The media dubbed him “the Oddfather.” But if Vincent “the Chin” Gigante’s decades-long bizarre public behavior had succeeded as a ploy to avoid a criminal conviction, what matters most here was that as the reigning boss of New York’s Genovese Mafia family, he controlled a criminal empire that included any number of labor unions. Gigante, 77, died of heart disease on December 19 in a federal prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri. His death marks the passing of an era, the final act in a roughly 60-year career in organized crime.
With his pompadour hair and pugilist face, Vincent Gigante was straight out of central casting. He was born in the Bronx in March 29, 1928, one of five sons, to Neapolitan immigrant parents. School didn’t agree with him. He dropped out of Manhattan’s Textile High in the ninth grade, latching onto a world of petty crime and becoming a protege of Vito Genovese. In short order, he was arrested seven times, but went to the slammer only once, 60 days on a gambling charge. Back then, boxing was the best way out of poverty. He could throw a punch and take one, too. By the time he was 19, he’d won 21 of 25 light-heavyweight bouts. Everyone knew the mob fixed the fights. It was small but easy money. Bigger things beckoned. One of Gigante’s Greenwich Village neighbors was Thomas Eboli, later boss of the crime family founded in 1931 by Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Luciano took a liking to young Gigante, and eventually came to trust him with important projects – like the assassination in 1957 of crime boss Frank Costello. Gigante accosted Costello in the lobby of his apartment building and hit him with a shot to the head. Somehow Costello survived. And on the witness stand, Costello refused to name Gigante as his attacker, even though Gigante had called out his name just before firing (apparently Costello’s turn of the head in response to Gigante’s words saved his life). That enabled Gigante’s patron, Vito Genovese, to become boss of the family that to this day bears his name. Gigante had a second lease on life. But he didn’t get to enjoy it for long. In 1959, he was convicted on a heroin charge and was sent to prison where he stayed until being granted parole five years later.
Vowing never to go back to prison again, he concocted a scheme, allegedly with the help of his wife and mother: He would pretend to be nuts. Beginning in the mid-60s, he developed a daily routine of walking around the streets of Lower Manhattan in his pajamas, bathrobe and slippers, loudly muttering incoherent thoughts. Invariably, he’d be accompanied by one or two bodyguards. It was an act, though some said it wasn’t. No matter. It paid off. In 1970, on trial for bribing the entire police force of Old Tappan, N.J., he and his lawyers produced several psychiatrists who testified in court that he was certifiably insane. He beat the rap. Gigante would continue to play the crazy card, all the while moving up family hierarchy.
At the start of the 1980s Gigante had graduated to the position of Genovese family consigliere; his boss was Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno. But after Salerno had a stroke in 1981, Gigante took over, operating the show from behind the scenes, according to testimony by Vincent “the Fish” Cafaro, a ranking family member. Salerno was front-man boss – at least until his own 1986 conviction for murder and racketeering. Gigante was a traditional mob leader who settled issues by any means necessary. To maintain his secrecy and immunity from incriminating wiretaps, he had a strict rule: Nobody was to mention his name aloud under any circumstances. Family soldiers conversing with each other, whether in a private or public setting, were to refer to him by stroking their chin. Failure to adhere to this rule would result in the death penalty.
When it came to the unions, Gigante took care of business. The Genovese family made a pile of loot running the Manhattan, New Jersey and Miami docks, putting his people in charge of International Longshoremen’s Association locals and levying a non-negotiable “tax” on shipping companies. Gigante assigned his son, Andrew, as point man. The Genoveses, along with the Lucchese, Gambino and Colombo crime families, during roughly 1978 to 1990, also ran a bid-rigging, extortion and kickback scheme involving window-replacement contracts in New York City, especially for public-housing projects. The Lucchese mob ran the operation, skimming $1 to $2 per window from contractors and diverting part of the proceeds to Local 580 of the Architectural and Ornamental Ironworkers. The operation generated millions, but it developed a fatal crack around 1988-89, when a Genovese associate, Peter Savino, owner of Arista Window Company, wore a wire for the FBI under the Witness Protection Program. He later was exposed by a leak within the New York City Police Department. Savino, a close partner in crime with Gigante, now was a man who knew too much. Recognizing the need for damage control, Gigante arranged for his murder, but failed to bring it off.
In 1990 Gigante was indicted on numerous murder and racketeering charges, including conspiracy to kill Savino and Gambino boss John Gotti as retribution for arranging the killing of his boss, Paul Castellano, in December 1985; Gigante absolutely despised Gotti’s flamboyant, publicity-seeking style. A lot of wise guys were going down at this point, but Gigante was a tough nut to crack on account of his “illness.” It took seven years, and testimony from top mobsters who had witnessed him lucid, before prosecutors even were able to bring him to trial. Mr. Gigante all the while wandered the streets of Greenwich Village in his bedroom attire, playing his crazy-man act to the hilt. His 1997 trial was a public spectacle, with Gigante, escorted by wheelchair, talking to himself, seemingly oblivious to all life around him. His attorneys claimed they could not communicate with him in any meaningful way. Family and relatives, especially his Catholic priest (and for a while, New York City Councilman) brother, Rev. Louis Gigante, insisted he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, a claim that by now probably contained a few grains of truth. Like a method actor, Gigante couldn’t help but stay in character. The years of ingesting all those prescribed drugs also took a toll.
Federal prosecutors weren’t buying the line that he was crazy. They maintained all along that he was fully coherent, his “insanity” being a con job to have him declared unfit to stand trial. That July the jury agreed, convicting Gigante on eight counts of racketeering and conspiracy. Ironically, he was acquitted of conspiracy to murder Savino, who though terminally ill from cancer, had testified against Gigante. Gigante received a 12-year sentence. His appeal proved unsuccessful. Once in prison, however, he still wielded a big stick in the family.
The Chin might well have continued to have large numbers of people believing he was nuts were it not for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The feds secretly taped him making a call to his children to make sure they were safe. His conversation demonstrated beyond a doubt he was lucid and connected to reality. At the time, the Justice Department had been preparing a massive waterfront racketeering case against the Genoveses. In January 2002 prosecutors announced an indictment against Gigante, his son Andrew, and six other Genovese members. The end seemed near, especially as feared family enforcer George Barone was set to testify on behalf of the prosecution. At a court hearing in April 2003 before U.S. District Judge I. Leo Glasser, Gigante admitted that his strange behavior was a ruse and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of obstruction of justice. That got another three years tacked onto his sentence. He died in the same prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri where John Gotti had passed away from cancer three and a half years earlier. Rev. Louis Gigante presided over the funeral mass at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Greenwich Village.
Vincent “the Chin” Gigante was a crude, calculating thug, but give him credit as a consummate actor. The guy was brilliant. Had he walked down that straight and narrow path, maybe taking a few acting classes along way, well….maybe he could have given Brando, DeNiro, Pacino, Keitel and the rest a good run for their money. Yeah, he coulda been a contender. (Various sources).