VINCENT “CHIN” GIGANTE
He started out as a professional boxer—until he found his true calling as a ruthless contract killer. Hand-picked by Vito Genovese to run the Genovese Family when Vito was sent to prison, Chin raked in more than $100 million for the Genovese family and routinely ordered the murders of mobsters who violated the Mafia code—including John Gotti. At the height of his power, he controlled an underworld empire of close to three hundred made men, making the Genovese Family the most powerful in the U.S.
And yet Vincent “Chin” Gigante was, to all outside appearances, certifiably crazy.
He wandered the streets of Greenwich Village in a ratty bathrobe and slippers. He urinated in public, played pinochle in storefronts, and hid a second family from his wife. On twenty-two occasions, he admitted himself to a mental hospital—evading criminal prosecution while insuring his continued reign as “The Oddfather.” It took nearly thirty years of endless psychiatric evaluations by a parade of puzzled doctors for federal authorities to finally bring him down.
“A tale for the ages . . . grabs you with the immediacy of a breaking news story and carries you along as if you were living it.”—Michael Daly, The Daily Beast
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ANOTHER SIDE OF VINCENT GIGANTE
One "Chin." Two faces.
Over two decades atop the Genovese crime family, Vincent "the Chin" Gigante was a man perpetually divided.
He was a ruthless Mob boss. He was a helpless mental patient.
He controlled a far-reaching business that earned tens of millions of dollars. He rarely ventured more than a one-hour car ride from his Greenwich Village roots.
He was a made man in the Genovese crime family. He was a baptized member of the Holy Name Society at Our Lady of Pompeii Church.
He callously ordered the deaths of other mobsters — including Gambino family boss John Gotti. He was raised a devout Roman Catholic, attending Sunday Mass until his death.
He was widely considered among the brightest in the Mafia underworld, with a vision beyond that of his contemporaries. He was a high-school dropout, with a recorded IQ just north of 100–a slightly above average score.
He had a wife and five kids in a house in suburban New Jersey. He kept a mistress and three more children in a town house on the Upper East Side.
He recognized the threat of electronic surveillance from investigators, and forbade his underlings — under penalty of death — from uttering his name. He eventually wound up on prison tapes speaking openly with family members, including a panicked call on 9/11.
Most incredibly and indelibly, the ultimate stand-up mobster played a broken-down man in a stunningly successful ruse to dodge and vex prosecutors. It was a piece of improvisational street theater that ran longer than anything on or off Broadway during his eight decades on earth.
There were hints, whispers from informants, and finally a long-awaited admission that the whole thing was a brilliant scam. But for three decades authorities were powerless to prove Gigante's sanity and convict him, as they would any other criminal.
"Mr. Gigante's case is truly fascinating," marveled one prison psychiatrist. "His ability to sustain his 'crazy act' over many years and to have deceived at least three prominent forensic evaluators into believing that he was mentally ill and incompetent places Mr. Gigante into the ranks of the most cunning of criminals."
A full decade before launching his long-running psychiatric charade, a prison evaluation cited Gigante's natural skills in leading such a "Jekyll and Hyde" existence. First tipped by a Mob insider in June 1970 that Gigante's mental-patient act was a scam, the FBI needed another twenty-seven years to prove the truth of his claim.
It took another six years before the Chin finally confessed to the ruse in 2003, after federal prosecutors seemed poised to charge Gigante family members with abetting his psychiatric subterfuge.
His bizarre behavior continued even behind bars: Gigante toyed with prison psychiatrists while desperately holding out hope for a successful appeal, which ultimately was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Despite his national reputation, Gigante devoted his entire life to keeping his efforts carefully hidden from the eyes of the public or the hidden recorders of federal investigators.
During the 1980s his operation was as successful as any Fortune 500 business: The Genovese family raked in more than $100 million a year in profit, law enforcement said. The same authorities who chased the Chin grudgingly hailed his family as "the Ivy League of organized crime" and the "Rolls-Royce" of criminal enterprise.
The Chin controlled all numbers operations in Lower Manhattan, as well as the annual St. Anthony's Feast in his neighborhood, where he turned piety into profit. By 1985, when Gigante was surreptitiously running the Genovese family, and Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno took the law enforcement heat as its straw boss, the family's assorted illegal enterprises included gambling, extortion, loan-sharking and bid rigging. The Genovese influence extended to the garbage, concrete, construction and music industries; they held an iron grip on the labor that allowed them to dominate the New Jersey waterfront, the Javits Convention Center and the Fulton Fish Market. The family was stealing money on every window installed at the city's vast housing projects and skimming cash from New York's enormous concrete industry.
