NEW YORK — When Paul Castellano stepped out of his Town Car outside Sparks Steakhouse in midtown on Dec. 16, 1985—smack in the middle of rush hour commuters and Christmas shoppers—he was met by three gunmen who pummeled him with bullets, some hitting him in the head.
Castellano, godfather of the Gambino crime family, the most powerful in New York, crumpled to the ground on East 46th Street, off Third Avenue.
The 70-year-old businessman gangster was dead at the scene. His bodyguard and driver Tommy Bilotti was shot dead, too — on the street, on the other side of the car.
“The guys who did it, they looked like male whites,” one 911 caller told police. “All three had tan trenchcoats.”
The hit team was also wearing Russian-style hats.
Nearly seven years later, Sammy “Bull” Gravano would testify at the trial of John Gotti that he and Gotti had watched the hit from a car on Third Avenue near 46th Street.
Gotti was a capo in the Gambino crime family, and he didn’t like Castellano, for several reasons.
For one thing, Gotti was upset that Carlo Gambino, the previous godfather, had anointed Paul Castellano the Gambino boss, passing over underboss Aniello Dellacroce, a Gotti friend.
Castellano’s wife was related to Carlo Gambino.
Gotti and his crew also thought Castellano had disrespected Dellacroce’s family by not attending Dellacroce’s wake in early December 1985.
But Gravano testified at Gotti’s trial in 1992 there was an even bigger reason to kill Castellano.
There was concern because Castellano wanted to hear wiretaps from a narcotics case involving Gotti’s friend Angelo Ruggiero. On the tapes, Ruggiero was discussing heroin trafficking. The case also involved Gotti’s brother Gene.
If Castellano heard the tapes, it would tie John Gotti to narcotics trafficking — and give Castellano a reason to kill Gotti and some of his crew.
Castellano had lived in a mansion on Todt Hill in Staten Island. He initially made his fortune in the poultry distribution business, dealing with hundreds of butchers around the city and large supermarket chains like Key Food and Waldbaums.
He later made millions more running concrete companies and controlling the unions that poured concrete for the big projects in New York City.
Castellano was more of a white-collar gangster, and Gotti apparently resented that he didn’t have more street cred.
In the days after Castellano’s murder, FBI agents observed Gotti getting the respect befitting a godfather. He started dressing better and receiving visitors at the Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy.
Pretty soon, it was common knowledge in law enforcement — and mob — circles that Gotti had assumed the role of boss.
Gotti was arrested for Castellano’s murder and a host of conspiracy and racketeering charges in December 1990, mainly due to wiretaps planted in an apartment above the Ravenite Social Club.
Sammy “Bull” Gravano drove the final nail in Gotti’s coffin, by serving as a government witness at Gotti’s trial in 1992.
Gotti was convicted on April 2, 1992 and served the rest of his life in prison, where he died of cancer in June 2002.