NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- The tales from the witness stand, of blood oaths and double-crosses and murders and more murders, are familiar, even stale. The real show on the sixth floor of Brooklyn's federal courthouse is the elderly, wheelchair-bound man who stares at the ceiling and mumbles quietly to no one but himself.
Vincent Gigante might be the murderous boss of a notorious Mafia crime family, a man whom mobsters refer to with a quick rub of their chins. Or he might be a nutty old man. Or both.
For now, every move the alleged Genovese crime family boss makes, every blank expression, is under scrutiny here in one of the strangest Mafia trials. The defendant, after all, is best known for wearing a dirty bathrobe around his Greenwich Village neighborhood.
His family says he has been made mentally incompetent by age and physically weakened by heart attacks. Prosecutors say that's a smoke screen, and two judges have agreed. His mumbling and his blank stares, even his wheelchair, prosecutors say, are part of a performance worthy of Al Pacino, an act to convince the world that he is not capable of tying his shoes, much less running an organized crime enterprise. "His is a shrewd and shameless camouflage," says assistant U.S. attorney George Stamboulidis.
So shrewd, in fact, that the New York City tabloids have hesitated to convict him in their news stories. Oh, sure, there are the war-sized headlines -- "Oddfather" and "Slobfather" are favorites -- but most of the stories are short and far from the front page.
The columnists' chief lament is that Gigante is no John Gotti, the mobster who looked good on the front page and on TV. Gigante either can't or won't give news conferences or convene the power lunches that Gotti did during his trial six years ago.
Even Gigante's nickname is a disappointment. "Chin" does not refer to any prominent scar below his mouth nor to any gruesome hit on a rival; it is simply the abbreviation of his Italian name, Vincenzo.
This is an alleged mobster who is so attached to his bathrobe that he reportedly doesn't own a suit. For the first few days of trial, the unshaven Chin wore a windbreaker; when the judge objected, a local barber gave him a shave and his son Salvatore lent him a sport coat.
"It's impossible to tell, maybe even from clinical tests, whether he is crazy, because it's easy to fake and psychology and psychiatry are inexact scientists," says Robert R. Butterworth, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles who is following the case. "I can say his behavior is quite uncommon, even for someone who is mentally ill."
The charges that have brought Gigante to trial focus on the murders of seven Philadelphia mob figures during the 1980s.
According to court papers, Gigante ordered the murders in retaliation for the slayings of two Philadelphia La Cosa Nostra bosses, Angelo Bruno in 1980 and Philip Testa in 1981. Neither of those two killings had been properly approved by the seven-member commission of crime bosses from all five New York families, including the Genovese, as well as offshoots in Chicago and Philadelphia.
"The Chin told my uncle to kill everybody involved with the murder of Phil Testa," says "Crazy" Phil Leonetti, a former Philadelphia mob underboss who testified in the Gigante case. "And it was done."
Whether Gigante is guilty of the murders or not, it seems clear that he had more than a passing acquaintance with organized crime. Prosecutors say he never made an honest living. Forty years ago, a 29-year-old Gigante reportedly shot at and grazed the head of a Genovese family crime boss. In the 1960s, Gigante spent time in prison on a narcotics conviction. When he got out, prosecutors say, he swore he would never go back.
In 1966, after learning that he was being investigated for bribing New Jersey police, Gigante sought his first psychiatric consultation. In 1971, he was found incompetent to stand trial in the case. When Gigante was arrested with other mobsters in 1990, he appeared to be incompetent again, though his reputed colleagues believe he was faking.
"He began to make a lot of noise," recalls Peter Chiodo, who was brought into the same Brooklyn courtroom as Gigante in 1990. "He started saying that he thought he was at a wedding and he wanted to know where the bride was."
Gigante's claims of mental and physical incompetence have delayed his trial on those 1990 charges until now. His lawyers say they still can't communicate with him, and he is incapable of testifying. His children say Gigante watches nothing but cartoons on TV and, when asked about the case, says that God is his attorney.
Explanations of what ails him vary. Some relatives say he has Alzheimer's disease. His daughter Yolanda says he is a paranoid schizophrenic. Doctors hired by the family say his mental illness is demonstrated by an IQ test of 70. One respected New York neuropsychologist who examined him testified that while Gigante might have once faked illness, he now had a "textbook case" of dementia, which may be the result of serious heart disease.
"We've been told by the doctors that he isn't going to get any better, that he will continue to deteriorate," says Yolanda.
Despite his strange behavior in the courtroom, Gigante looks well for a 69-year-old man, with a full head of hair and alert eyes. He seems aware of what is going on around him, though he has dozed occasionally during testimony. The court recesses as many as three times a day so that Gigante's cardiologist, Dr. Bernard Wechsler, can check his blood pressure, which is dutifully reported to journalists. Asked about prescription drugs, doctors say that Gigante is using Thorazine and Valium to calm his nerves, and nitroglycerin tablets for his heart.
In the circus outside the trial, Gigante's younger brother and unofficial spokesman, a Catholic priest and former New York City Council member Louis Gigante, is the most prominent figure. During recesses, he steps in front of the TV cameras to say his brother "was never a Mafia boss." At other times, though, he concedes that he doesn't know whether his brother was ever involved in organized crime. "I never asked," he says.
Whatever the case, Gigante's appearance provides a stark contrast with the nattily dressed mobsters testifying against him. Thus far, the star witness has been Leonetti, a 44-year-old former Philadelphia crime underboss.
Leonetti testified about mob meetings where Gigante seemed sane. And he said his uncle, Philadelphia crime boss Nicodemus Scarfo, had told him that Gigante periodically checked himself into hospitals to maintain his "crazy" cover story.
"My uncle said, 'Chin is a very, very intelligent man,' " said Leonetti. "My uncle used to say that he was the only one who wouldn't go to jail."
Prosecutors say that secret tapes of Gigante will ultimately prove his guilt. But the tapes introduced so far betray no great crimes, even though they show Gigante -- in spurts -- alert and clear-headed.
In one, Gigante complains that he can't get his daughter into New York University. In another, he discusses a pasta dish he made for his mistress, Olympia Esposito.
Coming to a definitive conclusion that Gigante's behavior is an act will likely prove difficult. Even mobsters who knew him sometimes had their doubts about The Chin's sanity.
In a secret 1990 FBI tape, John Gotti talks about Gigante.
"Why should I be subjected to following a nut?" Gotti says. "If he ain't a nut, he's faking it."
Pub Date: 7/09/97