Our Deep Dive Into Sammy the Bull Gravano's Ecstasy Case In Arizona

The Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano who was arrested in Arizona in February 2000 lacked all the savvy and sophistication one would expect of a longtime Mafia member who rose to become underboss of one of the Five Families. 

Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano
"I was stupid. You can say, ‘Sammy, you were a [expletive] retard.’”

Some of Gravano’s actions, as revealed via Phoenix PD surveillance, were inexplicable—incomprehensible. Stupid might be a better word. It's actually the word Sammy himself used after he was arrested in his only jailhouse interview: “I was stupid. You can say, ‘Sammy, you were a [expletive] retard.” 

After copping to participation in 19 murders and helping put away John Gotti and 38 other members of organized crime, Sammy the Bull finished the five-year prison sentence he got via his plea agreement. The Federal Witness Protection Program relocated Gravano, under the alias Jimmy Moran, to Arizona in 1995. He left the program in 1997, the same year that his memoir Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano's Story of Life in the Mafia hit bookstore shelves. He settled into a modest apartment in the college town of Tempe, Arizona. He worked in construction and eventually opened his own construction company called Marathon Development. (Marathon also was the name of a construction company in Gravesend, Brooklyn that Sammy owned back in the good old days.) Gravano also opened Creative Pools, a pool construction concern.

His wife Debra filed for divorce in 1996 after Gravano entered the Witness Protection Program, but relocated to Arizona with daughter Karen and moved into a 4,400 square-foot house located about nine miles away from Sammy the Bull's apartment in Tempe. The home included a swimming pool and three-car garage.(Supposedly, Sammy kept the separate apartment where he slept at night to protect his family from any surprise visits from old friends from New York.) Gerard also bought a house in Tempe.

Debra opened an Italian restaurant in Scottsdale. Gerard, Karen, and her fiancé, David Seabrook, who lived with Karen and their baby with Debra, all worked for the pool company.

In his early years in Arizona (the mid to late 1990s), Gravano was known to frequent the Gold Bar Espresso coffeehouse in Tempe, Arizona. (Here, we believe, is where the first iteration of Sammy the Bull the podcaster came about.)

Whenever Gravano walked in, one of the staffers would scramble over to the piano in the Gold Bar's entryway and play Nino Rota's immortal theme to The Godfather

Everyone there knew who Jimmy Moran really was. He held court surrounded by his adoring “public.” He told mob stories, played chess with other patrons. 

Phoenix New Times reporter wrote all about the time he spotted Gravano at the coffeehouse one night in July 1997. “I watched Gravano sit with his back to the wall, surrounded by young admirers. They were computer programmers and Web designers, goth rockers and skateboarders, all entranced by this short, muscular man in his 50s. Gravano sipped double espressos as he regaled them with Mafia war stories, including the 19 murders he committed, for which he was immune to prosecution. Gravano also signed freshly purchased copies of Underboss…”

His fans called him "Mr. Gravano" at his request. When one young woman called him "Mr. Bull," he corrected her. "You don't call a guy like that," he snapped. "You're better off you don't call a guy Mr. Bull to his face, that's for shit sure."

Later, the reporter asked Gravano why he would hold court in a coffeehouse considering all that had happened in New York City years back. His reply was, "I don't deserve to be anonymous."

Sammy stopped visiting that coffeehouse right before the Arizona Republic outed him, which was the red flag that set in motion the Gambino revenge plot.

Gravano got involved in the drug trafficking ring through his son about nine months before he and members of his family were arrested. Gerard had become friends with Michael Papa, also a New York transplant, who was running a small-scale operation that mainly sold Ecstacy pills at parties and raves. Once Gravano put his weight behind it, Papa's ring grew into the largest dealer of Ecstacy pills in Arizona. The pills were sold for as much as $25 each. The ring’s weekly sales were 20,000 to 25,000 pills, and profits were over $300,000 a week.

Gravano was not selling narcotics but helped finance the ring and also mentored the ring’s leader, Papa, who was also a founding member of a white supremacist gang, said Phoenix police spokesman Jeff Halstead.

