Sammy Gravano is reflecting on the old days. “I grab him in a bear hug, the [van] door comes flying open, guys come running out,” he says, sitting back in a leather armchair, his voice gravelly. But Gravano isn’t reminiscing about some rough-and-tumble prank from his youth; he’s recounting the kidnapping and gangland slaying of Philadelphia gangster John “Johnny Keys” Simone forty years ago. Gravano is Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, the onetime underboss of New York’s notorious Gambino crime family, and these days, he’s giving up all his best stories as — what else? — a creator.
The story of Simone’s murder makes up two episodes of Our Thing, the podcast series Gravano hosts on his YouTube channel. “Louie Milito — with a .357 Magnum I believe it was that he had — he hit [Simone] in the head,” says Gravano, who infamously turned state’s evidence against his boss John Gotti in 1991. “His body is down. He hits him two or three more times.” Since the videos were uploaded in March 2021, they are each approaching 1.5 million views.
At 77, Gravano is one of the most prominent figures on what can be labeled “Mafia YouTube,” a corner of the platform that features ex-mobsters and their associates talking about their lives in organized crime or offering their takes on current events. Some have their own pages. Others guest on shows run by both former wiseguys and Mob enthusiasts-cum-amateur historians. Popular interview channels such as VladTV and Valuetainment, which aren’t solely Mafia-focused, have formed associations with the scene, attracting millions of clicks to their videos featuring erstwhile gangsters. Ex-affiliates from all five New York Mafia families are active on YouTube, and old Mob strongholds like Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia are represented, too.
“It’s talking and reflecting [on] what I am and what I did,” says Gravano simply of his YouTube programming. Two years after getting out of prison in 2017, he was interviewed about his life on Valuetainment by host Patrick Bet-David. The chat has received 17 million views and was a catalyst in Gravano starting his own YouTube venture. In just two years of making original videos, he has amassed 520,000 subscribers. He is not alone in turning YouTube into the Mafia’s latest racket: Michael Franzese, a caporegime with the Colombos who later became a born again Christian, is verging on one million.
YouTube is the newest and most intimate frontier of a classic phenomenon where those who have left the American Mafia try to build a brand off their time in “the life.” “Ex-wiseguys and their family members have been looking to sell something, anything, even their own notoriety, to make a buck for years,” says Mafia journalist and author Jerry Capeci. “It’s the American way.” Gravano, who confessed to taking part in 19 murders, has had videos sponsored by online therapy provider BetterHelp. “Joe Bonanno and his son Bill wrote books; Junior Gotti made a movie; his sister Victoria and her three sons had a TV show; Henry Hill had a cottage industry after Goodfellas,” Capeci adds. For former mobsters who still need to make a living, YouTube offers a chance to repurpose their past criminality toward marketable ends without even signing a publishing contract. In the U.S., where Mafia media has been consistently popular since the 1970s, it’s a shot at fame many can’t refuse.
ALMOST EVERY EX-MAFIOSO on YouTube left the Mob by cooperating with the federal government. Since the 1980s, developments in legal methods — the draconian RICO and Sentencing Reform Acts abolished federal parole and expanded penalties on crimes performed under a criminal organization — and forensic and surveillance technologies have significantly weakened the Mafia. Longer sentences became more prevalent and it is easier to get convicted, which has increased the number of mobsters who have “flipped” — working with the Department of Justice against their Mob brothers — to avoid spending decades in prison.
When Anthony Arillotta, a former leader in the Genovese crime family’s Springfield, Massachusetts, faction, was charged in 2010 for felonies including murder, his first instinct was to fight the case. Staring down a bleak future, however, he decided to cooperate.
