What Made Sammy Flip: Recalling Why Gravano Turned On John Gotti

"(The Five Families) are pretty smart now, they went away from violence. In my time, in the heydays, in the '70s and '80s, there was bodies all over the place... By not killing, they don't have the pressure," said Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano, former Gambino underboss in the recently posted interview, below.

Sammy Gravano, left, John Gotti.

Does the mob work without violence, without the leverage to impose fear?

"There can be fear in a whole bunch of ways. Say you're a friend of ours, and you're not going to abide by the rules. You're not too worried because I can't kill you. But I can chase you. I can go to all five families and tell them, he's no longer a friend of ours, don't treat him like that, and you're thrown out. That's a big hit. You lose your power. Nobody respects you, they won't sit with you, nobody recognizes you. In certain cases, it might even be better to be dead. It's a good punishment" shelving you.

Gravano, who spent 22 years in prison, talks about hearing "many" stories about guys in prison "who stood up" (didn't flip) -- and the criminals on the street stole their money, screwed their wife. "You're begging for this guy to cooperate ... so he flips."

Gravano also tells the story of what fueled his decision to flip: "John (Gotti) told me to my face, he said, ‘Sammy, the [wiretap] tapes are horrible. They make you sound like a monster. What are we gonna do? So I’m controlling all the lawyers. You’re gonna take the weight, the lawyers are gonna bring it out in court that you’re a monster. You killed all these people, took over the unions, took over businesses.’ Which I never did.”

“During the trial, you hear John complaining on the tapes. ‘Poor John Gotti, he lost control of this monster, Sammy the Bull. It’s him, not John. So I will go free, and you’ll do the time,’ ” he said, referring to Gotti’s approach.

“I said, ‘Are you sure that’s what you want me to do?’ ” Gravano claimed.

“In other words, I’m worried about the feds trying to put me away. I’ve been pinched all my life. I never faced my friend, my co-defendant, trying to put me away. ‘Is that what you really want to do? The streets needs me, the boss.’”

He said Gotti told him, “You’re the sacrificial lamb.’ I said, ‘OK, sure, that’s the way it is.’ And I got in touch with the FBI, I flipped, and I was gone.”

Sammy was troubled by the tapes, and furious to learn that he was expected to submerge his own interests in a common defense. (Gravano wasn’t “pinched all (his) life,” however. Despite involvement in 19 homicides, Sammy Gravano reportedly did very little time in prison until he seemed to face a forever sentence after the big Gambino bust in December 1990, at the Ravenite with John Gotti, Frankie Locascio, and Thomas Gambino.)

Since about the time of the events themselves, it has been reported that Gravano--who was such an astonishing defector that some in the FBI worried he might be a double agent--decided to flip after listening to how John Gotti had torn him apart on the tapes, when Gravano wasn't there to defend himself.

In one recording specifically Gotti had rewritten the history of several murders, making them all seem to have resulted from Gravano's machinations.

Gravano would take the stand and help the Feds convict Gotti by confirming the Dapper Don's wiretapped admissions and providing devastatingly effective testimony.

The "flipping" of Gravano and the FBI's successful bugging of another supposedly impregnable mob stronghold were widely credited with winning the conviction that eluded prosecutors three times beginning in 1984 (due to corruption mostly) until the 1992 conviction on all 13 murder and racketeering charges, and co-defendant Frank Locascio on seven of eight charges.

In November 1989, the FBI planted wiretaps in an apartment above the Ravenite Social Club at 247 Mulberry Street. The club itself was also bugged, as was the doorway. But the upstairs apartment, home of a widow of a former Gambino soldier, had become a favorite confidential meeting place, agents learned. (On a sidenote, by the summer of 1989, at least nine informants were secretly meeting FBI agents to discuss Gotti, an exceptionally large informant pool, which reportedly was attributed to Gotti arousing disdain and resentment.)

The resulting tapes, with their talk of murders and Mafia business, were the heart of the Government's case. The tapes only stopped after a Jan. 17, 1990, overheard remark alerted investigators that Gotti had been tipped off about the eavesdropping and the conversations dropped off. (Police detective William Peist was charged with leaking information to Gotti for years.)

Following a sealed indictment based on the tapes and other evidence heard by a Brooklyn grand jury, Gotti was arrested in the Ravenite on Dec. 11, 1990, along with his underboss, Gravano; his consiglieri, Frank Locascio; and Thomas Gambino, a powerful capo and son of the family's late boss and namesake, Carlo Gambino. Gambino was later severed from the case. (He pleaded guilty in a separate garment center racketeering trial.)

