Meeting Gotti Gunslinger Joe Watts At Raos And Other Excerpts From Last Of The Gladiators

In 1989, Gambino boss John Gotti put out feelers to trial lawyer James LaRossa, who Gotti wanted to hire to represent him as co-counsel for an anticipated prosecution for the 1985 Paul Castellano murder.

James LaRossa, left, Paul Castellano, middle.
James LaRossa, left, Paul Castellano, middle.

We mentioned this in a recent post about James LaRossa — the accomplished trial lawyer who died in 2014 at the age of 82 — who is now the topic of a biography written by his son, James. Last of the Gladiators, A Son’s Memoir is available now.

As we were noting, as per federal investigators, Gotti’s invitation included the proviso that if LaRossa were to decline, the noted attorney would find himself pushing up daisies a lot sooner than he would’ve thought possible.

When asked about the alleged threat, LaRossa wasted no time in declaring it a joke, and nothing more.

Prosecutors gave him a healthy out, in any event. They told LaRossa that he might be called as a witness because of his association with Castellano, who LaRossa represented at the time of his murder in front of Sparks.

There's more to that John Gotti anecdote, James Jr. recently told us.

"John Gotti apologized to Dad in open court,” he recalled. “I surmise that his threat — though tongue-and-cheek — was real. Jimmy defended, quite literally, the heads of all five crime families at one time or another. That made him almost "untouchable." His public defense of politicians and business leaders further insulated him.”

We asked if he could tell us about any wiseguys he met.

"One of the best true stories is about Joe Watts,” he told us, and provided us with an excerpt detailing it from Last of the Gladiators, now available.

But first, some background on Joe Watts, 77, might be in order.

The longtime Gambino associate is another one of those gangster-from-central-casting types, with the gravelly voice, slick pompadour, pricey clothes, and enough bodies on his resume to give anyone pause. He participated in 11 mob hits (that number is based on intel from Gotti era informants who likely knew little about Watts' activities during the reign of Carlo Gambino, I've heard) and he made millions alone from his involvement in John Gotti's 1985 powerplay. Watts was a loanshark who was the kind of guy who played the stock market; he also was the kind of guy who -- when he didn't make money from the stock market -- went after the stockbroker and beat his head in.

Watts of course was never formally inducted as a made member because he was German, though he was afforded capo status.

In 1989, carting and real estate exec Fred Weiss was one of four defendants in a pending Southern District of New York case related to an alleged $7 million illegal dumping scam. The then-boss of the Gambino family suspected Weiss was cooperating with the government after he fired a lawyer who regularly represented Gambino wiseguys and associates.

Gotti made it known that he wanted Weiss silenced, and permanently. It really didn’t take much for him to act. The order was relayed to Watts and others.

Watts put together a hit team, and in September 1989, he and several others went to a house on Staten Island where Weiss was expected to arrive. Watts assigned different people to different tasks, including digging the hole where the target would be buried. (Former Gambino wiseguy Michael DiLeonardo was a member of that murder team.)

Watts himself stood in the garage, holding a gun and waiting to shoot Weiss when he arrived.

But Weiss did not show up to the house as expected, and he was not killed until the next day, when a different team of shooters with the DeCavalcante family located him. (Gotti had also sent his order to them.) Weiss was shot to death in front of his apartment building.

Joe Watts is presently incarcerated at Cumberland FCI and has a slated release date of March 7, 2022.

Joe Watts
Joe the German.

Watts played a pivotal role in the world of organized crime. He helped bring Gotti to power. Watts, prosecutors said, was a backup shooter in the curbside murder of Paul Castellano and his driver and then-underboss, Tommy Bilotti, in 1985 in front of Spark's. For his role, Watts was given  Bilotti's loanshark business, which earned Joe The German millions a year. (Watts had been a Castellano loyalist, recall.)

Watts also took over the murdered Roy DeMeo's role as Gambino liaison with the Westies, an Irish street gang that for a time ran scams under the Gambino flag on the West Side of Manhattan.

Now the excerpt:

...As I was driving my new Audi six-speed bi-turbo up to Rao’s on an icy December night, I was more than a little sloshed. I somehow flipped the turn on 114th Street and hit a patch of ice. The Audi spun and spun and one of the tires blew. Somehow the car came to rest at the curb directly in front of Rao’s. Unbeknownst to me, all the patrons inside had a good view of my loopy stunt.

