Gigante, Vincent (“The Chin”)

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Gigante, Vincent (“The Chin”)

(b. 29 March 1928 in New York City; d. 19 December 2005 in Springfield, Missouri), alleged organized crime boss who long avoided prosecution by virtue of his demonstrable mental instability.

As the third of five sons born to Salvatore and Yolanda Gigante, who were immigrants from Naples, Italy, Gigante grew up in Little Italy, a neighborhood near Greenwich Village. His father was a jewelry engraver and watchmaker, and his mother was a seamstress. Her nickname for her son would be shortened to “the Chin” by playmates. Gigante attended P.S. 3 but dropped out of the vocational Textile High School in 1944. In his early twenties, in either 1948 or 1950, he married Olympia Grippa, with whom he fathered five children. By his mistress, Olympia Esposito, he fathered three more.

By the mid-1950s Gigante had amassed a criminal record. He was arrested for fencing stolen goods, possession of an unlicensed firearm, automobile theft, arson, and bookmaking, and he served one sixty-day jail sentence on a gambling charge. Because of his “antisocial behavior,” military draft officials classified him as 4-F, or ineligible for proscription. Standing six feet tall, the bulky, quick-fisted Gigante then became a Greenwich Village boxer, as managed by a neighbor, Thomas Eboli, who was an associate of the influential underworld figure Vito Genovese. Genovese had supposedly once extended a loan to the Gigante family when Yolanda Gigante needed surgery.

By the late 1950s law enforcement officials had publicly linked Gigante with Genovese, who was said to be engaged in a power struggle with the gambling entrepreneur Frank Costello. In May 1957 Gigante attempted to assassinate Costello in the vestibule of the gambler’s Central Park West apartment complex, but the bullet only grazed Costello’s skull, failing to inflict serious injury. The court acquitted Gigante when Costello claimed to be unable to identify his assailant, and Costello allegedly stepped down from his leadership position in organized crime shortly after the incident. Meanwhile, federal prosecutors won convictions against Genovese and Gigante in 1959 on charges of heroin trafficking. Genovese died ten years later in an Atlanta penitentiary, while Gigante served five years in a prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

In the mid-1960s, Gigante, on parole, was reported to be a “capo,” or branch head, within the Genovese crime syndicate. Although his base of operations was in the Greenwich Village area, he moved his family to Old Tappan, in suburban New Jersey. In 1969 a jury indicted Gigante for bribing the Old Tappan police force to alert him to any criminal investigations of his activities. Gigante’s attorneys presented reports from psychiatrists concluding that his mind was “infantile and primitive,” that he was “psychotic” and “schizophrenic,” and that he might be “a candidate for electroshock treatment.” Concluding that Gigante was unable to assist in his own defense, the judge dismissed the charges.

For three decades thereafter, Gigante’s signature defense against criminal charges would be mental illness. Moving back to his widowed mother’s apartment in Greenwich Village, Gigante indeed provided ample evidence of derangement, shuffling around the neighborhood in the evening hours in pajamas and a bathrobe, mumbling to trees and parking meters, and urinating on the sidewalks. During one police raid conducted at his mother’s residence, officers discovered Gigante standing in a bathroom shower muttering incoherently and holding an umbrella over his head. On at least twenty-eight separate occasions he entered psychiatric hospitals. His lawyers noted that he suffered from “dementia rooted in organic brain damage” and was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. His brother Louis Gigante, a Roman Catholic priest and urban reformer, compared Gigante to a mongoloid and noted that he had an IQ between 69 and 72. Gigante’s bizarre behavior and psychiatric reports deflected indictments in the 1970s and 1980s.

As energized by the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970, federal investigators launched a massive program of bugging, wiretapping, and surveillance against alleged mobsters in the 1980s. Through enhanced immunity provisions and an expanded witness-protection program, they began to entice second-tier gangland figures to testify against their superiors. In 1986 prosecutors won “the Commission case” against the godfathers of the five New York organized crime syndicates. Shortly after obtaining a one-hundred-year sentence for Anthony (“Fat Tony”) Salerno for his activities as the leader of the Genovese family, investigators began to suspect that Salerno had only been a front for Gigante. In 1990 they brought racketeering charges against Gigante, claiming that he had conspired to commit murder and was operating as head of the Genovese crime organization. For seven years Gigante’s lawyers vainly argued for dismissal on the ground that their client was mentally and physically incapable of either committing the crimes in question or assisting in his own defense. Bemused journalists began referring to Gigante as the “Oddfather.” Upon hearing that her son might be a mob boss, Yolanda Gigante quipped, “Boss? He’s boss of the toilet!”

In 1997, however, prosecutors introduced surveillance data suggesting that Gigante led a fairly normal life when he suspected that investigators were not monitoring him. They offered recorded conversations of other mobsters supposedly referring to Gigante as a boss, and they called upon criminals in the federal witness-protection program who testified that they had seen or heard of his cunning. Convicted and sentenced to twelve years’ incarceration, Gigante was confined in a prison in Fort Worth, Texas. There, federal officials reportedly altered his medications, taped his conversations with guests, and photographed his movements, and they deemed that on many instances his behavior and conversations were rational.

Based largely on this evidence, prosecutors initiated another indictment in 2002. They alleged that Gigante and his son Andrew were involved in several racketeering schemes, that Gigante continued to direct the Genovese family from prison, and that, as assisted by blood relatives, he had obstructed justice by feigning mental illness. After a change of attorneys in early 2003, the seventy-five-year-old, disheveled Gigante scratched an “X” on a document admitting guilt to the charge of obstruction of justice and accepting an additional three years of prison time. Through the plea bargain, he immunized members of his extended family from prosecution for obstruction and also avoided a trial that would have addressed his full involvement with the Genovese organization. Some commentators speculated that his plea bargain also assisted in obtaining a lighter sentence for his son. Suffering from chronic heart problems, Gigante died in a prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri, in 2005 and was cremated at Green-Wood Cemetery, in Brooklyn, New York.

Gigante’s plea bargain brought to an end a unique effort to avoid prosecution by one of the most colorful figures in the American underworld. While Gigante clearly exaggerated his mental incapacities, prosecutors almost certainly overstated his influence in organized crime. Sometimes sad, sometimes comic, his antics attracted a wide audience and became part of American urban folklore.

The best introduction to Gigante’s life is Selwyn Raab, Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires (2005). In Mob Star: The Story of John Gotti (2002), Gene Mustain and Jerry Capeci cover Gigante’s tense relationship with an important underworld rival. For information on the testimony of medical experts, see Donald Reeves, et al., “Limitations of Brain Imaging in Forensic Psychiatry,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 31, no. 1 (2003): 89–96; the article discusses Gigante and his case. An obituary is in the New York Times (20 Dec. 2005).

William Howard Moore