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The Incredible, True Story of How the Government Turned Sammy Gravano, Gambino Family Underboss, Into a Cooperating Witness

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One morning in early October, when I was alone in my office, reworking the trial outline yet again, Bruce Muow called. Are you sitting down?” he asked.

“That’s all I do these days. What’s up?”

“Sammy Gravano wants to cooperate.”


My heart stopped. Of all the possible turns the case could have taken, this was the one nobody had even speculated about. Six weeks later, when Gravano’s cooperation became public, dozens of smart-alecks all of a sudden had known he’d flip. He was too Machiavellian not to, they said. He’d never done a long prison term. He’d never forgiven Gotti for killing Paul, some said, overlooking the fact that Gravano was part of the murder team. There were as many reasons as there were people who claimed to have known it was going to happen. But before it actually did, nobody had even whispered the possibility.

“What happened?” I asked.

“We have been approached by an intermediary.”

“Who is he, Bruce? And don’t tell me you’re not going to tell me.”

“It’s not a he,” Mouw said. “It’s Debbie. She says Sammy’ll testify, but only if he gets immunity.”

I couldn’t decide which was more preposterous: that the underboss of the Gambino Family would use his wife to approach me, or that he expected I’d give him immunity in exchange for his testimony.

Using Debbie as the intermediary was contrary to one of the basic instincts of a true mobster—to keep a strict separation of family from the Family. A made member’s wife was supposed to have nothing to do with the life. At his initiation ceremony, a made guy promises to put La Cosa Nostra first. The wife is not told about Family business, and knows not to ask. As Gotti’s wife famously said when a reporter asked what her husband did for a living, “I don’t know what he does. He provides.” Since court cases were part of the business, wives had no place there either. It was no more appropriate for a wife to attend a trial than it was for her to be present at the shakedown of an extortion victim. Family members of real wiseguys weren’t even permitted to sit in on sentencings, even though their mere presence might weigh in favor of leniency.

If he were simply going to flip, Gravano hadn’t needed to get his wife involved. At one of his many court appearances, he could have whispered to a deputy marshal that he wanted to cooperate. We’d have separated him from Gotti and Locascio, arranged for him to get a lawyer he could trust, and found a safe place to keep him in custody pending trial. Gravano had known that option was available. The fact that he’d reached out through Debbie revealed that he’d thought his idea all the way through. He’d realized that the worst possible outcome for him would be if he tried to cooperate but failed, and Gotti knew he’d tried. Gravano was aware that we might reject his offer. If we did, he’d still be considered a rat for having made the effort. He’d be sent back to jail and for his own protection placed in the hole. He’d then be no different than Willie Boy Johnson. Even if he beat the case, he’d be killed in the street.

Gravano knew he needed someone he could absolutely trust to keep his overture secret, and the only person who fit that description was his wife.

“Tell her that immunity is out of the question,” I told Mouw. “If that’s a dealbreaker, then forget it. But Bruce, he’s a savvy guy, he has to know that. He’s charged with three murders and a murder conspiracy. People like that don’t get immunized.”

“I agree,” Bruce replied. “But what do I tell her?”

“I don’t know. It’s not like I’ve thought about this. I can’t imagine that we could give Gravano anything better than a twenty-year cap. If he does any better, it’s going to have to come from Judge Glasser at sentencing. And even the offer of a twenty-year cap would be subject to him giving us a ‘proffer’”—that is, a session that determines whether a would-be witness will become an actual witness. “We’ve got to find out what he can do for us, whether he’s truthful, and if he’s ready after all these years in the mob to give people up. For all we know, he’s going to come in and say they’re all innocent, and Chin killed Castellano. We have to meet with him.”

“He won’t meet with us now. He wants Debbie to meet with you to see if he can trust you.”

“Debbie’s gonna decide if Gravano can trust me?”

“John, he wants this meeting. Let’s give it to him.”

“Fine, but first you have to tell her immunity is off the table. It’s a complete waste of time if he’s really serious about that.”

