The former gangster known as ‘Sammy the Bull’ has been released from prison after serving nearly two decades for his role in a drug ring.
Arizona Republic reporter discovers a Mafia hit man living in the Valley in 1999.
Editor’s note: This Arizona Republic story originally published July 18, 1999.
Salvatore Gravano, Mafia hit man and Valley resident, eyed his visitor with a steely glare.
”So, you’re going to write about Sammy the Bull living here?” he said in a semi-raspy voice. ”Do you know how many people will get killed if you do that?”
It seemed odd coming from someone responsible for 19 murders, but the question had merit.
Gravano, the turncoat underboss who put John Gotti and 36 other New York mobsters in prison, had managed to stay underground for nearly five years.
He was hiding in sunny Arizona from assassins, from Illinois cops who offered a reward for sightings, from families of victims who filed a lawsuit, from the media.
e came for the same reason most everyone else does: to get a new start.
Most neighbors didn’t know the middle-age guy next door was notorious for robberies, loan-sharking, extortion and homicide. Employees had no idea their boss once operated a corrupt New York construction business, rigging bids and running unions.
That’s how Gravano wanted it.
But, over time, his secret life and identity slowly unraveled.
It happened, in part, because Gravano is sometimes indiscreet. He has a business, a publicist, a lawyer. U.S. marshals and FBI agents watch over him.
He tells some people his real name.
Gravano knew his identity would be exposed someday.
He lives in a modest bungalow, the sort of place a 20-something bachelor would call home.
There are no family photographs visible, nothing intimate or interesting other than a life-size dummy used for a punching bag.
A little dog growls and sniffs at strangers.
Gravano wears a black muscle shirt, gray sweat pants and dark shades in a low-light living room.
After small talk, he wonders aloud why his story is worth telling.
”What would be so interesting about me? Running a legitimate business. Being monitored by the government . . . I think it’s boring.”
Then again, he says, if word gets out, the New York media will swarm into Arizona, ferreting out every detail of his new life. And the Mafia might feel compelled to follow.
”In the mob, anytime anybody flips, there’s an open contract on him,” Gravano says.
Moments later, he downplays the danger.
There’s no real worry about getting whacked, Gravano says, because he’s become pals with FBI agents and U.S. marshals. They drop by on vacations to Arizona. He talks to their wives by phone. Besides, the Mafia has been so thoroughly infiltrated that the feds would know who ordered a hit.
”The mob is smart enough that when they do something, they wanna get away with it,” he explains.
Gravano, a stocky, muscular man who seems younger than his 54 years, oozes bravado. He says he doesn’t look under his car or over his shoulder, doesn’t understand fear.
”I’ve grown up in a lifestyle,” he says. ”There’s 30,000 cops in New York. Every time you go out, you don’t know if you’re coming back. . . .
”I was a boxer. I know what it’s like to get hit. I know what it is to fight. And you lose your fear.
”I could go to Montana and live 20 years in a cabin and be scared to death. Or I can live here, where I’m happy, five years. I choose to live here.”
Gravano pauses, smiles. ”When it happens, it happens. If they start shooting, then I’ll be a little scared.”
A new identity
Sammy the Bull arrived here as an inmate in the Federal Correctional Center.
Upon release, he was given a new identity and background. He rented an apartment, returned to the construction business, settled in.
For a guy with the threat of a bullet in the head, life was tolerable. Until two weeks ago.
The secret died at his construction office amid junkyards and vacant lots.
Sammy the Bull stormed into the foyer, and with a clenched jaw confronted an unexpected visitor.
”What do you want?” he demanded. Then, turning heel, he grunted, ”Follow me.”
Seated in a back room, Gravano used indelicate terms to vent his anger about being found out.
He said he wasn’t worried about himself, but family members and employees. Innocent people would suffer. Jobs would be lost, reputations ruined.
He said he’s created a new life in the Valley, and wasn’t going to start over, no matter what.
”I’m not running from the (expletive) Mafia,” he added. ”I’m not running from the (expletive) media.”
He said he might tell his story, under the right conditions.
Gravano knows about cutting deals. He traded testimony against La Cosa Nostra for a shortened prison sentence. In 1995, he completed the five-year term, entered a Witness Protection Program and got some facial work.
Then he blew the cover by appearing on TV to promote a book: Underboss, Sammy the Bull Gravano’s Story of Life in the Mafia. Coincidentally, a movie version of the story is being rebroadcast tonight on NBC (Channel 12, KPNX).
With celebrity came infamy.
Family members of Gravano’s murder victims have sued him for $25 million. The New York attorney general is pursuing book and film profits. The John Gotti Tribute Page, an Internet site, warned that Gravano ”may be living next door to you with the government’s blessing.” And the Combined Counties Police Association of Illinois posted a $500 reward for sightings of Sammy the Bull.
Association President John Flood said it’s despicable that an admitted murderer was unleashed on society after spending fewer than five years behind bars.
”If Sammy left the world tomorrow, we could all sit down and say, ‘Thank God,’ ” Flood added. ”It would be no loss.”
The reward money went uncollected. Gravano had vanished into Arizona, the anonymous retirement mecca that attracted a number of mob bosses over the years, including Joe Bonanno.
Gravano wasn’t the only one who didn’t want his secret out.
Athia Hardt, a public relations woman who represents him, said the FBI was concerned about his safety.
Hardt, who once worked for Arizona Govs. Bruce Babbitt and Rose Mofford, also provided a reference: Supervising FBI Agent George Gabriel, who handled Gravano during Gotti’s prosecution.
In a phone call from New York, Gabriel said blowing Gravano’s cover would have one outcome: ”He’s a dead man.”
Hardt said her client would talk if the newspaper agreed not to reveal his new name or company, and if it would withhold information on family members.
The Arizona Republic agreed, on the condition that the deal would be void if the newspaper found that Gravano or his company had engaged in corrupt activity in Arizona.
During the 2 1/2-hour interview in Gravano’s apartment, Hardt sips red wine. Attorney Thayne Lowe lies on the floor to ease the pain of a back problem.
Sammy the Bull lights a cigarette and worries aloud about family members. He says they are the main reason he sought refuge here, along with the weather and relatively mob-free environment.
Though he hasn’t been threatened here, Gravano figures the Mafia knows his whereabouts. FBI agents agree, saying he is too casual about his cover.
Gravano quit the Witness Protection Program nine months after getting out of prison. (”Too many restrictions. You couldn’t have contact with your family or anybody.”)
And though he had plastic surgery, the face didn’t change much. (”I asked the doctor if I could look like Robert Redford, do it. But he said, ‘No.’ ”
Gravano settled for repairs to his boxer’s nose and some minor liposuction. Strangers still recognize him on the street.
”They come right over to me,” Gravano says, proudly. ”Some shake my hand and congratulate me for what I did. Some want an autograph.”
He estimates that more than 300 Valley residents know his real identity. Sometimes, he even tells people.
Gravano says he recently ruined a business deal by coming clean with a prospective partner. He shrugs, adding, ”We thought it was ethical and right to let them know.”
A moral mafioso?
The ethical mobster.
That theme is the fabric of Sammy the Bull’s tale.
He talks indignantly about the treachery of others. When told it seems curious for a man who murdered 18 or 19 people to complain of deceit, he interrupts to clarify the precise number – ”It was 19” – then tells a story.
Gravano and Gotti were trying to decide what to do about a Mafia associate who was snitching to the cops. Gotti wanted to enlist a homosexual who could destroy the traitor’s credibility by accusing him of being gay. Gravano was horrified.
”I told him, ‘No, John, we don’t do that. We’re family. He’s one of us. We should just go kill him.’ ”
Gravano views his homicidal history in a cultural context, like the moral relativism of war.
