The Mafia in a New Golden Era?

UPDATED on JAN, 22; 10:02pm

Michael DiLeonardo answered a slew of questions -- most of the ones that were posted. 

Mikie Scars was a capo in the Gambino crime family when John Gotti was boss. If you look below in the comments section, you'll see questions people have asked Michael about the Mafia, with his answers. I'm keeping this going indefinitely, as long as Michael doesn't mind. Feel free to ask away. Just remember it may take a few days to get answers, so please don't delete your questions....

With Mafia-related murders at an all-time low and cases involving major drug trafficking on the wane, we could very well be in an era that historians will one day recall as the American Cosa Nostra's golden age.

Michael DiLeonardo in his prime in the Gambino crime family
Mikie Scars suited up and ready for Freddy....

That's Michael DiLeonardo's assessment of the state of the mob today based on his recent interview on Intelligent Talk. For nearly an hour, DiLeonardo discussed Cosa Nostra life with Ralph W. McElvenny. With his usual pluck and candor, Michael touched on a dazzling array of topics, ranging from boyhood (his dream at age 10 was to be a capo in the Gambino crime family, "not a pilot") to events following a suicide attempt (they threw him in the hole) and signing out of the Witness Protection program ("The Marshalls want you out. They wanna play golf.")  He also tells us about the time when Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano thought about killing him. This story, however, doesn't encompass everything; I had to stop when I remembered I wasn't writing a book. (And, hey, it's Christmas, I want a day off too!) However, I did include the part about Gravano.

Asked if he would've done anything differently about living an outlaw life if he could go back in time, without blinking an eye, Michael said: "No. It was in my blood, every fiber of my being."

I have written quite a bit about Michael -- "a Gambino capo who was a top gun for John A. (Junior) Gotti," as Jerry Capeci several times described him-- and I plan on writing quite a bit more, if he allows it. I will try to avoid retreading familiar ground. (Check out some of the many stories I've written with Michael; probably the biggest is Michael DiLeonardo On the Gotti Reign.)

The mob learned its lesson, apparently, and has evolved accordingly. Seeing the lifetime prison sentences handed down for murder and drug dealing, wiseguys have wisely chosen to stay out of the two high-risk businesses that destroyed the life, Michael noted. Okay, there's Michael Meldish, the former Purple Gang boss who was offed in November 2013, but that was almost five years ago. The mob essentially has banned murders. The proof is that there's no bodies on the street. Or as Michael says, "they're not killing at the rate they did." If you have any doubts, try this experiment: Compare the mob murder rate for the past 10 years against any one year during the 1980s. Gangland, in those years, was a vast killing field, probably unlike anything seen since the dawn of organized crime.

"Something was in the air. Not only in New York, but in Philadelphia, Chicago -- every family in the country was killing everyone. Everyone was killing everyone.

"But you take the murders out, the massive drug dealing -- what are the Feds gonna pinch you for? Mopery?"

It's a matter of focus, Michael added.

"Today smart men are filling bank accounts. Years ago smart men did stupid things and filled up cemeteries."

To listen to the Interview, click:

Now is a better time to get involved than ever before, Michael basically says.

If you participate in any mob mainstays -- gambling, loan sharking, etc. -- it's worth doing the "skid bids," as he called them, referring to five-seven years in prison. "You don't even take your shoes off."

The Mafia is a deeply rooted, well-established organization that was "put together by a bunch of Italian immigrant criminals." Michael noted that one doesn't even have to be a member to benefit from the organization.

"You could sell water to restaurants, bread, linen -- you could go into any business with our network and make $3,000 to 4,000 a week and not have to deal drugs or kill anyone."

Button by Birthright
Growing up in the 1960s in Bath Beach, Brooklyn (which, he estimated, was 80-85 percent Italian), the wiseguys were everywhere. But, as Michael noted, not all of them were rich. Still, "they were the people we looked up to. They kept the neighborhood safe."

Michael was born into the Mafia. He was, by lineage, automatically an associate with a claim to a button. That's because of his grandfather, one of the original founders of the Mafia.

"My role 10-12 years old was to be a capo in the Gambino family," he said. "Not a pilot."

Growing up, Michael started off committing small-scale crimes with a neighborhood gang. They'd rob trucks -- all kinds of trucks, no matter what was in the back, whether it was bread or consumer electronics. Whatever they stole off the trucks they sold on the street.

How one conducts himself as a criminal on the street is how one gains the attention of local wiseguys. Michael showed he was an earner who could be trusted. In return, he eventually was taught some tricks of the trade -- such as bookmaking and shylocking -- by the world's leading experts. Eventually "some of my family members saw I had some skills and brought me closer. They officially put me on record."

He was made in 1988 on Christmas Eve in the same ceremony as John "Junior" Gotti and others, including Dominick (Skinny Dom) Pizzonia, a capo.

"I was told ahead of time I'd be straightened out - you're not supposed to be told, but I was." As for the ceremony itself, "I dressed in a suit and tie, and they brought me into a room. John Gotti Senior didn't participate because his son was involved in the ceremony and he didn't want the appearance of nepotism. That was a classy move, staying out of it like he did."

