Before he cooperated with the FBI and put John Gotti behind bars, Gambino underboss Sammy "The Bull" Gravano was one of the most feared killers in Mafia history.
Sammy “The Bull” Gravano violated the cardinal rule that all who go into a life of organized crime must follow: Do not talk to the authorities. The Mafia calls this code of silence “omertà” and the penalty for breaking it is death.
For decades, the Mafia has ruthlessly enforced this code, one that long allowed them to grow prosperously and avoid large-scale prosecution. And when a made man decides to turn against the Mafia and cooperate with the cops, he knows his days are numbered.
But Brooklyn mobster and Gambino Family underboss Salvatore “Sammy The Bull” Gravano not only crossed one of the most powerful mob bosses in the country by breaking the code of silence in 1992, he then lived to tell the tale. This is the astonishing story of Sammy Gravano, feared killer-turned-FBI informant.
The Early Life Of Sammy The Bull Before He Became A Mafia Murderer
Born in Brooklyn in 1945, Sammy The Bull Gravano grew up in Bensonhurst, a Brooklyn neighborhood with a predominantly Italian-American population. Even though he was christened Salvatore, one of his relatives once remarked that he closely resembled his uncle Sammy — and that’s how he would be known from then on.
The young Sammy Gravano fell into crime at an early age, beginning with some minor shoplifting. When he was seven, he started stealing two cupcakes a day at a neighborhood store on his way to school. When he eventually got caught by an employee, he received a stern warning that nevertheless didn’t deter him from graduating to much more serious crimes.
One widely-told story says that Gravano first came to the attention of the Mafia at age ten, when local gangsters watched him get into a fight with several older bullies who had stolen his bike. One of the gangsters remarked that Gravano had boldly challenged multiple larger kids and had fought “like a little bull,” and the nickname that he would keep for the rest of his life was coined. Meanwhile, others say that the nickname more generally reflected his short, muscular stature and overall aggressive demeanor.
The indeed bullish young boy was not a good student; teachers labeled him a slow learner and he was held back twice. Gravano later attributed this to severe dyslexia, which he says explains a lot of rage from his early days onward.
He was indeed taunted about his abilities in school at first, but the bullying stopped after Gravano fought back. For the next several decades, Sammy Gravano’s life would continue to be fueled by violence.
Sammy Gravano Joins The Mob In Bloody Fashion
Sammy Gravano left school at 16, by that point having already been spending much of his time with a local youth gang called the Rampers. Then, after a two-year stint in the Army due to being drafted into the Vietnam War, he returned to New York and soon officially joined up with the Mafia.
He was first brought into the mob life by a Colombo Family associate who started him out with robbery jobs. But soon enough, he began moving up in the world and solidifying his position as a successful young racketeer.
Sammy The Bull quickly earned a reputation as both a good earner and a man who was prepared to brutally murder anyone he was asked to.
His first murder came in 1970, when he shot Colombo associate Joe Colucci, who, bosses learned, had been secretly plotting to kill another Colombo associate without permission. Gravano later compared the murder to the well-known scene from The Godfather in which rising mobster Michael Corleone commits his first killing:
“Remember how Michael couldn’t hear anything as he’s walking up on them? Remember how his eyes went glassy, and there was just the noise of the train in the background, and how he couldn’t hear them talk? That’s just like I felt when I killed Joe Colucci.”
The newly-minted killer continued to rise with the Colombos but his run with the family came to an end when one superior became jealous of and intimidated by Gravano’s quick rise. Thus he was released to join the Gambino Family, which officially made him a member in 1976.
Despite quickly impressing the Gambinos, Gravano’s loyalty was put to the test two years later when the family decided to kill his brother-in-law, Nicholas Scibetta, who had developed a serious drug problem and had reportedly insulted a superior’s daughter in some fashion (still other reports claim that he was targeted for being gay). The Mafia has a complicated relationship with drugs, but members are generally expected to avoid becoming dependent on them. Becoming a drug addict meant the Mafia couldn’t trust Scibetta to keep his mouth shut if arrested on drug charges. That meant he had to go.
Gravano tried to protect his brother-in-law in a strange way. Rather than murder him, he gave him a savage beating. He hoped this would be enough for the bosses and spare Scibetta’s life. It didn’t work, however, and Gravano soon had to kill his brother-in-law. A single hand was all of Scibetta’s body that was ever recovered.
But it wasn’t all just bloodshed for Sammy The Bull. He made steady money in gambling and loansharking and even started a construction and plumbing business with his friend Edward Garafola. Thanks to his success, he continued to rise in the Gambino organization and became a millionaire. He built an estate for his family in Ocean County, New Jersey, invested in trotting horses and became the operator of the discotheque the Plaza Suite in Bensonhurst. In the early 1980s, it became such a popular establishment that patrons had to wait an hour to get in.
Sammy The Bull Gravano had more than solidified his place in the mob, but trouble was on the horizon.
An Unsanctioned Killing Leads To Regime Change
Gravano had arranged to sell the club to Frank Fiala, a local drug dealer. But before the deal was even closed, he began knocking out the wall of Gravano’s office to begin remodeling and acting like he already owned the place.
An enraged Gravano confronted Fiala, who flashed an Uzi submachine gun and threatened to kill Gravano right there. Gravano then retreated outside the club, and when Fiala exited the building, one of Gravano’s crew shot him in the head. Gravano claims that he then personally urinated into Fiala’s open mouth.
