In the Gangster’s Shadow – Times Publications, February 2012
Jimmy Moran’s brash swagger and thick Brooklyn accent eclipsed his diminutive stature. In his mid 50s with a wooly tuft of graying hair, Moran lived alone in a one-bedroom cinderblock apartment in Tempe with his miniature Doberman pinscher and a revolver he kept under his bed. He was a successful businessman whose company built swimming pools and middleclass homes in suburban subdivisions across the Valley.
Early each morning he would drive his beige Lexus to Marathon Development and Creative Pools, his construction companies in Tempe’s industrial park, where he spent the day lining up building contracts. At night he dined at his ex-wife’s Italian bistro, Uncle Sal’s Ristorante, located in a strip mall in Scottsdale. Weekends were spent at Tempe’s Gold Bar Coffeehouse where he’d play chess and occasionally pound out the first few bars of the theme song from The Godfather on the piano.
Moran had a familiar-looking face, and it attracted an occasional knowing glance from a passerby; yet, few who encountered the seemingly ordinary businessman suspected his regimented life was all a carefully organized façade.
The man known as Jimmy Moran was, in fact, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, a former mafia hit man responsible for the deaths of 19 people.
After spending years in prison and under witness protection, Gravano — the highest-ranking member of the mafia ever to turn government informant — had built a secret life in the Valley. The façade worked until 2000, when Gravano’s criminal past caught up with him and his family; Gravano, his wife, daughter and son were all arrested in connection with a massive narcotics ring.More than a decade after the former underboss of the most powerful crime family in America was locked away on drug charges, his daughter, Karen, is speaking out about life in the mob and how she and her family have begun to grow out of their notorious father’s shadow.
Growing Up Gangster
By the age of 12, Karen knew her father was a gangster. As a child she saw the revolver he kept in the waistband of his pants and witnessed the secret whispered meetings he held with his “business associates,” some of whom were later murdered.
But to Karen, Sammy Gravano was just “dad” — a sometimes-elusive but loving father figure who was ever-present at the head of the dinner table.
“I always knew my father was different, but it didn’t really affect me. It was just normal and accepted, no one ever really spoke about it,” Karen says, reflecting on her early life growing up in New York. “I honestly never believed he could go to jail. I just worried that something bad would happen to him where he just never came home.”
Born in 1945 in Bensonhurst, a large Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, Salvatore Gravano was the son of two Sicilian immigrants. His life of crime began when he was just a teenager — stealing cars and burglarizing homes. As he drifted, he found his way into the mob where his crimes escalated and included racketeering and loan sharking. By the age of 25, he had committed his first murder.
In 1971, Gravano, then 26, married 18-year-old Debra Scibetta. A year later Karen was born, and in 1975, they had a son, Gerard. During that same year, Gravano became a “made” man in the Gambino Crime Family, which was then headed by mafia boss Paul Castellano.
For the next decade, the Gravanos lived the good life. They owned a five-bedroom Victorian home in Staten Island with red velvet walls and French doors. The children attended the Staten Island Academy, an exclusive private school. Gravano used his mafia earnings to expand into legitimate businesses including a construction firm and several nightclubs.
Then in 1985, when Karen was just 14, Castellano was gunned down outside a New York steakhouse in an unsanctioned hit by John Gotti, then a mafia captain. Karen didn’t know it at the time but Castellano’s death was a turning point for her family.
Early one morning, following Castellano’s assassination, Gravano turned up in the kitchen of his home with a newspaper under his arm.
“I want you to read this,” he told Karen, handing her the paper.
On the cover was a photo of Gravano, identifying him as a hit man with the Gambino family and a “rising star in the mafia.”
“Do you believe everything you read?” Sammy asked. Karen shrugged her shoulders, not knowing what to say.
Leaning forward Gravano looked her in her eyes. “There is some truth in there.”
Karen was horrified. While her classmates were concerned about clothes and homework, she found herself dealing with the sinister underworld of crime and murder.
From that moment on, Gotti and Gravano were in the spotlight as the new faces of the American mob. Gotti became the boss, with Gravano serving as his right-hand man.
With Gravano’s newfound power, the family was treated like royalty; Karen was known as a “mafia princess.”
“That’s when I became ‘Sammy’s daughter,’ but it was bigger than that,” Karen wrote in her memoirs. “The transformation in how my father was received went from straight-up respect to respect coupled with fear. This was the first time I saw that people were afraid of him, that he was powerful and that he controlled something.”
Then, on Dec. 11, 1990, Gravano’s mafia life suddenly came unraveled. That night Gravano met Gotti at the Ravenite Social Club to discuss business. Gotti, dressed in a three-piece suit, was sipping on an espresso when there was a loud bang on the steel door. In an instant the room was filled with federal agents leveling rifles at Gotti, Gravano and Frankie LoCascio, a Gambino family consigliore.
“We have been expecting you,” Gotti said coolly, as he took another sip of his espresso.
The three men were read their Miranda rights, handcuffed and taken away in unmarked cars.
