A look at Paul Castellano's underboss, Tommy Bilotti, a man who struck fear in New York City.
by Allan May
Tommy Bilotti lay spread eagle in the middle of the cold, wet Manhattan street like he was snoozing on a king-size bed. But Tommy Bilotti was not asleep, he was dead, and blood was streaming from the six wounds he suffered to his head and body. Bilotti was not the main focus of the police, the media and the morbidly fascinated who gathered in front of Sparks Steak House on this mid-December evening in 1985. The focus was Paul Castellano who was lying several feet away, just outside the passenger side door of Bilotti’s black Lincoln Continental. "Big Paulie" was the head of the Gambino Crime Family, which at the time was the largest and most powerful organized crime family in the United States. Bilotti was the newly named underboss of the family.
Who was Tommy Bilotti and how did he rise to the position of second-in-command of this infamous crime family? In "Boss of Bosses," FBI agents Joseph O’Brien and Andris Kurins describe Bilotti:
"He was basically a pit bull with shoes on. If he had a business ability beyond choreographing a shakedown or calculating the interest owed on shylock loans, it didn’t show. In a milieu not known for its conversational finesse, Bilotti distinguished himself by spluttering inarticulateness."
Once when describing how a family problem was handled improperly, Bilotti stated, "It’s gonna be like throwing the baby out with the bathtub."
"The bathwater," said Funzie Mosca. "Not the bathtub."
"Ah, f--- it," replied Bilotti.
"He was short – five feet seven. He was stubby – a rock-solid two-twenty. He wore a bad toupee. He had no tact, no charm, no sense of humor. He had a big mouth, and his piggish eyes were too close together. To the concept of self-control he was a stranger."
Castellano’s choice of Bilotti as a driver, protégé, and later underboss belied a sophisticated image that Big Paulie had worked hard over the years to cultivate. Castellano may have chosen him because of his work ethic, he was "vigilant, hardworking, fearless, and, above all, loyal."
Listening to the transcripts of the tape-recorded conversations from Castellano’s Todt Hill mansion on Staten Island and from the encounters with FBI agent O’Brien, it is easy to envision Bilotti as a Joe Pesci type mob character. Short, ruthless, excitable and, if possible, more foul-mouthed than Pesci. Transcripts revealed that practically all of Bilotti’s comments were peppered with the "f" word.
Perhaps the viciousness Bilotti harbored came about from the anguish he suffered in his personal life. He watched his first wife, Catherine, die a painfully slow death from cancer while she was in her mid thirties. Even after he remarried he continued to place flowers at her gravesite. Another personal tragedy was his autistic son who had been institutionalized since childhood. Bilotti loved the child and although he made regular visits to see him, he rarely spoke of him.
Bilotti served as Castellano’s driver and bodyguard. Again, O’Brien and Kurins describe his traits:
"As long as he was waiting on Paul Castellano, Tommy Bilotti was deferential, subdued, watchful yet calm, like a dog on a rug. His self-esteem derived from adoration of the master, and he could afford to be well-behaved. Problems occurred, however, when Bilotti was sent on errands of his own. Out of sight of the Boss, he got rambunctious. He tried to play the big shot; he overdid things. He got creative in a sadistic sort of way, and embroidered gratuitous cruelty through what should have been straightforward business transactions."
One vicious incident took place in a Staten Island bar where Bilotti went one afternoon to collect an interest payment. The bar owner had already been given a brutal beating several weeks earlier and was still recovering and trying to pay medical bills. When Bilotti walked in with a baseball bat, several customers at the bar began to move towards the exits. "No one leaves," said Bilotti. Looking at the bartender who had now turned white, Bilotti ordered him out from behind the bar and to get down on his knees in front of him.
Bilotti glared at the customers and said, "Why do you a--holes drink at a place run by a scumbag who doesn’t pay his bills? A f---ing deadbeat. How can you do business with a f---ing piece of s--- like this? And he’s a faggot besides. You guys didn’t know that?"