In those days, if you parked at Rao’s and put your wipers up, guys would come out of nowhere to spit-shine your car. Mobsters are very fussy about their cars. That December night, I came within inches of taking one of these guys out. As the barman, Nicky the Vest, told me later, “I was talking to your father and these bright white lights are coming straight at us. I thought you were going right through the front.”

I turned the car off, swung the door open, and shouted to no one in particular, “Hey, Mom, I’m home!” Frankie Pellegrino, the restaurant owner’s son, came out and grabbed me by the arm and helped my inebriated ass inside. By then, everyone was giving Dad the business.

Jimmy gave me the look the second I walked in. When I saw he was in the middle of dinner, I realized that I had the wrong Wednesday. When Dad said, “You know Joe Watts and his friend,” I could have fainted. There in the flesh was the assassin himself. I greeted the men respectfully, begged a double vodka off Nicky, and headed for the bathroom to straighten myself up.

I have never addressed a senior mobster by his first name, so it was “Mr. Watts this” and “Mr. Watts that.” A giant mistake that many citizens make in the company of these men is to talk tough, so when his lieutenant baited me with a question I could have answered flippantly, I said, “You know, Mr. Watts, the same thing happened to me at prep school in Greenwich, Connecticut.”

Joe laughed hard. “I like this kid,” he said. “Always have.”

By then, Frankie Pellegrino had one of his guys pulling the spare and changing the tire. I kissed my father, whispered apologies, and went around the table kissing the killers. “Sorry to drop in like this, fellas,” I said on the way out. I threw Frankie a bill and bolted west on foot for the closest avenue. The car would be safe in front of Rao’s. I jumped in the first cab.

“Please, just drive,” I begged the cabbie.

James also generously provided us with the following mob-related excerpts:

Following the orchestrated assassination of Paul Castellano, John Gotti became the de facto head of the Gambino family. But by December 1990, Gotti was about to be indicted for the Castellano murder in federal court. There was speculation that Gotti wanted Jimmy or Jerry Shargel to represent him, but in a stroke of blind luck, both Jimmy and Jerry were precluded from representing Gotti.

In a highly ironic twist of fate, it was the U.S. Attorney’s Office that did the dirty work on Jimmy’s behalf when John Gotti was to stand trial for the killings. The government had tapes of Gotti complaining to his captain, Sammy Gravano, about the “LaRossa/Shargel law firm’s exorbitant fees.” Sammy tells Gotti that he doesn’t think Jimmy will represent him anyway. Afraid that the senior defense lawyer will “embarrass him” by refusing the case, Gotti is recorded as saying, “Well, we’ll whack him.” Both men laugh. BINGO. That’s all Jimmy needed.

“That potentially puts me in the witness box, precluding me from representing him,” Dad said to me, a twinkle in his eye. (Gotti’s longtime lawyer, Bruce Cutler, was also prevented from participating in the defense.) …


After Gambino boss Paul Castellano was indicted, my father walked out of his Madison Avenue building to face a throng of press. I remember it like it was yesterday. In a theatrical press conference, he spit the words out at the cameras: “There is no LA COSA NOSTRA,” he said with such authority that the press just stood there. “So if the government really believes there is A LAAA COZZAA NOSTRA,” which he pronounced like “cozy nosy,” “THEY ARE GOING TO HAVE TO PROVE IT TO ME,” and that was that—game on.

Years later, I was eating with Dad, Mr. Castellano, Tommy Bilotti, Thomas Gambino, and a couple of other gumbas at the famed Mob eatery Rao’s, known for making a very decent meatball, when some Mob captain started piping off about how he and only he made the best meatballs. He quoted all this mumbo jumbo “proof,” like how he used a special wine and nightshade roots. Then, believe it or not, they all started to argue about who made the best meatballs and sausages, which is something mobsters often do.

Well, that, ladies and gentlemen, was my “La Cosa Nostra” moment. I slammed my hand on the table. They all stopped talking. I was Jimmy’s usually respectful son, James, after all, so they all were surprised by my overt display.

“THERE IS NO,” and I spit the remaining words out like Dad had done, “FUCKING MEATBALLS OTHER THAN MY FUCKING MEATBALLS.”

There was a beat’s pause, and then the whole place exploded in laughter. My father bellowed, “It’s true. My own father taught him, and his meatballs and sausages are tops.”

I thought Mr. Castellano was going to throw up he was laughing so hard. I ran to the bar and brought him a glass of water, which only made him laugh harder.