Gigante boasted a workforce of more than four hundred dedicated men at his twenty-four-hour beck and call. In the Mafia galaxy, no Mob star burned brighter than the famously nocturnal Gigante.
"The alleged status of Vincent Gigante as boss of the Genovese organized crime family makes him the sun around which all the planetary criminal activities revolve," observed U.S. District Court judge I. Leo Glasser.
Yet, this titan of illegal industry was most notorious for his "Oddfather" routine, where he played a serial psychiatric-hospital patient who wandered the city streets clad only in his ratty bathrobe, well-worn pajamas and decrepit pair of slippers. Gigante occasionally added a floppy cap to complete the carefully mismatched ensemble.
Gigante, on close to thirty occasions, admitted himself to a suburban mental hospital for treatment of his self-diagnosed mental illness. Among his Mafia pals, the visits were genially known as "tune-ups." Each one added to his wacky aura of invincibility, sparing him prosecution while insuring his continued reign atop the world of organized crime.
The brutal gangster and his doddering alter ego lived side by side within the Chin, and helped him become the most successful Mob boss of the last half-century. He surpassed headline-making next-generation Mafiosi like Gotti, old-time leaders like Frank Costello and even the namesake of his crime family (and his Mob mentor), Vito Genovese.
"You know, every time a Mob boss gets indicted, he becomes 'the most powerful boss,'" said former federal prosecutor Greg O'Connell. "John Gotti captured a lot of attention. But we knew Gigante was the guy. The Chin was the capo di tutti capi — 'the boss of bosses.'"
His long and successful reign was inexorably linked to his strange persona, captured in scores of FBI surveillance photos and witnessed by countless passersby on the streets of Greenwich Village. Gigante couldn't do it alone; it took a village of cooperating relatives, neighbors and mobsters to support the performance and spare him from the clutches of law enforcement.
But the Chin was the unquestioned star of this production, which improbably mingled Mob hits with method acting: Marlon Brando in a dingy bathrobe.
His was an extraordinary run atop one of New York's five Mafia families, from the early 1980s into the new millennium, when the constantly pursuing feds and trigger-happy fellow mobsters insured a steady turnover of leadership in New York's other four families. The Chin and the Genoveses always rose above the fray.
To provide proper perspective, Gigante spent more time in "office" than four-term President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in the White House — and FDR didn't spent his time dodging death threats, ordering executions and avoiding federal bugs.
But the Chin was more than a gangster whose life paralleled the explosive growth of the Mafia in the twentieth-century United States, along with its decline in the twenty-first. He became a part of pop culture; his ceaseless head games with prosecutors and the FBI eventually inspired a memorable episode of Law & Order, the tale of dodgy Uncle Junior on The Sopranos and a satiric novel, I Don't Want to Go to Jail, by New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin.
Gigante became a headline writer's dream at the New York tabloids, where his exploits were chronicled in big, bold, black type (THE ODDFATHER!) with tales that only seemed to confirm his legendary lunacy.
Breslin's novel referenced the Chin's real-life devotion to two women, both named Olympia, on either side of the Hudson River. It was a maneuver consistent with the mores of 1960s Greenwich Village, the Chin's longtime home and base of operations, but hardly acceptable among the hard-line, old-school men of the Mob.
Yet no one dared challenge the Chin about his dual domestic lives — or anything else.
From inside his headquarters, the dank Triangle Civic Improvement Association, and from behind bars, Gigante oversaw an era of relative peace and prosperity for his family in a business where homicide marks a management change and treachery remains a marketable skill.
In contrast, Gotti's run atop the Gambino family lasted barely seven years before he went away to die in the same Missouri prison where Gigante eventually followed.
The Chin proved far more adaptable. As the Mob's founding "Mustache Petes" made way for the next generation, he rose through the ranks in the 1950s and 1960s as a protégé of Genovese. His ascension continued through the turbulent 1970s, and Gigante assumed his seat as boss in 1981. When other bosses, including Gotti, went to jail in the '80s and '90s, the Chin dodged prosecution and stayed on top of the Genovese family into the new millennium — even after the feds finally put him in prison.