“When you’re going to jail for the rest of your life, come on!” he says. “You gotta look at it like this: What did I live for? Do I make a decision here to keep my family and get back to life one day, or do I go rot in jail the rest of my life? For me, it’s an easy decision.” Over the past two years, Arillotta, 54, has become a well-known face on Mafia YouTube, appearing on a variety of scene-adjacent shows. At the end of last month, he started making videos on his own channel, Anthony Arillotta MONEY MAYHEM and the MAFIA, the first of which was shot at Springfield’s Lady of Mount Carmel Society Social Club in a room that looks like Richie Aprile’s hangout in The Sopranos.
Part of any deal with the government involves confessing to the crimes one has committed; the confessor is granted immunity and the freedom to speak openly about prior offenses. It’s how Arillotta, for instance, is able to discuss his participation in the killing of Springfield mafioso Adolfo “Big Al” Bruno.
“[My life] is an open book,” he says. “I pled guilty to everything, so I can talk about it.” Following his release from prison in 2017, Arillotta chose not to enter the Witness Protection Program. He still lives in his hometown, unbothered by the threat of retaliation from a Mob much diminished since its 20th-century glory days.
“They’d rather put guys ‘on the shelf’ now,” notes former Boston-born mobster Bobby Luisi, referencing the contemporary Mafia practice of ostracizing objectionable members rather than killing them. “Murder brings the heat.” This change in protocol makes “rats” feel safer today about going public with their Mob experiences. On Wednesday nights, 61-year-old Luisi, also born-again, broadcasts live-streamed Q&As on his channel, From Capo to Christian With Bobby Luisi, where listeners can probe him on his past life, though the conversation often drifts to other topics. On a recent airing, he raved about his love of tortellini and Ron DeSantis.
IF THE SOPRANOS BROUGHT its audience inside a mobster’s home, Mafia YouTube lets viewers live vicariously through the people who were actually there. It is an online community reveling in nostalgia for an offline way of life. The roster of characters could fill volumes of pulpy literature. Tales of crime family mutinies, sons testifying against fathers, absurd celebrity shakedowns, and lucrative gas-tax scams have become folklore in this social media milieu; storytelling gangsters have recreated a world where goombahs in garish attire play cards in espresso-stenched social clubs until sunrise. For every mobster who leaves the scene, a new one seemingly emerges, providing fresh perspectives. One of the latest additions is former Gambino “made man” Michael “Mikey Scars” DiLeonardo, who started his channel, Mikey Scars, this past summer.
The content can be startling in its blasé depictions of violence. Ex-Gambino family associate John Alite can rattle off a list of men he claims he had altercations with “on the street” so fast it’s as though he has them memorized for show.
“I could give you fifteen names right quick that I shot,” says Alite, whose page has nearly 60,000 subscribers. “Paul Forgione, Ricky Stratton, Georgie Grosso, Stevie Newell, Mike Livigni… Mike Pipp… Nicky Pasquale, my own distant cousin… I baseball-batted the Kryzanowski brothers, I baseball-batted the Keegans.” Alite has given speeches at schools deterring kids from crime, yet offers critiques of video game assassins (“That’s what I would have did,” he says as one character kicks another off a ledge) and sells custom baseball bats on his website for $200. He did play baseball in his younger years, but it’s hard not to chuckle at the subtext.
As Mafia YouTube pages grow, it is not uncommon for hosts to diversify their output, hoping they can expand into fields like business strategy and politics. Their charisma and shrewd confidence is not unlike many of today’s get-rich-quick “grindset” influencers. In October, Gravano premiered a new segment called The Bullpen, where he wields his authority as a tough-talking gangster to provide a blunt perspective on the news of the day. One topic he particularly wants to address is the U.S. opioid epidemic, a crisis he thinks is so dreadful he “can’t be quiet no more.”
“I did a lot of fucked up things in my life,” Gravano admits. “Maybe this is my way to pay back?” Post-Mafia career, Gravano served a 20-year sentence for being part of an Arizona ecstasy drug ring, but considers fentanyl peerless in its destructive capabilities. His anti-opioid PSA comes off as surprisingly sincere thanks to his anger about the issue.
