Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Gotti, the Last Mafia Icon

Special Juror

The reason for Gotti and Cutler's being confident in beating the case was justified. They had bought a juror for $60,000. George Pape was described as a "middle-aged suburbanite with a drinking problem." While working at a construction site he'd met Bruno Radonjich, who would become the leader of the Westies Gang. When Pape was called for jury duty and realized he might sit on the Giacalone RICO case, he saw it as a financial opportunity.

Pape lied early and often in an effort to get through Judge Nickerson's questionnaire to eliminate potential jurors who could show any connection to Gotti. Soon after being accepted, Pape contacted Radonjich, who in turn "reached out" to Sammy Gravano, and the fix was on.

Gotti seemed to revel in the fact that the worst thing that could happen to him would be a hung jury. During trial recesses, he would give impromptu interviews to the media, which usually consisted of denouncing the prosecution, one of their witnesses, or both. On November 19, 1986, when the verdict came down in the famous "Commission" trial, convicting all eight defendants of RICO violations, Gotti let it be known that the decision had "nothing to do with us. We're walkin' out of here."

At times, the prosecutors proved to be their own worst enemy with some of the witnesses they called. In early December, former Bergen club hanger-on James Cardinali took the stand. Cardinali had been in prison with Gotti when he was serving time for the McBratney murder. Cardinali was serving a five- to ten-year term for murder when he became a government witness. He told the court that after leaving prison in 1979, he sought out Gotti at the Bergin and was given a no-show job at a trucking firm, paid $100 to $200 a week by Gotti to run errands. During this time he admitted to robbing drug dealers and killing five people. After Cardinali's first morning of testimony, Gotti told reporters in the spectator section, "Not one thing he said was the truth – except his rat name."

Under cross-examination, Cardinali embarrassed the government. Attorney Jeffrey C. Hoffman, representing Gene Gotti, got Cardinali to admit that the government paid him $10,000 for his testimony and when asked if he would "lie, cheat or steal" to get what he wanted he replied, "Absolutely!" Over the prosecutor's objections, Hoffman then dug into Cardinali's conversations with Giacalone. He asked about comments Giacalone made about her working relationship with Judge Nickerson.

"Did you ever say that she said he treats her like a daughter?" Hoffman questioned. "And that she gets whatever she wants from him and that the defense gets nothing?"

"I heard something like that," Cardinali replied.

Under questioning from defense attorney Michael L. Santangelo, who represented Leonard DiMaria, Cardinali admitted that, in addition to the money, he'd been promised immunity in four murders in which he'd participated and would be given a new identity and home. When asked if he felt he had made a good deal with the government, Cardinali replied, "I think I made a fantastic deal."

By the sixth day of his testimony, Cardinali was sounding more like a defense witness than a government one. Cutler got him to admit he had once stated, "From the day I met John Gotti he did nothing but good for me. He put money in my pocket when I didn't have a dime, he put clothes on my back. He is the finest man I have ever known." The following day he admitted that he told Cutler, "If he [Gotti] found me and left me dead in the street, that's what I deserved."

Perhaps the most damaging revelation was Cardinali testifying that in 1982 he offered government agents information about an associate "who made millions dealing in drugs." Cardinali claimed the agents responded that they didn't need him for that, "they wanted John."

The trial, which was expected to last up to three months, dragged on into the new year. By January 20, 1987, five months after jury selection began, the defense finally began its case.

If Giacalone and Gleeson thought the worst was over, they were sadly mistaken. On February 2, defense witness Matthew Traynor took the stand and proceeded to spew sordid tales of alleged arrangements between the prosecutor and himself. The stories ranged from him being offered drugs in exchange for testimony to a repugnant tale of Giacalone offering Traynor a pair of her panties so he could "facilitate" himself after telling her he wanted to "get laid."

Traynor claimed that DEA Supervisor Magnuson provided him with drugs while in prison and that one time he was so "zonked" that he puked on Giacalone's desk. The defense left no prosecutor unscathed, as a subpoena was served on the hospital records of John Gleeson's wife. The defense tried to tie in the drugs Traynor was receiving to the wife of the prosecutor, who worked at the hospital.

On February 11, the defense rested its case.  To Nickerson's chagrin, Giacalone announced that she had 17 rebuttal witnesses to call. The trial dragged on for three more weeks. On March 2, Giacalone spent five hours giving her summation. The once determined prosecutor looked beaten. Her voice was nearly gone and several times she misidentified people.

After a trial that lasted nearly seven months, the jury deliberated for seven days and then came to its decision. The prosecution was in a no-win situation. From the first day of deliberations it was a foregone conclusion, as George Pape announced to his fellow jurors that, "This man Gotti is innocent. They are all innocent.  As far as I am concerned there is nothing left to discuss." Several jurors urged Pape to continue to deliberate and keep an open mind. Over the next few days they continued their work, mostly without him. At night Pape remained alone and drank by himself. In Gotti: Rise and Fall, Capeci and Mustain write: 

"As some jurors later recalled, some began to suspect that somehow the defendants had threatened Pape or his family. This suspicion heightened the sense of danger that some had felt in the stares of Gotti and his men from the first day of trial and made them dwell on their own families' security. Over the last two days of deliberation, an unspoken group paranoia took hold and the tide turned the other way, creating a beach of reasonable doubt upon which early beliefs in the strength of the government case were gradually discarded."

On Friday the 13th, when the not guilty verdicts were announced, a raucous response from the Gotti faithful reverberated throughout the courtroom. His supporters actually believed he had won the trial, fair and square. As the jury began to exit, Gotti began clapping for them and was soon joined by his fellow defendants and supporters.

There are a few footnotes to the Giacalone RICO trial. Exactly one month after the verdict "Crazy Sal" Polisi had his 15-year sentence reduced to probation. On the morning of August 29, 1988 mob justice was administered to Willie Boy Johnson. As Johnson walked from his Flatlands' home in Brooklyn to his car, gunmen fired nineteen rounds at him. Johnson was hit once in each thigh, twice in the back, and at least six times in the head. He died instantly. Finally in 1992, Sammy Gravano testified against juror George Pape, who was convicted and sent to prison for three years. Radonjich, who had fled to his homeland and became a Serbian freedom fighter, was arrested at Miami International Airport on New Year's Day, 2000. Gravano was expected to testify against him, but after Sammy was arrested on drug charges in late February, the government dropped its charges against Radonjich.


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