You Have Lived With John Gotti And You Will Die With John Gotti

James Cardinali was one one of the more fascinating peripheral characters in the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club years of the John Gotti story.

John Gotti was acting capo of the Bergin
Before boss, John Gotti was acting capo of the Bergin 

Those days, Paul (Big Paul) Castellano,  the boss of the Gambino crime family who was derisively called the Pope behind his back, would proffer his regal wisdom in the form of gambling tips he'd bestow on underlings and worthy confidants, including John Gotti, then a Queens-based acting capo.

Though he used their information in spectacular fashion, Gotti hated guys who gave him gambling tips --- or at least he seemed to when he referred to them as "(those) (f)ucking fuck bastards with their fucking tips." Gotti uttered that descriptor after he learned from the Bergin television that he had lost two horse races. One of his horses had even "run out" -- meaning bolted from the racetrack.

So steep were the losses that sometimes, the goodfellas at the Bergin, who in the glory days numbered at around 100, used to turn the television off before the boss arrived so as to prevent Johnny Boy from getting upset. Even confidential informants--who tended to generously encircle rising stars like John Gotti  -- couldn't understand how Gotti could afford to lose the kind of money he lost.

As per wiretap transcripts, Gotti admitted to Angelo Ruggiero that he'd lost "53 dollars" or $53,000 in a night, more than once. In November 1981, Gotti was beside himself and gave Ruggiero all the bloody details. “I bet the Buffalo Bills for six dimes, they’re getting killed, ten-nothing. I bet New England for six dimes, I’m getting killed with New England … I bet six dimes on Chicago, they’re losing. I bet three dimes on K.C. They’re winning, [but] maybe they’ll lose, these motherfuckers ... We’re getting killed, that’s more important. I’m stuck almost thirty dimes here and nowhere to fucking go.”

He  once dropped $300,000 in a single weekend, as Selwyn Raab noted in Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires. His gambling addiction was so bad, brother Gene and Angelo Ruggiero considered doing an intervention, but were unable to summon enough courage to ever actually attempt to carry one out.

The day he lost the two horse races, Gotti admitted to his bookmaker that, based on the two tips, he had placed bets with every bookmaker he could find.

"Ah, I believe that," was the bookmaker's reply.

One week later, Gotti talked about another two tips he'd gotten; both had come from the same person. "The Pope gave me two tips. Two "seconds" (meaning both horses came in second place), on my mother's life!" (Gotti only bet to win, and he never bet less than $1,000 per horse.)

In addition to feeding a heavy gambling addiction, Gotti also took an interest in Cardinali and for a time, mentored him. Using transcripts from trial testimony and other things, plus Jerry Capeci's Mob Star: The Story of John Gotti, we put together this story on daily life at the Bergin circa 1979-1980, before Gotti probably even thought about taking out Big Paul. ....

To us, gazing back in time, the wiseguys seem almost quaintly oblivious. They had little clue that their empire was poised for its decline, that their glory days were finite, their way of life doomed,  that they were living in the waning days of the last hurrah, and that soon a new enemy would arise before them to tear their throats out one by one, payback for decades of wanton, unrestrained murder and villainy. The name of the beast was RICO and he was hungry and had a voracious appetite. But right now, we can forget him. He doesn’t even exist yet, as far as we’re concerned.

James Cardinali
James Cardinali

John Gotti 
Someone came here and said you were dealing drugs.

It's not true.

I find out it's true , I will kill you.

Who told you?

Michael Castigliola.

Cardinali found Michael Castigliola not long afterward and shot him dead as he sat in his car.

Cardinali skipped the Bergin for a few weeks. 

But then one night, so busted out broke, Cardinali couldn't stop himself from visiting his goombah to ask for some scratch. 

Did you kill that guy?


Never do anything like that again. You come and ask me ....

John, if I asked you, you wouldn't let me kill the  guy.

You gotta post everything with me. I knew it an hour after you did it.

Now the thing is Cardinali was dealing drugs. He'd developed a very specific MO: He murdered drug dealers and stole their stash. Cardinali was a coked-up serial killer. But our veteran criminal made a freshman error when he whacked Castigliola. He'd done the vile deed in front of a witness, one of John Gotti's own Bergin crew members.

As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, the Bergin was a hive of criminal activity. The FBI had linked about 100 men to the club, and Mob Star, the best and most informative book about John Gotti ever written, lists them by nickname.