On February 24, 2000, the former Gambino family hit man, 57 at the time, was one of 36 people arrested in 14 simultaneous 6 a.m. raids.* Among the 36 were his ex-wife, Debra; his son, Gerard; his daughter, Karen; David Seabrook; and Papa. Twenty-three guns and $90,000 in cash also were seized that day.

It was via wiretap surveillance that Phoenix police learned that the former underboss of the Gambino crime family  was involved in the drug trafficking ring they were investigating.

Phoenix investigators, aware of Sammy’s relationship with Federal agents from his cooperation days, did everything possible to cut the FBI out of the Gravano probe.

They knew better than to go to the National Crime Information Center: The NCIC is linked to the FBI, “and we knew if we ran Sammy we’d get a visit from the FBI,” Phoenix PD Detective Ron Sterrett says. “We didn’t want to go to them because we didn’t know who we could trust and who we couldn’t. And we didn’t know if they’d leave him here once they knew we were investigating Sammy.”

The source for much written here about the inner workings of the Phoenix PD probe is Bringing Down the Bull, a cover story for the May 2003 issue of Phoenix Magazine by Jana Bommersbach, which details the inside story of how Phoenix PD brought Gravano down "right under the noses of the FBI."

Phoenix PD connected with the DEA and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the investigation, and the three agencies agreed to keep the investigation top-secret. Phoenix PD never used Gravano’s name in teletypes and kept the focus on Gravano’s lieutenant, Michael Papa, instead.

After the probe expanded to encompass  Gravano, two different friends warned Sammy the Bull that something was up—that law enforcement was investigating him. He ignored the warnings.

Wiretaps played a huge role in Gravano's life in two key respects: They facilitated much of the evidence that prompted the 1990 indictment of the Gambino crime family Administration, including Gravano, who was John Gotti's underboss. Wiretap recordings also fueled Sammy's decision to flip, according to Gravano, who has claimed that it was hearing Gotti bad-mouth him and call him greedy on tape recordings that convinced him to flip and testify for the Feds.

Wiretaps also played a decisive role in the Arizona drug case. Over a two-month period, Phoenix police monitored 17,000 conversations through wiretaps. Gravano actually found a wiretap on one of the phones in his apartment. Investigators on the other end heard him let loose a barrage of profanity and then sing in Italian before ripping it out of the wall.

Phoenix PD Detective Ron Sterrett said he initially believed they would never be able to catch the former underboss on a wiretap.

Gerard Gravano shakes lawyer hand
Gerard Gravano shakes hand of his  lawyer

“I figured he had enough exposure to law enforcement and wiretaps that he’d be careful,” Sterrett said in an interview. “But when Sammy is angry, he would lose control.” 

Another investigator had a similar epiphany. When Gravano’s name first came up in the Phoenix drug probe, undercover agent Jim Cope read Underboss in an attempt to get inside his head.

“I didn’t think it would be as easy as it was. But Sammy’s not an educated guy, and he only knows one thing. I’d read his book and I thought he’d be careful enough to not have any discussions on the phone – just do ‘walk and talks,’ so I bet we’d never get him,” he says. “Either Sammy let his guard down or he didn’t think Phoenix PD was sophisticated enough.”

Then there's Gravano's proficiency at mathematics. Or rather his lack of proficiency. Phoenix police have said the key reason they were able to hang the Ecstasy ring around Sammy’s neck was that he sucked at math. 

To illustrate, on the first intercepted call, late one night, Gerard wakes his father out of a sound sleep.

“Mommy wants me to ask, can you lend Mike $70 for the gas receipts?” Gerard asks him, and Sammy says yes, telling him, “Have your mom bring the money to work tomorrow.” Then Gravano hangs up and falls back to sleep.

The code used during the call—which police had already figured out—meant Debra Gravano wanted to take $70,000 from her home safe and loan it to Mike Papa to buy drugs.

The next morning, Karen delivered the money from her mother to Sammy’s office at his construction company. Three crucial calls between Sammy and Debra followed.

In the first call, Sammy angrily accused Debra of shorting the delivery by $5,000.

