Vincent Gigante, who feigned mental illness for decades to camouflage his position as one of the nation's most influential and dangerous Mafia leaders, died yesterday at the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo. He was 77.
Mr. Gigante was serving a 12-year prison sentence imposed in 1997 after he was convicted on federal charges of racketeering and conspiring to kill other mobsters. The exact cause of death was unknown, said Al Quintero, a spokesman for the medical center, who noted Mr. Gigante's history of coronary disease.
Mr. Gigante, whose nickname was "Chin," painstakingly maintained the fiction that he was mentally incompetent until April 7, 2003, when he appeared before Judge I. Leo Glasser in Federal District Court in Brooklyn and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. Specifically, he acknowledged trying to outsmart the legal system and delaying his racketeering trial from 1990 to 1997 by pretending that he was deranged.
According to prosecutors, Mr. Gigante, while in prison remained the Genovese boss, wielding power until 2003. Soon after Mr. Gigante entered prison, a guard, Christopher Sexton, asked him if he needed protection form other inmates because of his age and physical infirmities. "Nobody messes with me," Mr. Gigante said defiantly.
As part of the plea, three years were added to his prison term, but he avoided a lengthy trial on the other charges, which amounted to an accusation - long denied or sidestepped by the 75-year-old Mr. Gigante - that he headed the Genovese organized crime family.
For Mr. Gigante, the guise that he adopted in the mid-1960's - behavior that won him the names Oddfather and the Enigma in a Bathrobe - took considerable effort to maintain. He could often be seen shuffling around his Greenwich Village neighborhood in pajamas, bathrobe and slippers, mumbling to himself and appearing to be a disturbed but harmless person.
Law enforcement agents, prosecutors and Mafia defectors described his behavior as a staged performance calculated to evade prosecution for his activities as head of a major Cosa Nostra gang that under his leadership became the wealthiest and most powerful crime family in the nation.
Based on information from informers and electronic eavesdropping on gangsters, F.B.I. and New York City law enforcement officials ranked Mr. Gigante as the pre-eminent Mafia leader for most of the 1980's and 90's. Prosecutors also identified him as the dominant force in the early 1990's inside the Commission, the Mafia's ruling body, which resolves significant disputes among the five major families in the New York region.
His reach, law enforcement officials said, extended to Philadelphia and New England, where he exercised veto power over the appointments of mob bosses.
Salvatore Gravano, the No. 2 figure in the Gambino crime family before he defected, in 1991, testified that even Mr. Gigante's archrival, John Gotti, the boss of the Gambino family until his imprisonment forced him to relinquish undisputed control of the group in the late 1990's, grudgingly acknowledged Mr. Gigante's craftiness. "He's crazy like a fox," Mr. Gravano quoted Mr. Gotti as saying of Mr. Gigante after a meeting of New York City mob leaders in 1988. Mr. Gotti died of cancer in a federal prison hospital in June 2002.
F.B.I. agents and federal and state prosecutors regarded Mr. Gigante as the most elusive Mafia leader of his era and the most difficult to bring to trial. "He was probably the most clever organized crime figure I have ever seen," said John S. Pritchard 3rd, a former F.B.I. supervisor who led a squad that investigated the Genovese family in the 1980's. Agents labeled Mr. Gigante's organization the Mafia's Ivy League.
Disputing the government's contentions, Mr. Gigante's lawyers and relatives said that he had been mentally disabled since the late 1960's, with a below-normal I.Q. of 69 to 72. His defenders denied that he was associated with the Mafia, saying it was ludicrous to believe that someone so mentally subpar could head a major crime organization.
The Rev. Louis Gigante, a Roman Catholic priest, former City Councilman and a builder of low-income housing in the Bronx, characterized the relentless investigations of his older brother as persecution by agents and prosecutors biased against Italian-Americans.
Organized crime experts and mob turncoats said Mr. Gigante was apparently willing to humiliate himself publicly to dodge the long prison sentences being meted out to other Mafia leaders.
According to federal and state investigators, each of the Genovese family's 200 "made," or inducted, soldiers and about 1,000 associates - the name for others who voluntarily cooperate in illegal activities but who are not sworn members -had to funnel part of their loot - up to $100 million a year in the early 1990's - to Mr. Gigante.
The family's fortune, the experts said, flowed largely from a vast network of bookmaking and loan-sharking rings and from extortions of construction companies in the New York City area seeking labor peace or sweetheart contracts from carpenters', Teamsters and laborers' unions that were dominated by Mr. Gigante's lieutenants.