“Can I pass along the twenty-year cap?”

I thought about Mouw’s question long enough to decide that I didn’t have the time or the desire to start a back-and-forth with Gravano. We had less than three months before trial and a lot of work to do. If we signed up Gravano, the case wouldn’t be delayed but it would have an entirely different look. We’d go from a presentation resting almost entirely on recordings to relying on an accomplice witness with the tapes as corroboration.The witness list would change dramatically. If Gravano testified that he’d killed DiB and Louie Milito, for example, we’d no longer have to call the dozen or so people needed to prove circumstantially that the two men were dead. If Gravano was part of the Castellano and Bilotti hit, it might eliminate the need to call the onlooker who’d identified Gotti at the scene. The focus of the trial would switch from the tapes to Gravano. That prospect was fine with me; in fact, I welcomed a case with greater depth, but accomplice witnesses take a ton of time—to sign up, to debrief, to prepare for trial—and I had hardly any. I wasn’t going to use up the hours dickering with Gravano over the terms of a deal.

“Yes, you can pass along the twenty years. But Bruce, you have to emphasize two things. First, tell Debbie to tell him not to think twenty is our starting point, like immunity was for him. It’s our end point. I don’t have time for offers and counteroffers. He has to agree to a twenty-year cap. Second, it’s not an offer yet.We have to meet with Gravano and hear what he has to say first. ”


As soon as I hung up, my excitement turned to anxiety. Before I could strike a deal with Gravano, I needed to meet with him. We had to talk about his crimes, and what he could give us. I had to see if he’d make a good witness. This gave me a glaring Sixth Amendment problem. I could speak to Gravano only if his lawyer consented. Legal ethics said the same thing. If I met with Gravano without his lawyer’s consent, I could lose my license.

There was no way Gravano would see me if his lawyer had to be notified. Ben Brafman may have been his attorney, but Gravano hadn’t retained Brafman, Gotti had. If Brafman were told that Gravano wanted to meet with me to discuss cooperation, Gotti would know immediately. Gravano could easily be killed and so could his family. At the least, the meeting would not happen.

Still, there was no way I wasn’t going to see Gravano. I had plenty of respect for the Sixth Amendment and no qualms about following the code of professional responsibility, but I believed in my bones that neither could sensibly prohibit the meeting. Gravano wanted to discuss an option that he believed might be in his best interest— pleading guilty and cooperating with the government. Normally, his attorney’s obligation would be to act in his client’s best interests, but this wasn’t an ordinary case. Gravano had good reason to believe that Brafman would not be on his side if he were asked to explore cooperation. It wasn’t just Brafman’s connection to Gotti. He was a mob lawyer and collected big fees from his clients. If one of them testified against other gangsters, that business would come to a screeching halt. A big-time gangster is not going to retain or direct the people under him to retain a rat lawyer. Cooperation might be in Gravano’s best interest, but it would definitely not be in Brafman’s.

The worst-case scenario for me was the same as for Gravano: if we didn’t reach an agreement and word got out that we’d talked. Then, to explain to Gotti why he’d met with the government’s lead prosecutor in the first place, Gravano would accuse me of violating the Sixth Amendment and the no-contact rule. Gleeson, he’d say, was so desperate to salvage a shaky case that he’d brought one of the defendants to his office to make a pathetic and illegal pitch. I could imagine how it would go: “He was trying to shake me down—just like they did to Willie Boy in the first case. I told him to go fuck himself and that we’d see him in court. He didn’t even tell my lawyer. He should be disbarred.”


The judge’s chambers had the feel of a home. Ethel Cohen, his assistant for many years, welcomed visitors into a waiting area with a powder-blue carpet. From the visitors’ chairs just inside the door, Ethel was framed by green plants on the credenza behind her, and beyond that by a sweeping view of Midtown Manhattan. The Empire State Building was centered perfectly in one of the floor-to-ceiling windows behind her.

“I’ll see if he’s ready to see you.”

