A Black Heart and a Mobster


By Judy Berman

The shadier side of life. It’s a look that few get to see, except in passing or on TV.

As a cops and court reporter, some encounters were brief. But the impressions lasted a lifetime.

In court, how a witness or suspect is perceived is important. Unfortunately, “Jonnie,” a witness in a murder trial, didn’t score well.

The prosecuting attorney said jurors just didn’t like “Jonnie “ Other factors were weighed in, too, of course: how consistent the witnesses’ stories were, how the witnesses held up under direct and cross-examination.

“Jonnie” said he had a “black heart.” I didn’t doubt it.

When “Jonnie” strutted into the courtroom during the retrial, he was a pale imitation of James Dean or tough guy Marlon Brando. He wore a tight, short-sleeved black T-shirt and black jeans. His thin, dirty-blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail.

One thought came to mind: dangerous.

Several times, “Jonnie” turned and gave a cold, hard stare to the defendants at the trial. They’d killed “Jonnie’s” father during a robbery. Neither was convicted of murder. They accepted a plea bargain to a reduced felony charge.

His thinly-disguised contempt for them was palpable.


“Jonnie” agreed to meet me the next afternoon, after the trial, for a follow-up interview. He wanted to meet near where he lived, but I preferred to meet him on more familiar – and less threatening – turf outside the paper I worked for.

He was a no-show. Maybe it was for the best.

Much of what he told me about the men he believed responsible for his father’s death was libelous and slanderous.

Or death threats – which my paper did not provide a platform for.

Those encounters are not confined to the news business.

A waitress, at one of our favorite restaurants in Central New York, once told us about some mobsters who dined at the fancy restaurant she worked at in Florida.

One night, she was serving wine to a large group of huge tippers. They gave $500 to the valet for keeping an eye on all their cars. Others also benefitted by their largesse.

She had difficulty reaching this one man at the end of the table who was up against the wall. When the waitress reached in front of him to pour the wine, another man stopped her and told her it was bad form in their culture.

The waitress, a self-confessed wiseguy, responded: “Whatever.”

Another employee told her that the man at the end of the table was “the man.”

“Right. He’s the man. He’s the man,” she said.

After the group left, she was told that “the man” was John Gotti.

“Here everyone else is getting $500 tips, and I’m worried I’ll be sleeping with the fishes,” she laughed. (They left her no tip.)

The incident rattled her.

Her home was next door to the restaurant. But, as she was nervous about what the mobsters might do, she said she drove a route that took in most of South Florida.

Have you ever had a close encounter of the dangerous kind? Or of a celebrity, or weird kind?

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-15. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider, earth-rider.com, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Music Video: “Bad Company” by “Bad Company”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0ryRksbQvU  

  1. Main Photo: Marlon Brando – “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1948) – Photographer: Carl Van Vechten – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Marlon_Brando_Streetcar_1948_d.jpg
  2. Photo: James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) – publicity still for the film.  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/e6/James_Dean_in_Rebel_Without_a_Cause.jpg/540px-James_Dean_in_Rebel_Without_a_Cause.jpg 
  3. Video: Interview with Sammy “The Bull” Gravano and Diane Sawyer   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hoTK1o2-QQ4

  1. Yikes, no mobsters for me. But I was cornered in an empty Paris Metro station once when I was nineteen. I was able to get away, but it was scary. :/

  2. Wow, you wrote an interesting post about Jonnie, someone who was how you described, a pale version of the ‘bad boy’ movie roles, James Dean and Marlon Brando portrayed. Too bad he was a ‘no show’ but as you mentioned, it may have been for the best, Judy.
    I was a child advocate, standing on the steps of the Logan County Courthouse, Ohio. This client, Debbie’s kids for over a year and a half were my ‘charges’ going in and out of courts, learning how to use the words, ‘suspected abuse,’ ‘supposed rape,’ and ‘alleged child endangerment.’ The director of the battered women’s shelter and I had supervised visitation with Debbie’s husband who the judge had said the kids ‘deserved’ to continue their relationship. She had escaped in the ‘dead of night,’ with only herself and 4 children, crossing county lines from Logan to Fairfield. She later was served papers, ‘contempt of court.’ Demanding her presence, Judge Johnston endangered her life. Ransom, her ex-husband by then, pivoted while hand cuffed, shot using the sheriff’s gun with accuracy into her head. Both Suzanne (director) and I protested ‘contempt of court’ pages, but legally we had to bring her there. My parents, numerous friends of two organizations I belonged to (AAUW and the Lancaster Historical Society) and acquaintances wrote to all the Ohio newspapers, since this Judge we believed was implicitly ‘guilty’ in this ‘attempted manslaughter’, treating his wife like ‘chattel.’ Debbie didn’t die for years, (she remained in a nursing home in a ‘vegetative state.’) Her children were young adults when Ransom escaped jail, went on a cross country trip towards Vegas, with some stupid woman he had convinced he was worthy of marriage. He had never been put in maximum protection, since Debbie had not died yet. The national papers covered her grown children’s lives, so it made me happy to know the girl who had been only 9 years old, raped by her father, age 13 when she entered the shelter, now is married to a policeman. The twins who had been 4, and my own children’s ages, were successfully grown, having become adopted, then going on to college. The son who was ‘the middle child’ had not been adopted, seemed in the summary of the article to be fine, too. Debbie did ‘her job’ as a mother in escaping, ultimately dying, only having had 18 months of freedom.