Bilotti continued to make his point by pulling down his zipper and ordering the bartender to put his mouth on him.
"You see?" Bilotti told the customers. "He likes it."
He then kicked the bartender in the chest, knocking him backwards, zipped his pants and left.
Not much has been written about Bilotti’s life prior to his association with Castellano. His older brother Joseph was a Gambino gang member. The book "Sinatra His Way," mentions that another brother, Jimmy, worked for Sinatra during the 1970s and 1980s. Sometime after his death, Tommy’s home in Staten Island was purchased by actor Steven Segal. Bilotti’s record showed several arrests for assault and for weapons possession. According to street sources, he had been involved in at least eleven murders. O’Brien had once been warned by Bruce Mouw, who headed the FBI’s Gambino Family squad, "Don’t ever talk to Tommy Bilotti alone. He doesn’t play by the rules, (and he has a) very short fuse."
One Sunday morning O’Brien followed Bilotti from Todt Hill to a beauty parlor owned by his second wife, Donna. While O’Brien watched on a nearly deserted street, Bilotti left by a back door and got into another car and pulled up next to him. O’Brien describes Bilotti’s demeanor during their face-to-face encounter:
"Now, most people, when they are building up to a fit of rage, need some give-and-take, some goading, to get them really psyched. Not Tommy Bilotti. When he got mad, it was like a nuclear reactor going into a meltdown. Once a certain threshold was reached, the process just fed on itself, the voltage increasing exponentially until the fuel was all used up and everything within a certain radius had been leveled. His voice got louder and louder, he made less and less sense. Soon he was just spitting out curses wrapped in random phrases, his face purple, his nostrils distended, ropy veins standing out on his pit-bull neck."
Problems and ill-feelings had been brewing in the Gambino Crime Family since its patriarch, Carlo Gambino, named Castellano, his brother-in-law, to replace him shortly before his death in 1976. Many family members had no respect for Castellano, viewing him more as a businessman than a crime boss. Others felt that long time family underboss Aniello Dellacroce should have ascended to the family throne. Dellacroce remained as underboss and worked hard to smooth the feathers of the young turks like John Gotti in the family. Dellacroce was successful for the most part until he died of cancer on December 2, 1985.
No one under Dellacroce would have made a move against Castellano while the highly respected underboss was still alive. Now that he was dead there was no buffer between the young turks and Castellano. At this time, Castellano made two major blunders in underestimating the resentment family members held for him. First he did not attend Dellacroce’s wake, which was taken as an intentional insult to all those who had respected the underboss. Second, he named Bilotti his new underboss without any input from the other family capos.
Castellano had rewarded Bilotti for his loyalty. At the same time, he also signed Bilotti’s death warrant. The disregard Castellano showed to the disgruntled factions within the family would prove to be his undoing. In addition, the famous "commission case" had already begun with indictments unsealed in February 1985 against the heads of the five New York families. Castellano and the other family bosses were looking at 100 years in prison. The possibility that Bilotti would be left to run the Gambino family must have left members of all five families shaking their heads. It also made it easier for John Gotti to get the approval of the commission to eliminate the two.
On December 16, 1985 Bilotti and Castellano drove to Sparks Steak House on East 46th Street between Second and Third Avenue. Bilotti and Castellano got out of the Lincoln as four gunmen closed in on them. The killers shot Castellano first. Bilotti, standing in the street, squatted down and watched as the killers unloaded their guns into the Gambino boss. At the same time, Gotti gunman John Carneglia came up behind Bilotti and pumped six bullets into the recently appointed underboss. Seconds after the shooting, a second Lincoln containing John Gotti and Sammy Gravano drove past the bloody scene. In 1992, Gravano testified at Gotti’s trial, that when they pulled up he looked down at Bilotti’s body, "I told John he was gone."
Bilotti and Castellano were both laid to rest in the Moravian Cemetery near Todt Hill. Bilotti was in a simple grave just fifty yards from the Castellano crypt. Perhaps even in death Bilotti was still the ever-faithful watchdog to his master.
ã A. R. May 1999