NEW YORK — For years Vincent (The Chin) Gigante wandered New York's Greenwich Village in his bathrobe, looking disheveled and mumbling about God. He's been hospitalized 28 times for hallucinations. Numerous mental-health professionals have examined him since 1990 and judged him incapable of understanding his behavior.
Starting today, federal prosecutors will try to prove Mr. Gigante is one of America's most powerful criminals.
Cagey thespian or just plain crazy? That will be the central issue as Mr. Gigante's trial for murder and racketeering opens. His family says he is frail and a threat to nobody but himself.
Law-enforcement officials claim his instability is one of the shrewdest covers ever invented to protect the mastermind of a Mafia family.
Gigante is one of the last of his generation. The decision of the court to finally bring him to trial represents a milestone in America's long and tedious fight against the Mafia.
It once virtually defined illegality in this country. But law-enforcement officials and criminologists say the Mob has been reduced to a handful of families in a few cities. Some experts even suggest it won't be around in the next century, at least not in any recognizable form.
"They've been substantially disrupted and substantially weakened, and I think it's come from both without and within," says James Jacobs, a law professor at New York University and author of "Busting the Mob."
Others are less sanguine. They note that even as the Mafia is routed out of its traditional strongholds of union racketeering, trash hauling, and wholesale-food distribution in New York, it's moving onto Wall Street and into other cash-rich enterprises, like phone-card scams and medical-billing fraud.
"The enterprise has been badly hurt, but I think it's far from being mortally wounded. If anything, I think it's demonstrating its traditional resilience," says Charles Rogovan, a law professor at Temple University and a member of the Organized Crime Commission under President Reagan. Mr. Rogovan notes the Mafia has also been building alliances with some new organized-crime syndicates in Russia, South America, and Asia.
Going, going, but not gone
Recent troubles at the FBI may also undermine some of law enforcement's successes. Nicholas Corozzo, for instance, is the reputed captain of one of New York's most powerful crime families - the Gambinos - and heir apparent to convicted crime boss John Gotti. A major racketeering case against Mr. Corozzo may be compromised: An agent is accused of stealing almost $100,000 in what are believed to be loan-sharking profits.
In Boston, indictments against six reputed New England Mob leaders could get thrown out of court because a wiretap - key evidence in the case - may be ruled inadmissible. A federal judge there is at loggerheads with the US Justice Department, trying to determine if the FBI obtained court authorization for the wiretap under false pretenses. Federal law states wiretaps are to be used as a last resort, but the FBI apparently failed to divulge that it had at least two informants.
The judge is expected to continue pressing the US attorney's office this week to say if any other suspected gangsters were informants. Some legal experts also suspect the FBI tipped off James (Whitey) Bulger, the reputed head of Boston's Winter Hill gang, to investigations so he could continue to provide inside information on the Mob.
But even with these recent setbacks, Rogovan says La Cosa Nostra will never be as entrenched as it once was. During the past 15 years, several forces have converged to bring about the change. Congress passed new laws targeted specifically at organized crime, federal law enforcement vastly improved its investigative techniques, and local government began assaulting traditional Mob strongholds through regulatory reform.
But law-enforcement officials couldn't have done it alone. They got help from the Mob itself. For decades after the Mafia was formed in the 1930s, its members had a set of values based on honor, respect, and most important, omerta - the code of silence. It wasn't until 1963 that any member of La Cosa Nostra ever publicly admitted the existence of the organization.
But this generation is different. With less internal discipline and more pressure from law enforcement, several Mafiosi have divulged information to authorities to save themselves. And like any major crack in a foundation, the double-crossing rattled the whole organization.
During the past 15 years, major prosecutions in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, and New Orleans took out the family leadership - the boss, the underboss, and the caposinos, or heads of the local groups.
"They've been substantially weakened in all those cities; in some cases they've been virtually eliminated," says Robert Blakey, a Notre Dame Law School professor who wrote the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Acts in 1970.
"For all practical purposes, there is no viable Mob in Cleveland or in Philadelphia anymore. There are still individual Mob members, but they're nothing to what they were in the '60s."
Even in New York, where the Mafia is believed to be strongest, four of the five top Mafia bosses are either under indictment or in prison.
"When you strip back the highest layers, they lose control, discipline, sophistication," says a high-level law-enforcement official who didn't want his name used because he's working on the Gigante case. "They end up putting people in positions of power who haven't had the opportunity to really apprentice, understand how things work."
The Gigante saga lands in court
In part, that's why the Gigante investigation has become so pivotal. To federal prosecutors, he's the last of the old-time Mob bosses in New York and the most difficult to catch.
"Gigante today is the most powerful of the five family bosses," says Lewis Schiliro, special agent-in-charge of the criminal division of the New York FBI office.
Gigante's family and friends have a different view. To them, Gigante's erratic behavior is proof that he is the victim of overzealous law-enforcement officials.
"He was just a street kid. It was the FBI that named him the head of the family," says the Rev. Louis Gigante, his brother, who is a Roman Catholic priest.
But to the FBI and federal prosecutors, "The Chin's" behavior was the shrewdest of all Shakespearean acts: an elaborate ruse designed to protect him from prosecution.
Several Mafia turncoats, under the shelter of the FBI's witness protection program, have testified that Gigante's behavior is an act. One said he was told to spread the word that Gigante was "crazy" or "not right." Another claimed Gigante was perfectly lucid at a "commission" meeting, where the heads of New York's five families discuss their mutual business interests. A third relayed stories about Genovese crime family members who were carrying out orders from Gigante.
The prosecution is also relying on an FBI agent's surveillance of Gigante at his Upper East Side town house. In the safety of his own home, Gigante behaved normally, reading, carrying on lengthy conversations, walking unassisted, reviewing documents, the agent says. "He never displayed the behavior that he displayed to his doctors."
A jury will decide where the truth lies this summer. But regardless of the outcome, the Genovese and other New York crime families will continue to face regular assaults from law enforcement, including from City Hall.
Law-enforcement officials and criminologists say attacks from all directions are the best way to keep the pressure on organized crime. And keeping the pressure on is the only way to root out the Mob. But even if La Cosa Nostra disappears in its present form, experts say, some other criminal enterprise will take its place - unless the society as a whole changes.
"As long as there's someone who needs to borrow money and can't get if from a bank, there will be loan sharks," says Dr. Blakey. "As long as someone wants a contract fixed, there will be union racketeering. As long as people are willing to buy drugs, there will be someone there to sell them. Law enforcement can do its best, but unless we change as a society, we'll always have some kind of crime."