Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Target: Sammy Gravano, The Mission

By Dennis Griffin

Part 2 of 3 part series, read Part 1 here:

In December 1999, Thomas “Huck” Carbonaro, a made man of the Gambino crime family, and family associate Sal “fat Sal” Mangiavillano, were dispatched to Phoenix, Arizona to locate and kill the ultimate Mob traitor, Sammy “the Bull” Gravano.

The Mission – Part I

Fat Sal provided the transportation for the trip. He retrieved his 1992 Mercury Grand Marquis from his parents’ garage, where it had been stashed since 1995. It had been Sal’s work car and was last used in a bank burglary prior to Sal retiring it. He was confident the Mercury hadn’t been bugged by law enforcement, and it was equipped with secret compartments behind the dashboard for hiding weapons, money, or contraband.

After installing a new battery, Sal left the sanctuary of the garage. As was his habit from doing bank burglaries, his head was on a swivel as he checked his surroundings for any signs of suspicious persons or vehicles.

Sal knew the caper he was embarking on was much more serious than a bank score. Unlike a bank, Sammy Gravano would fight back. If he felt threatened he’d use lethal force without hesitation. And if he and Carbonaro were able to kill the traitor before he killed them, they could still face death. If caught and convicted, Arizona could sentence them to execution. And waiting in the wings would be the feds, ready to pursue a charge of murder in aid or racketeering, which also carried the death penalty and was not exempted by the double jeopardy rule. 

Sal picked Carbonaro up at a pre-arranged location. He opened one of the secret compartments and Carbonaro placed a large amount of cash inside. Sal opened a second compartment in which he and his passenger deposited their new identification documents—New Jersey boater’s licenses. Carbonaro’s was in the name of Paul Milano and Sal’s was issued as Henry Payne. He chose that name because he thought it sounded more American. In order to get the IDs in New Jersey where Sal had connections, he had paid a corrupt worker in the department of motor vehicles $500 per license. Carbonaro also placed a piece of paper in the compartment that contained Gravano’s wife’s address, and the address of a pizzeria that his son owned. Carbonaro’s wife had obtained the information through a telephone conversation she’d had with Debbie Gravano.

Although it was nice to have that information, Sal thought it was very possible that Debbie had in fact left Sammy as she claimed. He based that opinion on the fact that one of the 19 murder victims Sammy admitted to in his plea deal was Debbie’s brother. So knowing Debbie’s home address didn’t necessarily mean they’d find Sammy there too.

Stopping only when necessary, by the early morning hours of their second day on the road Sal and Huck were nearing Amarillo, Texas. At that point they encountered a severe snowstorm that closed down the highways. The number of stranded motorists exceeded the available hotel and motel accommodations and people had to be put up wherever room could be found. The would-be hit men took sanctuary in the basement of a church. After three nights the storm cleared and the journey resumed.

Upon arriving in Phoenix, Carbonaro grew a beard and put hoop earrings in each ear. Although such appearance-altering is taboo when crime family members or associates are representing the family, they are widely accepted when on a murder assignment. Sal didn’t make any physical changes, but did start to wear sunglasses and a baseball cap at all times. Using their New Jersey-issued boater’s licenses as identification, obtaining Arizona driver’s licenses was a piece of cake. After that, booking flights or renting rooms or vehicles was easy.

Even if the article about Gravano being in Phoenix was true, Sal and Huck anticipated it would take some time to find him. According to the newspaper story, Sammy was running a construction business. So they decided to begin their hunt by researching Phoenix-area construction companies. Using the public library as their office, they verified the addresses they had for Debbie Gravano and her son’s pizzeria. And then, using a library computer, Sal located a site listing construction businesses and typed “Gravano” in the search box. To his amazement, he got a listing for the newly-created “Marathon Pool, Inc.” In silence he turned to Huck and pointed to the screen. Marathon had been the name of Gravano’s construction company back in New York.

Another page listed the names of the people associated with the company. Sammy’s name wasn’t there, but Debbie’s and the children were. Sal and Huck agreed that there was no way Debbie and the kids were actually running Marathon Pool. It had to be Sammy’s operation.

Excited, they left the library, bought a city map and drove to the address of Marathon Pool, near 45th Street and University Drive. It was a one-story structure, with what appeared to be brand new heavy equipment parked in back. Two Lexus cars with tinted windows and chrome wheels were parked in front. As Sal took in the setup, it reminded him of a Mob hangout in Brooklyn. Sal commented to Huck, “We ran up on a den of rats."

Sal’s conclusion was based on more than the parked cars. He and Huck were both aware of the existence of a taped conversation in which a former Colombo family associate-turned-government-witness, bragged to relatives that as soon as he got out of Witness Protection, he planned to join Gravano in Arizona and they’d start their own family. That tape had been released as exculpatory evidence in a Colombo family case in federal court. Huck and Sal suspected they’d found Sammy and another rat or two as well.

