Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Gotti, the Last Mafia Icon

O'Connor Trial

Gotti kept talking and the FBI bugs kept recording. Listening devices were planted at the Bergin and the Ravenite. Agents monitored the mobsters whenever they met. One of the FBI's coups was the planting of bugs in Nettie Cirelli's apartment above the Ravenite, where Gotti felt completely safe to speak. Between November 30, 1989 and January 24, 1990, Gotti was to spill enough of the family's secrets to finally bring the walls crashing down.

While the listening devices in Cirelli's apartment continued to record damaging information leaking from the lips of the Gamino Family boss, his trial in the John O'Connor shooting was to begin in January 1990. Jury selection started on January 8 and was completed eleven days later. Acting Supreme Court Judge Edward J. McLaughlin ordered the jury to be sequestered for the entire trial and, to speed the proceedings, ordered that sessions be scheduled for six days a week.

The prosecution had two informants and mountains of tapes, the most damaging of which they claimed Gotti was overheard ordering, "Bust him up!" The first witness called by the prosecution was Vincent "Fish" Cafaro, a Mafia turncoat and a former made member of the Genovese Crime Family. Cafaro had been called by the state to testify as to how the five New York crime families operated. Gotti defense lawyers Cutler and Shargel tried to discredit Cafaro's testimony. Cutler inquired as to how the witness received his nickname, "Fish"?

"I don't recall," Cafaro replied.

"It has nothing to do with an odor or slipperiness?" Cutler asked sarcastically.

Next up for the jury were the tape recordings from the listening devices planted by members of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force. One agent described how he'd picked the lock to a door that led them into Gotti's private office, which was next to the Bergin Hunt & Fish Club where they planted bugs in two of the mob boss's telephones.

Quick to arise was the fact that if the authorities knew that O'Connor was in danger, why didn't they warn him? One investigator testified under cross-examination that the tapes weren't clear enough for them to identify O'Connor. Outside the courtroom, Gotti defense attorney Shargel told reporters, "If the tapes weren't clear enough to warn O'Connor, then they are not clear enough to convict Gotti."

On January 24, Edward Wright, an investigator for the State Organized Crime Task Force, testified for three hours about the content of the tapes. Explaining the tape's "cryptic references," Wright outlined for the jury the structure and titles of mob family members.

The star witness for the prosecution was former Westies gang member James Patrick McElroy, who was convicted in 1988 in Federal court of racketeering charges, including the assault on John O'Connor. It was only after McElroy agreed to cooperate with the government in 1988 that an indictment against Gotti was issued. McElroy was sentenced from 10 to 60 years in federal prison and was admittedly looking for a reduction of that sentence in return for his testimony. He told the court the order to "whack" O'Connor came from Gotti through Westies' leader James "Jimmy" Coonan. Under questioning from prosecutor Cherkasky, McElroy admitted to murdering two men, shooting two others and cutting the throat of another.

McElroy claimed Coonan introduced him to Gotti at the wake of Frank DeCicco. While having dinner afterwards, Coonan told him that Gotti wanted someone whacked. A few weeks later, McElroy and Coonan met Angelo Ruggiero in Manhattan, where they were asked, "Can you handle it?" McElroy then testified that on the morning of May 7, 1986 he and Westies' gang members Kevin Kelly and Kenneth Shannon, along with gang hopeful Joseph Schlereth, met outside O'Connor's office building. After O'Connor entered the lobby, Schlereth shot him four times. "I saw him spinning around in circles," McElroy stated. "He was trying to get into the elevator."

Bruce Cutler (left) and John Gotti
Bruce Cutler (left) and John Gotti (AP)

During a grueling four-hour cross-examination on January 29, Cutler and Shargel ripped into McElroy. Judge McLaughlin had to admonish Cutler several times for his antics. Pounding the prosecution table, Cutler called McElroy a "stool pigeon" and a "yellow dog." At one point Cutler told the witness, "You know you never went to the wake. John Gotti is a man you don't know. You must have met him in one of your drunken and drugged dreams."

