The Gambino Crime Family From Then to Now (Yes, Now)
Americans love the mafia — at least, when it’s through rose-colored glasses.
From “The Godfather” to “Goodfellas” to “The Sopranos,” Americans have a long-held love affair with high-profile Italian-American criminals who seemed larger than life until they laid sprawled out and dead on the streets of New York City.
Of the five crime families, the most powerful is arguably the Gambino Family, which included the most famous of all crime bosses, John Gotti, who rose to power and infamy during the 1980s.
But the Gambinos didn’t start with Gotti, nor did they end with his demise. The story of the family dates back far longer, and its history is just as violent, lucrative and intriguing as “The Teflon Don’s” much publicized lifestyle.
Off the Boat and Into the Underbelly
The Gambino family started with Sicilian immigrant Salvatore “Toto” D’Aquila, who entered America and then New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in 1906. He worked in the Morello crime family as a captain and “confidence man” — a term used to describe a thief and fraudster (the term appears to have been made common around 1849). After the "boss of bosses" Giuseppe Morello and other top-ranking Morello gangster Ignazio Lupo were sent to jail, D’Aquila saw an opening and started his own family. Gangsters from various families, including the Morellos, flocked to the new gang and D’Aquila soon became the boss of bosses.
According to “The First Family: Terror, Extortion Revenge, Murder and the Birth of the American Mafia” by Mike Dash, D’Aquila made it so that any new member entering into any one of New York City’s five mafia families had to be vetted by all. By 1913, D’Aquila’s family was as strong as the other four families combined.
Murders and Acquisitions
For a number of years, it gets confusing, with bosses rising to power and getting gunned down throughout Manhattan. The five family names we are familiar with today aren’t heard of until certain men come into power, which happened during those next couple of decades.
In 1928, D’Aquila was ambushed and shot dead. He was succeeded by Manfredi “Al” Mineo, who likely had a roll in D’Aquila’s murder. Mineo’s reign, however, would be short: By 1930, he would lay dead in an apartment building’s courtyard during the Castellammarese War. This gang war was the result of a war instigated by boss Salvatore Maranzano. Maranzano had built up a lucrative protection ring centered around bootlegging, and he was a force with which to be reckoned.
To succeed Mineo in what is now the Gambino crime family, Frank Scalice came to power in 1930. Scalice partnered with Maranzano during the Castellammarese War, which ended when the head of the Genovese crime family was gunned down in 1931. (That would be Joe Masseria — he was shot to death in an Italian restaurant, an incident that was rumored to inspire that famous scene in “The Godfather.”)
Scalice’s reign was also short but not because he would be gunned down (that occurred 25 years later). After Maranzano was murdered in 1931, Charles “Lucky” Luciano was put in charge.
Restructuring and Murder Inc.
During the early 1930s, the mafia was restricted. “The commission,” a governing body headed by each of the five families, was formed. The commission dissolved the boss of bosses position and, in turn, helped the American mafia families work together. During this time, Vincent “The Executioner” Mangano rose to power of the Gambino family, along with underboss Albert “Lord High Executioner” Anastasia.
Anastasia liked killing people — he was one of the most ruthless mob bosses of the era. In the early ’30s, he was appointed to the mob’s execution enterprise, Murder Inc. — a death squad that operated out of an old Brooklyn candy shop said to have killed anywhere between 400 and 1,000 people.
Anastasia and Mangano did not get along, and eventually Mangano disappeared in 1951; his body was never found. Anastasia claimed the family throne.
And More Murder
Lord High Executioner was not very popular among the other rival families. In 1952, he ordered the murder of Arnold Schuster, a 24-year-old salesman who identified a bank robber. Anastasia, seeing Schuster speaking on television, allegedly screamed “I can’t stand squealers! Hit that guy!”
Schuster was shot twice in the groin and once in each eye. Schuster was a citizen, and the bank robber had no ties to the mafia — it was a taboo murder. In 1957, Anastasia decided to get a haircut. While sitting in his barber’s chair, his bodyguard conveniently decided it was time to take a walk. Two men barged into the salon, opened fire and gunned Anastasia down. When press photographers arrived, he laid on the ground swathed in white towels with crimson splotches.
Rise of the Gambinos
The family’s next leader would be Carlo Gambino, who was already an established gangster. He owned whiskey stills in four states and by the mid-1930s he “owned a virtual monopoly on illegal alcohol within a hundred-mile radius of New York City,” according to “Mafia Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the Gambino Crime Family” by John H. Davis. He was 30 years old, and had been serving in the family since the D’Aquila days. He quickly learned to profiteer off of World War II, selling black market ration stamps, earning him hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He was intelligent, likable and poised for the big time. In 1957, he became head of the family. He remained in that position until his death in 1976; by that time, the group was known as simply the Gambino family.
He also married his first cousin — talk about keeping it in the family! Although this wasn’t unusual — a 1976 article from The New York Times says the FBI noted “a higher than normal incidence of retardation among offspring” in the Gambino family because of this.
The Reign of Carlo Gambino
During the 1960s, the Gambino family had between 500 and 800 soldiers, with operations stretching into cities like Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Miami and Boston. Carlo prevented the Gambino family from entering into rackets like hijackings and drugs because it would get the attention of the feds (he even had a “deal and die” policy for drugs). It wasn’t all illegal, though — Carlo’s reach expanded to the garment industry, real estate, trucking and waste management industries. If someone just happened to steal cargo at the Kennedy Airport, he received a 25 percent cut of the take. It’s rumored the Gambino family was making around $500,000 a year (about $4.2 million by today’s standards).