It was the beginning of the end of for the Gambino crime family. It was also the end of life as she knew it for Karen Gravano.
Betraying the Brotherhood
By the stern look on her father’s face, Karen knew life for her family was about to take a grim turn.
It was October 1991, and Gravano, Gotti and LoCascio had been in prison for more than a year on multiple counts of murder and racketeering. They were housed together in a special wing for high-profile inmates at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correction Center.
Gravano had summoned his wife and daughter to the prison for a visit, requesting they arrive earlier than usual. As they huddled together in the visitor area, Gravano took a deep breath and looked directly at his daughter.
“I’m going to do something that goes against everything I’ve ever believed in, and everything I’ve ever told you guys to believe in,” he said. “I’m going to cooperate with the government. I’m going to testify for them.”
“No!” Karen screamed, jumping out of her seat. “How can you do this?”
Karen couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Her father had always taught her loyalty was the most important thing; turning his back on his cohorts went against every rule of behavior she had ever known.
Debra, too, was distraught. She looked at her husband, her eyes welling with tears.
“I have to tell you, Sammy, I’m not going into any witness protection program. I’m not going to be a part of this,” Debra cried. “I was never part of that life, and I’m not going to be part of this.”
Gravano explained he decided to cooperate only after hearing recorded conversations in which Gotti turned on him.
“I’m not doing it because I’m scared of staying in prison,” he said. “I’m just done. I’m sick of this life.”
When word of Gravano’s defection became public, their family was instantly ostracized. Overnight, they lost every shred of respect they had once had in the underworld — Sammy “The Bull” became Sammy “The Rat.”
“It was the day my whole entire life changed,” Karen says. “This was when everything started to come to light, and I was scared of it. I was scared of what was going to happen. I was scared of how people are going to judge me. I was scared that something would happen to me, or my mom or my brother.”
Becoming Jimmy Moran
Sammy Gravano became the highest-ranking mobster to break his blood oath and testify against the Cosa Nostra. According to authorities, there has never been an informant before or since who had such a significant impact on organized crime.
Several crime families were shattered by Gravano’s testimony, which ultimately brought down Gotti and 36 other mafia associates. Gravano’s defection also dealt a fatal blow to organized crime in general, causing a wave of Cosa Nostra members to become informants.
John Gotti was sentenced to life in prison without parole and died behind bars in 2002 of throat cancer. Gravano was transferred to an Arizona prison to serve out the remainder of his five-year sentence.To the mob, Gravano was a villain. To law enforcement, he was a hero. To his wife and kids, he was something of a stranger. They couldn’t understand his decision, but also couldn’t turn their backs on him.
Although Debra had divorced Gravano, she, Karen and Gerard moved to Arizona. Debra purchased a bagel shop and Uncle Sal’s Ristorante in Scottsdale.
After attending culinary school, Gerard became a chef at Uncle Sal’s and later had a son, Nicholas, with his girlfriend. Karen went to aesthetician school, got a job at a spa and later gave birth to her daughter, Karina.
In early 1995, Gravano was released from prison and immediately put in the federal witness protection program in Boulder, Colo., where he was given the alias of Jimmy Moran. Fearing retribution for his betrayal, he lived in secret, even undergoing plastic surgery to mask his appearance.
Gravano, however, refused to live without his family and a year after his release, dropped out of witness protection and moved to Arizona.
Living in a modest $620-a-month apartment, he bought a miniature Doberman pinscher named Petit Boy and opened a construction company, Marathon Development, building dozens of homes across the Valley. Later he expanded to open Creative Pools.
By all appearances, Gravano had adjusted to his new life. By day, he masqueraded as an ordinary contractor; at night, he hunkered down in his apartment, armed with a small arsenal of guns.
For Karen, the years following Gravano’s defection from the mafia were difficult. She says she resented her father and became rebellious and self-destructive, turning to drugs.
Finally Karen was ready to reconcile. One night over dinner, she asked him about his life as a gangster.
“What was it like to kill someone?” she asked.
“Surprisingly, the first time it was a rush,” her father told her. “It was just the craziest feeling because I didn’t have remorse. I just felt empowered.”
Karen was floored by his response. “Do you have remorse now?”
“I don’t regret who I am,” he said. “I am trying to follow a new path, but I will always be Sammy ‘The Bull.’”
Gravano told her he was finally ready to put his blood family before the Cosa Nostra, and Karen felt as if it was a turning point in their relationship.
As time passed, Gravano’s real name and true identity became known. Suddenly, people were stopping by Uncle Sal’s just to get a glimpse of Gravano.
“People in Arizona were attracted to him, both as a real-thing New York mobster and as the country’s most famous gangster to turn informant. They thought it was cool to be close to us, the Gravanos,” Karen wrote in her memoirs. “For a while it gave us back the sense of respect and reverence that we had left behind in New York. People worshiped us again… I was thrilled to be popular instead of shunned.”
After four years living in the Valley, however, Gravano had become brazen — writing a tell-all book, hiring a publicist and conducting media interviews. In one interview Gravano went so far as to warn the Gotti family to stay away from Arizona or get sent back in body bags.