Near the completion of the cross-examination, McElroy stated that he hoped to join the Federal Witness Protection Program. Cutler barked, "You're looking to be plopped down in some unsuspecting community, like in Utah, where they never heard of you, and where you can cut more throats and do more drugs."

The following day the jury heard the famous, "We're gonna, gonna bust him up," line from Gotti on tape. The prosecution contended this statement was made by Gotti to Guerrieri on February 7, 1986, just after the vandalism was done to the restaurant. Another recording made on May 7 had Gene Gotti talking to Ruggiero about hearing that O'Connor had been shot four times that morning.

The response from the defense was to challenge the authenticity of the tapes, stating that they may have been tampered with. They also pointed out that the sound quality was so poor that making an accurate transcript was impossible. The tapes could only be heard in the courtroom with the use of earphones. Gotti refused to listen and sat glaring at jury members as the tapes were played.

Edward Wright took the jury through the tapes.  In cross-examining him about Gotti's, "Bust him up," comment, Cutler disputed that the word was "him" claiming that his client said "'em," a contraction for "them." Cutler said the comment was actually, "We're gonna, gonna bust 'em up," meaning to move people around. Cutler and Wright had the following exchange:

Cutler: Do you know if that "bust 'em up" meant split them up?
Wright: Taken in the context of the whole conversation, I think it is fairly obvious what he meant.
Cutler: You can read his mind? Take a look at him over there. Tell me what he's thinking about?
Wright: I wish I knew.

The defense began their case by pointing out inconsistencies with a tape recording that was made days after the wounding of O'Connor. In a meeting at Rikers' Island prison, turncoat Westies' member Mickey Featherstone discussed the shooting with gang member Kevin Kelly, while two hidden tape recorders were utilized. One tape was turned over to the United States Attorney's office in Manhattan and the other went to the District Attorney in Manhattan. At the federal trial involving McElroy, Kelly was identified as the shooter and convicted, while at Gotti's trial, McElroy testified that the gunman was Schlereth. Due to the differences in the transcripts of the two tapes, defense attorneys tried to convince jury members that the prosecution had altered the tapes.

As a surprise witness, the defense called shooting victim John O'Connor. The union official, who was facing a state labor racketeering trial within the week, told the court that he was picked up by investigators from the State Organized Crime Task Force the day before the shooting. O'Connor testified that he was never told his life was in danger or that anyone was going to bust him up. The defense was attempting to prove that since the investigators had not warned O'Connor, they had no evidence that named him as the target of Gotti's "bust him up" comment. O'Connor also testified that there were "internal conflicts" within the union at the time he was wounded and that he had many enemies.

In the book Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano's Story of Life in the Mafia, by Peter Maas, Gravano talks about the wounding of O'Connor, and the trial:

'"They were just supposed to give this O'Connor a serious beating,' Sammy said. 'But a lot of the Westies were all fucked-up, drug addicts and drunks. And they end up shooting O'Connor in his legs and ass for whatever reason. So now when the D.A. eventually gets into this, it's a major thing.'

"Sammy had sent a message to O'Connor through the Westies that, all things considered, it wasn't such a good idea 'to testify against John.' O'Connor obliged. On the witness stand he swore that he didn't have the slightest idea who would want to harm him."

The last defense witness was a member of the carpenters' union who had testified at two previous federal trials. Ivar Mikalsen stated that he had identified Westies' member Kevin Kelly as the gunman, which conflicted with McElroy's testimony that Joseph Schlereth was the actual shooter.

During final arguments, which the newspapers described as "unusually rancorous summations," prosecutors and defense lawyers traded insults in front of the jury. The usually soft-spoken Cherkasky, in his final summation, addressed the defense's emphasis of John O'Connor testifying on behalf of John Gotti. Cherkasky told the jury, "I can understand why. If you get shot for breaking up a restaurant, what happens if you testify against him."


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