Next they scouted the area to see where they could conduct a surveillance of what they were sure was Sammy’s business. There was no satisfactory place to park to watch the building. Gravano was no slouch. If he noticed a suspicious vehicle in the area he’d know it wasn’t law enforcement. He’d either start shooting or get spooked and take extra precautions, becoming an even more difficult target.

This would probably be the most important murder the Gambino or any other organized crime family had ever committed. The preparations had to be precise. Any misstep would likely blow the hit and cost Sal and Huck their lives in the process. If Gravano didn’t get them, the cops might. And if they survived Sammy and the law, there was a strong possibility that the Gambinos would bump them off as punishment for the screw-up. Huck and Sal had to plan it right. They would not get a second chance.

How were they going to whack Sammy? That was the question Huck and Sal kept asking themselves. The Marathon Pool office was a bad location for the hit. At best they’d have to hide in back of the building where the heavy equipment was parked and hope to pick Gravano off sniper-style.

Their next spot to check out was Debbie’s address. They now believed Sammy was either living there or had an apartment nearby. It was a sprawling ranch home located on Secretariat Drive. As with the Marathon office, parking was a problem. There were no vehicles parked on the street. They were all in their private driveways. Vehicle surveillance there would be spotted quickly. However, there was a large expanse of vacant land behind the house and they’d picked up information that Debbie kept riding horses on the property. They spotted a trail that was probably used when the horses were ridden. There was a possibility that if Sammy rode the horses and they could learn his riding habits, they could hide on the trail and ambush him during his ride.

Huck and Sal next went to the pizza restaurant owned by Gravano’s son. Located in a strip mall, this was the most appealing location of the three. There was a back door leading into the kitchen that was kept open for the pizza delivery man’s use. If they found that Sammy spent time at the restaurant, they could enter through the back door, shoot him, and make their getaway through the same door.

Sal thought of another possibility that might work outside the restaurant. They could park a vehicle right next to Sammy’s car and plant a directional bomb. The device would shoot out 20 12 gauge shotgun shells when the turncoat entered his car. Using a bomb wouldn’t require getting too close to their target and would be safer. And Sal had the expertise necessary to assemble the bomb.   

During a couple of days of reconnaissance they scouted every possible route from the pool company office to the Gravano house, every possible route to the pizzeria, and locations where Gravano could be ambushed. Although using a bomb would be safer, a shooting scenario would allow them to stand over the victim and fire a couple of extra rounds into his head just to make sure he was dead.

There was a lot of thought and talk about the manner in which Gravano would die. But a final decision would not be made until additional investigation and surveillance was done.

Having gotten the lay of the land, the pair decided to fly back to New York to spend the holidays with their families. When they returned to Phoenix they’d bring all necessary surveillance and other equipment with them. They were confident that Sammy Gravano would be dead within two months.

Not wanting to fly out of the Phoenix airport, they drove toward Los Angeles on U.S. 10. Still in Arizona, they passed through a town with a big flea market in operation. From travelling in Florida, Sal knew that flea markets sold guns. Spotting a sign on one of the tents advertising guns and ammo, Sal pulled in. They entered the tent and Sal made his way to the handgun display. He asked the clerk to show him a .38 Detective Special. A .38 was the favorite gun of the criminals on Sal’s home turf. It had adequate punch, but wouldn’t exit the victim’s body and hurt an innocent bystander. It was also easy to conceal.

After that he asked to see a .44 Bulldog. The .44 appealed to him because even if Sammy was wearing a bullet proof vest when they caught up with him, this weapon would knock the wind out of him and put him down until the head shots could be administered. Sal negotiated the purchase of both guns.

As Sal was preparing to pay, the merchant noticed the old Los Angeles Raiders cap he was wearing. He asked, “Are you taking these back to LA?” Transporting the guns into California would have been illegal.

“No, I live in Flagstaff,” Sal said smoothly. And then to sweeten the vendor’s pot, he added a 12 gauge shotgun to his arsenal. The transaction was completed without Sal being asked for any identification or having to fill out any forms.

With the guns safely in the trunk of the car, Sal suggested they not take any chances in case the merchant had second thoughts about his customers and made a call to the California cops. With Huck behind the wheel and Sal studying the map, they reversed course and headed back toward Phoenix. About an hour later, they came to a small town with a self-storage facility and pulled in. After renting a space, they drove around to their unit to stash the weapons. The interior of the closet was very dark, which pleased Sal. Finding a nail sticking out of the wall near the ceiling, he used a broom handle to hoist the bag containing the handguns and hook it over the nail. Then he took the shotgun and leaned it up against the wall where it would be easily seen by an intruder. Hopefully, if someone broke in they’d quickly find the shotgun and think that was the only item in the room. The burglar would take the shotgun, but the handguns would be safe.

After securing the guns, Huck and Sal drove to Los Angeles without incident. They put the Mercury in storage and hopped a plane back to New York. After the holidays they’d return with the necessary equipment and the sand would rapidly drain out of the hour glass of Sammy Gravano’s life.

Next: The Mission – Part II

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