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Sammy’s swan song: Ode to the ‘Chin’

July 20, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ Sitting in a federal jail cell, guilty of 19 murders and facing life imprisonment, Salvatore ``Sammy The Bull″ Gravano considered his options: Stand with his boss, John Gotti. Or cut a deal against him.

Six years later, Gravano knows he made the right call. The underboss-turned-informant, after his likely swan song as a federal witness, left a Brooklyn courtroom this month with a new face, a new best-selling book and a new lease on life _ however long that lasts.

Gravano, 52, left with one other thing: an unparalleled record as a mob informant, law enforcers said. His devastating testimony about the top echelons of Mafia life jailed 36 mobsters, including two family bosses: Gambino head Gotti and Colombo chief Victor Orena.

Prosecutors were hopeful a third, reputed Genovese boss Vincent ``Chin″ Gigante, would become No. 37.

``I don’t know of an informant who’s ever done more than Sammy Gravano in the government’s efforts against organized crime,″ said ex-federal prosecutor Andrew J. Maloney. ``I don’t know of anybody with his track record.″

Gravano, as he did when he flipped from the Gambino family to the government in October 1991, made front-page news with his testimony against Gigante this month.

Once Gotti’s obscure right-hand man, Gravano was now a mob star in his own right. FBI officials, a federal judge and an assortment of media filled the spectator seats in a packed sixth-floor courtroom. Outside, more than a dozen people stood for hours in hopes of seeing ``The Bull.″

But it’s unlikely the pugnacious ex-mobster will ever appear as a prosecution witness again.

He has dropped out of the Witness Protection Program. His detailed testimony has left Gravano few contemporaries to implicate. And his lucrative book deal, acknowledged for the first time at trial, has cast Gravano as a murderer-turned-profiteer _ ``an ugly picture,″ acknowledged one federal prosecutor.

``It’s not a good idea,″ Maloney agreed drily, ``for a government witness to write a book.″

Gravano’s best-selling collaboration with author Peter Maas, ``Underboss,″ became Gigante lawyer Michael Marinaccio’s bible during an intense two days of cross-examination.

For his cooperation with Maas, Gravano testified, he’s already made $250,000 _ which works out to $13,158 for each of the 19 people he admits murdering. He later testified that he hopes to clear $1 million by selling the movie rights.

For his cooperation with the government, Gravano received a five-year prison term _ barely three months per murder.

Marinaccio, clutching a copy of ``Underboss″ marked with brightly colored Post-Its, at one point asked the turncoat mobster, ``On page 217 of your book, the third full paragraph ...″

``Don’t quote me on MY book,″ Gravano interrupted. He talked to Maas, and Maas wrote it, he said. Pressed later on a discrepancy, Gravano shot back, ``This is not a book. This is a trial. I’m under oath.″

Gravano, who faces a lawsuit from his victims’ families to garnish any book or movie profits, was stared down by the daughters of several victims in the courtroom.

Cindy DiBernardo, whose father was murdered in Gravano’s Brooklyn office, lurched from the courtroom near tears as the mobster matter-of-factly discussed the hit.

Gravano, unmoved, displayed all the attributes that made him a killer witness. He was confident, even-tempered, funny, polite _ and absolutely unflappable.

The ex-underboss, looking like a college professor in a blue suit, casual shirt buttoned to the neck and rounded glasses, never sugarcoated his crimes. He apologized to the jury _ ``pardon my language″ _ in discussing a mob ``screw-up.″

Most importantly, he was the first witness to provide testimony directly detailing Gigante’s alleged position atop the powerful Genovese family. Gravano recalled hearing the news of Chin’s promotion in the Staten Island home of Gambino boss Paul Castellano.

In the end, in his last minutes on the witness stand representing the U.S. government, Gravano’s new problems became clear. Rather than implicating Gigante, Gravano spoke of his work with Maas.

``Are you here to publicize the book?″ asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Weissman.

``No,″ replied Gravano.

The jury filed out of the room, and Gravano followed _ back to a life of obscurity somewhere west of the Mississippi River. He reportedly has a $1 million bounty on his head.

How will Gravano fare among his new neighbors? A 1994 psychological evaluation done for the Witness Protection Program indicates Gravano’s next court appearance could be in his old role as defendant.

``The likelihood of violent behavior is substantial ... His recent involvement in a contract murder (August 1990) suggests he continues to be violent despite his age,″ the report said.

Gravano’s social skills, evident on the witness stand, were no guarantee that he could escape his brutal past.

``He should be monitored closely,″ the report recommended. ``(Gravano) has a lifetime of misplaced loyalty and violent criminal conduct to overcome.″

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