For Gotti's Supporters, Disbelief and Anger
"The trial was a travesty -- they could have convicted the Pope,"
Michael Strippoli, a 49-year-old retired jewelry salesman from Queens,
said angrily outside Federal District Court in Brooklyn, where John
Gotti had just been sentenced to spend the rest of life in jail.
"There is something dangerous going on in America," he said. "Look at
what they got away with in the Rodney King thing. We Italians are a
minority too, and we have to stand up and say this is wrong."
That anger erupted yesterday outside the courthouse in downtown Brooklyn
as a chanting crowd of supporters of Mr. Gotti -- the police estimated
the group at 800 to 1,000 -- rushed barricades and scuffled with the
police. A handful of demonstrators, who arrived in 12 chartered buses,
smashed car windows and flipped a gray Pontiac onto its hood on the
sidewalk of Cadman Plaza East.
At one point, demonstrators jumped on top of the cars and pounded the
roofs, yelling "Free John! Free John!"
Seven protesters were arrested and charged with felony riot counts.
Eight police officers were taken to Long Island College Hospital with
bruises and other minor injuries. One officer's nose was broken.
Many demonstrators called Mr. Gotti, convicted of racketeering and
murder for his role as head of the Gambino crime family, a hero and a
victim of a justice system run amok.
"Gotti got a raw deal," said Gina Cecala, 60, a housewife who lives near
the Ravenite Club, the social club in Little Italy from which Mr. Gotti
ruled the vast and secretive Gambino family. "Why did they keep him like
a hostage for 13 months, with no bail?"
At a news conference after the sentencing, United States Attorney Andrew
J. Maloney said investigators planned to prosecute anyone responsible
for damaging Federal property at the rally. James M. Fox, head of the
F.B.I. office in New York City, accused Mr. Gotti's son, John Jr., of
orchestrating the violence. 'He Was a Murderer'
Mr. Maloney also criticized news organizations for turning Mr. Gotti
into a folk hero or a Robin Hood. "He wasn't any of those things," Mr.
Maloney said. "He was a murderer."
That was not the feeling outside two places in Queens -- his social club
and his home -- where sentiment for Mr. Gotti runs high, though it is a
measure of the man's notoriety that even many supporters refused to give
their names to reporters yesterday.
At the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club, the Ozone Park social club where Mr.
Gotti built his career, his older brother Peter appeared briefly and
accepted handshakes and grim kisses from a group of supporters.
John Luberto, 70, held an American flag and complained loudly that
justice was denied Mr. Gotti. 'A Kangaroo Court'
"It's a kangaroo court," he said. "They didn't give him a chance. He
didn't get a fair trial."
Along 101st Avenue, where many store windows carried colored posters for
yesterday's protest, hope ran high that Mr. Gotti would win his appeal.
Many said they were encouraged that at least two jurors said they were
pressured into reaching guilty verdicts.
"On 101st Avenue it's a black day," said an employee of K and B Party
Time, the shop next to the Bergin, a three-story building of brick-face
and faded yellow aluminum siding. For the Boss, Praise
She would not give her name, nor would another woman who identified
herself as the store owner. But both had glowing things to say about Mr.
Gotti and could not explain why the Government spent millions of dollars
and five trials to convict him.
"I have no idea," the owner said. "All I know is he was very nice to me
and my family."
One businessman, who also would not give his name, said that while he
was skeptical of the prosecution's tactics, he had no doubt the
allegations against Mr. Gotti -- five murders and racketeering charges
-- were true.
All was quiet at Mr. Gotti's house, a two-story detatched home in Howard
Beach where two plastic geese huddled on the lawn just out of range of a
security camera mounted near the roof. 'A Good Person'
Most neighbors, long used to keeping quiet about Mr. Gotti, said the
sentence was as unfair as the verdict.
The only man who would give his name was Bryan Levinson, a 58-year-old
defense lawyer who lives two blocks away from Mr. Gotti and was by
coincidence a student of the judge in the case, I. Leo Glasser, at
Brooklyn Law School.
"I think the trial was a shame," he said. "If they had such a good case
against Mr. Gotti, the Government should have done it without
intimidating everybody and pulling all sorts of dirty tricks."
Asked about the enormous support of Mr. Gotti, Mr. Levinson said: "Most
people here think of Mr. Gotti as a very caring person, a warm family
man. The Government obviously has a different impression."
And their impression of what the Government proved in court about Mr.
"They haven't been affected by that," Mr. Levinson said.
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