20 Years Later, a Mob Hit Reverberates
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Twenty years ago this month, four men in tall, Russian-style fur hats pulled weapons from under their coats on a busy Midtown street at the height of the Christmas shopping season and gunned down America’s most powerful gangster.
The spectacular December 16, 1985, slaying of Mafia boss Paul Castellano and one of his henchmen riveted the city for weeks. An entire generation of New Yorkers is unlikely to forget the grisly photographs of the slain mobster lying sprawled on a sidewalk, surrounded by police, in front of Sparks Steak House on East 46th Street.
They also learned a new name they wouldn’t soon forget: John Gotti. Virtually overnight, Gotti, an unknown Queens hoodlum, was transformed into a swaggering symbol of Mafia arrogance and power.
While the Dapper Don died in prison more than three years ago following his conviction for orchestrating the murder of Big Paul and others, the fallout from that gangland-style slaying still reverberates in the city’s courts.
For John A. “Junior” Gotti, who tried with little success to fill his father’s shoes, the Castellano hit is part of the backdrop in his blood feud with an ABC radio talk show host, Curtis Sliwa. The younger Gotti still faces charges stemming from the kidnap shooting of Mr. Sliwa, who had long taunted both father and son.
For Anthony “Tony Roach” Rampino – one of numerous heroin dealers the elder Gotti selected for the Sparks rubout – the assassination is a kind of ghost of Christmas past. As Gang Land reported last week, state prosecutors in Manhattan have argued that Rampino’s status as a “backup shooter” in the hit should negate his claim that his 25-years-to-life drug dealing rap should be cut by 17 years due to recent reforms in the tough Rockefeller drug laws, under which he was sentenced.
Tony Roach was allegedly poised for action across the street from Sparks in case the four designated shooters – all wearing Cossack-like hats and long overcoats – failed in their quest to whack Castellano and key aide Thomas Billotti.
Echoes of the brazen hit are also being heard in the city’s biggest pending mob trial. In Brooklyn, the feds are claiming that Gotti pal Edward Lino was gunned down in 1990 because of his role in the Castellano shooting. Lino was one of four junk dealers who came at Castellano and Billotti as the Dapper Don and his then-trusty sidekick, Salvatore “Sammy Bull” Gravano, waited nearby in Gotti’s black Lincoln Continental.
According to court papers, Lino, who carried out his assignment perfectly, was shot to death by the “Mafia Cops,” Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, on orders from Luchese underboss Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso for several reasons, all of which stemmed from Lino’s role in the unsanctioned hit on Castellano.
The Mafia Cops, who face trial in February for Lino’s slaying as well as nine additional murders and a slew of other racketeering crimes between 1982 and 2005, are scheduled to appear in court today to enter not-guilty pleas to the latest indictment in the case.
The Castellano murder was also invoked last month by federal prosecutors in Manhattan. In court papers, they asserted that Lino’s brother-in-law, Salvatore “Fat Sally” Scala, took part in the rubout – the pair allegedly fired the fatal shots into Billotti – in a successful bid to block Scala’s bail request as he awaits trial for extorting protection money from a Chelsea topless joint between 1992 and 2002.
Scala faces trial next month for shaking down a total of $2.5 million from the V.I.P. Club. He is about to conclude a five-year rap for a shakedown on a Long Island porn dealer in which Scala, 62, reaped a grand total of $50, according to court papers.
Only Gotti was ever charged with the murders of Castellano and Billotti, but all told there were 10 men allegedly assembled along East 46th, between Second and Third avenues that December evening. All are dead or incarcerated – all, that is, except for capo Vincent Artuso, a designated shooter who never pegged any shots at Castellano, his assigned target.
Artuso was a Bronx-based heroin dealer at the time, having served a few years for a 1976 federal conviction. He and soldier John Carneglia approached with guns drawn as Castellano opened the front passenger door of the black Lincoln that had parked in front of Sparks at about 5:25 p.m. Only Carneglia fired any bullets into the strapping 6-foot-2-inch mob boss, felling him instantly with shots to his head and upper body.
According to Gravano’s account at Gotti’s 1992 trial, Artuso’s gun jammed. But for years, wiseguys whispered that Artuso, in the words of one source, “wasn’t up to the job and froze.” Whatever the scenario, “Vinny was embarrassed about it,” a source said.
In December 1995, 10 years and three days after the cause of his embarrassment, Artuso got out of prison, having served two years for violating parole on the 1976 drug rap. He soon relocated to Palm Beach, Fla., where he now heads a Gambino crew based in the Sunshine State, sources say.
Until Gravano tabbed Artuso, now 61, as a designated shooter, some investigators thought Gotti, who had the same physical stature as Artuso, had been on the street for the hit. That idea was based on a witness who reported hearing one gunman with “salt and pepper hair” grumbling that Castellano and Billotti were late for their executions.
“Where the hell are they?” he was overheard saying shortly before they drove up. “They were supposed to be here by now.”
As for the other plotters, their crimes caught up with them in one way or another: Angelo Ruggiero died of cancer in 1989 before he could be tried as a heroin merchant. Co-defendant Carneglia, 61, was convicted that same year. He is scheduled for release in 2018, a few years after Gravano completes his own sentence for drug dealing. Mob associate Joseph Watts, 63, who has been in prison since 1996 for murder and fraud convictions, is due out in May.
The feds have never linked mobster Dominick “Skinny Dom” Pizzonia, a longtime Gotti pal from Ozone Park, Queens, to the Castellano rubout, but law enforcement sources say he was a backup shooter stationed near Second Avenue. Pizzonia’s role was long hidden because Gravano “confused Skinny Dom with another buddy of Gotti’s, Iggy Alogna,” a source said.
Pizzonia, 64, faces murder charges for another Christmas-time mob hit. Along with two accomplices, he allegedly killed Thomas and Rosemarie Uva, a Bonnie and Clyde-style holdup team that had robbed mob social clubs. In a bit of mob irony, the hit took place on Christmas Eve 1992, just as the Uvas were finishing up their holiday shopping in Ozone Park.
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