To join the Mafia, one must take an oath of omertà, the code of silence that’s meant to keep information about business dealings within the family. Breaking it is a crime punishable by death, but, these days, a lot of mafiosi are speaking pretty freely. Take Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano, the Gambino family underboss in the late eighties, who was involved in at least nineteen murders during his tenure as John Gotti’s right-hand man. He now makes an honest living podcasting from the Phoenix suburbs, where he relocated after spending seventeen and a half years at a supermax prison. In an unhurried Bensonhurst accent, Gravano, now seventy-six years old, recounts his biggest hits (such as the one carried on the Mob boss Paul Castellano, Gotti’s predecessor), and his own infamous breach of omertà: the 1992 court testimony that sent Gotti to prison for life.
Back in New York City, another ex-hit man who worked for Gotti, John Alite, blends tales of his “six murders, more than eight shootings, and dozens of baseball battings” with inspirational advice for youth on his “Mafia Truths” podcast. Meanwhile, Jimmy Calandra, a notorious enforcer for the Bonanno family—reportedly the most brutal of the Five Families who controlled organized crime in New York—insults various “fat rat scumbags” and “stone-cold losers” on his YouTube series, “A Bath Avenue Story.” Those in search of cleaner fare might check out “The Sit Down with Michael Franzese,” an interview show in which the Colombo capo turned Orange County motivational speaker chats with celebrities and offers movie reviews and life-style tips to his viewers. (No. 1: “Fly under the radar.”)
The growing glut of Mob content, with its mix of graphic violence, relationship drama, and aspirational wealth, has carved out a natural niche for itself in our reality-TV and true-crime landscape. Gravano’s podcast, launched last year, boasts more than four hundred thousand subscribers; Franzese’s “Sit Downs” sometimes garner more than a million views each—roughly equal to the number of opening-weekend streams received by the “Many Saints of Newark” (which, according to Franzese, made Italian Americans “look like degenerates”). But the genre has drawn, alongside the usual true-crime obsessives, a more surprising set of devotees: F.B.I. agents, looking for a deeper understanding of some of the biggest cases of their careers.
“I spend hours and hours listening to these wiseguys,” the retired special agent Bill Fleisher told me, the other day. Fleisher, who lives in New Jersey, spent most of the nineteen-seventies working on organized-crime squads in New York, Boston, and Detroit. “I could talk to them, I could polygraph them, I knew how they operated—but I could never get in their heads,” he said. “That’s why I like these podcasts. I’m beginning, like a shrink, to understand their thinking.”
Most of the mobsters sharing their stories today have coöperated with authorities in the past and now have legal immunity that allows them to speak openly about their crimes (those to which they have confessed, anyway). In the process of telling those stories, they often reveal answers to questions that have stumped law enforcement for years. “Instead of us going into prison and interviewing Sammy the Bull—how convenient, he starts his own podcast,” James R. Fitzgerald, a former F.B.I. profiler and another dedicated listener, said, from his house in Maryland. “If you watch and listen to enough of them, you can pick up on the trajectory of where they’re going, and maybe even solve some of those old crimes.”
The other afternoon, Fitzgerald, Fleisher, and I gathered on Zoom to watch a YouTube video of Sammy the Bull’s podcast “Our Thing,” a reference to the Cosa Nostra. Neither agent had met Gravano personally, but, having tracked his and his family’s dealings so closely, they both felt like they knew him as well as an old friend. In the clip’s opening animation, a bull charges through a concrete wall before Gravano appears, seated in a leather chair, in a recording studio outfitted with a fireplace, a neon bull glowing above the mantel. On the walls are framed portraits of the crime bosses Al Capone and Charles (Lucky) Luciano, and the actor James Cagney, known for his iconic portrayals of gangsters onscreen. Our host, small and wiry, is dressed in a white T-shirt and slacks.
“I’m glad to see Sammy in more traditional garb,” Fitzgerald said. “Back in the late eighties, early nineties, when I was dealing with these guys, the Adidas running suits or sweatsuits were the big uniform of the day.” (To be fair, in the video, Gravano was still wearing a pinky ring and gold chain.)
The podcast is focussed on one of the biggest investigations in F.B.I. history: the 1989 murder of an undercover D.E.A. agent by a low-level Mafia associate. “This is one of those pretty heavy stories that I really shouldn’t talk about,” Gravano begins. He starts by describing the associate: “There was a guy named Gus Farace. . . . Real tough guy, big guy, steroid freak, big ,huge fuckin’ body, arms, fairly good-lookin’ guy.” (“He was played by Tony Danza in the made-for-TV movie,” Fitzgerald pointed out.) Gravano explains that Farace had met the undercover D.E.A. agent, Everett Hatcher, on a Staten Island overpass to sell him some cocaine. But something unsettled Farace. “He started thinking this guy may have been an undercover, not cop, but an undercover informant,” Gravano says. “They must have had words in the car, and he shot and killed him.”
Farace went on the lam and the F.B.I. cracked down on every family in the Cosa Nostra, raiding their clubs and gambling rings, arresting parolees for any minor infraction, in an effort to extract information about Farace’s whereabouts. “Everyone in this game knew the rules had been changed,” Fitzgerald explained. “We don’t kill them. They don’t kill us.” Farace, who wasn’t even a made guy, had “violated rule No. 1,” so the Mafia “knew it was hard times ahead for them.”
According to Gravano, one day, the F.B.I. knocked on his door, and ordered him to track down Farace: “ ‘Sammy, we want you to tell John Gotti that we want this guy found, and we don’t care how.’ The way they said it,” Gravano continues, “I just had to ask the question: ‘Are you asking me to kill him?’ ”
“ ‘No, no, Sammy,’ ” the agent supposedly responded. “ ‘No, we’re not going there. We don’t give a fuck how he’s found.’ ”
Gravano didn’t buy it. (Or, maybe he didn’t want to buy it.) “There would be nothing better for me to do for the government than to kill somebody for them,” he tells his audience. “That would give me a license to do whatever the fuck I felt like doing.” He goes on, “They checked themselves right away. But that was the message.”
Fitzgerald interrupted: “We honestly didn’t want that,” he said. “We wanted to put this guy on trial, and maybe even to flip him and get information.”
“But it tells you how Sammy’s mind works,” Fleisher added. “As a wiseguy, a lot of his orders, given and taken, are done by nods, innuendo, double-entendres.” If a boss describes a guy as “ ‘always smiling,’ that could be a message to go knock his teeth out.”
In any case, the two sides had certainly entered “a very strange situation,” Fitzgerald said. “The F.B.I. and the Mob are both looking for Gus, and who’s gonna get him first?” The Mob, it turned out. Nine months after the Hatcher murder, Farace was found, shot dead, in the streets. “The moral of the story is, this kid did not belong to us in the Mafia,” Gravano concludes. “If you like this story, press Like, subscribe.”
After the episode ended, I asked the agents what they would ask Sammy if they had the chance. Fitzgerald said he’d ask him why he…