By JULIA PRESTON
A graying 70-year-old defendant who federal prosecutors said was the acting boss of the Gambino crime family pleaded guilty yesterday to racketeering, a new turn in the spiraling decline of what was once one of the most feared criminal organizations in New York.
The defendant, Arnold Squitieri, entered guilty pleas in Federal District Court in Manhattan to four counts of racketeering and extortion, saying he had used threats of violence to exact payments from construction companies in Westchester County and Mineola, N.Y., and from a New Jersey trucking company.
"I know it was wrong," Mr. Squitieri said, reading a written statement to a magistrate judge, Michael H. Dolinger. Mr. Squitieri also told tearful relatives that he had made the plea for them.
In a 53-count indictment brought in March 2005, prosecutors charged that Mr. Squitieri took command as the acting boss of the Gambino organization in June 2002 after the former boss, Peter Gotti, was arrested on racketeering charges.
But Mr. Squitieri refused to acknowledge that he was a member of the Gambino organization. He admitted to taking part in an "enterprise," but told the magistrate judge he would agree to a plea only "with the Gambino name out of it."
Gerald Shargel, Mr. Squitieri's lawyer, said he had entered a "straightforward arm's-length plea agreement" and had not agreed to cooperate with the government. Prosecutors recommended a sentence range for Mr. Squitieri of as little as seven years and three months to a maximum of nine years, less than half the sentence that he might have faced if he were convicted in a trial.
The trial of Mr. Squitieri and an accused Gambino capo, Gregory DePalma, had been set to begin on May 8. With his plea, Mr. Squitieri has a chance of getting out of prison before he is 80.
Mr. Squitieri appeared lively and spoke in a strong voice. But at one point, when the judge asked him during which years he had committed his crimes, he became confused.
"I can't remember too good, your honor," he said. "I'm getting up in age."
At the end of the hearing, Mr. Squitieri turned to point at his wife, Marie, a slim woman with flowing blond hair, who was sitting with a group of his relatives. "I did it for you," he said. "I pleaded guilty because of you."
The arrest of Mr. Squitieri and 31 other accused Gambino members was a result of a three-year investigation in which an F.B.I. undercover agent infiltrated Mr. DePalma's crew. F.B.I. officials have compared the agent to Joe Pistone, an agent who, under the name Donnie Brasco, infiltrated the Bonanno crime family two decades ago in an operation that became law enforcement legend as well as a Hollywood movie.
This undercover operation involving Mr. Squitieri also appeared to have some theatrical elements.
At one point during the operation, the undercover agent gave flat-screen televisions to Mr. Squitieri and to Mr. DePalma, saying they were stolen, a law enforcement official recounted. One evening Mr. Squitieri was watching an episode of "The Sopranos." In it, a mobster was watching his own stolen flat-screen set when his parole officer visited and promptly arrested him for possessing stolen property.
That episode made Mr. Squitieri, who was himself on supervised release, nervous about the gift, the law enforcement official said. He got rid of the set, the official said, concerned that this "could be life imitating art."
On March 31, Anthony Megale, accused as the acting underboss and street operator for Mr. Squitieri, pleaded guilty to racketeering charges. Two men who admitted they were "street bosses" for Mr. Squitieri, Alphonse Sisca and Louis Filippelli, also pleaded guilty then.
William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting for this article.