The middle area of Judge Glasser’s large office, between the imposing conference table at one end and the oversized desk at the other, was basically a living room. A couch and armchairs surrounded an elegant wooden coffee table. The western wall of windows that lit Ethel’s area gave the judge’s chambers a similar lightness that contrasted dramatically with the somber, windowless courtroom in which he presided. The same welcoming air was true of the judge himself. Out of his black robe, in his trademark white shirt and bow tie, he seemed much less imposing.

“Come in, John, sit down.”

“Hi, Judge.” I sat in one of the armchairs and put the tape recorder on the coffee table.

“What brings you here?”

“I want to place something on the record, but I want your permission to do that by making a tape myself, rather than ask a court reporter to join us. It’s not that I have any reason to distrust the court reporters—I don’t even know which one is assigned to you this week. It’s just that what I want to tell you is so singular and so sensitive that I believe you’ll agree that the fewer people who know of it the better.”

“All right. Go ahead.”

I turned on the tape.

“Judge, I wanted to inform you that Salvatore Gravano has reached out to the government through an intermediary. He wants to discuss the possibility of cooperation. The intermediary is his wife, Debbie Gravano. I intend to meet with her tomorrow afternoon in a hotel in New Jersey. Depending on how that goes, I will arrange a secret meeting with Gravano himself in order to get a proffer from him. I will keep the court apprised of my contacts with Gravano and his wife. I will seal this tape in an envelope and maintain custody of it. If Gravano eventually becomes a government witness, it will be disclosed to his codefendants.”

I was nervous, and staring the whole time at the recorder. When I turned it off I looked up. Judge Glasser was smiling. I got to my feet, said thanks, and started to leave.

As I reached the door, the judge said, “John, you didn’t make an application.”

“Excuse me, Judge?”

“Lawyers come to judges for relief. They make an application, give reasons for it, and the judge either grants it or denies it. You haven’t asked for any relief.” He seemed to be enjoying himself.

“Yes, sir, that’s true.” I was not about to ask for permission to speak to Gravano’s wife. If I did and was turned down, meeting with her would place me in contempt of court, even if the judge incorrectly denied the request. I wasn’t going to take even the slightest risk that Judge Glasser would prohibit me from doing something that neither the Sixth Amendment nor the ethical rule should prohibit. I really wanted to get out of his office before he took it upon himself to decide the issue, even though I hadn’t asked him to. But he wasn’t finished.

“John, who knows about this?”

“Just me in my office. In the FBI, Bruce Mouw, George Gabriel, and Matty Tricorico and Frank Spero, who are also on the Gambino Squad.”

“Not even the U.S. Attorney?”

“Just me.”

“Keep it that way.”

“Yes, sir.” I opened the door and hastened past Ethel, anxious to get out of chambers before the judge could say anything else.


For our meeting with Debbie Gravano, Bruce Mouw had reserved a suite in one of the hotels just outside Newark Airport.When he, Matty Tricorico, and Frank Spero picked me up at the courthouse, they didn’t come inside as they usually would. If Laura Ward or Pat Cotter saw me leaving with them, they’d ask us what was going on and we’d have to lie. It was bad enough sneaking around behind their backs. So I arranged to meet them on Tillary Street, around the corner from the courthouse.

On the way over to New Jersey, Matty and Frank were more talkative than usual.

“All Debbie wants is to meet you.We already told her you’re not going to double cross him,” Frank said. I wondered how I could possibly double-cross Gravano. What did he think I could do?

“Gravano told her she had to meet you in person before we could arrange a meeting with him,” Matty added. “We think she wants your guarantee that nobody will ever know about your meeting with Gravano.”

“And, God forbid we do meet with him and there’s no deal, nobody can know it happened,” Frank added.

“Is this what she’s already told you guys?” I asked.

“Pretty much, John,” Matty said. “Except, to tell you the truth, she says everything like she’s memorized it, like she don’t even understand it. She’s very nervous.”

