One Side Depicts Gotti as Disillusioned Son, the Other as Stony Avenger
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
This was real life, but it sounded like a movie script.
As John A. Gotti went on trial yesterday for the second time on charges of plotting to kidnap the radio host and Guardian Angel Curtis Sliwa, loan sharking and extortion in the construction trade, jurors were given two versions of mob life.
The prosecutor told of John J. Gotti's faithful son, who became a ruthless heir to the Gambino crime family legacy and who would do whatever it took, including ordering a kidnapping and brutal beatings, to maintain his power.
"You will learn that the Mafia is not just a fiction created for television or the movies, but real men committing real crimes." one of the prosecutors, Joon Kim, told the jury in United States District Court in Manhattan in his opening statement.
The first trial of Mr. Gotti, who is known as Junior, ended in a hung jury last year. Since then, he switched lawyers, and his new lawyer, Charles Carnesi, presented the other version, that of the sensitive young man in a mob family, pressured by his father to be a good soldier, but trying to get out.
The younger Gotti, Mr. Carnesi said, grew up idolizing his father, seeing him on the cover of magazines and wanting to be like him, without fully understanding what he did.
"His father, whatever else he may have been, was a powerful, charismatic, at times charming, at times harsh individual," Mr. Carnesi said during opening statements, pacing in front of the jury box as he spoke extemporaneously. "It's intoxicating."
But by 1992, when Mr. Sliwa was kidnapped and shot, the lawyer said, the junior Mr. Gotti, who is now 42, already wanted out, having been amply disillusioned about the price of loyalty to La Cosa Nostra.
"Men of honor? Hardly," Mr. Carnesi said, describing what Mr. Gotti had learned about organized crime. "He saw it from the top of the mountain. He saw a life where his father went to jail for the rest of his life, died locked away from his family, based on the testimony of a serial killer who was supposed to be his closest associate. He saw the treachery firsthand."
The accusation that Mr. Gotti had ordered the Sliwa shooting, the defense lawyer said, was cooked up in 2002 by Michael DiLeonardo, a mob turncoat facing life without parole. Mr. DiLeonardo knew that the climate in the United States attorney's office was favorable to those who wanted to turn government witness and took advantage of it, he said.
"The coin of the realm for that currency is the willingness to say the name Gotti," Mr. Carnesi said.
But the lawyer said Mr. Gotti did nothing. "He loved his father," Mr. Carnesi said. "But that love in no way would cause him to go out and bring violence to Curtis Sliwa."
The prosecution contends that, far from having renounced the life of his father, Mr. Gotti was defending his father's honor when he ordered the kidnapping of Mr. Sliwa. It was the spring of 1992, the prosecutor said, and the elder Mr. Gotti had just been convicted of federal racketeering offenses and sentenced to life in prison (where he died in 2002).
There were some people, Mr. Kim said, who romanticized mobsters, and others, like Mr. Sliwa, "who believed they were dangerous criminals." The younger Mr. Gotti, he said, did not like Mr. Sliwa's attitude, which he broadcast on his radio program.
On June 19, 1992, the prosecutor said, Mr. Sliwa hailed a taxi near his East Village home and found that he was trapped inside, unable to open the back doors or windows. A man jumped up from the front seat and shot him point blank. One bullet went through his stomach, bladder and rectum, requiring a colostomy. A second bullet went through his left leg and lodged in his right leg. (Mr. Sliwa eventually recovered.)
"That was the price that John Gotti Junior made Curtis Sliwa pay for exercising his right to free speech," Mr. Kim said. He said the driver of the taxi, Joey D'Angelo, a "made man," would testify about the kidnapping.
In December, in a technical ruling, a federal judge acquitted Michael Yannotti, the man accused of being the gunman in Mr. Sliwa's shooting. Prosecutors yesterday showed slides of the two Gottis and various associates going in and out of the Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy, the elder Gotti's home base. Mr. Gotti, sitting at the defense table, watched the grainy black-and-white photos with the rapt concentration of someone looking at a family album.
To support the extortion and loan-sharking charges, the prosecutor, Mr. Kim, said that while searching a basement in Queens in February 1997, the police found more than $350,000 in bundled bills in a gym bag belonging to Mr. Gotti.
Mr. Carnesi said the cash had been given to Mr. Gotti and his wife by their wedding guests, and that inside the bag, there was also a small silk purse traditionally used to collect cash gifts.
A prosecution witness, Diego Cruz, a supervisor with the state attorney general's organized crime task force, testified yesterday that no silk purse had been found. Mr. Cruz testified that the police found a gun equipped with a silencer hidden in the rafters of the same basement. Such a gun, Mr. Kim said, is made for assassination.