“They send a hit team down, I’ll kill them,” Gravano boasted.
Back in New York, acting mob boss Peter Gotti met Gravano’s words with contempt. Eight years after sending his younger brother away to prison for life, Peter Gotti began plotting his revenge.
Target: Sammy Gravano
Dressed as bearded Hell’s Angels’ bikers, the two mafia hit men slouched down in their 1992 Mercury Grand Marquis, casing out Gravano’s Tempe businesses.
It was January 2000, and the pair had been dispatched to Arizona by Peter Gotti to locate and kill Gravano, the ultimate Mob traitor. Initially, the hit men considered a sniper attack, but ultimately opted to take Gravano out with a car bomb.
Then on Feb. 24, 2000, just days before the planned hit, news broke that Gravano had been arrested on drug-trafficking charges. He, his wife, son and daughter, were all alleged to be part of a criminal syndicate dealing the designer drug Ecstasy.
Months prior to the arrest, Gerard had befriended a local drug dealer named Mike Papa, who got him involved selling Ecstasy at local nightclubs. When Gravano found out he agreed to fund the operation.
Unbeknownst to Gravano, however, the Phoenix police had been investigating Papa for years. Now under surveillance, Gravano became the target as the mastermind of the drug syndicate.
During one secretly recorded conversation at Uncle Sal’s, Gravano confronted a rival gang of drug dealers, who had been harassing Gerard.
“I’m going to tell you right now, if anything happens to my son there is going to be an all-out war,” Sammy roared.
“We own Arizona,” the drug dealer replied.
“No,” Gravano declared. “I own Arizona. Tell your boss that Sammy ‘The Bull’ is here, and he owns Arizona now.”
Soon police had built a case against Gravano and his family. They were all arrested just days before the scheduled mafia hit, inadvertently saving Gravano’s life.
Peter Gotti and the two Gambino hit men were ultimately sent to prison for the attempted murder of Gravano.
In an ironic twist, Mike Papa turned state’s witness against Gravano.
Gerard received nine years in prison, while both Debra and Karen were given probation. Gravano was sentenced to 19 years in prison, without the possibility of parole.
Just five years into his prison sentence for drug charges, Gravano appeared a shadow of his former self.
While housed in solitary confinement at a super-max facility in Colorado, he had been diagnosed with Grave’s Disease, a chronic thyroid condition affecting the immune system. At 65, his cheeks were sunken, his skin was gray and sallow. He had lost most of his teeth and all of his hair, including his eyelashes and eyebrows, because of the disease.
As Karen sat across from Gravano in the prison’s visitor area, she hardly recognized her father.
Following the arrests Debra and Karen had struggled, once again, to rebuild their lives. All their assets had been seized — including their homes, cars, bank accounts, credit cards and personal property. They were left destitute and penniless.
Karen had a daughter to support and was determined to do it honestly—working as an aesthetician during the day and doing make-up at night. As she began to forge her new life, she took a deep look at herself and her part in the drug ring.
“A lot of the decisions I made after my father cooperated were because I cared about what people thought of me. I felt like I needed to be bad because, not only did people in my own circles turn on me, but the public did too,” she says. “Over time, I fully came to terms with everything that happened. I kind of just accepted responsibility for the choices I made.”
For the first time, Karen confronted her father about his choices and how they had impacted the entire family.“You thought when I was 19 and you cooperated, I could just get up and move on with my life?” she said. “You thought you always kept your life so separate and secret from us, but you didn’t realize that we lived it too.”
For a moment Gravano was speechless. He sat back in his chair and thought for a moment.
“You’re right,” he said finally. “You’re 100 percent right.”
“It was the first time anyone had really ever said that to him, and he realized I was right. I don’t think he ever really came to terms in his mind, and hearing it hit home for him,” Karen says. “Everything you do in life comes back to haunt you. The choices that we make in life definitely affect our children and the path that they lead.”
Karen left the prison that day feeling that she was no longer “Sammy’s Daughter,” but that she was Karen Gravano.
As a child of the mafia, Karen had lived with scars of her father’s legacy and was now determined to break that pattern for the next generation of her family.
“When people think of the mafia, they know about the murders but don’t really feel the heartache,” Karen says. “For me, I can honestly say I’ve seen and felt the dark side of that life. I’ve seen what this world does to families.”
The Gravanos Today
Debra Gravano still lives in the Valley and is actively involved in her grandchildren’s lives. In 2010, Gerard was released from prison, and is working as a chef in an area restaurant.
Karen, meanwhile, has embraced her mafia past and has written a memoir entitled, “Mob Daughter: The Mafia, Sammy the Bull Gravano and Me,” which is set to be released this month. She also stars in the VH1 reality show “Mafia Wives,” which follows the lives of women whose husbands or fathers are imprisoned for crimes connected to the mafia.
Gravano remains in prison, serving out the remainder of his 19-year sentence. His ex-wife and children all communicate with him regularly.
Sammy “The Bull” Gravano is scheduled to be released from prison in March 2019. He will be 73.