The nicknames of some of the Bergin crew:

Frankie the Beard, Frankie the Caterer, Frankie Dep, Frankie the Hat, Frankie Pickles; Mike the Milkman, Brooklyn Mike, Mickey Gal, and Mikey Boy. Tommie Tea Balls and Tommy Sneakers. Johnny Cabbage and Joe Pineapples; Little Pete, Skinny Dom, and Fat Andy; Joe the Cat and Buddy the Cat; Jimmy Irish, Joe Butch, and Tony Pep; Joey Piney, Joe Dogs, Donny Shacks, Eddie Dolls, Philly Broadway, Nicky Nose, Anthony Tits, and Jackie the Actor; Old Man Zoo, Redbird, Steve the Cleaner, and Captain Nemo. Willie Boy and Tony Roach. 

Angelo Ruggiero (or Quack Quack), who talked too much --and was likely clinically psychotic. 

(FBI supervisor and Gambino squad chief Bruce Mouw had determined that Ruggiero was the one to target for surveillance. Based on informants, Mouw had learned that Angelo was like Gotti’s executive officer; he checked the Bergin crew's loansharking and gambling books to certify that Gotti was getting his proper piece of the action. Ruggiero also was an uncontrollable gossip monger, was the general consensus of informers, which is why Mouw saw him as the weak link.)

Gene Gotti was Genie. John Gotti was Johnny, Johnny Boy, Junior, and Cump.

Perhaps the only gangster in New York capable of truly controlling the men named here--Neil Dellacroce, the Tall Guy or the Pollack, and he used “Timothy O’Neil” as an alias and was based in Little Italy's Ravenite social club--likely never set foot in the Bergin.

One of the new guys was known as Jamesy. In 1979, James Cardinali was 30. He was already an ex-heroin addict and an experienced armed robber. He met John Gotti at the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York before each was transferred to a different prison. (Fun fact: The prison is sometimes referred to as Dannemora.) Cardinali was sent to Attica, Gotti to Green Haven. While in Attica, Cardinali met Angelo Ruggiero. Angelo told Cardinali that he and John Gotti were partners, and he invited James to drop by the Bergin. After he finished his time, of course.

James's mother happened to live in Ozone Park, and he had a job possibly waiting for him at a union local. Cardinali dropped by the Bergin on his first day of freedom and stayed 18 months. (And later he would testify, in great detail, about everything that happened.)

Gotti asked him at the jump, "Whaddaya gonna do, Jamesy?"

He told John about the job at the local.

Gotti didn't like that.

“If you’re going to be around me you can’t work over there. I’ll send you to another place.”

Carlo Gambino once passed down a list of trucking companies that were not to be hijacked ever under any circumstances; the company Gotti instructed Willie Boy Johnson to deliver Cardinali to was on that list. The company was located in Maspeth, Queens.

John Gotti soon learned how badly schooled in Cosa Nostra the daring James Cardinali was. On his first day at the new job, Cardinali actually showed up and worked. And on the loading dock, he also beat a coworker's face in. Additionally, as he'd recall on the stand, he spotted time cards for Gotti and Willie Boy Johnson, though he never saw either man on the premises. That is, until a few days after he started the job and Willie Boy stopped by.

“What are you doing?” a bewildered Willie Boy asked him.

“I’m working.”

“Just punch the card and go. Don’t worry about it.”

The guy whose ass he kicked on the loading dock his first day must've been a somebody--or at least, knew a somebody. So Jamesy had to see Genie 

"You can’t raise your hands to nobody over there. You got to control yourself,” Genie told him.

Nevertheless, as Mob Star tells us, Cardinali soon considered himself to be with Johnny, which meant You did whatever you wanted.

But what Johnny Boy wanted was for Jamesy to hang around the Bergin and do errands for him.

Cardinali was chairman of  Gotti's “release department,” which was never open. 

Which brings us back to Michael Castigliola.

A Bergin man just happened to be turning onto the block as Cardinali was popping Castigliola, who was not with Gotti but was with another wiseguy.

Gotti told Cardinali this when he came by in need of cash. (Cardinali had killed four men by then; three drug dealers and one Michael Castigliola. And he wasn't finished).

“But don’t worry," Gotti told him. "I can handle [him], just keep your mouth shut.”

Cardinali started showing up in surveillance photos and two CIs had identified him. The FBI was aware of Cardinali and tried talking to him. But Cardinali wanted nothing to do with them and whenever they visited him, immediately afterward, he'd tell John or Gene Gotti.

Special Agent Paul Hayes, the one working Cardinali, even called him and invited him to come in and have a chat.

