Sammy Gravano, seen here after his most recent arrest in Arizona in 2000, got away with only a few years in prison for his many murders -- including at least two Trenton wiseguys.
Mob boss Carlo Gambino. He signed the death warrant on Trenton mobster "Frankie Stale" Stillitano.
| On or around Valentine's Day in 1981, an ambitious young Trenton gangster named Frank Stillitano was snatched off the street by thugs who pulled a black hood over his head and drove him away for execution.
Stillitano's corpse was found stuffed into the trunk of a car linked to his own brother-in-law 12 days later at Philadelphia International Airport. He had been shot behind the left ear and left knee.
Cops from Philly to Trenton to New York knew right away who killed Frank "Frankie Stale'' Stillitano, 28: soldiers from the Gambino crime family made the hit to avenge Stillitano's slaying of Trenton capo Nicky Russo's son on March 24, 1979.
But proving it would be quite another matter. This was a Mafia case, after all, and in those days mobsters didn't blab to cops, juries, reporters, publishers and filmmakers like they do today.
Greater Trenton wouldn't find out who killed Frankie Stale until May 1997, when Salvatore "Sammy the Bull'' Gravano came out with a book in which he admitted killing Stillitano and 18 other mobsters, including a Trenton capo he came to admire, John "Johnny Keys'' Simone.
Stillitano was so disregarded among most mobsters Gravano never bothered to find out his name. By the time he wrote "Underboss,'' Gravano barely remembered murdering the Trenton wiseguy he knew as "Frankie Steele."
As Gravano explained, the murder was not part of the war for power that erupted in 1980 with the gangland slaying of low-key Philly crime boss Angelo Bruno.
Stillitano was hit for foolishly thinking he could take over the rackets Nicky Russo was running in Trenton for New York's Gambinos.
Stillitano was a charismatic, if violent, character who had a small crew of young thugs from the neighborhood who infuriated Russo, 70, by shaking down Chambersburg tavern and restaurant owners without his authorization.
On the night of March 23, 1979, Stillitano ran into Russo's 42-year-old son and heir-apparent, Michael Russo, outside Trionfetti's Restaurant at Chestnut and Roebling avenues in Chambersburg. They argued about who was going to provide for the family of a recently locked-up mob gambler and came to blows.
After the fight, Russo called his father at DeGeorge's Eldorado Cafe on nearby Franklin Street and was told to come over. When the father and son walked out at 2 in the morning, they were sprayed with gunfire from across the street.
Michael Russo fell dead between two parked cars. His father took a bullet in the shoulder that he would not permit doctors at St. Francis Medical Center to remove until weeks later when a judge ruled it evidence that had to be taken out and given to police.
Fuming mad Russo — who had helped the Gambinos engineer the hit on Simone in September 1980 — appealed to Gravano to get permission from the don of the family, Paul Castellano, to bump off Stillitano.
In the book, Gravano says Russo was so mad he sought permission to rub out Stillitano's baby son also. Castellano was annoyed by that suggestion and wouldn't approve it. But he told Gravano to tell his Trenton capo that "Steele, the guy who killed his son, is gone.''
Gravano, a former protected federal witness who now lives in the open in Arizona, pulled so many hits they tend to blend together in his mind, he admits in the book. In addition to calling Stillitano "Steele,'' for instance, he also incorrectly thought of him as the leader of a crew of Irish crooks.
So some mystery still surrounds the murder of Stillitano, whom no one in Trenton saw alive after Valentine's Day.
In the 23 months after his ambush of the Russos, Stillitano had laid low, dodging the mob and the cops who wanted him for the murder of Michael Russo. He reportedly hid out with his mother in Northeast Philly, at Atlantic City casinos and with friends in Bucks County, Pa.
Stillitano reportedly showed up in Trenton often while on the lam, however, and avoided capture by never staying in one place long enough for the cops or the mobsters to mobilize to grab him.
His luck ran out on Valentine's Day, according to the autopsy and police surmise. When detectives stopped hearing about Stillitano sightings after Valentine's Day, some knew the $100,000 mob contract on his life had been fulfilled and that it was only a matter of finding the body.
The discovery came the evening of Feb. 26 when Philly airport cops decided to check a car that had been parked for more than a week in lot C. They found the trunk ajar, lifted and spotted a dead man with a black hood over his head.
