached to Dellacroce non stop about those tapes. The funny thing is, Castellano already had the tapes and was simply testing Dellacroce's loyalty. Dellacroce would stall for time, but he had terminal cancer and wouldn't last much longer.
On one of the FBI's wiretaps you can hear Ruggiero refusing to give up "them tapes, because there would good friends of his on them tapes." Gotti in perhaps a moment of surety tells Ruggiero "While he's the boss, you have to do what he tells you." Then Dellacroce chimed in "this is why you don't understand Cosa Nostra." We can chalk this up to both Dellacroce and Gotti telling Ruggiero to give up the tapes, but I honestly believe that none of them had any honest thoughts of giving up the tapes. If they did, it would give Castellano every right to kill each of them. They knew enough to know, stalling was perhaps the best move they could make.
From Castellano's perspective, they had been caught dealing drugs, therefore he was fully in his right to kill the entire crew. Gotti knew this, Ruggiero knew this, Dellacroce knew this. Stalling would only last for so long, but Castellano also had the Roy Demeo problem at the same time.
Roy Demeo had essentially gotten Castellano dragged into court over his car theft ring. Once again the RICO act could be used against Castellano, and the last thing Castellano wanted was to be tied to murders and everything else. Castellano feared Roy DeMeo, and he felt that Roy might fold under questioning, and so he dispatched Nino Gagi, Anthony Senter and Joey Testa to kill Roy DeMeo. Some authors have written that it was John Gotti who was sent for, and told to kill DeMeo and that he refused out of fear. Absolutely, one hundred percent, not true.
The reason why this is not accurate is because at the time the Ruggiero drug ordeal had begun. The last thing Castellano would have wanted is that crew, or anyone associated in that crew attached to a Roy DeMeo murder. Additionally, Roy
Gotti's problem at the end of the day is that he realized that if Castellano wanted to kill him, he could and not many would fight that order. Granted as long as Dellacroce was alive Gotti would be safe, but soon after Dellacroce died, Gotti had zero options on the table.
The final nail in the coffin for Paul Castellano was not going to the funeral of his longtime friend and underboss Aniello Dellacroce. Castellano supporters will say that Castellano didn't go because he was already under indictment and going to a mob funeral just wasn't a good. Better to be seen and not heard. Gotti took it personally as he should have, but what Gotti didn't know, was that Castellano didn't go because he felt betrayed by Dellacroce. Paul had already listened to the Ruggiero tapes and knew that Dellacroce was being loyal to Gotti over him. It put Paul in an awkward situation, and Paul had to act, but was fighting two indictments at the time. So it's my belief that Paul skipped that funeral more out of bitterness than because of what the FBI suspected at the time.
Movies and films and books will write that John Gotti arranged the murder of Paul Castellano because he wanted to be boss and didn't want to wait. They will also say he did it without the commission's approval. Neither is true in the case of John Gotti. Also keep in mind, we only know that John Gotti was involved because of the testimony of an informant in Salvatore Gravano, so I caution you to not believe everything you hear about this.
Let's assume, that John Gotti was the one who arranged the hit on Castellano. First we have to understand why Castellano needed to go to begin with.
1. Castellano was not a gangster and a businessmen.
2. Street level guys were starving under Castellano
3. Castellano had brought in the Westies and couldn't control them
Why the Westies is imporant is because Castellano allowed The Westies to operate in Hells Kitchen and had completely lost control of Jimmy Coonan. It brought heat from the FBI and other crime families. That would unravel itself with Mickey Featherstone would turn informant. Those murders would also fall on the head of Paul Castellano.
4. Castellano would likely attempt to kill Gotti and his entire crew.
If you take those four points, by themselves, it's obvious the decision that had to be made. Gotti had no choice. It was kill or be killed, but then again one could make the argument that the killing of Castellano wasn't really needed because had Castellano gone through a complete trial, the odds are he would be locked away for the rest of his natural life, but we will never know.
Another facet to this is that there was a strong belief on the street that Castellano might even become an informant. I believe that's unfounded, because twice Castellano did time and didn't utter a word against anyone, but times were chaotic for the Gambino's.
Castellano had a right to be angry with the Gotti crew, however his own actions and words put him into the position he was in, and justifiable or not, it wasn't Ruggiero who would be the reason Paul went to prison. It would be Paul's big mouth, and his actions that would lead him down that path. Granted Ruggiero didn't help matters, but let's not forget Dominick Montiglio and Mickey Featherstone(both rats) in this ordeal. Paul was done regardless and why Angelo has been the scapegoat all these years is absurd.
If we take all of this into consideration, and if we believe for the purposes of this article that John Gotti had no other options, then how is it, Gotti was wrong from a street perspective? Authors and pundits claim that Gotti acted on his own, and killing a boss was so against the rules, that Gotti took over the Gambino's by force rather than brains. Well didn't Carlo do that to? Yep, twice. Didn't Vincent Gigante do that? Yep, well he attempted to kill Costello and failed miserably but the effect was enough for Costello to step aside. He also was behind the Angelo Bruno murder. How is what "Gotti did" any different from anyone else? It's not.
There is also a strange tale being woven that somehow Gotti didn't have permission from the other families, and once again acted on his own without fear of repercussions. All of this is simply false and untrue, and makes for "reasonable doubt."
Gotti according to my source, went to all the families involved. Each signed off on the murder of Castellano. When I say each this also includes Vincent "the chin" Gigante. He was "off the record," on it meaning he would deny culpability and complicity, but off the record he was okay with the move. What's been told since is that Gigante twice tried to kill Gotti, and while on the streets that may be the way it appeared, believe me, it's not the case. John Gotti was recognizable. How anyone can tell me they got confused between Frankie DeCicco and John Gotti when that car bomb went off is beyond laughable. I am not speculating that Gotti knew that DeCicco would be killed, not at all, rather than Gigante took a shot on one of the Gotti guys because in the streets it looked good. Eye for an eye and all that stuff. It would be enough to stifle everyone else, and would end whatever issue there was. The proof is that, they tried twice and stopped. Why? If they wanted Gotti that bad believe me as "seen" as Gotti was on the streets it would have been pretty easy.
Gotti had the support of those around him, and if we believe Gravano's words, then what happened, happened because Paul was a hinderence to the bottom line. I'm not justifying murder, but I am justifying the ends justify the means here from a street level.
So in final, if we rewind the tape, and look at Castellano from a boss perspective, he wasn't the great leader Gambino thought he would be. His greediness and penchant for hypocrisy is what led to his demise. If Castellano made mistakes, the one mistake he truly made wasn't allowing John Gotti to live, but rather allowing his own mouth to create problems in a mob family that prior to his leadership was beyond powerful. He underestimated the power of those his own family, and considered himself untouchable. Had Castellano never been caught on his own wiretaps, never allowed the Westies to go nuts, and never allowed Roy DeMeo creative control, then perhaps, none of this would have happened the way it did. December 16, 1985 will always be a day of infamy, but at least now we know why.