Castellano was upset by this unsanctioned killing and Gravano was now at risk of ending up on the wrong end of a hit himself. Luckily, he managed to talk his way out of it.
But he still called a meeting with his crew. Gravano wanted to make sure that if it ever became necessary, they would help him kill Castellano.
As luck would have it, it became necessary just three years later.
The Murder Of A Mob Boss
In 1985, another Gambino mobster who didn’t like Castellano, John Gotti, arranged a meeting with Gravano. Gotti had never liked Castellano as Godfather of the Gambino family. And with the news that Castellano would soon acquire informant tapes showing Gotti’s involvement in trafficking heroin, Gotti decided the time had come for a change in leadership.
Gravano and Gotti, united by a common interest, arranged a hit on Castellano. As the boss entered Sparks Steak House in Midtown Manhattan on the night of Dec. 16, 1985, several hitmen gunned him down as Gravano and Gotti watched from a nearby car.
Within a month, Gotti was the new head of the Gambino Family. Gravano, meanwhile, was promoted to the position of consigliere. For years Gravano served as Gotti’s chief muscle, brutally murdering anyone who crossed him.
But Gotti’s status as boss made him more of a target than ever for the authorities. He was brought to trial several times on various charges, including assault and racketeering, throughout the late 1980s. But with bribes and simple intimidation of jurors, he managed to escape conviction time and again, earning him the nickname of the “Teflon Don.”
But few escape justice forever, and both Gotti and Gravano eventually found themselves headed to trials they couldn’t bribe their way out of.
Sammy The Bull And John Gotti Face Off
Gotti and Gravano were both arrested on racketeering charges in December 1990, when the FBI raided the Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy.
Once in custody, Gotti tried to pin many of the hits he’d ordered on Gravano, claiming that Sammy The Bull was a mad dog who killed for his own benefit. Sensing an opportunity, the FBI played tapes of these conversations for Gravano. Feeling betrayed, he agreed to testify against Gotti in exchange for a reduced sentence.
In March 1992, Gravano did just that. He testified against Gotti and others over the course of nine days on the stand, revealing tales of racketeering and murder, 19 of which he said he was involved in himself and 10 of which he said involved Gotti.
With Gravano’s testimony, the state was finally able to marshal enough evidence to convict the Teflon Don (along with nearly 40 other mobsters).
In April 1992, Gotti was sentenced to life in prison. Gravano, thanks to his cooperation, received just a five-year sentence (which only amounted to less than one year due to time already served) and then entered the Witness Protection Program. As for Gotti, he died of cancer in prison in 2002.
But even with Gotti dead, Sammy The Bull Gravano was by no means safe. He’d built a new life in Arizona as a smalltime businessman named Jimmy Moran. Under this alias, he even started a swimming-pool installation company. However, Gravano disliked this quiet new life. And just a year later, he left the program.
Sammy Gravano Stays Bold After Crossing The Mob
After leaving the program because he did not like the constraints that were imposed, one might think that a former gangster with an enormous target on his back might attempt to keep a low profile, but that wasn’t the case at all. Gravano became very generous with giving interviews to the press once out of the program. He even appeared in a nationally-televised interview with Diane Sawyer in 1997 and proved to be quite bold and boastful.
When asked if he worried about whether this made him a target, Gravano replied that if he ran into any mob hitmen, they would be the ones going home in body bags:
“They send a hit team down, I’ll kill them. They better not miss, because even if they get me, there will still be a lot of body bags going back to New York. I’m not afraid. I don’t have it in me. I’m too detached maybe. If it happens, fuck it. Bullet in the head is pretty quick. You go like that! It’s better than cancer. I’m not meeting you in Montana on some fuckin’ farm. I’m not sitting here like some jerk-off with a phony beard. I’ll tell you something else: I’m a fuckin’ pro. If someone comes to my house, I got a few little surprises for them. Even if they win, there might be surprises.”
And while he did indeed avoid the mob’s murderous vengeance, he found it impossible to stay away from crime.
In Arizona, he partnered with a local gang known as “Devil Dogs” after his son had befriended the gang’s leader and soon started a major ecstasy organization that grossed $500,000 a week.
However, in February 2000, Gravano and his family (wife Debra, daughter Karen, and son Gerard) as well as 47 other members of the drug ring were arrested. Informants in his own drug ring, not to mention recorded conversations detailing drug profits with his wife and his daughter eventually implicated him. In May 2001, Gravano pleaded guilty to leading a massive illegal drug operation in Arizona and was sentenced to 20 years in prison but was released early in 2017.
Gravano is now free, living openly, and even still giving interviews while producing his own podcast and hosting his own YouTube channel where he discuss his time in the mob. When The Arizona Republic spoke with him just after his release, he remained seemingly fearless about the threat of death always looming over him due to the life he once led and the way he left it.
“I was a boxer,” he said. “I know what it’s like to get hit. I know what it is to fight. And you lose your fear.”
He then added: “When it happens, it happens. If they start shooting, then I’ll be a little scared.”
Enjoy this article about Sammy Gravano a.k.a. “Sammy the Bull”? Next, learn about Richard Kuklinski, the most prolific hitman in the American Mafia’s history. Then, read up on the Dapper Don’s son, John Gotti Jr., who followed in his father’s footsteps before eventually walking away from crime.