The Mysterious Plane Crash That Set In Motion John Gotti's Path To Power

John Gotti "blasted his way into the mob -- he came the tough guy way in," as former Gambino capo Michael (Mikie Scars) DiLeonardo once told us.

John Gotti orchestrated the December 1985 murder of Paul Castellano. When and why did he make the determination to embark on that path? The primary reason of course was the  threat posed by Gambino boss Paul Castellano after Angelo Ruggiero, Gene Gotti, and John Carneglia, among others, were indicted for drug trafficking.

But the timeline runs even farther back.

In fact, the development that set John Gotti on his path to power also led to Gene Gotti and John Carneglia going to prison for 29 years. It was a mysterious plane crash off the Georgia coast. That triggered a series of events that culminated with Gotti's reign as boss of the Gambino crime family.

May 6, 1982, was a clear and sunny day, with little turbulence. At about 10 am that morning, a Learjet departed New Jersey’s Teterboro airport for Florida’s Orlando International airport. Flying the plane was George Morton and copilot Sherri Day, a standin who operated the plane’s radio communications. Two passengers, a husband and wife, were in back en route to a business meeting scheduled for that same day.

The first hour of the flight was uneventful. The plane flew southward over the Atlantic Ocean.

Day radioed a Jacksonville, Florida-based air traffic controller to request a routine landing status, and the plane was advised to lower its altitude. The Learjet, however, didn’t begin its descent until a minute and a half later. Then, Day was speaking hurriedly into the radio: “One-hundred Tango Alpha’s descending now.” Florida also heard the shriek of a warning siren in the background, followed by another radio communication, Day’s final, which was abrupt and unintelligible.

At around noon, the crew of a small fishing boat witnessed a geyser of water erupt in the ocean about 12 miles southeast of Savannah, Georgia. The boat sped to the scene to find debris scattered across the surface of the Atlantic.

About 90 minutes later, the NTSB was notified of the crash. A team of three investigators departed Washington DC that same day.

On May 13, a sonar-equipped search team was examining the ocean floor for the crash site. The main wreckage was found the next day, some 55 feet below the surface. The debris was scattered across 75 feet of ocean floor. Three bodies were recovered, Morton’s and the husband and wife passengers. Each body revealed the extent of the horror in the form of multiple traumatic injuries. Copilot Day’s body was never recovered.

The cause of the crash remains a mystery. The weather had been ideal for flying. At least one other pilot in the air that day in about the same area reported no difficulties. Deepening the mystery, most of the usual suspects were ruled out as causes of the crash: explosions, onboard fires, poor maintenance, none of those was responsible. In addition, both the pilot and copilot were certified.

The NTSB determined “that the probable cause of the accident was an uncontrolled descent from cruise altitude for undetermined reasons, from which a recovery was not or could not be effected,” the official Aircraft Accident Report concluded.

No “motive” has ever been identified as causing the deadly plane crash. 

That doesn't mean there wasn't one...

The identity of the married couple who chartered the flight that day was also a mystery, though that mystery was short-lived. It was learned the same day as the crash that the man was  Gambino soldier Angelo Ruggiero's brother, Salvatore Ruggiero, and the woman was Salvatore's wife Stephanie.

Both Sal and Stephanie had been fugitives from the law at the time of their deaths. Three federal indictments charged Salvatore with extortion, tax evasion, and trafficking. (Stephanie was named in one of the indictments, the third.) They had been thinking about turning themselves in and had even discussed the topic with their lawyer, Micheal Coiro, who himself had been in touch with the US Attorney's Office on their behalf. In the end, the couple had decided to stay on the run.

What role did Salvatore Ruggiero's death play in John Gotti's rise. 

Salvatore wasn’t interested in joining Cosa Nostra like his brother for the simple reason that he preferred a swifter route to riches. By ramping up his drug dealing business, he quickly graduated from street criminal to multimillionaire drug trafficker. Salvatore also eventually expanded his drug offerings to encompass marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. In 1976, Salvatore and his wife, Stephanie, were both living life on the run under assumed names in hideouts in New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Pennsylvania,

To help them, several associates, including Salvatore's brother, Angelo, assumed legal ownership of Salvatore’s real estate investments.

Angelo Ruggiero, Gene Gotti, and John Carneglia took over Salvatore 's drug empire and continued acquiring product from Salvatore 's source: a Sicilian-born Bonanno crime family capo named Gerlando Sciascia, called George from Canada on the street.

In the early 1980s, Sciascia was regularly smuggling tons of heroin into New York from Montreal. And George from Canada had so much heroin available, he regularly sold vast amounts on consignment. When Salvatore and his wife died, as was later learned, an entire heroin shipment purchased on credit from Sciascia was awaiting his return to one of his houses.