Police soon learned the vehicle was registered in the name of a defunct Trenton used car dealership, Klockner Auto Sales, which was partly owned by Stillitano's brother in law, James Mazzola.
But detectives and Gravano's cloudy memory never were able to explain how or if Mazzola and the used car lot at Roebling and Chamber streets figured into the slaying of Stillitano.
By contrast, Gravano remembers every detail of the hit on Simone. "Johnny Keys,'' as Simone was know, was a "real man's man,'' Gravano wrote.
Simone was murdered because after Bruno was rubbed out, he talked with Gambino family overseers about his prospects for taking over the Philly clan.
The national Mafia commission already had agreed that Philly's Nicodemo "Little Nicky'' Scarfo would succeed Bruno, a cousin of the Gambinos, and Scarfo told the group Simone would have to be removed for him to be sure the New York family wasn't plotting against him.
"I felt terrible that a man with such b — — had to be hit,'' Gravano wrote. "But this was Cosa Nostra. The boss of my family had ordered it. The entire commission had ordered it. There was nothing I could do.''
Simone was snatched from the Sky View Country Club at the airport in Washington Township and driven to Staten Island for his execution in September of 1980, five months before Stillitano was murdered.
On the way to his death, Simone, 69, knew what was coming and suffered a heart seizure. Gravano said he insisted on taking one of his heart pills so he could die like a mobster, by the gun.
When they got to the killing ground in a patch of Staten Island woods, Simone took his shoes off and told Gravano: "I'll walk out (of the van) on my own. Let me die like a man.''
Gravano said Simone "took a couple of steps away from the van. Without a word, he lowered his head, quiet and dignified. The shot immediately leveled him to the ground. He died instantly. He died without pain. He died Cosa Nostra.''
As it was with the killing of Michael Russo before and the murder of Stillitano later, the cops knew right away who killed Simone after his body was found on Staten Island.
But nobody was ever charged with any of the murders because no one was willing to testify about them, just as predicted at the time by a top Trenton detective, Capt. George Courtney. All three murders remained open cases until Gravano started singing for the feds in 1992.
By then, Gravano was the No. 2 man in the Gambino family, the top lieutenant of Castellano's killer and infamous successor, John Gotti, who was being called the "Teflon Don'' in those days because none of the state and federal charges he'd been hit with had stuck.
Becoming the highest-ranking American Mafioso ever to turn government witness, Gravano agreed to testify against Gotti after he heard the boss bad-mouthing him on an FBI surveillance tape.
When told Gotti didn't want to be tried with him for their murders and racketeering, Gravano knew he was doomed to life in prison.
Fearful that Gotti would testify that he never authorized any of the hits Gravano engineered while underboss, Sammy the Bull cut a dream deal with federal prosecutors.
And the plea bargain cleared the way for Greater Trenton to finally find out who killed Stillitano and Simone.
In exchange for the testimony that put the Teflon Don in prison for life, Gravano was essentially pardoned for all of his sins. He served a short term in prison and was released to the federal witness protection program.
In May 1997, Gravano's book came out and the serial killer started appearing on television talks show to promote it. Soon, it was a best seller and a made-for-television movie that depicted the murder of Simone but only touched on the slaying of Stillitano.
Gravano left the witness protection program not long after and, for almost three years now, has been living in Arizona, where he runs a construction business that employs a few dozen people who are well aware of who he is.
Sammy the Bull said in an interview in Arizona that he was well aware some young mobster trying to make a name for himself might try to fulfill the contract reportedly out on his life for squealing about Gotti.
Gravano said he wasn't afraid: "A coward dies a thousand deaths ... I'm only going to die once, not a thousand times. And this kid who comes to get me, whoever he may be, better be good.''
Cops in Greater Trenton believe a young hood who thinks himself a pretty good hitman assassinated a mob bookmaker named Salvatore Vasta in Hamilton on March, 24, 1995. But as it was for years after the Russo, Simone and Stillitano hits, authorities don't have enough to charge anyone with the Vasta murder.
Still, mobsters are more blabby than ever today. So maybe it won't take almost 20 years for someone to drop the dime that would lead to an arrest in the Vasta murder. And if the killer can get a book contract, no telling what secrets will come out.
|1981: Sammy 'the Bull' strikes in Trenton|
|By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian|