Gravano says a dad's love, turncoats put him in jail

The Arizona Republic

Salvatore "Sammy the Bull "Gravano in Maricopa County Superior Court.

Dennis Wagner

The Arizona Republic

Nov. 13, 2002 12:00 AM

In his first interview since getting busted as an Arizona narcotics boss, former mobster Sammy "The Bull" Gravano said his venture into the Ecstasy business was motivated by something purely innocent: a father's misguided love.

"I was stupid," added Gravano, sitting in a Maricopa County jail. "You can say, 'Sammy, you were a (expletive) retard.' "

Salvatore Gravano has played many roles over the years: killer, Mafia underboss, FBI informer, Phoenix businessman, family patriarch, drug dealer.

The former mobster says he chose to finance and guide son Gerard's narcotics operation, rather than quash it, because he wanted to stay on good terms with the 24-year-old.

Gravano blamed himself, but also fired machine-gun blasts of rage at the justice system, Phoenix police, Arizona prosecutors, the media and co-defendants.

He complained that authorities exaggerated his role in the syndicate and that co-defendants lied under oath.

And he protested that the most serious offenders became government informers, getting light sentences while he took the big fall because of his notorious reputation.

Related links More about Gravano >>

"The law is the law," said Gravano, who was sentenced in Phoenix last month. "I agree I should be punished. But treat me like the average guy. . . . I made a mistake. But do I deserve 20 years?"

Some might view that lament as hypocrisy from a guy who took part in 19 murders, then served only five years in prison thanks to his testimony against John Gotti Sr. and the Gambino crime family. But the 57-year-old convict snarled disdain for his critics: "I don't give a (expletive) what they think."

To some extent, Gravano casts himself as a victim. His story - a second book may be brewing - is laced with indignation about his fate and pride over a decision to sacrifice himself for his son.

Gravano's hair has fallen out because of a progressive thyroid illness. It has begun assaulting his fingernails and is expected to go after vital organs after that.

Confronted with mortality and two decades of solitary confinement at the most secure federal penitentiary, outside of Canon, Colo., Gravano cracked jokes and talked tough.

But he also displayed touches of sentiment and reflection.

Asked about family, he said, "We love each other. We truly care for each other." And about his prospects of surviving the prison term: "I'm a man. I'll take whatever they dish out."

Helping the kid

The Arizona chapter in Gravano's life began around 1995 when, despite a purported $1 million Mafia bounty on his head, he quit the federal Witness Protection Program because he could not abide by restrictions on contact with his wife, Debra, and their two children.

Although he remained chummy with FBI agents and U.S. marshals, Sammy the Bull was no longer under the government's wing. Gravano said he planned to stay legit, finishing life as construction company owner named Jimmy Moran.

Business hit a roadblock in 1999 when The Republic exposed Gravano. Pool companies stopped hiring him for excavation jobs. But Gravano founded a subsidiary, Creative Pools, and began building again.

"We made sure that business was so squeaky clean it was ridiculous," he said. "And we grew so fast. It was just starting to rock and roll."

Meanwhile, life was difficult for the son of "Sammy." Gerard was troubled by his father's reputation as a "rat." He had a rocky relationship with a girlfriend, who bore a son. He was busted for trying to ship marijuana to New York.

Gravano said he was happy when Gerard befriended Michael Papa, an Arizona State University student with a seemingly bright future. Then he learned that Papa was running an Ecstasy business on the side and Gerard had joined in.

Gravano insists that he didn't know about the drugs at first or that Papa's organization was using his name for leverage on the street.

When he found out, Gravano added, "I tried to talk them away from drugs. . . . They convinced me that they'll just make X amount of dollars and they'll quit."

Gravano said he was never able to speak freely with his own father and was afraid of losing the closeness with Gerard if he wasn't supportive. Although he shuns cocaine and heroin, Gravano doesn't have the same aversion to "soft" drugs. ("The only thing I'd even listen to was pot or Ecstasy.")

So he hired Papa at the construction company, then started providing money and guidance to the young dealers.

"Of course it was a stupid decision," Gravano admitted. "I wanted them (his children) to be able to sit down and tell me anything. I wanted that rapport with my kids."


His words, in a Soprano's-style accent, are peppered with contradictions.

He said he was stunned to find out he was wiretapped because "I wasn't really doing anything illegitimate." Reminded that he was involved in an Ecstasy ring, Gravano shrugged: "If I'm not killing somebody, I don't think I'm doing something illegitimate."

For a man who says he doesn't care what people think, Gravano seems preoccupied with reputation. "I sound like a sadistic killer," he said. "But in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, I was loved. . . . And it wasn't because I was the underboss, it was because of things I did for people."

In Arizona, Gravano bridles at exaggerated news reports. For example, he denies ties with a racist teenage gang known as the Devil Dogs, insisting those were Papa's pals.

"There's never been a trace of any of 'em in my life," he said. "Zero. Nothing."

In fact, Gravano asserted, he didn't know about 85 percent of the criminal acts being done by his kids and other members of the syndicate. Nor was he aware that Phoenix police had traced drugs to Papa and found the Gravano connection.

"When this kid, Michael Papa, came in with my son, that's the end of me," Gravano said. " . . . If I was a drug dealer, that would be the moral of the story. But I'm dead against drugs. Always was."

Gravano admitted blustering to a renegade Ecstasy dealer that he owned Arizona and was planning a Mafia-style operation, but said it was just tough talk designed to intimidate.

As for claims of a "multimillion-dollar drug ring," Gravano said he collected $20,000 for financing a large Ecstasy purchase by Papa, and an additional $4,500 from a deal with a man named Phillip Pascucci. Both were dealing drugs before they met Gravano, yet they became government witnesses and claimed he was a godfather to the Ecstasy syndicate.

"Yeah, Sammy the Bull and his notorious organization made $25,000 in the whole year, period," Gravano said. "Phil Pascucci and Michael Papa are lying through their (expletive) teeth. . . . What really bothers me is, I think people know it, the cops and the prosecutors."

Gravano added that he turned down a huge proposal from the Netherlands involving Ecstasy. "Here's the big drug dealer refusing $6 million. When you really know the truth, doesn't it seem exaggerated?" he asked. "Was this really a mob? I laugh at it. Are they kidding?"

Talking to vent

Gravano denies feeling sorry for himself or blaming others. He says he agreed to talk just to vent truth about the whole expletive mess.

"It stinks from every angle," he said. "From the prosecutors to the cops to the kids to my angle. Everybody. . . .

"What's the moral? Don't get busted by the Phoenix police because they're full of (expletive). . . . What was (Attorney General) Janet Napolitano's motive for going to this extent? Did she recognize there was an election around the corner?

"Of course I feel remorse. My son is sitting in jail. I'm sick. . . . I'm completely heartbroken with my wife and my daughter (convicted). . . . They made us out like animals. . . .

"We all took pleas to save my son."

Gravano said that out of concern for his family, he immediately offered to cooperate with state prosecutors but got no response.

They had him in a box, with enough evidence to imprison his son for life and a federal case to double the punishment.

Ultimately, Gravano signed a plea deal that he now says overstated his part in the conspiracy. "Would you give up your life for your kid? I did," he said.

"I'm comfortable with that decision. . . . I would have pleaded out to killing Kennedy if that's what they wanted."

Gerard Gravano is serving 9.3 years. Nearly all of the co-defendants, including Debra and Karen Gravano, got probation or brief jail terms.

Papa awaits sentencing on a plea agreement. Pascucci was granted immunity for his testimony.

Gravano shakes his head. "They all flipped to use me as a meal ticket to get out," he said.

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