She insisted that she’d personally counted the money, and all $70,000 was there. (Note that in the end, this $70,000 was never used to buy any drugs because the deal fell through.)

In a second call, Sammy ranted again, saying that this was the second time a bundle was short and that he was starting to believe Debra was the one who had stolen money the first time around.

But then in a third call to his former wife, Sammy confessed that the bundle wasn’t short at all – he’d just miscounted.

The damage was done, however, according to police: Gravano had tied himself to a $10,000 drug deal out of California.

“That’s what got prosecutors to go for indictments,” Sterrett said

“These stupid little things are what directly led to his destruction,” said Cope.

In May 2001, the Arizona state case was swallowed up by a larger Federal case out of New York based on allegations that Gravano's ring had purchased some 40,000 Ecstacy pills from an Israeli drug gang that operated in New York 

Gravano's apartment in Tempe, Arizona
Gravano's apartment in Tempe, Arizona. Source

Gravano also found himself in the same position he had put John Gotti in back in New York in 1991: His apprentice, Michael Papa, had pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges in Brooklyn and had agreed to testify against Gravano. Papa got 6-11 years in prison and had 37 criminal charges dismissed in exchange.

That month the government unsealed a new indictment charging Gravano with threatening Papa to block his testimony. Days later, the government released a 34-page document that described Gravano’s “other crimes,” which, Federal prosecutors claimed, included at least four murder plots in Arizona, none of which were ever carried out. One had to do with his son Gerard’s girlfriend, who Gravano threatened to kill for boasting “she was dating Sammy the Bull’s son.” They also accused Gravano of threatening Gerard, including putting a gun to his son’s head for “disrespecting the family.”

In something that recalls shades of Joe Bonanno, Federal prosecutors planned to introduce evidence that Gravano had formed the “Arizona Mafia,” a western chapter of La Cosa Nostra, “which intended to recruit or had recruited certain of his former criminal confederates who had committed homicides in the past."

Gravano and his son appeared in Federal District Court in Brooklyn to admit to their crimes that same month. Gravano’s guilty plea meant no public spectacle of a trial.

He was supposed to be sentenced on the New York Federal charges on September 11, 2001, but it was delayed because of 9/11.

Gravano was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison on September 6, 2002. 

On October 30, 2002, he was sentenced to as much as 19 years on a range of charges in Maricopa County Superior Court. See each charge with sentence here

Here too the New York case overshadowed the state case: All prison terms from Maricopa County were made concurrent with Gravano's New York Federal prison term.

As for Gravano's family, Gerard and Dave Seabrook each got 9.3 years in prison and Debra and Karen got probation for their parts in the drug ring.

Gravano was released from Federal prison in September 2017 and will be on Federal parole for the rest of his life.

Sammy the Bull, Debra, Gerard, Karen Gravano
From left: Sammy the Bull, Debra, Gerard, Karen Gravano.

* After the arrests in February 2000 for dealing ecstasy, the Arizona state attorney general seized the Gravano family's property, including a blue bulletproof vest, a cache of weapons, pinkie rings, gold chains, the home in Tempe, Uncle Sal’s Ristorante, and Marathon Construction. The list also included $93,000 in cash and $25,000 in bank accounts.

The attorney general’s office was seeking at least $3.5 million from the sale of the lot, representing $1 million in proceeds from Gravano’s drug selling and the rest from his tenure as Gambino crime family underboss.

Investigators also were trying to uncover millions more they believed Gravano had raked in as Gambino underboss but was allowed to keep under his plea deal.

As of December 2001, four 1999 Lexus cars owned by Gravano were in the hands of buyers, with the sales netting the Arizona authorities more than $65,000. Gravano’s home sold for about $600,000, netting $303,000 for the government after the mortgage was paid. His restaurant was in the process of being sold for $190,000.

Gravano’s 14 guns, six cell phones, jewelry, and bulletproof vest were still available at the time.

The state also secured about $400,000 in royalties from Underboss and was making some of the money available to his victims.

Assistant Attorney General Cameron Holmes was heading the forfeiture case.