Gene Gotti gave him money in case “they keep you.” And John Gotti told him it was okay to go once. “But don’t take no [lie] tests."

Cardinali wasn't interested in picking up laundry and washing cars. After all, he wasn't Henry Hill. He was an experienced crook, a murderer, he had done serious time, and he was Italian. He wanted his button.

Cardinali had by then developed a cocaine habit and needed more than the $200 a month Gotti was handing him. (He started killing in October 1979, when he and another man shot two South American coke dealers and stole three kilos.)

“Everything is going to be all right,” Gotti said. “Maybe I’ll have you collect my small loans.” Gotti had $100,000 on the street, some in knockdown loans. (Gotti also borrowed amounts at least as half as much as that off loan sharks, to pay off gambling debts. He also bet against the house in a large-scale highly successful game --- the only problem was, John and some of his guys were the house. This made Gene Gotti furious. (There was tension between the bros that revealed itself on occasion.)

At the time Gotti was saying things like, "If I ever catch anybody in my crew [selling drugs], I’ll kill them. I’m not going to let no one embarrass me and I am going to make an example out of the first one I catch.”

He also seemed to take Cardinali under his wing. Jamesy was part of the Bergin crew -- but was never invited into the inner circle. Still, Gotti apparently told him and showed him a lot.

Once while referring to another associate in his crew, Gotti told Cardinali: “He thinks I don’t know he’s [pushing drugs]; he is going to wind up dead.”

In Mob Star, around this time, one CI was telling the FBI he knew from “overheard conversations” that Gotti and Angelo were buying rolls of quarters and calling drug-fugitive Salvatore Ruggiero from pay phones. BQ also said Gotti was losing big at the track and on sports contests. “Source states he does not know where Gotti obtains all his money in order to incur such losses and not be severely cramped in his lifestyle,” Special Agent Patrick Colgan wrote." 

Christmas Eve 1979 Cardinali was invited to John Gotti 's house. Cardinali, touched so deeply by Gotti's gesture, tried to hand him a roll of bills.

John Gotti refused the money and said: "Put that in your pocket. All I want is your love and respect.”

Cardinali was drinking with a bunch of guys at the Bergin one night and he got into a fight with someone there. Somehow that led to John and Gene fighting each other and John knocked Gene out. Cardinali then tried to break it up by holding Gotti in a headlock.

"Get your hands off me and that's an order!"

Gene has been described as similar to John but less. It's easy to see Gene's plight: he had followed his brother into Carmine Fatico's crew. He wanted to be a wiseguy, though he had John Gotti for a brother and he wanted that too. Now John Gotti trusted Gene implicitly; Gene was always in charge when John was away. But there was pressure between them that sometimes led to minor ugliness between the two. Like the fistfight.

Jamesy described what happened later: “Genie was like defending me. And Johnny wasn’t actually defending anybody. [He was] trying to be a mediator. Genie was drunk. They had words. Johnny knocked Genie out.”

 Jamesy said he pulled John away from Gene. “I was holding Johnny. I tried to hold him in a headlock. He said, ‘Get your hands off of me and that’s an order.’ I let go.” 

Jamesy said he felt responsible for the fight between John and Gene and apologized. “It ain’t you,” Gotti said. “This has been coming a long time, me and my brother.”

After the fight, Gotti lectured him about behavior and how things were done in the group. He was told to never again ''raise your hands to anybody,'' to ''learn to take orders,'' to ''be very respectful'' and that ''you can't curse in front of women.'' Also, ''Don't carry a gun. It's nice to have them close by, but don't carry them. You might get arrested.''

Gotti also berated him, also in December 1979, for spending time with three men whom Gotti described as ''kidnappers.'' He then explained how he'd once had to kill a kidnapper.

Vinny Asaro, John Gotti (in dark shirt) outside the Bergin in an undated photo.

Cardinali also got to see how Gotti handled himself at sitdowns. Gotti was fierce and witty and threatening and sardonic. Supposedly Carlo Gambino showed his mettle as boss in how he dealt with loyalists to Albert Anastasia. John Gotti seemed to show his mettle as a boss at sitdowns.

One sitdown was triggered when Bronx-based members of another family visited the wife of a wiseguy at her home when the wiseguy was in prison for drug charges.

“I wish it was me,” Gotti told them. “You would never be safe if you stopped and spoke to my wife while I was locked up.”

The man speaking for the other team said, “John, you are here defending a drug pusher.”

