John A. “Junior” Gotti went on trial on kidnapping, extortion and fraud charges Monday, with a prosecutor saying he ordered the 1992 kidnapping of a radio host to silence him for his harsh verbal attacks on the Gotti family.
Jurors are expected to hear testimony from Gambino family turncoats, evidence from electronic surveillance and a recounting of crimes that include the alleged attempted kidnapping of the crime-fighting founder of the Guardian Angels.
As a bespectacled Gotti, 40, sat passively in a dark suit, federal prosecutor Victor Hou accused him of taking over the street leadership of the Gambino crime family during the 1990s after his father, John Gotti, was sentenced to life in prison.
“The Gambino crime family is not a family like yours or mine,” Hou told the jury in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
Defense: ‘He'd had enough’
Gotti’s lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, said his client left crime years ago after pleading guilty to racketeering in another case. He became a new man after he “realized his children might grow up without him if he doesn’t change,” he said.
“I’m not saying he was never a gangster, because he was. I’m simply saying he’d had enough. He wanted out,” Lichtman said.
In excerpts of letters from prison to the New York Post published several weeks ago, Gotti repeated the theme, saying he “regrets involvement in this life” and doesn’t want his children to follow his path.
And a lawyer told U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in a letter on Friday that the defense will try to show that Gotti has turned his back on crime.
Prosecutor: Gotti enraged by comments
Hou said the younger Gotti was enraged by talk show host Curtis Sliwa’s rants against organized crime during his morning radio show. Sliwa, the Guardian Angels founder known for his red beret, had been a vocal critic of the Gottis. Hou said Gotti “ordered his thugs” to kidnap Sliwa, ensuring that they rigged a taxi cab so the doors and windows could not open as the radio host was shot twice in the abdomen in 1992.
Hou said Sliwa, who will testify in the trial, saved himself only by leaping out an open window on the front passenger side of the car. He recovered, returned to his radio show and resumed his criticism of the family.
Hou said he would prove that Gotti and two others on trial with him also engaged in extortion, securities fraud and loansharking. The charges could land Gotti in prison for up to 30 years if he is convicted.
Government witnesses assailed
During his opening statement, Lichtman drew several objections from prosecutors and a few criticisms from the judge while he blasted the government’s witness list as turncoats, “violent, manipulative creeps” and “a literal parade of horribles.”
“There’s money in John’s name for some witnesses, freedom for others,” he said.
He blasted Sliwa as a “fraud through and through, a real snake-oil salesman” whose reputation was so tarnished when he was shot that some members of the police department at first thought he might have shot himself.
“Look past the ego and the big mouth and focus on the evidence,” he urged jurors.
Lichtman also acknowledged that his client may have a lot to overcome to clear his name. “When you hear the name Trump, you think of money; when you hear the name Gotti, you think of crime,” he said.