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Mob Boss John Gotti Never Lived Up to His 'Teflon Don' Nickname

John Gotti
Reputed Gambino crime boss John Gotti is leaving court with his lawyers during his 1990 trial for murder, racketeering, illegal gambling, tax fraud and obstructing justice. Keith Meyers/Getty Images

For a famously flamboyant wise guy, John Gotti was just about anything but slick. The pin-striped, double-breasted mob boss — at the height of his well-chronicled criminal career, newspapers dubbed him the "Dapper Don" — spent a huge percentage of his adult life shuttling in and out of the big house. He died behind bars, in fact, spending the last 10-plus years of his life in the pen.

But a good nickname is hard to shake, so Gotti is remembered still, almost two decades after his death, for the few times that he actually beat the system. He's still the Teflon Don.

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Such is the oversized life of a New York mafioso.

"As a young kid, I'm impressionable. I want to be a gangster. I come from the streets. And I looked at Gotti as somebody would look at a ballplayer, you know?" says John Alite, a former associate in New York's Gambino organized crime family, which Gotti once headed. "I was impressed by him. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to copy him. He was a good looking guy. He had charisma. Nobody could deny that. I just really looked up to the guy as a young guy."

Alite served as "muscle" for Gotti and his son, John A. "Junior" Gotti, meaning that he used violence — attacks with baseball bats, knifings, even shootings (up to and including out-and-out murder) — when the family demanded it. These days, free of the mob, the 57-year-old Alite is a consultant for Alite Sports, a sports betting firm.

"At the beginning you're all starry eyed, but then as you get to know him, your opinion changes. You see his flaws," Alite says. "Obviously, he wasn't well educated. He liked speaking like he was a tough guy. It was an insecurity thing with him ... He just wanted to totally be intimidating. That was his sole being. He didn't want to conform. To anything. If he went into a restaurant and they said you had to wear a sport jacket, and he walked in, and if he didn't want to wear one, he wasn't wearing one. He was going in and he was going to change those rules."

And that's what Gotti did. For a while, at least.

John Gotti
John Gotti and Sammy "The Bull" Gravano ordered the hits of Thomas Bilotti and Paul Castellano of the Gambino crime family outside of Sparks Steak House in Manhattan in 1986.
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

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In 1931, James Cagney starred as an Irish American mobster in "The Public Enemy." It wasn't the first film of its kind, but it was indicative of America's early infatuation with organized crime. The mob movie genre hit its zenith with Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 masterpiece, "The Godfather," based on the 1969 novel by Mario Puzo. Filmmakers today like Martin Scorsese continue the tradition.

What is it that so intrigues us about the violent, sometimes murderous underbelly of society and its cast of heart-hardened, lawless characters?

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"I think that every society likes to live vicariously through the people in history who, on the surface, look like they did it their way," says Christian Cipollini, an author of several books on organized crime and the man behind the GanglandLegends website. "I mean, c'mon. People are rooting for 'Scarface.'

"People like John Gotti are, for a segment of society, anti-heroes. There's a folk following with them. If you look back in history, Al Capone was Chicago, Jack "Legs" Diamond was New York during the bootleg era. Dillinger was the Midwest. Even [Pablo] Escobar [the famed Colombian druglord] was a folk hero. It's average, everyday people living vicariously through their Robin Hoods."

The public's curiosity about life on the other side of the law was at a full-throated frenzy when Gotti made his move to take over the Gambino family Dec. 16, 1985. The 44-year-old mob captain ordered a hit on his boss, Paul Castellano. In true over-the-top Gotti style, he had assassins gun down his predecessor on the street in front of Sparks Steak House in midtown Manhattan while he watched from a nearby car. "Rubout," the New York Daily News cried.

"He did everything loud, brazen, not intelligently. When people talk about the hit of Paul Castellano, I say it was the dumbest thing that was ever done in history. Paul's bringing in billions for the family, John's bringing in zero. So that was dumb," Alite says. "It was also the dumbest move because of the way he did it. He didn't have to hit him in front of Sparks Steak House in the middle of NYC. He wanted to make the noise, because that's John. He wanted to go through the wall.

"When you go through the wall, you're not going to last. And that's exactly why he didn't last."

The New York tabloids fueled an almost cult-like following of Gotti in his heyday. His court appearances were spectacles, complete with paparazzi and swelling crowds. Some people wore "Free John Gotti" t-shirts.

In a lot of ways, being a gangster in the '80s, personified by Gotti, was just what Alite dreamed it would be. But the high times, for Alite and for Gotti, would not last.

John Gotti
Despite having the nickname Teflon Don, John Gotti was jailed several times during his life, including in 1968 for theft.
Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

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In truth, Gotti was never Teflon. He was jailed nine times during a hardscrabble youth in New York. He went to jail for three years for theft in 1968, when he was in his 30s. Shortly after he was released, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to four more years.

Later, after he became a made man, Gotti indeed slipped out of the law's grasp in three highly publicized cases, giving rise to the Teflon Don label. In one, the main witness simply forgot what he had told the grand jury.

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Witness tampering, intimidation, payoffs ... whatever it took to free the boss.

"We're getting to our own guys, and we're getting to juries. We're manipulating, you know what I'm saying?" says Alite. "'The Teflon Don,' and 'Bruce Cutler's a great attorney.' [Cutler was Gotti's lawyer.] We're getting to everybody. We're either threatening 'em or paying 'em off."

Everything came crashing down in December 1990, when the FBI arrested Gotti on several charges, including murder, racketeering, illegal gambling, tax fraud and obstructing justice. The case, which went to trial in January 1992, turned on the word of Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, who testified damningly against his former boss. Gravano was with Gotti as they drove past Sparks Steak House in 1985 to make sure the hit on Castellano was carried out.

The trial lasted about 10 weeks. On April 2, 1992, after 13 hours of deliberation, the jury — which the judge decided would remain anonymous to avoid any possible manipulation — found Gotti guilty on all counts. He was sentenced to life in prison, with no chance of parole.

The Daily News summed up the verdict with a typical bold headline: "Don Voyage."

The one-time Teflon Don died in a prison hospital, in 2002, of throat cancer. He was 61.

John Gotti
John Gotti smiles as he chats with one of his attorneys during his trial. A secret taped recording of the mafia boss ordering underlings to bust up a union leader was played for the jury.
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

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Alite admitted to several murders and spent years in jail. He testified against Junior Gotti in 2009, after he says the family turned on him. Alite and the younger Gotti still furiously lob claims and counterclaims at each other. Each calls the other a rat.

"The whole mob world wants me to shut up," Alite says. "But the difference between me and everybody else is I still live in New York. I still live in my neighborhood. I live in Jersey. I drive a convertible. I don't hide from anybody."

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His main message, though, is to kids who may see something appealing in the mob life, like he once did. Take it from him, he says: It may look cool. But the rats will get you, sooner or later.

"I believed in it. Obviously, I suffered in a concentration camp [a Brazilian prison] for two-and-a-half years, getting tortured, getting shot at ... and I still stayed loyal to an organization that can't stay loyal to themselves," Alite says. "This is how brainwashed I was by John Senior. Because I really loved John Senior. And he treated me like a son.

"You're going to listen to these guys giving you an order, so when they rat, next year or two years or three years, you're going to go do life? That's who you're following?" Alite asks. "If you're putting your self-preservation in the hands of somebody else, you're not going to last too long."

John Gotti
John Alite (far left) a former associate in New York's Gambino organized crime family, is seen here with John Gotti (center, wearing the blue Cowboys jacket).
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty

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