At bail hearings, Gravano, like his co-defendants, learned for the first time the extent of taped evidence against him. He also learned from Gotti, to his anger, that he would be expected to submerge his own interests in a common defense.

Of all the tape recordings that put Gotti away, the December 12, 1989 one was the worst of all--most certainly for Gravano, anyway. Gotti's underboss wasn't in the apartment above the Ravenite that day, so it was during the bail hearing in court that he heard --truly for the first time-- how Gotti seemed to routinely trash him.

Gotti "lied" about the murders of Robert (Deebee) DiBernardo, Louis Milito, and Louis DiBono, as Jerry Capeci has written in Mob Star.

The truth was that Deebee was murdered, over Sammy’s objections, after Angelo (Ruggiero) told Gotti, in jail awaiting trial in the (Diane) Giacalone case, that Deebee had made “subversive” comments behind his back. At the time, Angelo owed Deebee money and considered him a rival for underboss.

“Deebee,” Gotti said on tape to LoCascio. “Did he ever talk subversive to you?” “Never.” “Never talked it to Angelo, and he never talked it to [Joseph Armone] either. I took Sammy’s word that he talked about me behind my back … I was in jail when I whacked him. I knew why it was being done. I done it anyway. I allowed it to be done anyway.”

On the same excerpt, Gotti next turned to Milito and DiBono. Milito had been killed because he noisily questioned the judgment of the new boss. DiBono was killed because he failed to answer a Gotti summons.

But on that tape Gotti said the only reason they were killed was that Sammy asked permission to get rid of business partners. “Every time we got a partner that don’t agree with us, we kill him. … [the] boss kills him. He kills him. He okays it. Says it’s all right, good.”

In one brief diatribe, Gotti made three murders seem solely Sammy’s doing.

Back in solitary confinement, Sammy began spending time with transcripts of the tapes turned over to the defense. The December 12 transcript contained much more Gotti monomania than was excerpted in the bail hearing, and Sammy studied it intently.

Time and again, Gotti accused Sammy of having “green eyes”—hoarding money and opportunity for himself.

“That’s Sammy … every fucking time I turn around there’s a new company poppin’ up. Building. Consulting. Concrete … where the hell did all these new companies come from? Where did five new companies come from?”

Sammy read on, until on page 30 of the transcript, history seemed to be repeating itself: Gotti compared Sammy to Paul.

“[Paul] sold the [Family] out for a fuckin’ construction company. And that’s what [Sammy’s] doing. I don’t know if you could see it, but that’s what [Sammy’s] doing now. Three, four guys will wind up with every fuckin’ thing. And the rest of the [Family] looks like waste.” Unless Sammy was brought into line, Gotti added, the Family was headed down the same path as under Paul—a Family of factions, “a fuckin’ army inside an army:” “You know what I’m saying, Frankie? I saw that shit and I don’t need that shit!”

Gotti’s words sat in Sammy’s craw for months.

At one point, when he and Gotti were briefly housed in the same cell, he made his feelings known. Gotti said he was just ranting and that if he believed what he said, he would not have made Sammy underboss. 

He also told Sammy that he never believed it when someone came to him and said Sammy was an informer. This enraged Sammy more because, as he told Gotti, he should have been given the right to challenge his accuser, prove him wrong and then kill him.

“As underboss, you owed me. That’s Cosa Nostra, the life. We do a sitdown. Put me in the basement with pistols. If they prove it, kill me. If they don’t, I kill them. It’s my right. You took that away. Not telling me, you give credence to a fuckin’ lie.” 

“Sammy, I am your friend, you’re my friend. I never doubted ya. I can’t remember every little thing I don’t think counts.” “I was your underboss!” “Sammy, this here happened, but it don’t mean nothing. Now, we gotta fight hard to get outta here.”

In November 1991, Gravano signaled an interest in talking to the Government by placing a call from the Metropolitan Correctional Center where he and his co-defendants were being held.

They removed Gravano, Gotti and Locascio from jail on the pretext that they had to give handwriting samples in the presence of their lawyers. 

On Nov. 8, about 1 A.M., agents removed Gravano from the Otisville prison in Orange County and took him to a motel in a suburb of New York City.

After some hard bargaining, the cooperation agreement was made.