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The Last Don

John Gotti, 1940-2002: He may have been the last of a breed.

12:00 AM, Jun 12, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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THE MOST MEMORABLE SCENE in "Goodfellas" is the brutal killing of Billy Batts. It starts in 1970 at the Suite Nite Club where Batts, a "made" guy in the Gambino family, is celebrating his return from prison. Everyone seems to be having a grand time when Tommy DeVito struts in with his girl. DeVito isn't a Gambino, though he knows Batts from back in the day. Batts is excited, drunk, and delighted to see Tommy after "six f----n' years!" Tommy is not so excited and when the two of them hug, he tells Batts to "watch the suit, watch the suit." "Don't go getting too big on me," warns Batts.

Batts proceeds to tell his buddies that when Tommy was a kid, he used to make shoes look like mirrors. "They used to call him Spit-Shine Tommy," he says derisively. The tension escalates (Scorsese slowly brings the camera closer to each of the men with every exchange). Tommy then coldly explains he doesn't shine shoes anymore and both men then apologize, if only out of convenience.

"Now go get your f----n' shinebox!" Batts says, unable to hold back. A fight breaks out as Tommy leaves in a huff. But he comes back when everyone else is gone except for Henry Hill and Jimmy Conway, both friends of Tommy's. Batts is taken by surprise as Tommy pistol-whips him into unconsciousness while Jimmy stomps all over his body, which is quickly wrapped up and thrown into the trunk. But on the way to the gravesite (and after a stop at Tommy's mother's house) they realize he isn't quite dead yet. Tommy stabs the very nearly dead Batts several times with a butcher's knife. And then Jimmy puts a few bullets into him. As Henry Hill explains in the voiceover, they had a real problem with Batts. "Batts was part of the Gambino crew and was considered untouchable."

But Batts was more than just a part of the Gambino crew. He was, in real life, a friend of John Gotti's. At the time, Gotti was still working his way up the mob ladder. In the end, it was the Gotti crew who settled the score by killing the real Tommy (in the movie version Tommy's own family, the Lucheses, rubs him out). It's all meticulously explained in Nick Pileggi's "Wiseguy."

The death of John Gotti this past Monday in Springfield, Missouri, marked the end of the era of famous, high-profile godfathers at a time when other ethnic mobs, especially the Russians, are now on the rise. Gotti, who suffered from throat cancer, never wanted it to end this way and thought he had a better hold on his own men and the law than he actually did. Throughout the 1980s, Gotti had escaped conviction for various crimes, earning him the nickname of "Teflon Don." But in the early 1990s, all that changed, thanks in part to successful FBI wiretaps at the Ravenite social club and the defection of his underboss, Sammy "the Bull" Gravano.

On April 2, 1992, Gotti was found guilty on 14 counts including racketeering, tax evasion, and murder. He was slapped with several life sentences without parole and sent packing to Marion, Illinois. Even in jail, however, it was alleged that he still continued to run the Gambino family. There was, no doubt, a struggle to find leadership for a crime family that at its height boasted a total of 2,000 associates and more than 300 "made" guys. The Gambinos were involved in everything from the garment district to construction to waste management.

For a while, the family was run by John A. "Junior" Gotti, the don's nephew. But he too was imprisoned on racketeering charges. And more recently the family was ruled by Peter Gotti, the don's brother. But with Peter's indictment--just five days before Gotti's death--on charges of shaking down the Brooklyn waterfront, the family, which has slipped to second place behind the Genovese, is once again a ship without a rudder.

Looking back, it becomes clear that while the media lavished much attention on Gotti and even fawned over the "Dapper Don," the actual members of his organization and other families didn't exactly feel the same way. Rather, they resented all the attention he received, and the attention he brought to organized crime.

Explains Sam Gravano in "Underboss," "John worked at it real hard, the whole image of himself. Being the boss, the Godfather. The Don. The Dapper Don. The Teflon Don. He loved them terms. . . . That's why all the old foxes in Cosa Nostra hated him. And a lot of the bosses. It wasn't the life. Just like when we said [former Gambino boss] Paul Castellano was being selfish about money, this was equally selfish. Because it was for me, me, me. It wasn't for Cosa Nostra. Cosa Nostra was supposed to be family. Not me, me, me."