“There’s a limit to the content that you can create that’s original — the stories you haven’t told before,” says Mafia historian and author Scott Deitche. “In order to smartly keep their brand, [they need] to branch out to other things.” Just this September, Gravano announced that he is in discussion with a film production company about adapting a version of his life for the big screen. His reputation as a YouTube raconteur has opened the door to bigger projects and greater financial reward.
Like all creators looking to make money on YouTube, mafiosi are subject to the website’s stringent monetization policies. Revenue can be generated, but for many it is a tool to grow their online image. “Sammy has developed a decent income from YouTube, which is just enough to put every penny back into the business, expand his team, and reinvest into future projects,” says Melissa Sutkowski, head of operations and producer at Debra’s Way, Gravano’s production company with 10 employees on staff. “The number varies by month, depending on views, however the number isn’t going to make headlines.” Luisi, whose audience is much smaller, claims he has made $1,500 in a month from Mafia content. His Wednesday live-streams, which he calls “the staple for my show,” allows viewers to pay him directly through the platform’s Super Chat function.
IT IS TELLING that Mafia YouTube has emerged in an era where the actual Mob is a shadow of its former self. Profitable rackets like gambling have become licit, would-be recruits grew up comfortably in the suburbs, and legal and technological innovations broke crime families’ kneecaps. The most exciting Mafia action in America took place decades ago, which suits rose-colored internet storytelling well.
A question that inevitably trails the community is whether its members are truly sorry for their past actions. Many ex-mobsters claim to now see the error of their ways but walk a contradictory line. Few I spoke with completely disavow the Mafia; they reminisce about the camaraderie, occasionally pointing out things they wish had gone differently. Luisi, who sold cocaine, dislikes drug dealing, while Larry Mazza — who vividly recounted his role in a Colombo family gang war murder to 2.5 million views — says if it were up to him he’d “make sure there’s no killing because that’s gonna be the downfall.”
Even though he has no personal channel, Mazza uses the Mafia YouTube interview circuit to promote his autobiography and his authority on Mob matters. (In addition to now running a fitness facility in Merritt Island, Florida, he is the host of The Life, a Mafia-themed interview series on Plex’s MOB TV.) When I asked him what he thinks about his time in la cosa nostra, he answered with unconflicted honesty: “I’m not ashamed of being a very successful bookmaker,” he says.“During the [Colombo] war, I have zero regrets. You can call me anything you want. They were trying to kill me and I wasn’t going to sit there and let them do it.”
Mazza, 62, does not consider himself a hitman because he never killed anyone not involved with the Mafia, nor was he ever paid for such work; he called his cooperation agreement a “business decision” brought on by seeing other Colombo members flip, including his mentor, Greg “The Grim Reaper” Scarpa.
“It’s not so much remorse,” Gravano says about the motivations for his post-Mafia YouTube career. “I don’t use that as an excuse: ‘Oh, I want to help kids.’ I can live with myself because I’m honest and I’m sincere. Guys will say, ‘Did you find God in jail?’ Nah, I really didn’t bump into him.”
Luisi, who works as an estimator for a flooring company, is fine with keeping YouTube a side hustle. “I’m not like Sammy [Gravano] and Mike [Franzese]. I don’t push it that much. I’m content with what I’m doing,” he says. Upon leaving the Witness Protection Program in 2018, Luisi has, at times, found it difficult holding down steady employment. “Once they found out who I was, they didn’t want me working at their places. Today, they Google you, they see everything and they get nervous.” Ironically, this conundrum has led former gangsters to retreat into places like YouTube to self-promote because they can’t escape their criminal history.