He recalled that 10-12 captains attended. "They sit you at the head of a rectangular table. They tell you, 'We've been watching you for a long time. This is a secret society, not a club. We pick you, you don't pick us." Then they ask: "Which finger you shoot with? They prick it, blood drips on picture of a saint (note: not a mass card, which is made of plastic and will burn your hand off) and they burn it in your hand. You say yes to omertĂ , then drop the ashes on the floor.

"You get hugs and kisses, then you sit down and they tell you about the hierarchy. They tell you the rules. The rules are everything you could get killed for. (In conversation, Michael told me: "I felt like asking what can I do that won't get me killed?")

Paul Zaccaria, whose father was a brother-in-law to "Toto" D'Aquila, one of Michael's mentors.

DiLeonardo, on Intelligent Talk, told a story about John Gotti and the DeCavalcante crime family. (Today the Gambinos control them; in the 1980s, John Gotti had a strong interest in the family's welfare. In fact, as Michael told it: "he had a stranglehold on them.")

"John had heard that they used a deck of playing cards instead of picture of a saint during the ceremony. John made them redo the making ceremony with the saint picture."

In explaining John's power over another crime family, Michael said: "We all have checks and balances. They came to us with their problems."

The Gotti Reign
The Ravenite social club on Mulberry Street in downtown Manhattan's Little Italy was ground zero for the Gambino crime family's administration during the Gotti era.
John Gotti's wake. Attending was one of Michael's last acts.

"John wanted to see everybody's face once a week -- if you weren't in prison. He wanted to see you in the club. Captains, soldiers, even some associates. He wanted to be able to observe you, see how you acted if he didn't know you well -- he wanted to assess you. He wanted to keep an eye on everybody. It was one of John's Machiavellian traits. He used them to the hilt. When he started to see me, he asked me to come around more and more as an associate."

After Michael was made, he got the equivalent, at the time, of a golden ticket: an invitation to see in the New Year with John Gotti in his home in Ozone Park. (He was invited over for the holiday twice.)

"Very few people go to John's house, for Christmas or anything. He doesn't let men in his house. The first New Years I was there, the end of that day, he said, 'I'm gonna be by my house, Michael, come by my house tonight after the bells."

Members in attendance that night: Michael, John Senior, John Junior (must have been interesting to observe how father and son act in the presence of other members). Anthony (Tony Lee) Guerrieri and his son, and Skinny Dom. (Gotti and Tony Lee were accused, and acquitted, of assault and conspiracy in the wounding of union official John F. O'Connor in May 1986.)

"He brought me in the inner circle of the crime family and his own family."

Michael soon moved into the booming construction business. "I got local 282 of the teamsters, which worked on high rises. It was a job with benefits to show I had an income."

In December 1991, John Gotti formally handed Michael the Gambino crime family's construction business to run.

As for Sammy the Bull, Michael described him as the consummate street guy. At sit downs, for example, he didn't give decisions based on politics or whose pocket the money went in. He decided things the Cosa Nostra way.

Nearly Getting Killed by Sammy the Bull
Five months after Sparks Steakhouse (specifically, what happened in front of it in December 1985), Sammy was made consigliere.

"He changed," Michael said. Then he told the tragic story of Gambino soldier Louie Milito, Sammy's onetime best friend. DiLeonardo liked Milito as well. "Louie was a great guy. He'd wear jeans and a cowboy hat as a goof."

Milito, who had brought Gravano into the Gambino crime family, had been in jail when the hit on Paul Castellano happened.

At some point, the friendship between Gravano and Milito broke. They parted ways on bad terms, to the extent that Louie had cursed Gravano out. Sammy, elevated to consigliere, "couldn't forget it," Michael said. "He murdered him."

Milito was slain in 1988 "on the orders of Mr. Gotti and at Mr. Gravano's urging," as  William K. Rashbaum noted in the May 16, 2003 New York Times.(The article reported on the elaborate plot to murder Gravano with a bomb. It never reached fruition; the former mobster and his family were arrested for drug dealing before the killers could get to him. The Times story also noted that the plotters had a backup plan if they couldn't use the bomb. "The backup plan was to kill Mr. Gravano from a distance with a hunting rifle that had once belonged to (Milito)... Under that plan, the rifle would have been left behind to send a message that the mob had caught up with its most famous turncoat.")

It wasn't only the murder; Milito was "missing."

"I didn't know he was going to be killed. I went around asking for Louie. One day I get a call from Gravano. He says, let's take a walk. We take a walk. He told me Louis isn't around anymore and he asked me how I felt about it. I realized right away that this was a test. I said, Sammy if you're okay, I'm okay."

Michael very easily could've marked himself for death. A single misstep, like answering a question incorrectly, was all that it took. Even though he'd known Gravano since he was 10, Michael knew Sammy would not have hesitated to kill him.

One of the more chilling aspects of mob life, he noted, is that "you have microseconds" to make life and death decisions sometimes.