Andrew DiDonato on Life in Gambino Capo Nicky Corozzo's Crew

Andrew DiDonato's downfall was already under way before he even realized it.

Andrew Didonato, former Gambino associate

The onetime former Gambino associate knew his boss and cohorts were sizing him for a body bag.

Andrew's book (written with true-crime writer Dennis N. Griffin, Surviving the Mob: A Street Soldier's Life in the Gambino Crime Family) is dense with details of his many years on the street as a Gambino associate in the crew run by capo Nicholas "Little Nick" Corozzo.

DiDonato made enemies out of major leaders in two crime families (in the end, three, including his own) during his years on the street.

He once shot another man point blank in the head. The man stumbled onto the ground, surviving the first shot. He would not have survived the next shot, which DiDonato crouched down to administer. He pressed the gun's muzzle to the wounded man's head and was set to squeeze the trigger -- when he noticed a witness staring at him. DiDonato dashed into the night and his target lived to see another day.

Another time Andrew and his crew were looking for somebody else on the hit list (this person had killed one of Corozzo's crew); they hunted him, tried to decipher his daily schedule, drove around in the Brooklyn night looking.... hunting... The target was affiliated with a Luchese crew that operated in proximity to Andrew's own Gambino crew. With Five Families in the city, wiseguys tended to trip over each other. Such skirmishes were the norm; they usually were fixed via a sitdown -- or not fixed and led to bodies found on the street.

Little Nicky supported his crew, wanted the Luchese member dead. To get around attempts by a Luchese capo (Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso) to save the guy in a sit down, the word was put out that whoever the Luchese gunman had killed, he had not been associated with Little Nicky and his crew.

Corozzo, who had a lot on his plate, kept his eye on how his crew handled this particular piece of work.

"If this happened to a friend of Lenny [DiMaria] and me, the guy that did it would be dead already,"Little Nicky told Andrew one night when he was annoyed the hit was taking too long.

The "mark" was finally shot down, but as fate would have it, Andrew wasn't with the crew on the night they got him.

That killing was part of a larger ongoing battle between Little Nicky's crew and the Luchese family crew. But the hit was more significant in that it sent a message to other crews and crime families: Little Nicky had a crew of killers under his auspices.

Andrew knew his time was up -- that soon or later he would be killed -- when he was asked to do something he never should have been asked to do, something that violated a basic Mafia code.

"They started asking me to bring in off-the-record people. Drug dealers, the ones I was shaking down," he told me over the phone. I was in New York, not far from his old stomping grounds. His voice reached my ear from somewhere in that vast rural and suburban swath of the U.S. known as "Middle America."

It was then that the tripwire in Andrew's mind detonated.

A lot was happening at the time, around 1996-97, but with that request, Andrew was finally able to see, for the first time probably, with complete clarity.

Little Nicky was aware of a pending pinch. In so many words, he let his crew know that while he was away, a lot of work -- he made the universal sign of the pistol with his hand, pointing outward his thumb and index finger -- a lot of work was going to need to be done. "Baby Huey" was to be whacked first. That was Nicky's pet name for John Junior Gotti.

In the larger context, the flashy dapper Senior Gotti was already away (in prison). Little Nicky, for reasons he never divulged to Andrew, wanted his crew to clean up for him, which included whacking Junior and a lot of other people he didn't then name, while he was in jail following his expected upcoming arrest.

(Little Nicky Corozzo knew he was going to be arrested but didn't realize how long he'd be in prison. In August 1997, the media crowned him the new boss of the Gambino family; within a month, Corozzo had pled guilty to racketeering charges in Florida and was sentenced to five to 10 years in prison. After Corozzo's 2004 release from prison he kept a low profile as capo due to intense law enforcement attention. In 2006, Corozzo and Jackie D'Amico supposedly were part of a panel leading the family. But then, in 2009 Corozzo, was again arrested and (after lamming it for a while) was sentenced to around 13 years in prison for ordering a gangland hit that left an innocent bystander dead. Now incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution, Loretto, his projected release date is March 2, 2020.)

Andrew had been told to bring his drug dealers in and put them on record, which was strange, if not bizarre, to Andrew. "They never asked me to do this for them before," he said.

Made guys and associates are not allowed to deal drugs directly, though this "rule" -- probably more of a guideline, rule of thumb? -- is broadly interpreted. Many guys like Andrew shook down drug dealers, slews of them. Andrew reaped a fortune off dealers affiliated with him, in fact. (Others employed different methods of earning off drug dealers; the Bonanno family's Tommy "Karate" Pitera was known for killing and robbing them.)

