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.
One of the skaters had brought a camera and asked Gravano to pose for a picture. "My fuckin' ass!" Gravano said.
The skater took that as a no.
I asked Gravano if he regretted killing anyone, and he said, "Not really, no."
I asked him if he had any regrets at all.
"I regret not spending more time with my wife and children," he said. "I spent too much time taking care of the wrong family."
The crowd around him had grown, and this time Gravano stayed only as long as it took to finish his espresso.
Nearly a month passed before I saw Sammy the Bull again -- and for the last time.
He came in earlier than usual. There was no piano music, the place was nearly deserted. I approached him alone. He asked me again if I played handball. I said I didn't. He asked me if I knew how to play chess. I said I did.
This story would be a lot better if I could describe to you how Sammy the Bull channeled all of the cunning he used to plan mob hits into his chess game, how he was devious and ruthless and a master of diversion. But the truth is Gravano was so poor a chess player it was hard for me to lose and make it look good.
One move I badly misplayed. I didn't introduce myself as a reporter after we played chess. I wanted to write about him, and I am convinced he would have agreed. But I let Gravano out the door one too many times, and I never saw him in person again. He stopped going to the Gold Bar and remained a phantom to me for more than two years, until the Arizona Republic reported his whereabouts last August. According to the article, Gravano had lived in the Valley since he left federal custody and owned a construction business under an assumed name the paper agreed not to reveal. The Republic went through Gravano's publicist to get the interview.
By the time that article appeared, according to the 12 felony counts leveled against him on February 29, Gravano was spending his coveted quality time with his wife and kids running a drug ring. Gravano, his wife and offspring stand accused of importing 100,000 recreational doses of Ecstasy to the Valley each month, at a profit of $2 million.
The media hype following Gravano's bust has been a latter-day Reefer Madness -- a series of shocked gasps by reporters and editorialists whose breath and reason have been snatched away by the seductive revelations of law-enforcement propagandists.
The Mafia! White supremacist youth gangs! Drugs you've never heard of!
See, parents? All the evils were linked. Until we stopped them, Sammy the Bull and his drug distribution network, the white-power Devil Dogs, were trying to get your kids hooked at these deviant, all-night dance parties called "raves," where exotic species of dope are hawked openly, enticing the young and innocent to spasm 'til dawn, listening to a "Techno beat," which, we can only assume, carries subliminal messages from hell!
I have a few comments.
Like any drug, Ecstasy, a psychedelic stimulant originally designed as an appetite suppressant, will wreck anyone who abuses it. But having attended more than 100 raves in the Valley, I can also tell you that 500 kids on Ecstasy dancing is a far paler threat than 500 kids behind the wheel on booze.
Also, is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that the crew of Devil Dogs arrested with Gravano, whom the police tell us are white supremacists, look like a Benetton ad?
You watch the TV news, and here's some bubblehead prattling about how David Seabrook is a ringleader of this white-supremacist Ecstasy gang, and they cut to footage of Seabrook being led into court and, well, here's this kid who wouldn't be allowed to date the white girls at Bob Jones University.
As Gravano would say: "Two and two ain't fuckin' makin' four here."
It doesn't take a genius of journalism to ask why the street general of this so-called white-supremacist gang, along with most of its lieutenants, has skin the color of the Burnt Sienna crayon.
But such probing questions might interrupt the flow of juicy tidbits the cops have been steadily spoon-feeding a bibbed, high-chaired media since Gravano was taken down.
Ecstasy is being portrayed as the new, nightmare drug, purveyed by no less a villain than Sammy the Bull. "The Agony of Ecstasy," screamed a banner headline in last Saturday's East Valley Tribune. For the second time in six months, the Republic ran a photo of a young hand holding a bunch of pills identified in the caption as Ecstasy at a rave, but which bore a striking resemblance to Contact cold capsules (rave kids delight in messing with the media). Over the weekend, the Denver Post dispatched a reporter to do an exposé of raves in the Mile High City, using Gravano's arrest as the news peg. The current issue of Newsweek delights in listing the colors and logo stamps of the Ecstasy pills Gravano is accused of pushing. They sound like a bowl of Lucky Charms: Blue Pandas, Pink Triangles. According to the article, the pills were "Painted like candy canes or adorned with Nike swooshes to appeal to high schoolers."
I don't know about that.
What I do know is that I've been offered Nikes and even a Pink Triangle or two, but only inside upscale Scottsdale clubs where liquor is served and high schoolers are not (also, those same Nikes and Pink Triangles, which first appeared in the Valley about a year ago, are widely known in the rave and club scenes as "bunk" tablets which made a lot of people sick instead of high).
One convenient omission that accompanies the hyperbole of the media's Ecstasy frenzy is this: The recreational use of Ecstasy in the Valley, not to mention the world, is exploding not only because more teenagers are doing it at raves, but also, and probably more so, because more yuppies are doing it in nightclubs.
If Gravano's guilty, it's because he saw a trend and capitalized on it. I doubt if he knows Ecstasy from aspirin, except one's illegal and costs $25 a hit. It's easy for me to envision him tutoring a few criminal protégés, then pulling their strings. Picturing Sammy the Bull on Ecstasy is another matter. (Go ahead and try.)
Sammy don't rave.
This much I know from a tale I heard him tell about a flamboyant Czechoslovakian disco-club promoter and multimillionaire who, back in the early '80s, rented out a Brooklyn discotheque Sammy owned to throw himself a surprise birthday party. Gravano told this story the first night I saw him, when I was out of his line of sight and could take good notes:
"Here's this fuckin' guy, he's handing out nose powder like he's the fuckin' Pied Piper, and he's got all these, I don't know, weirdos or somethin', with their flamingo hair, hangin' all over him, men and women, and then they sit him down and shave him bald, right there in my club. I tell him, 'Get the fuck outta my place.'
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"Next thing I know, he wants to buy my club for a million dollars. I think, sure, why not? Next thing I know, the deal's not even done, he's moving into my office with his Dobermans. I ask him what the fuck, and he points an Uzi at me across his desk. I tell him, 'Hey, no problem.' I back off. Then that night, I get the guys together, we put one bullet through each of his eyes."
The saga of Sammy appears to have entered its endgame chapter. From what I know of him, he would want you to remember this about his life in Arizona: He owned a big house with a pool when they came to get him, and he drove a nice car. Nicer than the cops who put him in cuffs. And I'm sure he's sure that's why they were after him.
I mean, hey, it's not like he killed anybody.
Contact David Holthouse at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org