The fourth racketeering trial of John "Junior" Gotti began Monday with the government portraying the mob heir as a maniacal killer and chronic criminal who has dodged prison by intimidating witnesses and obstructing justice.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elie Honig pointed at the son of the late Gambino boss of the same name, telling jurors in an opening statement that he had risen from "a vicious and violent street criminal to a savvy and money-hungry business criminal."
Gotti's lawyer, Charles Carnesi, tried to debunk that image by telling a jury in U.S. District Court in Manhattan that his client never participated in murders and — though once a "high-ranking member of the Gambino family in the early to mid-1990s" — dramatically quit the mob in 1999 by pleading guilty to federal charges over the objections of his father.
Carnesi said Gotti, 45, came to see that he was part of an organization where there was no true loyalty, where "more often than not, your best friend suddenly became a threat to you."
Gotti "saw his father dying of cancer away from his family, alone, in prison," the lawyer said. He added: "It could just be that that scared the heck out of him."
Gotti's father died in prison in 2002 after he was convicted of racketeering a decade earlier.
Before opening statements began, seven of the anonymous jurors sent notes to Judge Kevin P. Castel asking to be dropped as jurors. Though most cited financial and work-related burdens, one claimed to be "very nervous and intimidated" and another said it would be hard to be fair as a juror.
Still, the jurors were sworn in to hear Honig say the trial would feature people who Gotti "has cheated, threatened, extorted, robbed, beaten, kidnapped, stabbed, shot and killed."
He said Gotti stabbed a man during a bar brawl in 1983.
A witness later in the day testified Gotti left the bar but returned to briefly stand at the door, widely wave, and say "th-th-th-th that's all folks," just like the cartoon character Porky Pig.
Honig said the lone witness to the stabbing was found hanging by his neck a year later from a tree branch.
The prosecutor said Gotti ordered at least three other murders and once slammed a construction company owner's head through a Sheetrock wall to force him to resume regular payments to the Gambino family.
Another time, Gotti ordered a man rumored to have said insulting things about him to be brought to a basement where two Gambino associates tied him to a chair and "beat him senseless," Honig said.
"While that man shrieked out in pain from the basement, you will learn that the defendant sat right upstairs hearing it, all the while he read letters from his father in prison and talked about what a great man his father was," the prosecutor said.
One of the first prosecution witnesses was 49-year-old Joseph DeLuca, who described how he came to owe Gotti $35,000 for two weeks of sports gambling debts in 1984 while he was a New York Mets assistant equipment manager. A Mets team picture including him was entered into evidence.
DeLuca testified that he panicked and told an associate of Gotti whom he knew from the neighborhood that then-Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez had placed the bets, thinking it would buy him time.
DeLuca testified that Hernandez did not place the bets. A spokesman for SportsNet New York, where Hernandez works as a Mets broadcaster, did not immediately return a call for comment.
He said he called Hernandez because he had a good rapport with him and asked to borrow money and Hernandez wrote him a check for $7,000. He said he took the money to Atlantic City and lost it all.
DeLuca said he confessed to the Gambino associate that the bets were his and that he didn't have the money and was punched several times before the associate and Gotti met with his parents to arrange a payment plan. He said he did not work for the Mets after 1984.
Three earlier racketeering trials of Gotti in 2005 and 2006 ended with deadlocked juries. For each trial, prosecutors reshaped the case with a common thread that Gotti followed his father as the street boss of the Gambinos, one of five New York organized crime families.
Those trials focused on charges that Gotti had plotted to kidnap and beat Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels crime-fighting group, in retaliation for Sliwa's radio-show rants about the Gotti family during the racketeering prosecution of his father.
Sliwa was first beaten with a baseball bat in 1992 and was later kidnapped, shot and nearly killed.
Honig warned jurors Monday that Gotti had long managed to obstruct justice, including with a "bogus claim that he quit the mob."
The prosecutor said Gotti has continued to accept "tribute payments" from fellow organized crime associates that might explain the $350,000 in cash investigators found in gym bag in a broken refrigerator in the basement of one of his buildings.
But Carnesi said jurors would hear taped conversations in which Gotti repeatedly says he truly did quit the mob in 1999.
"Keep an open mind until all the evidence is in," he cautioned.