Arillotta, on the other hand, looks at Gravano and Franzese’s success as inspiration. Since exiting the Mob, he has found work but is unsatisfied with the lack of status it brings him compared to his Mafia days. Setting up his channel is a move he sees as a first step in building a future venture arsenal that could include books and speaking engagements. “What is the best approach for me to give me the life I had before in my past? The money life, the living-good life. For me, it is my past life, but capitalizing on it,” he says. “You’re not going to get rich by doing interviews. You gotta get into a niche. I’m not on that level yet, but that’s where I’m hoping to be.”
|Born||Joseph Michael ValachiSeptember 22, 1904 New York City, U.S.|
|Died||April 3, 1971 (aged 66) Anthony, Texas, U.S.|
|Resting place||Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Lewiston, New York, U.S.|
|Other names||"Anthony Sorge", "Charles Charbano", "Joe Cago", "Joe Cargo"|
U.S. Anastasia was one of the most ruthless and feared organized crime figures in American history; his reputation earned him the nicknames The Earthquake, The One-Man Army, Mad Hatter and Lord High Executioner.What crime families still exist? ›
There are five main New York City Mafia families, known as the Five Families: the Gambino, Lucchese, Genovese, Bonanno, and Colombo families. The Italian American Mafia has long dominated organized crime in the United States.What do Mafia's do to make money? ›
The Mafia makes money by participating in virtually any activity that is illegal. Illegal goods are expensive, untaxed and unregulated. Over the years, mobsters have dealt in alcohol during Prohibition, illegal drugs, prostitution and illegal gambling.Who was the toughest mobster ever? ›
Upon his death from a torturous, four-day bout with pneumonia in 1932, Frank McErlane was described by Chicago Police as the “toughest gangster of them all.” His ruthless bootlegging peers in the Windy City feared him so much they reportedly paid him a “pension” of hundreds of dollars a week just to stay out of town.Who are the most powerful mafias in us? ›
It also estimated that the Genovese family consists of about 270 "made" members. The family maintains power and influence in New York, New Jersey, Atlantic City and Florida. It is recognized as the most powerful Mafia family in the U.S., a distinction brought about by their continued devotion to secrecy.What is the oldest crime group? ›
|Founding location||Campania, Italy|
|Years active||since the 17th century|
Longtime Colombo under-boss John “Sonny” Franzese is the living embodiment of the ultimate mob rule — bragging in an interview about refusing to rat despite it making him the oldest federal prisoner at the age of 100.Who are the top 5 organized crime families? ›
Five Families, moniker given to the five major Italian American Mafia families in New York City: Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese. The families and their inner workings were publicly revealed in 1963, when a Mafia soldier testified at a congressional hearing.What is a Mafia's right hand man called? ›
The consigliere is a close, trusted friend and confidant, the mob's version of an elder statesman. They are an advisor to the boss in a Mafia crime family, and sometimes is their "right-hand man".
- Adnan Khashoggi at The Olympic Tower in New York, USA, in 1986. ...
- She was called "the Black Widow" because all three of her husbands died. ...
- He lives in Germany, having completed his reduced sentence. ...
- Leona Helmsley in New York City in 1989.
The [Sicilian] mafia's principal activities are settling disputes among other criminals, protecting them against each other's cheating, and organizing and overseeing illicit agreements, often involving many agents, such as illicit cartel agreements in otherwise legal industries.Who was the smartest gangster ever? ›
Torrio had several nicknames, primarily "The Fox" for his cunning and finesse. The US Treasury official Elmer Irey considered him "the biggest gangster in America" and wrote, "He was the smartest and, I dare say, the best of all the hoodlums.Who runs the five families today? ›
|Original family name||Founded by||Current boss|
|Mangano||Vincent Mangano||Domenico Cefalù|
|Luciano||Lucky Luciano||Liborio Salvatore "Barney" Bellomo|
|Gagliano||Tommy Gagliano||Victor Amuso|
1. Al Capone. Al Capone, also known as Scarface, was one the most famous gangsters who rose to prominence during the Prohibition era in the 1920s and 1930s. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1899 to Italian immigrant parents.Who was the worst American gangster? ›
Al Capone. Al Capone, also called Scarface, was a major gangster during the Prohibition era in Chicago. He was eventually prosecuted and convicted for tax evasion in 1931.What famous mobster was never found? ›
|Died||January 13, 2017 (aged 87) Butner, North Carolina, U.S.|
|Other names||"Little Nicky", "Little Lethal Nicky", "Lethal Nicky", "The Killer"|
|Occupation(s)||Crime boss, mobster, extortionist, racketeer|
|Spouse||Domenica Scarfo (second wife)|
In the 2000s, the family was further weakened by multiple convictions in federal racketeering cases and numerous members becoming government witnesses. Many law enforcement agencies believe the Colombo crime family to be the weakest of the Five Families of New York City as of 2011.Who is the biggest gangster in the world today? ›
Dawood Ibrahim was born on 26 December 1955 to a Konkani Muslim family in Khed in Maharashtra, India.