When we got near the airport, Frank couldn’t figure out how to get to the hotel. We could see the place, but kept passing it, trapped in the maze of elevated roads and ramps where I-95, I-78, and Routes 1 and 9 all meet. We continued going in circles around the hotel. Frank was obviously embarrassed. He was a fabulous agent, not the type to get lost anytime, let alone on his way to a vital appointment, and let alone with his boss, Bruce Mouw, sitting in the backseat. The fact that we kept passing within a hundred yards of the hotel only made matters worse.

“Why don’t we just park right here and rappel over the side,” I said as we passed by the hotel on an elevated roadway. I was trying to inject a little levity into the situation, but had no takers.

When Frank finally figured it out and we pulled into the hotel parking lot, Matty spotted Debbie’s blue Pathfinder.

“She’s here, Frank,” he said, pointing to the car.

“Good.” Frank had a tight smile on his face and was clearly relieved. We’d all been considering the possibility that the biggest breakthrough in the history of the fight against organized crime might be missed because we couldn’t get to a building we’d been circling for half an hour.

Debbie Gravano wasn’t what I’d expected. There was no makeup, fancy hair, jewelry, or gum-chewing. She was exactly my age, which made her seven years younger than her husband. With short hair, and dressed in jeans and a cotton sweater, she was the archetypal girl next door. She could have passed for any one of about fifty girls from my suburban high school class.

Nervous as Debbie was (she would smoke during the entire meeting), her relief at seeing Matty and Frank was palpable. She’d been alone in the suite waiting for us and had evidently worked herself into a state. After she let us in, she led us to a living room, where she spoke softly with Matty and Frank while Bruce and I stood off to the side. The conversation was about logistics: what Debbie had told her children about where she was going; when she was expected back; when she was planning to see Gravano again at the MCC. I was struck by all the first names they used. Matty and Frank had plainly spent a lot of time with her and she seemed to trust them completely.

After a few minutes, Debbie turned to me and I put out my hand. “Hi. I’m John Gleeson.”

Debbie said hi but wasted no time with pleasantries. “Sammy is willing to cooperate with you. He’s willing to testify at the trial but he wants to meet you first, and he wants immunity. He also wants a one-year limit on cooperating, like Michael Franzese got, and he won’t testify against his friends.” She said it mechanically, with no inflections. Just as Matty had said in the car, it was as if she’d memorized her lines.

I had the sinking feeling that this entire exercise might be nothing more than a diversion, intended to distract us from getting ready for trial. I looked at Bruce, who was supposed to have passed along the message that immunity was out of the question. I could tell he was annoyed, and that he had in fact passed the news along, to no avail.

I gave her the bottom line: “Debbie, Sammy is a murderer. He can’t get immunity. It’s impossible. A twenty-year cap is the absolute best he can hope for, and even that is not guaranteed. I have to meet with him first. He’ll have to proffer. Also, forget about any one-year limit on his cooperation. It’s not going to happen.”

When I said the word “murderer,” Debbie flinched. So did Matty and Frank. I could tell immediately they were angry at me, although I had no idea why, so I pressed on. “And what do you mean he won’t testify against his friends? Who are you talking about?”

“Huck, Louie, Eddie,” she said. These weren’t just Gravano’s friends, they were the made members in his crew. In fact, Lou Vallario had become captain of that crew when Gravano was elevated to consigliere. Huck Carbonara and Eddie Garafola were soldiers. Still, to Debbie they were her husband’s buddies. I was struck by her apparent sincerity and sensed a connection between that sincerity and her reaction when I called her husband a murderer.

“Tell him to forget about that too. He either cooperates completely or not at all. No picking and choosing. It’s not easy testifying against friends, but it’s not unusual. People commit crimes with their friends. If they want to cooperate, they’ve got to cooperate against their friends.”

“But Eddie’s not just a friend. He’s family. He’s Sammy’s brother-in-law, he’s married to Sammy’s sister Frances.” This was Debbie speaking now, not Debbie passing along what she’d been told to pass along. She was clearly taken aback by the fact that her husband would have to give up his own brother-in-law.