Even his installation as Genovese boss, the culmination of his Mafia career, was swathed in secrecy. Gigante demoted predecessor Salerno, but arranged for Fat Tony to serve as a figurehead. The cigar-chomping, fedora-wearing old-timer took a one-hundred-year prison term after his conviction as a member of the Mob's "ruling commission," leaving the Chin free and in charge.
Salerno died behind bars rather than rat out the real boss. Gigante stayed on the streets and at the top of the family.
Gigante invested more than three decades of his life in pretending he was certifiably insane, a performance that included small touches (not shaving or combing his hair) and grand ones (greeting FBI agents as he stood naked in the shower, holding an umbrella). By one count he duped a half-dozen psychiatrists into thirty-four separate diagnoses of schizophrenia as he operated with impunity atop the Genovese family.
His efforts rivaled the Oscar-winning work of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with one difference: If Randle P. McMurphy wanted out of the mental hospital, Gigante returned there again and again. The dedication to his craft earned Gigante his memorable tabloid sobriquet, the Oddfather, along with the respect of his underlings.
"His family revered him," said George Stamboulidis, the federal prosecutor who led the team that finally convicted Gigante.
Forces on both sides of the law were equally impressed by a show that at times resembled something conjured up by director Scorsese and "the LSD king," Owsley Stanley. Imagine GoodFellas on a bad acid trip. John Pritchard Jr. ran the FBI's Genovese Squad in the mid-1980s as the agency tried desperately to convict the elusive Chin. He came away with a reluctant respect for the Mob boss.
"Chin was probably the most feared gangster in New York," said Pritchard. "He was so clever. ... He was a quiet, calculating, behind-the-scenes guy. Chin didn't want people to know he was the boss. It was enough that the people in the neighborhood knew. He was known among the people as a guy who could get things done, a la The Godfather."
Pritchard was among the first to use the phrase most often used to describe the Chin's dependence on the insanity defense: "Crazy like a fox."
Philip Leonetti, an Atlantic City mobster with a vast knowledge of Mafia lore, put Gigante in a class by himself.
"Within our family, we viewed the Chin as a very, very smart man, a very secretive man, very cunning and very ruthless," Leonetti recalled. "He was old-school Cosa Nostra — stay low-key, follow the rules and make money. He wasn't flashy. I mean, Christ, he spent his whole day in a bathrobe.
"He wasn't trying to be a celebrity. He was a gangster and he knew this thing, La Cosa Nostra, this thing, better than anyone in the country."
Leonetti's was a dead-on assessment: Gigante did not keep a standing reservation at the Copacabana, or pose for photos with an arm wrapped around Frank Sinatra, or chase showgirls around the Las Vegas Strip. His primary interests were the Genovese family, the prestige, the power. He was comfortable in the confines of Sullivan Street.
There was money, too, but it mattered less to Gigante than his peers atop the other families. Part of his crew's loyalty was based on the Chin's generosity when it came to kicking up cash (a standard Mob practice where the family head receives a percentage of every illegal dollar pocketed). Gigante routinely allowed his capos to keep money that would routinely go to his contemporaries astride New York's four other crime families.
He became the last acolyte of a fading tradition, a true believer in a disappearing world, a man of old values surrounded by thugs and turncoats. He never abandoned his roots — geographic or otherwise.
Gigante seized control of the Genovese family during the Ronald Reagan presidency; by the time he pleaded guilty in April 2003 on federal charges of lying to doctors about his mental health, it was Reagan who was suffering from Alzheimer's.
The Chin's reign became a constant in an ever-changing world. Three post-Reagan presidents filled the Oval Office during his time as boss, and the Soviet Union collapsed as his crime family thrived. The World Trade Center was twice targeted by terrorists. There was a bombing in Atlanta at the Olympics; and the New York Rangers won their first Stanley Cup since 1940, when Gigante, living a couple miles south of Madison Square Garden, had celebrated his twelfth birthday.
Gigante endured, firmly entrenched as the Howard Hughes of organized crime. Long after he didn't need the money or the aggravation, the Chin remained the biggest boss in the nation's biggest city — and the "craziest" gangster since the hotheaded Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, who was the real thing.
At the end, after spending the last eight years of his life behind bars, Gigante returned to the Village for his funeral Mass, a small and exclusive gathering of family and friends. There was none of the pomp associated with many Mob farewells, the endless floral arrangements or lengthy funeral cortege.
His life had come full circle: a final farewell in the old neighborhood, just the way the Chin would have wanted it.
"He didn't move far," said Henry Hill, the former Lucchese family operator who turned federal informant in the early 1980s. "All that money, that so-called power — the power to assassinate and kill — and he hasn't left a four-block area in forty years."CHAPTER 2
POSITIVELY SULLIVAN STREET
Vincent Louis Gigante, the fourth of Salvatore and Yolanda Gigante's six boys, arrived in a home still shrouded in loss and grief.
The parents were Italian immigrants, married in their native Naples on October 20, 1920, before setting off for New York City in the era's tidal wave of new arrivals from their homeland. Records from Ellis Island show Salvatore and Yolanda (her name misspelled as "Iolanda") arrived three days after New Year's in 1921, crossing the Atlantic Ocean aboard an Italian ship, the Pesaro.
He was twenty-five, and his pretty bride just eighteen.
At five-four, with black hair and brown eyes, Salvatore listed his occupation as "workman," while Yolanda described herself as "housewife." Handwritten beneath a question about their intended length of stay was the notation "perm" — permanently. The newlyweds would find a home in Manhattan, joining relatives already living in Greenwich Village.
As they did for all new arrivals, the ship's captain and surgeon signed off on documents attesting to the Gigantes' mental and physical well-being. Both Gigantes checked the "yes" box when asked if they could read.
The couple settled into a tenement at 181 Thompson Street, sharing the space with Salvatore's brother Louie and his wife. Salvatore and Yolanda would spend their whole lives in the neighborhood, never moving beyond a radius of a few blocks, relocating only to find space for their expanding family or to stay ahead of the wrecking ball in the constantly evolving area.
The Gigantes soon welcomed three boys: Pasquale, Mario and Vincent. Salvatore, a jeweler by trade, hustled to support the family; and like many of the local women, Yolanda picked up work as a seamstress, specializing in piecework for ladies' coats. It was during a rare vacation that the hardworking young couple endured a heartbreaking blow.
During a 1925 trip home to see family in Naples, eighteen-monthold Vincent suffered horrific burns from an accidental spill of a large pot of water boiling for pasta. The child spent two agonizing weeks in the hospital before dying. The devastated Gigantes returned to the Village, where they welcomed their fourth child on March 29, 1928. There was little debate; the new arrival, another boy, would be named for his late brother. An unbreakable bond between mother and son was forged, one that would last two lifetimes.
Vincent's doting mom provided her boy with the nickname that followed him through life. Although the name would one day echo with menace, it sprang from her love.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Chin"
Copyright © 2016 Larry McShane.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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Table of Contents
Prologue - Bringing It All Back Home,
CHAPTER 1 - ANOTHER SIDE OF VINCENT GIGANTE,
CHAPTER 2 - POSITIVELY SULLIVAN STREET,
CHAPTER 3 - CHANGING OF THE GUARDS,
CHAPTER 4 - COLD IRONS BOUND,
CHAPTER 5 - RAINY DAY WOMEN #12 & 35,
CHAPTER 6 - WITH GOD ON OUR SIDE,
CHAPTER 7 - A PAWN IN THEIR GAME,
CHAPTER 8 - LICENSE TO KILL,
CHAPTER 9 - GOTTA SERVE SOMEBODY,
CHAPTER 10 - ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER,
CHAPTER 11 - EAST SEVENTY-SEVENTH STREET REVISITED,
CHAPTER 12 - HARD TIMES IN NEW YORK TOWN,
CHAPTER 13 - MASTERS OF WAR,
CHAPTER 14 - IT AIN'T ME, BABE,
CHAPTER 15 - WANTED MAN,
CHAPTER 16 - CAN YOU PLEASE CRAWL OUT YOUR WINDOW?,
CHAPTER 17 - IDIOT WIND,
CHAPTER 18 - NEIGHBORHOOD BULLY,
CHAPTER 19 - TANGLED UP IN BROOKLYN,
CHAPTER 20 - DESOLATION ROW,
CHAPTER 21 - EVERYTHING IS BROKEN,
CHAPTER 22 - I SHALL NOT BE RELEASED,
EPILOGUE - IF NOT FOR YOU,