Al Capone, byname of Alphonse Capone, also called Scarface, (born January 17, 1899, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.—died January 25, 1947, Palm Island, Miami Beach, Florida), American Prohibition-era gangster, who dominated organized crime in Chicago from 1925 to 1931 and became perhaps the most famous gangster in the United ...What country has the most organized crime? ›
As the birthplace of the original mafia, Italy is home to some of the world's most powerful organized crime groups, operating domestically and abroad.What was the world's first crime? ›
However, archaeologists have recently uncovered a skull that dates from 430,000 years ago, and shows evidence of such a crime pre-dating Cain and Abel. Scientists have applied modern forensic techniques which indicate that the victim was probably killed by two blows to the head, before being thrown down a cave shaft.What was the first gangster? ›
The first major gangs in 19th century New York City were the Irish gangs such as the Whyos and the Dead Rabbits. These were followed by the Italian Five Points Gang and later a Jewish gang known as the Eastman Gang. There were also "Nativist" anti-immigration gangs such as the Bowery Boys.Is the Gambino crime family still powerful? ›
More than 40 years after Gambino's death, the New York crime family is still named for him. Although decimated by the federal crackdown during the Gotti era, the Gambino family is still involved in various criminal activities in Brooklyn and Staten Island.Who was the last mobster? ›
Italian mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro, the last of Cosa Nostra's leaders, arrested after 30-year manhunt. Rome — Italian authorities arrested Italy's most-wanted fugitive on Monday, taking mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro into custody after a 30-year manhunt.What organized crime makes the most money? ›
Drugs. Drug trafficking is the most lucrative form of business for criminals, with an estimated annual value of $320 billion. UNODC says that roughly half of the income from organized crime comes from illicit drugs proceeds, equivalent to between 0.6 percent and 0.9 percent of global GDP.Who is the most powerful gangster in New York? ›
Charles "Lucky" Luciano was an Italian-American mobster, considered the founder and father of organized crime in America and the most powerful Mafia boss of all time.What family is the Sopranos based on? ›
The DeCavalcante crime family is partly the inspiration for the fictional DiMeo crime family of the HBO television series The Sopranos.What do mobsters call their mistresses? ›
goomar or goomah: Americanized form of comare, a Mafia mistress.
Omertà (/oʊˈmɛərtə/, Italian pronunciation: [omerˈta]) is a Southern Italian code of silence and code of honor and conduct that places importance on silence in the face of questioning by authorities or outsiders; non-cooperation with authorities, the government, or outsiders, especially during criminal investigations; ...What do gangsters call their boss? ›
Boss – Also known as the capomandamento , capocrimine, rappresentante , don, or godfather, is the highest level in a crime family. Underboss – Also known as the "capo bastone " in some criminal organizations, this individual is the second-in-command.Who is the richest female gangsters? ›
Griselda Blanco (1943 – 2012)
At her peak in the 1970s and '80s, Griselda Blanco became the first-ever billionaire criminal, earning $80 million a month from the proceeds of smuggling cocaine from Colombia to the US.