”I watched a guy (on TV) who dropped a bomb on Hiroshima,” he says. ”Killed 100,000 people in one day. What’s that about?”
At another point, Gravano boasts that each of his murders was coldblooded. It may seem repugnant to mainstream American values, but he adhered to the oath.
”I never killed anybody in a fit of rage,” Gravano says. ”Everybody I killed was planned. I’m a hit man, not a serial killer. . . .
”Some of these things, I didn’t want to do. I felt I did the right thing in La Cosa Nostra. I was loyal to the life.
”I think I was even a good person within the mob. I was fair.”
Gravano says the killing is behind him. As an ex-Mafioso, his code has changed.
That transition came when Gravano realized that Gotti was setting him up as a fall guy. Gravano insists that it was Gotti, not him, who violated the brotherhood.
”I never betrayed anybody in my life first,” he adds. ”But if I’m betrayed, I become a good betrayer. Go ask John.”
Gravano says dozens of others took plea deals and testified, helping to put 37 criminals behind bars. He seems puzzled about getting all the credit, or blame.
Then Sammy the Bull flashes a winking grin and says, ”I was the smartest, best-looking, most charismatic of the underbosses who flipped.”
Man of paradoxes
Now, Gravano is an avid chess player.
He enjoys talking to young people, helping them with their problems. He goes fishing and takes in a ballgame occasionally.
But mostly he works, rising at 5 a.m. and putting in 12-hour days. Gravano says he’s always been a workaholic with ideas racing through his head.
”I like the wheeling and dealing, the business, the whirlwind,” he adds. ”I think up deals every other minute.”
In the end, Gravano is a contradictory goodfellow.
Once a garrulous gangster, he lives alone with a dog.
He traded Mafia cronies for law enforcement chums.
He says the FBI doesn’t need his help anymore. Then, moments later, he declares, ”I have everything to offer the government. They’d be totally retarded not to deal with me.”
He claims not to care what people think of him, yet helped write a book to set the record straight.
Gravano says life in the Mafia was always stressful. Prison was intolerable, but it mellowed him. Now, he is content in a stuffy apartment.
”I’m bunked in. See the brick on the walls? It’s like a cell. I’m comfortable again.”
A neighbor knocks on the back door and delivers a cup of Starbucks coffee. He smiles and talks of friendships.
”I think good people, if they see you’re really not a threat, they’ll protect you,” Sammy the Bull adds.
”I’m extremely happy right now. I’m a boss. Of my family. Of my friends. Of my own life.”
He claims he was offered an acting slot on The Sopranos, an HBO show that satirizes the New York mob. The script called for Sammy the Bull to appear in several broadcasts as a hit man, then get killed off. He turned it down.
As for La Cosa Nostra, he says the government has delivered a nearly mortal blow.
”They wrecked the mob all over the country. I don’t think they’re anywhere near finished. They’re letting up too early. But they really hurt the mob.”
Sammy to the core
Through all the changes, Gotti claims he’s held true to relationships and integrity. That’s why he turned on Gotti, and why he respects the FBI agents.
”They were straight up people,” Gravano says. ”I never caught them in a lie, and I’m really good at that. . . .
”Have my values changed? No. You can’t change what you are inside. A leopard doesn’t change his spots.”
An Internet site dedicated to Gotti uses a different mammalian metaphor for Gravano: ”rat bastard.”
It includes a psychological evaluation that says Sammy the Bull suffers from a ”severe character pathology: The likelihood of violent behavior is substantial.”
Gravano shrugs off the criticism, living day to day.
He moves every eight or nine months.
He looks for people to trust. Of all the hardships, he says giving up his name was among the worst.
”I think I lost my identity for a while, but I found it again.”
So, who is he today? Mobster, government informer, ex-con or businessman?
”I’m Sammy,” he says with a wily smile. ”Sammy to the core.”
Read or Share this story: http://azc.cc/2ygaz7O