Mob deserters in the mid-1990's testified that other lucrative enterprises of the Genovese gang included the control of cartels that rigged bids and inflated prices in the private garbage hauling industries of New York City and Westchester County; kickbacks from shipping and trucking companies on the New Jersey and Florida waterfronts in exchange for labor peace; protection payoffs from merchants at the Fulton Fish Market; and the control of many union jobs at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan.
Mr. Gigante's influence even extended over the San Gennaro Street Festival in Little Italy until a 1995 crackdown by New York City officials and federal prosecutors resulted in charges that the Genovese family operated gambling games at the festival, extorted payoffs from venders and pocketed thousands of dollars donated to a neighborhood church.
In the 1980's, after the authorities said Mr. Gigante had assumed undisputed command of the Genovese family, he conducted his activities in a fashion starkly unorthodox for a Mafia leader.
Most days, in the early evening, Mr. Gigante, a hulking man about 6 feet tall and weighing 200 pounds, would emerge from his mother's walkup apartment building on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village. Sometimes dressed in a bathrobe and pajamas and sometimes wearing a windbreaker and shabby trousers and always accompanied by one or two bodyguards, he gingerly crossed the street to the Triangle Civic Improvement Association, a dingy storefront club that served as his headquarters. Inside, he played pinochle and held whispered conversations with men who agents said were his trusted confederates.
After midnight, according to F.B.I. surveillance reports, he would be driven to a town house near Park Avenue on East 77th Street that was owned by Olympia Esposito, who was characterized by Mr. Gigante's lawyers as his common-law wife and the mother of three of his eight children, Vincent, Lucia and Carmella Esposito.
F.B.I. agents who in 1986 observed the town house from a nearby rooftop post said that soon after arriving, Mr. Gigante would change into more elegant clothes, carry on conversations with associates and read or watch television before retiring. About 9 or 10 the next morning, he would reappear in his shabby downtown clothes and be driven back to Sullivan Street or a nearby apartment occupied by his relatives at 505 La Guardia Place.
"It was hard to understand what enjoyment he got out of being a mob boss," said Ronald Goldstock, the former director of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force. "His only pleasure appeared to be the pure power he exercised."
Vincent Gigante (pronounced ji-GANT-tee) was born on March 29, 1928, in New York City and grew up on the same streets in Greenwich Village where he would spend most of his adult life. He was one of five sons of Salvatore Gigante, a watchmaker, and Yolanda Gigante, a seamstress, both of whom had immigrated from Naples. His mother usually addressed him as "Cincenzo," a diminutive of Vincenzo, and his boyhood friends shortened that into his lifelong nickname, "Chin."
A lackadaisical student, Mr. Gigante graduated from Public School 3 in the Village and dropped out of Textile High School in Manhattan while in the ninth grade. Police detectives said that as a teenager he became a protégé of Vito Genovese, who was a potent Mafia leader in the United States and in Italy from the 1930's to the 1960's and whose name still describes the organized crime group he headed until his death in 1969. The gang was founded in the 1930's by one of the nation's most notorious criminals, Charles (Lucky) Luciano, who was deported to Italy and who died in 1962.
Mr. Genovese is believed to have endeared himself to the Gigantes when Vincent was a boy with a loan to pay for surgery needed by Mrs. Gigante.
Between 17 and 25, Mr. Gigante was arrested seven times on an array of charges: receiving stolen goods, possession of an unlicensed handgun, auto theft, arson and bookmaking. Most were dismissed or resolved by fines. His only jail sentence in that period was 60 days for a gambling conviction.
When arrested in his early 20's, he listed his occupation as a tailor. But as a strapping youth with quick fists, he was better known as a prizefighter. Mr. Gigante, from 16 to 19, fought as a light heavyweight in clubs around town, winning 21 of 25 bouts, according to Nat Fleischer's Ring Record Book. Club boxers in those days fought four- and six-round contests in neighborhood arenas, usually getting a percentage of the tickets they themselves sold. One of Mr. Gigante's managers was a Greenwich Village neighbor, Thomas Eboli, known as Tommy Ryan, a high-ranking Genovese leader.
Former New York City detectives who were assigned to organized crime intelligence units said that Mr. Gigante earned his Mafia spurs as an enforcer in the 1950's. But his prominence in the underworld surged in 1957 when Mr. Genovese wrested control of a mob family from Frank Costello, who had been a close aide of Lucky Luciano and one of the most notorious underworld chieftains in America.
Mr. Costello retired abruptly as a boss after a gunman grazed his scalp with a bullet in the vestibule of his apartment building on Central Park West. A doorman identified Mr. Gigante, 29, as the gunman, but Mr. Costello testified that he was unable to recognize his assailant and Mr. Gigante was acquitted in 1958 on charges of attempted murder. As Mr. Costello left the courtroom, reporters heard Mr. Gigante say to him, "Thanks, Frank."
