Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He also writes a monthly column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Forgotten Man at Sparks
By Allan May
Tommy Bilotti lay spread eagle in the middle of the cold, wet Manhattan street
like he was snoozing on a king-size bed. But Tommy Bilotti was not asleep, he was dead,
and blood was streaming from the six wounds he suffered to his head and body. Bilotti
was not the main focus of the police, the media and the morbidly fascinated who gathered
in front of Sparks Steak House on this mid-December evening in 1985. The focus was
Paul Castellano who was lying several feet away, just outside the passenger side door of
Bilotti’s black Lincoln Continental. “Big Paulie” was the head of the Gambino Crime
Family, which at the time was the largest and most powerful organized crime family in
the United States. Bilotti was the newly named underboss of the family.
"Who was Tommy Bilotti and how did he rise to the position of second-in-
command of this infamous crime family? In “Boss of Bosses,” FBI agents Joseph
O’Brien and Andris Kurins describe Bilotti:
“He was basically a pit bull with shoes on. If he had a business ability beyond choreographing a
shakedown or calculating the interest owed on shylock loans, it didn’t show. In a milieu not known for its
conversational finesse, Bilotti distinguished himself by spluttering inarticulateness.”
Once when describing how a family problem was handled improperly, Bilotti stated, “It’s gonna
be like throwing the baby out with the bathtub.”
“The bathwater,” said Funzie Mosca. “Not the bathtub.”
“Ah, f--- it,” replied Bilotti.
“He was short – five feet seven. He was stubby – a rock-solid two-twenty. He wore a bad toupee.
He had no tact, no charm, no sense of humor. He had a big mouth, and his piggish eyes were too close
together. To the concept of self-control he was a stranger.”
Castellano’s choice of Bilotti as a driver, protégé, and later underboss belied a
sophisticated image that Big Paulie had worked hard over the years to cultivate.
Castellano may have chosen him because of his work ethic, he was “vigilant,
hardworking, fearless, and, above all, loyal.”
Listening to the transcripts of the tape-recorded conversations from Castellano’s
Todt Hill mansion on Staten Island and from the encounters with FBI agent O’Brien, it is
easy to envision Bilotti as a Joe Pesci type mob character. Short, ruthless, excitable and,
if possible, more foul-mouthed than Pesci. Transcripts revealed that practically all of
Bilotti’s comments were peppered with the “f” word.
Perhaps the viciousness Bilotti harbored came about from the anguish he suffered
in his personal life. He watched his first wife, Catherine, die a painfully slow death from
cancer while she was in her mid thirties. Even after he remarried he continued to place
flowers at her gravesite. Another personal tragedy was his autistic son who had been
institutionalized since childhood. Bilotti loved the child and although he made regular
visits to see him, he rarely spoke of him.
Bilotti served as Castellano’s driver and bodyguard. Again, O’Brien and Kurins
describe his traits:
“As long as he was waiting on Paul Castellano, Tommy Bilotti was deferential, subdued, watchful
yet calm, like a dog on a rug. His self-esteem derived from adoration of the master, and he could afford to
be well-behaved. Problems occurred, however, when Bilotti was sent on errands of his own. Out of sight of
the Boss, he got rambunctious. He tried to play the big shot; he overdid things. He got creative in a sadistic
sort of way, and embroidered gratuitous cruelty through what should have been straightforward business
One vicious incident took place in a Staten Island bar where Bilotti went one
afternoon to collect an interest payment. The bar owner had already been given a brutal
beating several weeks earlier and was still recovering and trying to pay medical bills.
When Bilotti walked in with a baseball bat, several customers at the bar began to move
towards the exits. “No one leaves,” said Bilotti. Looking at the bartender who had now
turned white, Bilotti ordered him out from behind the bar and to get down on his knees in
front of him.
Bilotti glared at the customers and said, “Why do you a--holes drink at a place run
by a scumbag who doesn’t pay his bills? A f---ing deadbeat. How can you do business
with a f---ing piece of s--- like this? And he’s a faggot besides. You guys didn’t know
Bilotti continued to make his point by pulling down his zipper and ordering the
bartender to put his mouth on him.
