Born Salvatore Gravano, Sammy is best known as the gangster responsible for bringing down Gambino mob boss, John Gotti. His betrayal of the Gambino family as an underboss has made him one of the highest ranking mobsters to offer testimony against his own gang.
In 1945, Sammy was born to Gerry and Kay Gravano, who managed a dress factory and provided a good living for their three children. This did not keep Sammy off the streets, however, who was stealing by the age of seven. By thirteen, he was an initiated member of the Rampers, one of Brooklyn’s street gangs. This, along with his dyslexia, contributed to his truancy. His teachers reported to his parents that he was “slow,” and when he was held back twice, he began to be bullied.
Sammy put an end to that, assaulting the main offenders in the schoolyard, after which, the school asked his parents to remove him. The Gravanos did as they were asked, and tried to deal with his behavioral problems in the home.
When he was nineteen, Gravano was drafted, but never saw any combat, working as a cook as he achieved a corporal’s rank, and was then discharged after two years.
Associate of the Colombo Family
With a stable home life and an honorable discharge behind him, Sammy Gravano was not exactly the mafia’s ideal candidate. Members of the Colombo crime family frequented a bar near his home in Brooklyn, however, where, even as a child, he became acquainted with the life. During the years he was being bullied, one of the gangsters retrieved a bicycle stolen by some of the neighborhood kids.
Many of his friends from the Rampers joined the Colombos, and even though his father tried to convince him otherwise, Gravano saw the mafia as an outlet for his anger and a place he would find acceptance. He joined in 1968, and quickly became a favorite among the captains.
His first murder was Joseph Colucci, another of the Colombos who was having an affair with one of his friend’s wives. This murder drew even more attention from the Colombo underbosses, and soon, other members of the family began to get jealous of his success. In order to avoid ruffling feathers, he left the Colombos and joined the Gambinos.
Soldier for the Gambino Family
Paul Castellano, the current Gambino boos, took a liking to Gravano early on, as Gravano enthusiastically helped the Gambino mob boss build a corrupt construction company. Soon, Sammy was one of the boss’s favorites, putting him in charge of many of the family’s “business” ventures. Two more murders, this time of Philadelphia wise guy John Simone and NYC businessman Frank Fiala, cemented his place in the Gambino hierarchy.
Meeting John Gotti
Sammy Gravano met John Gotti through Gotti’s mentor, Neil Dellacroce. In the aftermath of Castellano’s arrest, he readily agreed to help murder the boss, to ensure he would name his nephew as the next head of the mob. Though Gravano initially wanted his friend Frank DeCicco to become the boss after Castellano was murdered, the conspirators all believed that Gotti would be a better leader. Notably, however, DeCicco and Gravano made a pact to kill Gotti after a year, if he turned out not to be leadership material.
Gravano helped Gotti gain the approval of the Colombo and Bonanno families, as well as ensure that they had the backing of several Gambino underbosses. On December 16th, 1985, Gotti, Gravano, and their hit crew ambushed Castellano and his most loyal underbosses at their favorite stakehouse, killing their boss as he left the restaurant.
In only a month’s time, Gotti became the head of the Gambino family, and named DeCicco as his underboss. Within a year, however, one of the rival families, in an attempt to kill Gotti, murder DeCicco. Gotti replaced him with Gravano and Gotti’s old friend, Angelo Ruggiero.
His first murder since being named underboss was Nicky Cowboy Mormando, an old friend and recent cocaine addict. Mormando had told Gravano he wanted to leave the Gambinos and start his own gang. Sammy felt it was too dangerous to let Mormando go and asked Gotti for permission to carry out the hit. When it was granted, he and Joseph Paruta killed and disposed of Mormando.
In the years between joining the Gambino family and his ascent through the hierarchy, he attracted a lot of FBI attention. Not only did he seem to have a meteoric rise, he was also associated with several legitimate, very profitable businesses, and was a known associate of both construction magnates and union officals. At any given time he was underboss, consigliere (counselor) to the boss, or liaison between legitimate businesses and mafia interests.
Turning State’s Witness
Sammy Gravano supported John Gotti for the most part, but towards the time of the boss’ indictment, he seemed to grow greedier than ever. Many of the Gambino’s high ranking family members began to feel that not only was Gotti becoming too greed for his own good, but also that he was beginning to put the family at risk.
When the FBI raided the Ravenite Social Club, Gotti’s favorite haunt, Gotti and Gravano were both arrested on charges of murder and racketeering. Immediately, Gotti when on the defensive, attempting to pin everything on Gravano. Sammy’s lawyers saw this coming, however, and convinced him to turn against his boss and the whole Gambino family.
In return for his testimony, Gravano was given a five year sentence, with four years credited for time already served. In the end, he served only one year for the same crimes that left John Gotti imprisoned for life. In 1994, he was released and he and his family entered witness protection. After only a year, the Gravano family left the program, and Gravano began attracting media attention, giving interviews to the likes of Diane Sawyer.
He also wrote a book, titled Underboss, which revealed not only the fully extent of many of his crimes, but also John Gotti’s. He has since been incarcerated on drug charges, where he remains until at least 2019.