A year later Mr. Gigante was convicted with Mr. Genovese in Manhattan on federal charges of heroin trafficking. Mr. Gigante, who listed his profession as the superintendent of a tenement on Bleecker Street, was sentenced to seven years in prison. He was paroled after serving five years and detectives said that soon afterward he was promoted from soldier to the rank of capo, or captain, overseeing a group of Mafia gangsters known as a crew, in Greenwich Village.
Although his headquarters was in Lower Manhattan and he spent his nights at the town house on the East Side, Mr. Gigante had a home in Old Tappan, N.J., where he lived with his wife, the former Olympia Grippa, and their three daughters, Yolanda Fyfe, Roseanne D'Cola and Rita Gigante, and two sons, Salvatore and Andrew.
In 1969, he was indicted in New Jersey on a charge of conspiracy to bribe the entire five-member Old Tappan police force to alert him to surveillance operations by law enforcement agencies. The accusation was dropped after Mr. Gigante's lawyers presented reports from psychiatrists that he was mentally unfit to stand trial.
Mafia informers said that Mr. Gigante gained control of the Genovese family in a peaceful transition in the early 1980's when the group's boss, Philip Lombardo, stepped down because of ill health and handed the reins to Mr. Gigante.
As a new godfather, Mr. Gigante quickly imposed extraordinary security measures. Genovese soldiers and associates were forbidden to utter his name or nickname in conversations or telephone calls. When references to him had to be made, capos and soldiers would silently point to their chins or form the letter "C" with their fingers.
Mr. Gigante was indicted in 1990 with 14 other defendants on federal charges in Brooklyn that they had conspired to rig bids and extort payoffs from contractors on multimillion-dollar contracts with the New York City Housing Authority to install windows.
At his arraignment, he appeared in court in his familiar pajamas and bathrobe and a peaked cap. Because of defense contentions that he was mentally and physically impaired, his case was severed from those of the other defendants and legal battles ensued for seven years over his competence to stand trial.
A superseding indictment in 1993 brought more serious charges against him. Mr. Gigante was charged with being the head of the Genovese family and sanctioning the murders of six mobsters and conspiring to kill three others, including John Gotti, the Gambino family boss. Mr. Gigante, the indictment said, wanted Mr. Gotti eliminated because he had violated Mafia protocol by arranging the assassination of the previous Gambino boss, Paul Castellano, Mr. Gigante's partner in many illegal rackets.
The evidence in both indictments stemmed mainly from deserters from the Genovese and other mob families who had entered the government's Witness Protection Program.
At sanity hearings in March 1996, Mr. Gravano of the Gambino family, and Alphonse D'Arco, the former acting boss of another New York Mafia organization, the Lucchese crime family, testified that Mr. Gigante was lucid at top-level Mafia meetings and that he had told other gangsters that his eccentric behavior was a pretense.
Mr. Gigante's lawyers got testimony and reports from psychiatrists and psychologists that from 1969 to 1995 he had been confined 28 times in hospitals for treatment of hallucinations and that he suffered from "dementia rooted in organic brain damage."
In August 1996, Judge Eugene H. Nickerson of Federal District Court in Brooklyn ruled that Mr. Gigante was mentally competent to stand trial. Before the trial began, Mr. Gigante, who had open-heart surgery in 1988, had another cardiac operation in December 1996, putting his fitness to stand trial in doubt once again. Mr. Gigante had pleaded not guilty and had been free for years on $1 million bond.
During the monthlong trial in 1997, a gaunt-looking Mr. Gigante sat in a wheelchair, looking blankly into space as witnesses testified and lawyers argued. He did not testify. After three days of deliberations, the jury on July 25, 1997, convicted him on charges of running multimillion-dollar rackets as the Genovese family chief and of conspiring unsuccessfully in the late 1980's to murder Mr. Gotti and a Genovese family defector.
The F.B.I. failed in electronic eavesdropping attempts to get incriminating evidence for m the lips of the canny Mr. Gigante. The main prosecution witness, Peter Savino, was an associate in the Genovese family who was protected y Mr. Gigante when other gangsters suspected he was an informer and wanted him killed. Mr. Savino died of cancer shortly after testifying against his former mentor, Mr. Gigante.
Imposing a sentence of 12 years, Judge Jack B. Weinstein of Federal District Court in Brooklyn reflected in December 1997 on Mr. Gigante's career. "He is a shadow of his former self," the judge said, "an old man finally brought to bay in his declining years after decades of vicious criminal tyranny."