“If every drug pusher in this room dropped dead, I would be the only one alive,” Gotti replied.

Gotti always knew what to say.

Gotti at the end added: “You tell your skipper I said, ‘You ever go to a guy’s house while he is in jail, I’ll kill you.’”

Someone, an associate in Gotti's crew, asked to be released once. He wanted to join another crew.

Gotti flashed a mischievous grin. He referred to  Cardinali as chairman of  Gotti's “release department,” which was never open. 

Then the grin vanished.

 “You don’t get released from my crew. You have lived with John Gotti and you will die with John Gotti.”

Mike Coiro, the lawyer, also got his ass handed to him for disrespecting the Bergin capo, as did Colombo capo Michael Franzese, who, as  Gotti learned, had said "Fck John Gotti," prior to the sitdown that Franzese lost.

“Watch this, I am goin’ to take you to school,” Gotti told Jamesy shortly before Franzese and an associate arrived at the Our Friends Social Club, which was the social club around the block from the Bergin. The Our Friends was reserved almost exclusively for sitdowns. Gotti and Franzese verbally parsed over flea-market rights.

It sounds like Gotti was in the right, or thought he was,  and that was that. Interestingly, he kept the "fuck John Gotti" comment in his back pocket until the last minute, when it seemed to pop out like the conclusion of a magic trick. 

In the talk about flea market rights, Michael sought to interject his father, the legendary Colombo capo Sonny Franzese, into the discussion. 

“I don’t care if you tell your father. I don’t care who you go to. You can take it to Yankee Stadium, you can’t win this.” 

When Franzese was readying to leave, Gotti mentioned, as if in passing: “There is a guy running around the city saying ‘Fuck John Gotti.’ What do we do with a piece of shit like that? Should we beat him up? Kill him? He’s a dog, right?”

 “Yes, anybody who said that wouldn’t be a friend, they would be a dog,” Franzese replied. 

At a Queens restaurant, Coiro was dining with Luchese family mobster Jimmy Burke, who was under both Luchese capo Paul Vario and intense law enforcement scrutiny  over the $6 million Lufthansa heist at JFK Airport.

Coiro didn't stop by Gotti’s table and say hello.  And Gotti apparently had a difficult time wrapping his mind around that slight.

As per Mob Star: In Queens, at the time, Burke’s reputation was as bad as Gotti’s. 

When he was sent for, Coiro was "in too deep with the Bergin" to not show up quickly.

At the Bergin, Gotti urged Jamesy to pay attention. "Watch what I am goin’ to do,” he said to Jamesy of Coiro. “I might stuff him in the fireplace.”

After the lawyer arrived Gotti started  screaming at him: “I found you when you were a $50 ambulance chaser! You are a piece of shit! You’re supposed to run when you see me! You sit there with Jimmy Burke, don’t get up to say hello to me! I’ll kill you!” 

Coiro, a former cop for the city’s Waterfront Commission, apologized. 

Burke was convicted for the Boston College basketball fix and went to prison, not for Lufthansa. Many of the Lufthansa hijackers had been murdered since the theft. Many theories are out there. Mob Star added some tantalizing information that's making me reconsider what I've written about who killed Tommy DeSimone.

At some point, (f)rom prison, Burke began complaining about “unauthorized” murders of the suspected hijackers. 

His Luchese captain, Vario, told Gotti about Burke’s complaints, according to Source BQ, who added: “John Gotti is the most powerful captain of any Family and does not want to hear any comments from Burke.” 

Read FBI transcripts of John Gotti's private discussions with members of his innermost circle, which helped send him to life in prison:

The Ravenite Transcript Series


In November 1999 videotapes recorded at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., were made public. The videos released had been culled from four hours of tapes made over two days in January of 1999. Gotti complains about everything from prison food to family relationships. Nothing seemed to anger him more than the group pictures of his family at Christmas, which he had requested and were supposedly never sent.

"That's another thing. Did you hear me ask last two years in a row, my family, to please put all the kids together and send me a group picture at Christmas time?"

Gotti also was recorded talking about the voluminous amount of fan letters he received from people around the world, who admired him for his pluck. It was Gotti's ability to engender a massive following of admirers that helped convince the FBI to hone in on Gotti to lock him in  a cage for the rest of his natural born life.

 a Bergin capo in the early 1980s, he had a fixation on feedback from his public.

Gotti was overheard talking about mail he had received from Italy. He paraphrased an apparent fan letter this way: “[It’s] good to see a young guy, a young healthy guy there now, instead of those old fucks.”