Teflon John Hits The Airwaves With Gusto, Poise and Charm

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The feds kept John (Junior) Gotti from telling his side of the story on 60 Minutes while he was behind bars awaiting trial in Gotti IV. Once he was emancipated though, Junior quickly proved - at least to Gang Land's eyes and ears - that getting him on camera would have been a good get for the Godfather of TV news magazines.

As he walked out of court to his lawyer's waiting car, he handled ambush interviews modestly, and with grace.

More to-the-point, though, Junior was poised, articulate and charming in two on-camera interviews the day after his release. He recalled a memorable jailhouse visit with his father when he was seven years old. He told how he came to join his swashbuckling old man's crime family, and how he intends to keep his sons from following in his footsteps.

The early morning encounter took place in front of the gates of his Oyster Bay Cove, L.I. home. The embattled mob prince recalled visiting his father in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in October of 1971. The Dapper Don, who had been jailed in 1969, when Junior was five, would be released the following March.

"He's playing around with me and we're talking, and he says, 'Hey John, Halloween's coming up, what's your plans?' I says, 'Dad, officer Joe, down the street, he's gonna loan me his police hat, his badge, and his stick, and I'm gonna arrest people.'"

"The color went out of my father's face," said Junior. "So he looks at my mother, and he says, 'What's going on.' He was as serious as can be. We were taught that's not the way. We were raised that's not the way. We take care of ourselves. We don't turn to the police. In that neighborhood, in Howard Beach, that's what's instilled in you... That's the way we were raised. So we all bonded together. We all took care of each other. We were all raised along those lines and that's the way you go into that life. All the people that you look up to, who you try to emulate, that's what they were in. They were in that life."

During a long interview with Newsday videographer Ed Betz that was enhanced when 1010 WINS radio reporter Juliet Papa walked onto the set, Junior made clear that "Growing Up Gotti" was nothing like the drivel that was seen and heard for two seasons on his sister Victoria's defunct so-called reality show.

"It's wrong, but this is how I was raised," he told Papa. "By time I was 13 years old, my father had done nine years in prisons. So my siblings and I... basically throughout our adolescence, my father was in and out of prison. We would know my father - and then not know him. And then we would know him again. It's a terrible way to raise your children. But this is the hand I was dealt with, and I'm playing it the best I can."

After detailing the similar fate that his six kids have endured since he was first arrested and jailed for nine months nearly 12 years ago, he said he was reacquainting himself with his children - ages three to 19 - and determined to change things around.

He is "optimistic" that on January 22, the date of a scheduled status conference in his case, or earlier, the government will drop the charges against him. If that happens - and law enforcement sources tell Gang Land that is likely - he insists that he plans to relocate his family to Florida or the Carolinas. The only family member giving him a hard time about that, he said, is his 19-year-old son, Frank.

"I want to move on," he said, adding that the best way to accomplish that was to "change my surroundings. To be here, it's a little awkward at times. I'm not that far from Queens; I'm not that far from New York. You go to dinner in a restaurant with your wife, you tend to bump into old acquaintances."

He deflected queries regarding fears he may have about possible retaliation for violating his mob oath of silence.

The rolling TV interviews continued later that day when veteran Channel 2 newsman Pablo Guzman caught up with Gotti in a Westbury, L.I. parking lot. The former Junior Don was pushing a shopping cart filled with presents, but he paused to expand his remarks about concerns that his kids would be lured into the same wiseguy life that he had joined back in 1983.

"In the internet age," Gotti told Guzman, "they read all about their grandfather being a dashing debonair guy, a man's man - which is all true - charismatic, super-intelligent, a leader amongst men, and they say, 'Dad, that's a man!' Most people don't know this, but my father died choking on his own vomit and blood, handcuffed to a bed in solitary confinement. So I have to explain that to my sons. This is the end result."

As for his own status, he said that after all that's transpired over the past five years, he can't imagine how anyone could still believe he's a mobster, adding - probably not meaning it - that he holds no "grudges" against the feds. "They were doing their job," he said, "but they were just wrong."

He wanted to take the stand at Gotti IV to explain his "position" on quitting the mob, he said, but was prevented from doing so by his lead lawyer, Charles Carnesi, who cautioned against it.

Gotti's most emotional, dramatic words came in a long, measured response when WINS's Papa asked for his dad's reaction to Junior's decision to betray his late father and crime boss and quit the mob - the cornerstone of the "withdrawal" defense that has stymied the feds four times in five years.

"My father was an extremely intelligent man, a very perceptive guy," he said. "He understood," he added, referring to a tape recorded jailhouse discussion they had in 1999 when Junior advised him he was going to plead guilty to racketeering charges that had been lodged against him a year earlier.

If she had seen "some of the letters my father had written to me" from prison, Papa would understand, he began.

"He would say in the letter, 'John, you always say that I'm a god, I'm an idol in your eyes. But in other ways, you're twice the man that I am,' he used to say to me. And what he meant by that - I wasn't as tough as he, never. I wasn't half the man that he was. Never. No one ever was. Nobody was.

"But he knew, regarding being a husband," he continued, as his voice seemed to crack, "regarding being a father, being a brother, I probably was twice the man he was, because this is what I love to do," he said, gesturing back toward his home. "This is what I'm all about. I wasn't so much about that (the life). I was more about him. You take him out of the equation, you take some of my uncles out of the equation, there's no interest.

"I graduated the New York Military Academy in 1982. That was my dream. I wanted to go on to college, take an ROTC program, go into the military. That's what I wanted to do with my life. Things change. My father told me when I graduated, 'John, take a year off. And see what you want to do.' The biggest mistake of my life. That one year turned into this. That one year led me to this point right here. Right here, where I am today."

We'll never know if Junior would have been as convincing if he had taken the stand at his trial, where he would have had to endure a grueling cross examination. But the ex-mobster showed he's a natural in front of the cameras, a much more believable and compelling version of "Growing Up Gotti."