“You see?” Bilotti told the customers. “He likes it.”
He then kicked the bartender in the chest, knocking him backwards, zipped his
pants and left.
Not much has been written about Bilotti’s life prior to his association with
Castellano. His older brother Joseph was a Gambino gang member. The book “Sinatra
His Way,” mentions that another brother, Jimmy, worked for Sinatra during the 1970s
and 1980s. Sometime after his death, Tommy’s home in Staten Island was purchased by
actor Steven Segal. Bilotti’s record showed several arrests for assault and for weapons
possession. According to street sources, he had been involved in at least eleven murders.
O’Brien had once been warned by Bruce Mouw, who headed the FBI’s Gambino Family
squad, “Don’t ever talk to Tommy Bilotti alone. He doesn’t play by the rules, (and he has
a) very short fuse.”
One Sunday morning O’Brien followed Bilotti from Todt Hill to a beauty parlor
owned by his second wife, Donna. While O’Brien watched on a nearly deserted street,
Bilotti left by a back door and got into another car and pulled up next to him. O’Brien
describes Bilotti’s demeanor during their face-to-face encounter:
“Now, most people, when they are building up to a fit of rage, need some give-and-take, some
goading, to get them really psyched. Not Tommy Bilotti. When he got mad, it was like a nuclear reactor
going into a meltdown. Once a certain threshold was reached, the process just fed on itself, the voltage
increasing exponentially until the fuel was all used up and everything within a certain radius had been
leveled. His voice got louder and louder, he made less and less sense. Soon he was just spitting out curses
wrapped in random phrases, his face purple, his nostrils distended, ropy veins standing out on his pit-bull
Problems and ill-feelings had been brewing in the Gambino Crime Family since
its patriarch, Carlo Gambino, named Castellano, his brother-in-law, to replace him
shortly before his death in 1976. Many family members had no respect for Castellano
viewing him more as a businessman than a crime boss. Others felt that long time family
underboss Aniello Dellacroce should have ascended to the family throne. Dellacroce
remained as underboss and worked hard to smooth the feathers of the young turks like
John Gotti in the family. Dellacroce was successful for the most part until he died of
cancer on December 2, 1985.
No one under Dellacroce would have made a move against Castellano while the
highly respected underboss was still alive. Now that he was dead there was no buffer
between the young turks and Castellano. At this time, Castellano made two major
blunders in underestimating the resentment family members held for him. First he did not
attend Dellacroce’s wake, which was taken as an intentional insult to all those who had
respected the underboss. Second, he named Bilotti his new underboss without any input
from the other family capos.
Castellano had rewarded Bilotti for his loyalty. At the same time, he also signed
Bilotti’s death warrant. The disregard Castellano showed to the disgruntled factions
within the family would prove to be his undoing. In addition, the famous “commission
case” had already begun with indictments unsealed in February 1985 against the heads of
the five New York families. Castellano and the other family bosses were looking at 100
years in prison. The possibility that Bilotti would be left to run the Gambino family must
have left members of all five families shaking their heads. It also made it easier for John
Gotti to get the approval of the commission to eliminate the two.
On December 16, 1985 Bilotti and Castellano drove to Sparks Steak House on
East 46th Street between Second and Third Avenue. Bilotti and Castellano got out of the
Lincoln as four gunmen closed in on them. The killers shot Castellano first. Bilotti,
standing in the street, squatted down and watched as the killers unloaded their guns into
the Gambino boss. At the same time, Gotti gunman John Carneglia came up behind
Bilotti and pumped six bullets into the recently appointed underboss. Seconds after the
shooting, a second Lincoln containing John Gotti and Sammy Gravano drove past the
bloody scene. In 1992, Gravano testified at Gotti’s trial, that when they pulled up he
looked down at Bilotti’s body, “I told John he was gone.”
Bilotti and Castellano were both laid to rest in the Moravian Cemetery near Todt
Hill. Bilotti was in a simple grave just fifty yards from the Castellano crypt. Perhaps even
in death Bilotti was still the ever-faithful watchdog to his master.
Copyright A. R. May 1999