Shooting the Bull With Sammy the Bull

The first time I saw Salvatore Gravano, the infamous mob assassin and, if the police have it right, local drug lord in the making, was a Friday night in July 1997. It was at the Gold Bar coffee house in Tempe. I watched Gravano sit with his back to the wall, surrounded by young admirers.

They were computer programmers and Web designers, goth rockers and skateboarders, all entranced by this short, muscular man in his 50s. Gravano sipped double espressos as he regaled them with Mafia war stories, including the 19 murders he committed, for which he was immune to prosecution. Gravano also signed freshly purchased copies of Underboss, Sammy "the Bull" Gravano's story of life in the Mafia, a biography published that year.

Sammy the Bull's fans called him "Mr. Gravano" at his request. Or rather, his command. One young woman with dark eye shadow and an Ankh around her neck called him "Mr. Bull," and he sharply corrected her.

"You don't call a guy like that," he snapped. "You're better off you don't call a guy Mr. Bull to his face, that's for shit sure."

At first, I didn't believe he was who he said he was. I thought, "Here's some guy, someone tells him he looks like Sammy the Bull. Now he's having fun with these kids." After all, why the hell would a man with a $1 million price on his head hold court in a college-town coffee house like he's some kind of movie star?

Later, I asked him this, in so many words. He said, "I don't deserve to be anonymous."

"Anyway," he said, "things back there [New York] are in such a fuckin' mess, from what I hear. You got your Colombians, your Chinese, your Jamaicans, now your fuckin' Russians, too. People got a lot more to worry about than me these days. And if some [hit men] do come to see me, you put your money on Sammy the Bull will take a few with him."

In the summer of '97, the most recent public photo of Gravano was featured on the cover of Underboss. The photo was taken after Gravano tattled on John Gotti and toppled the New York mob's power structure, but prior to the day that Gravano left the Federal Witness Protection Program. Since then, his face had been worked over by a plastic surgeon, and the man in the coffee house looked like a wax-figure version of the man in the photo.

Still, one of the computer guys who had recently read Underboss had recognized Gravano a few weeks earlier in the Gold Bar and straight up asked if he was Sammy the Bull. One thing led to another, and word spread that a big-time mob hit man periodically came into the Gold Bar. I began to stake out the place.

The second night I went, Gravano was at his favorite table in the back. I sat down nearby and listened in. He was talking about the construction business and about how his father had been a house painter. "All he had in the end was my mother and lead poison in his blood," Gravano said.

He said he was getting a contractor's license. "They're building so many houses out here you can't but fuckin' make money."

After the lecture broke up, I jotted down what he'd said. But I went home that night still unconvinced. I learned that three months earlier, Sammy the Bull had been interviewed on a network news program at a location described only as "an inn in a remote valley in California." I found a tape. The man interviewed was, indeed, the man from the coffee house.

The next time I saw Gravano was more than a week later. By then his Tempe haunt was no longer a secret. When he approached the glass door, a stocky, white-haired man behind the counter scrambled to the piano in the Gold Bar's entryway and began to pound out the theme to The Godfather.

Gravano was dressed in a black suit in July, and he was nodding, saying, "Hey, how ya doin'?" like his entrance was a scene for the cameras, as the music to Francis Ford Coppola's Mafia epic ricocheted off the walls.

After he had his espresso and the music had quieted, I joined the semicircle that coalesced around Gravano's table. He smelled like fine cigars. He wanted to know if any of us played handball.

Watching and listening to him, it was impossible for me to tell whether mob-movie maestros Coppola and Martin Scorsese had gotten it exactly right, or if Gravano had simply seen too many flicks about The Family.

Sitting at the man's table, I could easily believe he shot men in the back of the head simply because he'd been told to, then turned on his bloodsworn allies and put 37 of them in prison to save himself. Gravano came across as arrogant but in need of attention, charming but depraved, streetwise but none too bright.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse