Vincent Gigante: The “Insane” Mafioso Who Almost Outfoxed the Feds

Published May 15, 2019
Updated July 10, 2019
Published May 15, 2019
Updated July 10, 2019

Vincent "Chin" Gigante headed one of New York's biggest mafia families. But when the feds tried to catch him, he faked insanity to stay out of jail.

Vincent Gigante As A Young Man

Phil Stanziola/Library of CongressVincent Gigante in 1957.

Vincent “Chin” Gigante ran New York City’s Genovese crime family from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Running a mafia empire wasn’t easy, though, as Gigante’s rise to power meant he came under fire from law enforcement. To evade conviction, while crime bosses all around him were being sent to prison, Genovese faked insanity for decades.

The Beginnings of Vincent Gigante

Born in New York City in 1928, Vincent Gigante was one of five sons of Salvatore, a watchmaker, and Yolanda, a seamstress, both of whom immigrated from Naples. His nickname, “Chin,” came from his mother’s Italian pronunciation of his first name, Vincenzo. In the ninth grade, Gigante dropped out of school, and at age 16 he began a short-lived boxing career, winning 21 out of 25 matches.

Vito Genovese

Phil Stanziola/Library of CongressVito Genovese in 1959.

Around the same time, Gigante became a protégé of Mafia boss Vito Genovese, who had paid for surgery for Gigante’s mother when Gigante was little. Under Genovese’s wing, between age 17 and 25, Gigante was arrested seven times. His misdeeds ranged from stealing a car to arson, and most were dismissed or resulted in fines.

Amping up his game in the 1950s, Vincent Gigante became an enforcer for the Genovese family. He turned into a full-time gangster. And then things took a left turn.

(Failed) Murder Most Foul

On the night of May 2, 1957, Frank Costello enjoyed a dinner out with his wife and a few friends, and caught a cab home to his apartment at 115 Central Park West. Ten years earlier, Charles “Lucky” Luciano has appointed him head of his expansive criminal network — but Vito Genovese was none too happy with that. He wanted control for himself, and he waited 10 long years to seize it.

Frank Costello Testifying In Court

Al Aumuller/Library of CongressIn 1951, Frank Costello testified before the Kefauver Committee investigating organized crime.

As Costello’s taxi arrived at his building that night, a black Cadillac pulled up behind it. Costello got out of the cab, walked into his building, and was promptly shot. He collapsed onto a leather couch, while the gunman ran out the door and back into the Cadillac, which sped away.

The shooter probably thought he’d made a perfect shot, but it turns out the bullet only grazed Costello’s skull.

Costello told the police he never got a good look at his attacker — he said he never even heard a gunshot — but his doorman did. He described a six-foot-tall, stocky gunman. Police put 66 detectives on the case and soon zeroed in on Vincent Gigante. But because Costello refused to name his attacker, Gigante got off scot-free.

Vito Genovese and his cohorts had won the war. Gigante was acquitted, Costello retired, and Genovese became the undisputed boss of Luciano’s legacy. Gigante and Genovese were both convicted of heroin trafficking in 1959. Gigante’s sentence was about half that of Genovese’s, after the sentencing judge read a slew of letters attesting to Gigante’s good character and work on behalf of New York City youth. He was paroled after five years.

Meet “The Odd Father”

In 1969, the same year Vito Genovese died, Vincent Gigante was indicted in New Jersey on charges that he attempted to bribe the Old Tappan police department so that they’d tip him off if he was being surveilled. In order to get out of these charges, he adopted a defense that he’d continue for decades to come. His lawyers presented reports that he was mentally unfit to stand trial, and charges were dropped.

Vincent Gigante In A Bathrobe

FBI/Wikimedia CommonsVincent Gigante (second from the right) wearing a bathrobe sometime between 1983 and 1985. Gigante acted normally when off his guard.

According to the Independent, Gigante checked himself into a psychiatric hospital 22 times between 1969 and 1990. He was known to talk to parking meters and piss on the streets of Greenwich Village, all while dressed in an old bathrobe and slippers.

“Vincent is a paranoid schizophrenic. He hallucinates. He’s been that way since 1968,” said his brother, the Rev. Louis Gigante. He swore his brother took loads meds to treat his debilitating conditions.

But it was all an act. Gigante was right as rain — mentally, anyway. By the early 1980s, he became head of the Genovese family operation, and business flourished. While tightening security in-house, Gigante ran rackets on garbage unions, gambling, and so much more.

In 1986, he even ordered a (failed) hit on “The Teflon Don” John Gotti, the Gambino family boss. Why? Because Gotti killed his former boss, Paul Castellano, without permission.

As longtime New York crime reporter and Gigante biographer, Larry McShane, put it, “If there was an Oscar for best performance running a mob family, he would have retired the award.”

Gigante’s daughter, Rita, later recalled how her father’s level of secrecy seeped into his everyday life.

Rita Gigante recalls living with her father.

According to Rita, her father never spoke on the phone, and even stepped away from the phone when anyone else was using it. He barely spoke for fear that someone might hear his normal voice; whenever he did speak, he turned a television or radio on so his voice would be harder to make out.

All of the windows in their home were always “completely blacked out…drapes drawn. Because he was always afraid…someone was gonna see him doing something that was normal and be able to get him on tape doing it.”

Cracking The Case Of Vincent Gigante

Gigante’s insanity was a front — but it worked. He managed to avoid arrest for decades. But all that changed in 1990 when he was finally indicted on federal racketeering and extortion charges.

But prosecutors still had trouble proving Gigante was faking his mental illness. When Gotti’s underboss Sammy “The Bull” Gravano flipped in 1991 and told the feds that Gigante was completely lucid, the whole game changed.

Vincent Gigante Going To Court

Jon Levy/Getty ImagesVincent Gigante leaves his Upper East Side home to attend court for his 1997 federal trial in Brooklyn. He’s escorted by his sons Vincent (left) and Andrew.

In 1993, after they were able to crack more witnesses, federal prosecutors laid on even more charges, including conspiracy to murder. Three years later — after pushback from Gigante’s lawyers and psychiatrist, who still claimed he was mentally unfit — a federal judge ruled that Gigante was competent to stand trial. In 1997, at the age of 69, Gigante was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Facing new charges of obstruction of justice in 2003, the mafioso finally pled guilty to faking a mental illness. “The jig is up,” federal prosecutor Roslynn Mauskopf told reporters outside the courthouse. “Vincent Gigante was a cunning faker, and those of us in law enforcement always knew that this was an act.”

The Fates Of The Gigantes

Gigante died in prison in 2005, but some of Gigante’s eight children have followed in their father’s criminal footsteps.

His son, Vincent Esposito, born of his mistress — who, like his wife, was named Olympia — pled guilty last month to federal racketeering conspiracy charges. His sentencing is scheduled for July.

Not all Gigante relatives went to seed, however. Rita is now a massage therapist, Reiki master, and spiritual healer. In 2015, Gigante’s grandson, real estate lawyer Philip Gigante, was elected mayor of Airmont, New York.

Many local residents were chagrined at the election. “If you were a resident living a couple of blocks from Village Hall, would you want to be named?” one Airmont man explained. “I’m not sure what he’s capable of, considering his family’s background.”

Read up on more criminals, like “pure evil” Sean Vincent Gillis. Then, learn about the sad death of Joyce Vincent.

Carly Silver
An editor and public historian, Carly Silver has written for Smithsonian, Narratively, The Atlantic, Atlas Obscura, and Archaeology, among other publications.