The Gambino family asking DiDonato to put his dealers on record woke him to some startling possibilities. "I started to realize this could be them putting me to sleep and liquidating my assets. The only thing that kept me alive was that they thought they had more time. They were counting my money. You don’t want to believe this is happening to you. It woke me up and I realized..."

He told me of an expression often used in the Mafia: “It's always safer to send flowers." Meaning that it is better to kill a guy if there's a chance of him doing anything that could incriminate you.

"If a guy can hurt you with information, you make sure you take them out. I was in a life or death situation. All my life they were like brothers to me. For them it was all business. I realized I was expendable and that they were gonna hurt me. Once the boss knows that there's a jail sentence waiting for him because of you...

"Imagine if your old friends were powerful enough to kill you. The only thing I could do was beat them with the truth... That was my only weapon.

"I am not proud of how things played out. And I have regrets. But becoming a government witness is not one of them."

A street guy lives in many different worlds at once. In one world, he is a thief, a criminal developing complicated webs of revenue-generating rackets; he continues spinning new webs as old ones grow or shrink. At the same time, he has to deal with other people who also live in that world. He forms alliances with some, maybe makes enemies out of others. This represents another world of the life of a Mafia associate, a political world, where in the mob there is a whole slew of rules that go counter to the rules the ordinary citizen follows.

At one point, Andrew, trying to protect a friend, was arguing with William "Wild Bill" Cutolo over money. The arguing grew quite loud and threatened to verge into physical aggression.

How could an associate act that way toward a man like Wild Bill, a heavyweight Colombo capo who many believe was Victor "Little Vic" Orena's chief enforcer during the inter-family war of the early 1990s?

"I knew he was a dangerous man, but I was a street guy too. If you're in organized crime you have to carry yourself a certain way. You can't let anyone back you up because that’s considered to be weakness," he said.

Didn't Wild Bill know that you couldn't back down at that point?

"Yeah, but he looks at me and he sees a young kid. There is a long history of respect there. I have nothing negative to say about [any of the Cutolo family]. Very few guys who dealt with Carmine Persico came out with their life in tact."

He added: "With that other person there [meaning Wild Bill; Andrew doesn't like to say names, I noticed] it could have been handled differently. I thought about that for a long while afterward, especially after what happened to him." (Cutolo disappeared in 1999; his body was found in October 2008, in a field in East Farmingdale, New York.)

As for mobsters like John Gotti and Gaspipe Casso, Andrew said: "There are guys in the street 10-times more deadlier than John Gotti. And Gaspipe wasn't known [outside the mob world] at the time. He was considered a serious, dangerous guy."

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"Hey, kid, how ya doin?"

[Andrew never had any direct dealings with Gaspipe, although Casso had, in fact, tried to get Andrew killed during a sit down with Little Nicky. At the table, Little Nicky let Gaspipe stew on and on about Andrew until finally Corozzo showed his hand, informing Casso that, he, Little Nicky himself, had been in a car talking to Andrew one night when one of Gaspipe's shooters opened up, cracking the windshield in front of Little Nicky. Corozzo told Gaspipe, what about that? "What about your guy shooting at me?" Gaspipe had no choice but to walk away from the sit down, beaten.

Apparently, despite all this, Gaspipe had never actually seen Andrew. "Only time I remember meeting him, we were in bakery on Avenue A," Andrew recalled. "He said, 'Hey, kid, how ya doin'?' 'I’m doing good, how are you?' I wonder if he knew who I was," DiDonato told me.]

I asked about Corozzo, who saved Andrew from Gaspipe Casso, but in the end, wanted him dead.

"Nicky was a really big earner," DiDonato said. "He had the mindset of the boss."

"Nicky was a natural leader... Knew how to get the best out of you. He knew how to split the ranks, divide and conquer... He was a real shrewd operator, brother."

I asked him for specifics on the supposed plot to murder Junior.

"[Nicky] could have been blowing smoke. There was never another conversation [about killing Junior]. [Nicky] wasn’t happy about some kind of business thing they had going on, I think with phone cards," Andrew said.

"Nicky was in the street 24/7; at 3 in the morning we’d be driving back from a robbery or whatever and see Nicky in another car, coming from the other way.

"He was in the trenches. Nicky lived it, he was it, he talked it, he backed it up."

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