How much is the Gotti family worth? The Gotti family were reportedly worth a whopping $500 million a year. John Gotti Senior became one of the family's biggest earners in history with a $30 million net worth and even comes in at number nine on the top 20 richest criminals in the world.What is the number one rule of a gangster? ›
Three rules were given to him: "You must never betray any of the secrets of this Cosa Nostra. You must never violate the wife or children of another member. You must never become involved with narcotics."What do all mafias have in common? ›
Central to, and common to, all mafia groups is the importance of power, family, respect and geographic territory. In general terms, mafia groups are run by a boss who exercises general control of the family and makes leadership decisions. There is an underboss who is second-in-charge.Who is the father of all gangsters? ›
|Resting place||Saint John's Cemetery, Queens, New York|
- Joe Valachi. ...
- Joseph “The Animal” Barboza. ...
- Joseph “The Ear” Massino. ...
- Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano. ...
- Abe “Kid Twist” Reles. ...
- Ken “Tokyo Joe” Eto. ...
- Tommaso Buscetta. ...
- Frank Lucas.
Once closely-connected mobsters, Sammy “the Bull” Gravano (left) turned on Gambino crime family chief John Gotti (right) to help prosecutors finally put the organized-crime boss behind bars.Who are the biggest current mafias? ›
While pop culture has propped up the Sicilian Mafia, it's 'Ndrangheta that has the true stranglehold on illicit mob activity. Like the Cosa Nostra, 'Ndrangheta started in Italy - specifically the region of Calabria - before emigration made their enterprise more powerful and widespread.
Gravano played a major role in prosecuting John Gotti, the crime family's boss, by agreeing to testify as a government witness against him and other mobsters in a deal in which he confessed to involvement in 19 murders.Who was the richest mobster in America? ›
Al Capone (estimated net worth in 1929: $100 million)
According to Biography, by 1929 notorious Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone had a fortune of $100 million: or as much as $18.6 billion in today's money.
Joaquín "Jack" García (born 1952) is a Cuban-American retired FBI agent, best known for his undercover work infiltrating the Gambino crime family in New York City. García is regarded as one of the most successful and prolific undercover agents in the history of the FBI.Is the Gambino family still active? ›
More than 40 years after Gambino's death, the New York crime family is still named for him. Although decimated by the federal crackdown during the Gotti era, the Gambino family is still involved in various criminal activities in Brooklyn and Staten Island.Who is Gambino family boss now? ›
Following Cali's death, it was reported that Lorenzo Mannino had become the new Gambino leader.Who was the informant against John Gotti? ›
In 1985, Johnson's career as an informant came to an abrupt end. In a public hearing that year, Federal prosecutor Diane Giacalone revealed that Johnson was working for the FBI, in an attempt to convince him to plea bargain and testify against Gotti.Who is the head of the five families today? ›
|Original family name||Founded by||Current boss|
|Maranzano||Salvatore Maranzano||Michael "The Nose" Mancuso|
|Mangano||Vincent Mangano||Domenico Cefalù|
|Luciano||Lucky Luciano||Liborio Salvatore "Barney" Bellomo|
Boss – Also known as the capomandamento , capocrimine, rappresentante , don, or godfather, is the highest level in a crime family. Underboss – Also known as the "capo bastone " in some criminal organizations, this individual is the second-in-command.What was John Gotti's net worth when he died? ›
John Gotti Junior number 12 on the top 20 richest criminals list with his net worth of $10 million.How much time did Sammy the Bull do? ›
Gravano eventually rose to second in command of the Gambino crime family, committed 19 mob murders, and in 1991, facing life in prison, he turned on his boss, John Gotti, and cooperated with the feds, sending Gotti to prison for life. In exchange for his cooperation, Sammy got five years.
But Brooklyn mobster and Gambino Family underboss Salvatore “Sammy The Bull” Gravano not only crossed one of the most powerful mob bosses in the country by breaking the code of silence in 1992, he then lived to tell the tale. This is the astonishing story of Sammy Gravano, feared killer-turned-FBI informant.