Ultimately, while Gene Gotti and John Carneglia were convicted in 1989 and sentenced to 50 years in prison, Sciascia and two others were severed after the first mistrial, tried separately, and acquitted in 1990 thanks to a $10,000 payoff to a juror who single-handedly swayed the jury to acquit.

That’s according to former Gambino underboss Salvatore (Sammy Bull) Gravano. At John Gotti’s trial, Gravano admitted to playing a direct role in the scheme. Gravano was the one who actually paid the juror, securing the acquittal, Gravano said later on the stand. Gravano also noted that he had been  reimbursed by Gambino capo Edward Lino, who was on trial with Sciascia. He, Sciascia, and a third defendant, Bonanno soldier Joseph LoPresti, were all acquitted.

In hindsight, the trio may have been better off convicted and imprisoned; all three would meet violent ends — Lino in Brooklyn the same year as the acquittal, LoPresti in Montreal in 1992, and Sciascia, who lasted longest, in The Bronx in 1999. (The list of individuals indicted for drugs in this case also included Angelo (Quack Quack) Ruggiero, Oscar Ansourian, Anthony Moscatiello, Mark Reiter, and Anthony and Caesar Gurino.)

Angelo Ruggiero was notified of his brother’s death. He, Gene Gotti, and John Carneglia ventured directly to Salvatore’s hideout in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, to recover the heroin and any cash secreted within the house.

The FBI’s Gambino squad had been probing Salvatore for months by the time the Learjet fell from the sky. The squad had been targeting both Salvatore Ruggiero and Gene Gotti’s brother John Gotti himself. In an effort to gather evidence on both men, the FBI had bugged the common denominator— Angelo Ruggiero — specifically, his Cedarhurst, Long Island home. Investigators had installed bugs on his telephone and had secreted microphones in his kitchen, den, and dining room.

Then-FBI supervisor Bruce Mouw, who ran the Gambino squad, had designated Quack Quack a primary surveillance target due to the Gambino mobster’s inability to stop himself from incriminating everyone in his circle by either talking about them or to them. Informants had told Mouw of Ruggiero’s ability to talk ceaselessly about everything. Those who visited him had to listen to his voluble diatribes in which he gossiped and complained and sometimes seemed to talk simply to make sounds with his mouth.

Among the discussions recorded by the FBI was Angelo’s attorney, Michael Coiro, offering condolences on learning about Salvatore’s death but adding the golden nugget that “Gene found the heroin.”

A stricken Angelo had vocalized his intense love for his brother and the deep grief he felt. But even in those intensely personal talks he incriminated. He was recorded telling Sciascia and LoPresti. “He made money. He knew how to make money. He made me make money... I was in debt six months ago. I’m way out of debt now. I bet you—I’m no fucking millionaire, I got no million dollars—but I know what I got. And I gambled. Gambled. I mean I’m sitting on $400,000. What the fuck has my brother got? If I’m sitting on four, what does my brother got?”

In Howard Beach a memorial service was held at Angelo’s mother’s house on May 10. As per CIs, the FBI learned that Angelo was busying himself with looking after his brother’s children.

Angelo was making other kinds of arrangements as well. For instance, On May 11, he and another man discussed six kilos of pure heroin that had previously arrived from Florida. They referred to the heroin as Salvatore's last load.

“. . . [H]e gave me three” and “I’ve already sold half-another,” Angelo said.

After Salvatore’s memorial service, Angelo expressed concerns about those who owed money to his brother not paying what they owed, which would mean Salvatore’s children would be deprived of what was rightfully theirs.

“We’re up against lice in this world,” Angelo said. “Listen, I ain’t no scumbag. I’m not asking nobody for nothing, you hear? All I’m telling you is this: If I find out anybody’s lying, a year from now, six months from now, and if anybody is holding back anything from my brother … I promise youse this, youse are gonna die the same way my brother died—in pieces. I give you my word on it. My brother was good to everybody. My fucking brother helped every fucking one of youse.”

Angelo, about as hardcore a wiseguy as they come, even had trouble coming to terms with the manner in which Salvatore died.

“You know, I lost my brother,” he told LoPresti. “I said to myself: ‘I’ll have to get drunk.’ I had two vodkas … I went in my room, I closed the door and I cried … If they would have found him in the street and he would have [been] shot in the head, I would have accepted it, because this is a part of our life. Next week, the week after, we would have got even [with] whoever did it, right? We would have accepted it. Not this way. This is … this is …”

Later, he met with Gene and Michael Coiro to discuss the grand jury’s interest in Salvatore’s assets. He was more on the nose than he would've wanted to be when he voiced a theory that the Feds had suspected that he'd taken over his brother's empire, to which the lawyer noted that the Feds would need to do more than believe that -- they'd have to be able to prove it in court.

“We keep our mouths shut, they’re gonna say nothing,” said Gene. “But see if this gets around that we’re just talking like this, they’re definitely going to put it [together].”

To be continued ...