“I know that,” I said, “but it’s too bad. We’re not going to give your husband immunity, period. There will be no time limit on his cooperation. And no one gets a pass, not even Eddie. If any of those things are really deal-breakers, we don’t need to set up a meeting.”

I thought about explaining to Debbie how the process with Gravano would work, what steps had to be taken before I could decide whether to sign him up. The fact that he wanted to be a witness was great, but it didn’t mean he’d be one. For lots of reasons, many people who want to be witnesses never make it because they can’t bring themselves to give up their friends.

The next day Bruce Mouw called and reported that Gravano wanted to meet with me. There was one new condition: whatever ruse we used to get him into the building for our encounter, we had to put Gotti and Locascio through it as well. If only Gravano were brought over, suspicions would be aroused.The deal was still on a knife-edge.


On October 21, I argued against the motion in the Gotti case to quash the subpoenas for voice exemplars. Judge Glasser denied it from the bench. The following day we took Locascio’s exemplars and set up a system for doing so with Gravano’s secret meeting in mind. Reena Raggi, the Acting U.S. Attorney during the first trial, was now a judge. I’d heard she was out of town, so got permission from her chambers to use her jury room for the week. These rooms are only fifteen steps from the holding pens next to the courtrooms, but importantly, there are two doors in between—the door into the courtroom from the holding pen and the door from the court to the jury room. Starting with Locascio, the plan was to have the deputy marshals hand off the prisoner to Matty and Frank at the door from the holding pen to the courtroom, and the agents would then bring the prisoner through the other door to the jury room. After the exemplars were taken, we’d call downstairs for the deputies to come back, and the FBI would return the prisoner to their custody at the door to the holding pen. Since case agents are typically present to take exemplars, there was nothing about the procedure that would arouse suspicion. Not even the deputy marshals would know about our meeting.

An old-school gangster well versed in the ways of prosecutors, Frank Locascio was not about to help us prove our case. Asked to read from the newspaper into a tape recorder, he halted between words, sometimes even between syllables. He grunted, and pronounced even simple words incorrectly. I wouldn’t have been surprised had he broken into a falsetto to help disguise his voice.

Locascio’s handwriting was obviously feigned as well, a herky-jerky chicken scratch that made me wonder whether he was using the wrong hand. As he wrote, I was thinking how unlikely it was that we’d ever use either exemplar. In all likelihood, the defense lawyers would admit in their opening statements that the defendants were on the tapes, but claim the recordings didn’t prove the charges. In that event, we’d have no need for the voice exemplars. And we hardly had any written documents at all, let alone ones we thought Locascio had authored or signed. Still, his efforts at concealment were so over-the-top that I wondered whether we should present the exemplars to the jury on the theory that anyone who’d go to such ridiculous lengths to disguise his voice and handwriting must be guilty. The next day it was Gotti’s turn. The contrast with Locascio was striking. The acting consigliere had been sullen and uncommunicative. He didn’t once make eye contact with anyone, even his lawyer. And, like most older mobsters, he looked broken down—unshaven and in rumpled old clothes. But Gotti seemed to burst into the jury room. He’d arranged to change into an impeccably tailored suit, just as he had whenever he appeared in court. As he and one of Krieger’s associates walked past me to sit at the table in the jury room, Gotti stopped and looked down. I’d made a mistake by remaining seated when he entered the room. With a huge smile, he said, “I don’t know about youse, but my money’s on me in this trial.” He possessed an aura of supreme confidence.

Once seated, he asked what we wanted him to write. The truth was that we didn’t care what he wrote or even whether he wrote anything at all. The only handwritten document related to him that we’d offer at trial was the family address book that we’d seized on the night of the arrests, but we knew the handwriting wasn’t Gotti’s. We gave him a sheet of typed sentences and words to copy, and he complied quickly. He wrote in an easy, fairly neat cursive.