After a number of deaths and betrayals in the other big mafia families, Carlo eventually became known as the unofficial “boss of bosses” because he and the entire Gambino operation were so powerful. He lived a relatively modest lifestyle and spent his time living between a Brooklyn apartment building and a house in Long Island. He was an illegal immigrant up until his death, and fought off deportation proceedings.
The FBI surveilled Carlo constantly, but couldn’t get anything useful. Eventually the FBI arrested him in 1970 for plotting to rob an armored truck for upwards of $5 million, but the judge later acquitted the ailing gangster. He died of natural causes at 74 years old.
Castellano's Lack of Popularity...
When Carlo Gambino died, the family sort of split. Mafioso Paul “Big Paul” Castellano took the family’s reigns; Castellano was a captain under Anastasia and became acting boss for Carlo four years before his death due to the former boss’ ill health.
Castellano was a recluse and didn’t directly deal with operations and common gangsters, electing instead to rule from his home — a custom-built, 17-room Staten Island mansion modeled after the White House. He wasn’t very popular, but he was good for mafia business; the five families weren’t at war, and money was pouring in.
...Leads to His Demise
But then Castellano got old and weak. By the early 1980s, he was nearing 70, had diabetes and heart trouble — and believe it or not — the fact that he had a penile implant surgery for impotence had gained him the disgust of the machismo mobsters underneath him.
Plus, the FBI was coming. In 1983, the feds bugged his home, gaining hundreds of hours of tape. By 1985, he was arrested on multiple charges of racketeering, theft, prostitution and extortion, and was walking free on several-million-dollars’ worth of bail money. Would Castellano rat when the time came? He was 70, after all. What was to be done?
The Steakhouse Murders
During this time, John Gotti was an underboss. He hated Castellano for a number of reasons, an important one being that Gotti was trafficking heroin and the “deal and die” rule was still in effect. The FBI recorded Gotti talking about how much he hated the new boss of bosses; if that got back to Castellano, it would be a death sentence.
So, Gotti ordered the hit heard around the world — a very public murder of a mafia boss. This was something unheard of, as the murder of any boss needed to pass the mafia commission and required the dark blessing from all five families. Gotti skipped this step.
On Dec. 16, 1985, Castellano and his underboss bodyguard parked their black Lincoln under a “No Parking” sign in front of Sparks Steak House. As they approached the restaurant, four men clad in trench coats opened fire with semi-automatics, plugged six bullets in each man, then retreated to a getaway car. As gawkers started to approach the grisly aftermath, Gotti himself drove by.
The penalty of killing a boss was also a death sentence, but Gotti had politicked his way into the favor of the five families. After denying he had anything to do with the murders and helping install friends in high-ranking mafia positions, he was elected to be the next big Gambino boss.
Gotti would actively rule the family from 1985 until 1992 — only seven short, yet eventful, years. He was frequently charged with several crimes, but witnesses would suddenly not remember what happened, and jurors would flip in favor of the mob boss. Despite numerous court hearings over five years, nothing stuck to “The Teflon Don.” That changed in 1990, when Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, Gotti’s close friend, finally flipped. Gravano was with Gotti that day when Castellano was murdered, traveling in Gotti’s car that rolled up to the two dead corpses outside of Sparks Steak House.
Gotti was finally convicted in 1992 of murder, racketeering, obstruction, tax evasion, illegal gambling, extortion and loansharking. He was sentenced to life without parole and died in prison in 2002. His publicity-loving lifestyle and high-profile cases shed an unwanted (by the Cosa Nostra clan) spotlight on the mafia; some contend he was the downfall of the mob’s secret power grip on New York City and other parts of America.
Several incredible mafia-based television shows and movies incorporate pieces of Gotti’s life and exploits into their scripts. But if you feel like whacking yourself, you can also see “Gotti” starring John Travolta, which holds a 0 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Crumbling Post–John Gotti Era
Since it’s impossible to actively manage a multimillion-dollar crime empire from jail, John Gotti appointed his younger brother, John Gotti Jr., as acting boss from 1992 to 1999. Charged numerous times for racketeering, he was never convicted (all trials ended in mistrials). He’s 54 years old and still living.
When Gotti died in 2002, Gotti Jr. didn’t become boss though. That title went to older brother Peter Gotti, nicknamed “The Dumbest Don.” In 2003, he was sentenced to nine years for attempting to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars from actor Steven Seagal, illegal gambling and corrupt control of a longshoremen’s union. A year later, he received another 25 years for plotting to murder Gravano and extorting building contractors. He passed control down to Domenico Cefalù in 2011.
The Current Players
From 2011 to 2015, Domenico Cefalù lead the Gambino family, effectively ending the Gotti rule. Cefalù drew the Gambino family away from the media spotlight, taking a low-key approach to criminal activity. He was the boss until Francesco "Franky Boy" Cali, 53, was rumored to take over.
The Gambinos wanted to keep out of the limelight — which is why the recent release of Gene Gotti likely worried them. The 71-year-old Gotti brother served 29 years for running a multimillion-dollar heroin ring. An anonymous law enforcement official told the New York Post, “The Gambinos are running smoothly — gambling, pills, construction unions, etc., and the last thing they want is someone to put them back in papers and on TV.”
Unfortunately for them, that was wishful thinking. On March 13, Cali was gunned down in what was described as a "well-thought-out execution."
Needless to say, just because you don’t hear about them often, doesn’t mean they aren’t around. While the the current mafia isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be, "New York Magazine" estimates that the Gambino family still has about 160 to 180 men working for it.