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He could often be seen leaving his mother's Greenwich Village apartment, dressed either in a bathrobe and pajamas, or in a windbreaker and shabby trousers, but the sight of the two bodyguards accompanying Vincent Gigante at all times, ensured that nobody could dismiss him as just another New York City eccentric. Dubbed "the Oddfather" for his bizarre mannerisms and longstanding history of bizarre behaviour, Gigante was either genuinely mentally ill or the perpetrator of the longest legal charade in New York's history (it all depended on who you asked).
Born Vincent Louis Gigante in 1928, Gigante was a professional boxer who fought nearly thirty bouts between 1944 and 1947 before abandoning the ring for what would be his real career. Starting out as a mob enforcer for the Luciano crime family, Gigante (who quickly acquired the nickname of "the Chin") and three of his brothers established themselves as mobsters who became prime enforcers in the Genovese family.
Despite various arrests, including a conviction for heroin trafficking which earned him a seven-year sentence in the 1950s, Vincent Gigante rose to become a caporegime for the local branch of the Genovese family operating out of Greenwich village, not far from his mother's apartment. Remaining loyal to his family throughout his lifetime, they also rallied around him (including his brother, Louis, who had stayed out of the Mafia to become a priest). Vincent eventually rose to the very top of the Genovese family after his mentor, Philip Lombardo (a.k.a. "Benny Squints") stepped down due to ill-health in 1981. He beat out his main rival for the position, Anthony Salerno, when Salerno received a life sentence for racketeering charges. From 1981 until his death in 2005, Vincent Gigante controlled some of New York's most notorious rackets including bookmaking, loansharking, construction companies, and various other enterprises. At the peak of his career, he was believed to have handled as much as $100 million dollars in legal and illegal revenue.
Though state and federal agencies were well aware that "the Chin" was one of the most powerful crime bosses in the United States, proving it in court was another matter. Even though mob deserters testified about Gigante's criminal activities and his involvement in cartels that rigged contract bids across New York City and Westchester county, his unorthodox management style established him as a very different kind of Mafia don. In 1986, FBI agents maintaining constant surveillance during one of their investigations observed Gigante leaving his mother's apartment in seedy clothing until he as driven to the townhouse owned by his common-law wife where he changed into more expensive clothing and do business with associates. The next morning, he would often be seen back in his seedy clothing and returning to his mother's apartment or another family home. He remained acutely paranoid of FBI wiretaps and electronic listening devices and rarely left his home unoccupied for long for fear that FBI agents would plant bugs.
"It was hard to understand what enjoyment he got out of being a mob boss," said Ronald Goldstock, the former director of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force of Gigante. "His only pleasure appeared to be the pure power he exercised." His reclusive lifestyle ensured that he would remain in power longer than any other mob boss during that same era. Despite his unorthodox management style, he certainly had no problem resorting to violence as needed. He went on trial in 1958 for the attempted murder of Genovese family boss Frank Costello but was acquitted when Costello refused to testify against him (the code of silence known as omerta prevailed at all times, even with assassination attempts). Though he was widely suspected of ordering other murders, prosecutors were never able to prove anything in court.
Probably his most well-known trick for avoiding prosecution was to feign insanity successfully for years. Beginning in 1969, Vincent Gigante maintained an elaborate pretense which often involved him being seen around Greenwich Village wearing only his pajama, robe and slippers while mumbling to himself and generally appearing to be just another New York street person. In a masterful performance, Gigante ensured that all public appearances reinforced the image he maintained for himself. Whenever he went on trial, his defense attorneys produced medical experts who testified that he suffered from various diagnoses ranging from schizophrenia to dementia pugilistica dating back to his boxing days. Various family members including his wife and mother testified on his behalf verifying that he was mentally ill and incapable of standing trial. His brother Louis even went so far as to accuse prosecutors of engaging in a vendetta due to prejudice against Italian-Americans.
His Mafia colleagues certainly had no doubts about the sanity of "the Oddfather." Even his arch-nemesis, John Gotti, grudgingly said of Gigante that he was "crazy, like a fox" while an FBI supervisor said of Gigante in his obituary that "He was probably the most clever organized-crime figure I have ever seen." This, despite his lawyers frequently insisting in court that their client had a below-normal IQ (in the 69-72 range) which meant he was too mentally disabled to be involved in the Mafia.
Not only did Vincent Gigante produce his own experts, but he also successfully fooled prosecution experts as well. Forensic authorities such as Thomas Gutheil of Harvard Medical School, Donald Franklin Klein of Columbia Medical School, and Abraham Halpern of New York Medical College, among others, assessed Gigante over the years and subsequently testified that he was unfit to stand trial. His habit of appearing in court in pajamas, a robe and his familiar cap were all part of the elaborate scam he maintained to stay out of jail and it worked for decades. Even during sanity hearings in 1996 when several high-level Mafia defectors testified that Gigante appeared perfectly sane during various meetings, his lawyers provided testimony from psychiatrists and psychologists attesting to his mental illness. They presented evidence that Gigante had been institutionalized 28 times between 1969 and 1985 for hallucinations and "dementia rooted in organic brain damage."
According to Dr. Eugene D'Amamo, who acted as his primary treating psychiatrist from 1973 to 1989, Gigante had been "diagnosed since 1969 as suffering from schizophrenia, paranoid type with acute exacerbations which result in hospitalization." Along with daily doses of diazepam and chlorpromazine, he also had several operations on his heart which complicated the medical picture considerably. That many of his repeated hospitalizations for mental illness were conveniently timed to avoid criminal charges hardly escaped notice. When he was charged with racketeering in 1990, he still successfully delayed the trial for years while the question of his sanity was studied
The judge in the case, Eugene Nickerson, finally ruled that Gigante was fit to stand trial and he was later sentenced to 12 years in prison (he managed to beat the charges relating to the attempted killing of fellow Mafia don, John Gotti). Gigante sat quietly in his wheelchair as the verdict was read out. Even in prison however, he continued to run the Genovese family with his orders relayed through visiting relatives. The insanity pretense only ended after he was charged with obstruction of justice and racketeering in 2002. His son Andrew, who had acted as his lieutenant while he was in prison, was charged along with him. At long last, Vincent Gigante admitted to successfully fooling the doctors for 30 years as part of his guilty plea which earned him and his son reduced sentences. The plea meant three extra years added to his current sentence and was regarded by many as an unprecedented deal for a Mafia don. In talking about the guilty plea afterward, his lawyer Benjamin Brafman said that "I think you get to a point in life - I think everyone does - where you become too old and too sick and too tired to fight."
Vincent Gigante died in federal prison on December 19, 2005. Not long before his death, Gigante had been transferred to an acute care hospital to stabilize his condition before he was returned to prison where he died ten days later. Father Louis Gigante later blamed his brother's death on the medical care he had received in prison. In Vincent Gigante's obituary, Louis was quoted as saying that he had visited his brother nineteen times and "there wasn't a day he didn't suffer." Prison officials defended the care Vincent received though the stress of incarceration likely shortened his life.
Whatever the circumstances of his death, Gigante's funeral was definitely low-key, much as he lived his life. As the last of the old-time Godfathers, Vincent "the Chin" Gigante's death marked the end of an era. The Oddfather would be missed.
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