Inside The Death Of John Gotti, The Infamous New York Mob Boss Known As ‘The Teflon Don’

Published June 6, 2024

Diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, six years after he was sentenced to life in prison, John Gotti died from the disease on June 10, 2002 at the age of 61.

John Gotti Death

New York Daily NewsThe New York Daily News reporting on John Gotti’s death in 2002.

John Gotti’s death in 2002 marked the end of a long life of crime. The mobster was infamous for leading one of the most powerful Mafia families in American history, but his misdeeds started long before he became known as the “Teflon Don.”

From his humble beginnings in the Bronx to his time as the boss of the Gambino crime family, John Gotti stood out as the archetypal mafioso. However, his suave outer appearance and friendly demeanor in the public eye clashed with his cruelty behind closed doors.

Gotti rose to power in 1985 after he arranged the killing of Gambino boss Paul Castellano, but he had only been the head of the family for seven years when he was sentenced to life in prison for a litany of charges, including murder and racketeering. The infamous Mob boss continued to run his organization from behind bars with the help of his son.

Six years into his sentence, Gotti was diagnosed with throat cancer. Although it was initially treated successfully, it returned a few years later. John Gotti died at a federal prison hospital in Missouri on June 10, 2002, bringing an end to a bloody chapter in Mafia history.

The Early Life Of John Gotti

John Joseph Gotti was born in the Bronx on Oct. 27, 1940. He was the fifth of 13 children and was raised in poverty. Gotti was resentful of his father for not taking care of his large family. “He was a rolling stone,” Gotti once told Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, according to a 2002 report in the New York Post. “He never provided for the family. He never did nothin’. He never earned nothin’. And we never had nothin’.”

This anger and desire to make something more of himself led young Gotti to the streets by the age of 12. He dropped out of high school when he was 16 and ultimately became involved with the Gambino family, one of New York City’s five main Mafia families. By the time of John Gotti’s death 45 years later, he was the boss.

John Gotti Mugshot

NYPDA mugshot of John Gotti from March 1965, when he was 24 years old.

He started out hijacking trucks, and he later worked as an enforcer for illegal gambling operations. Then, in 1973, Gotti played a role in the murder of James McBratney, who had helped kidnap and kill the nephew of Carlo Gambino, the boss of the Gambino family at the time. This solidified Gotti’s role in the family.

As he was rising in the ranks of the Mafia, Gotti married Victoria DiGiorgio in 1962 and had five children, including Frank Gotti, who was tragically run over by a neighbor in 1980.

By the late 1970s, John Gotti was officially a “made man” of the Gambino family.

Becoming The Head Of The Gambino Crime Family

In 1976, Carlo Gambino died and appointed Paul Castellano as the head of the family rather than the underboss, Aniello “Neil” Dellacroce.

Gotti considered Dellacroce his mentor, and the snub enraged him. He also reportedly disliked Castellano because he had banned drug trafficking, which brought in a lot of money for Gotti. However, he continued to work under Castellano until December 1985 — when he organized a fatal hit against him. Sammy Gravano reportedly spotted Gotti watching the murder from a car parked nearby.

Death Of Paul Castellano

Bettmann/Getty ImagesJohn Gotti ordered the death of Gambino family boss Paul Castellano in 1985.

The following month, Gotti was appointed the head of the Gambino crime family. He took his role in stride, often donning expensive suits, pocket squares, and suave haircuts. He became known as “The Dapper Don,” and unlike other Mob bosses who did their best to fly under the radar, he frequently showed off for the media.

Under Gotti’s control, the Gambino crime family meddled heavily in the city’s drug trafficking scene, especially the heroin trade. At its height, the organization brought in more than $500 million a year and earned its reputation as the most powerful crime family in the country.

However, just seven years after he became boss, John Gotti’s crimes caught up with him.

John Gotti Is Sentenced To Life In Prison

As the head of one of America’s biggest crime families, John Gotti was constantly on the radar of the federal authorities. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began surveillance of Gotti and his associates, often relying on bugs placed within the Mob’s meeting areas.

Then, on Dec. 11, 1990, the FBI arrested Gotti and charged him with numerous crimes, including five counts of murder, racketeering, loansharking, illegal gambling, obstruction of justice, tax evasion, bribery, and conspiracy to commit murder. During Gotti’s trial, confessions captured by the bugs and testimony from Gravano landed the Gambino boss a life sentence in 1992. He would never walk free again — John Gotti died behind bars.

How Did John Gotti Die

Public DomainJohn Gotti’s booking photo from Dec. 11, 1990.

He was incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary in Illinois and spent most of his time in solitary confinement. John Gotti’s time in prison was largely uneventful, but he was once beaten after he allegedly called another inmate a racial slur.

Gotti still maintained control of the Gambino family while behind bars. Back in New York, his son, John Gotti Jr., was serving as the acting boss. However, Gotti Jr. was imprisoned himself for racketeering in 1999, at which point John Gotti’s brother Peter started relaying orders.

And it was Peter who would take over as boss after John Gotti’s death in 2002 following a four-year battle with cancer.

How Did John Gotti Die? Inside The Mobster’s Death And Elaborate Funeral

In 1998, doctors diagnosed John Gotti with throat cancer and transported him to the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. There, doctors successfully removed a tumor. However, the cancer returned with a vengeance two years later.

Gotti’s health quickly deteriorated, and on June 10, 2002, he passed away at the age of 61.

The prison wanted to perform an autopsy, even though it was evident how John Gotti died. This prompted his lawyer, Bruce Cutler, to say, “There’s no need for it,” the New York Post reported the day after John Gotti’s death. “We know what killed him,” Cutler continued. “But we also know you’ll find 10 lions’ hearts in there.”

Back in New York, Gotti’s family planned an extravagant funeral. The New York Times reported that Gotti’s bronze coffin was transported in a Cadillac hearse followed by 19 cars carrying giant flower arrangements shaped like his favorite things, including a martini glass, a racehorse, cards, and a Cuban cigar.

Funeral Procession

ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock PhotoJohn Gotti was buried next to his son Frank, who was 12 years old when he died in 1980.

Hundreds of people lined the streets of Queens during the funeral procession, including admirers holding signs to honor the life of the infamous mobster.

Today, popular culture remembers John Gotti as the crime boss who made the Mafia fashionable. He was the quintessential mafioso — and one of the most notorious men in American history.

After reading about John Gotti’s death, read about 13 of the most infamous Mafia bosses. Then, read the true story of Vincent Palermo, the New Jersey Mob boss who inspired the character Tony Soprano.

Amber Morgan
Amber Morgan is an Editorial Fellow for All That's Interesting. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in political science, history, and Russian. Previously, she worked as a content creator for America House Kyiv, a Ukrainian organization focused on inspiring and engaging youth through cultural exchanges.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
Citation copied
Cite This Article
Morgan, Amber. "Inside The Death Of John Gotti, The Infamous New York Mob Boss Known As ‘The Teflon Don’.", June 6, 2024, Accessed June 22, 2024.