The voice exemplars were almost as unnecessary as the handwriting. It was inconceivable that Gotti would deny that it was his voice on the Ravenite tapes. He was too enamored of himself and his position to allow his lawyers to suggest that someone else was talking like the Gambino Family boss. Besides, the tapes were loaded with identification clues. Gotti, Locascio, and Gravano frequently used each other’s names in conversation—and Gotti even gave us self-identification. What were the chances that someone other than Gotti was yelling that someone needed to be told that “I, me, John Gotti, will sever your motherfucking head off”?

We may not have needed a good sample of Gotti’s voice, but we sure got one. He acted as though he wanted to prove to us that his limited education had not held him back. We had all of that day’s daily newspapers on the table. Offered the New York Post, Gotti took the New York Times instead. He carefully removed a pair of half-frame reading glasses from his breast pocket and read a few columns. He didn’t stop until we told him to.

When we were finished, he rose from the table with the same beaming smile as when he walked in. There’s your evidence, his smile said, we’ll see what good it does you. “I’ll see youse in court,” he said as he made his way out.

Matty and Frank turned him over to the deputies in the holding pen and came back to the jury room. The four of us sat quietly for a few moments.

“He sure is confident,” Matty said.

“I don’t know why,” I said. “Our tapes are devastating and he knows it. Even without Gravano on our side, he has no chance at trial.” I was straining, and it was obvious. Gotti’s performance had been impressive and it unnerved us all.

Gravano’s visit was the following day. Mouw and I were determined to have at least an hour with him alone without anybody even suspecting the meeting was taking place. The dry runs with Locascio and Gotti had helped enormously, because the deputy marshals had become so used to our routine that it seemed like normal procedure.

Brafman arrived early and waited with us in the jury room while Gravano was brought up from the bullpen. There was no conversation, which was unusual for Ben, who normally can’t stop talking. It made me wonder whether Gotti had prohibited him from having any communication with us, even the idle banter that typically fills downtime in the courthouse.

Through the two doors we could hear the distinctive rattle as the marshals unshackled Gravano’s chains. A few seconds later, the jury room door opened and he walked in, followed by Matty and Frank. Brafman was facing away from the entrance, and I was able to make eye contact with Gravano before the lawyer turned to shake his hand. There was nothing in Gravano’s look; it was the same steely expression he’d been wearing in court for the ten months since the indictment.

The voice exemplars were a little rocky. Gravano acted as if he could barely read. I thought it was an act, a feigned disguise for Brafman’s benefit, but I’d soon learn that he was dyslexic, a condition that had caused him embarrassment throughout his life and led to his dropping out of school at a young age. The handwriting exemplars were provided quickly, and Gravano rose to leave. Brafman told him that he wanted to speak to him briefly, and would see him in the basement bullpen in a few minutes. This surprised us all, and Gravano shot me and Gabriel a quick look as Matty and Frank escorted him out of the room.

Matty and Frank reentered just as Brafman finished packing his briefcase. The original plan had been for them both to leave the courthouse along with Brafman. Whereas the agents would have parked their car blocks away, Brafman would have a Lincoln Town Car waiting for him at the courthouse door. As soon as the limousine turned onto the Brooklyn Bridge toward Manhattan, the coast would be clear. Matty and Frank would then beep Bruce Mouw, who was waiting nearby, and come back up. With Brafman heading down to the bullpen instead, we agreed that Matty and Frank would set up a surveillance of the courthouse door and return to the jury room once he’d gone.

Gabriel and I waited for a half hour until Matty and Frank returned with Mouw. I immediately called the bullpen and asked if Gravano was still there. I knew the answer would be yes. We deliberately scheduled the exemplars early in the day so there’d be no risk that the first return bus to the MCC would whisk him away before we were ready for him.

“Could you guys do us a favor?” I asked the deputy in the cellblock. “The recorder screwed up while we were obtaining Gravano’s voice exemplars, so we got nothing. I have to redo them. Could you bring him back to Judge Raggi’s jury room?”

“No problem,” came the answer, and within five minutes the chains were clanking again in the holding cell. Matty and Frank took Gravano at the bullpen door and suddenly there we were, face-to-face with Sammy the Bull in a secret meeting right in the courthouse.



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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