    1. How horrible, Robin. Sometimes I wonder what judges are thinking when they decide to return children to homes where they’ve been abused. A real tragedy that Debbie’s life was taken by such a violent man. You’re right. She did do her job as a mother by escaping that abusive situation with her children.

      The job you had is vital to those in need of a safe haven. Thank you for being there for so many women and children who want comfort and a place to escape the violence.

      1. Thanks for letting me write so much, I came back to tell you, it would not hurt my feelings if you edited it a bit…
        Judy, I left after a personal situation happened, I was at the time Robin Crain, which I went to Diamond Power, Anchor Hocking and Ralston Purina to ask people in a group setting to put the Lighthouse Battered Women’s Shelter or the Children’s fund on their memo line of where their United Way monies would go. On the evening of one of these factory’s presentations, I was outside, with a long telephone cord from the second floor of the house, watching my two children riding their Big Wheels up and down the sidewalk. I looked behind me, to grab the phone when a man jumped out of a car and grabbed both children in his arms. He walked slowly up to the door, which I told the person on the line to call the Lancaster Police, his chilling words were: “Tell me the location where my children are, then I will give you back yours.” I could not believe how stupid I had been, saying my name in front of hundreds of people! Of course, the odds were, someone may have had their own abusive situation where their kids and wife were in hiding!

        ** (This comment was edited because of its length. Thanks for granting me permission to do so, Robin.)

        In the period of time I worked (at the Lighthouse), I did work directly with 150 children. I wrote a book which we used as a printout on a copy machine, called, Cinnamon and Nutmeg. There were few resources for the children to hear read to, on the subject of abuse, neglect and battering, at the time. … My finest moment, triumph, was when Senator Eugene Branstool presented my grant for Ohio’s children who are in battered women’s shelter to a sub-committee. (60 pages) We do have much better programming and available monies. I was able with reciprocal agreements to take the children to special places, including the Y every week to swim… etc.

  3. When I was a young adult, I was a ‘biker’ chick. I didn’t belong to a club or anything, but most of my friends were bikers, perhaps some did belong to a club – I don’t know.

    A girl I had known in high school was dating a biker. In school she had been loud, vocal, full of life. Now she was demure, head and eyes down. I picked this up at a bar we were both at. Her boyfriend was ignoring her except to occasionally rebuke her for speaking or asserting herself. She looked older than she her years.

    I was taken aback and gave him a piece of my mind. When I was done, I looked around for my friends, they were all gone. Apparently I had just reamed out the President of a well known club.

    Diana xo

    1. Wow! Brave, Diana. Thankfully, you emerged from that encounter in one piece. Your pals should have stuck around, though. (In the past, I’ve had a tendency to speak my mind and later question my sanity.) 😉

      It’s sad that your friend wound up in such a controlling relationship.

      1. I am also proud of you, Diana! Great way to stick up for a person who definitely needed this supportive friend in you! I hope nothing came in his retaliation, due to this, though. Just the cynical and experienced side of me hesitates, since if the girl is not strong enough to leave the situation or relationship, she may face ‘paybacks.’ I always am one who is outspoken, too, Judy. It has lost me some so-called ‘friends’ but gained real ones!

      2. Brave? You know how it is when you’re 18 or 19, it was foolish!

        I was told later my outburst just shocked him. He kept asking people, “Who the heck is that??”

        People were surprised he just took it. 😀

        comment from earthrider to dianasschwenk:
        The biker’s response made me laugh. I remember an ABC producer, Jeff Sprung, who told me about running into someone years after the guy made disparaging remarks about Jeff’s talent. Jeff was super talented. When he saw the guy, Jeff essentially told him what a jerk he was. The jerk had the same response as the shell-shocked biker you told off. 😉 Glad you survived.

  4. The waitress doesn’t have to worry about John Gotti any more. He’s dead and before that was imprisoned. My own close encounters? None of a celebrity unless your want to count BIlly Graham, whom I met very unexpectedly on our honeymoon in NC, near where he still lives.

    A close encounter of the dangerous kind happened when the children were little. While I was on tour with artist/performer husband somewhere in the Southeast, I was getting into the van to go to the laundromat. Out of nowhere, it seemed, a drunken man appeared and tried to open the driver’s side door, which I didn’t think to lock. The van became a getaway car – I gunned the engine and got out of there FAST! Provocative post and questions, Judy.

    1. When the waitress told us this story, John Gotti was already in prison. But I understand her paranoia at the time.

      Marilyn … Did you get a chance to talk to Billy Graham? I often read his columns.

      Quick thinking on avoiding that scary drunk, would-be passenger. I’d have put the pedal to the metal myself. 😉

  5. Yes, probably good he was a no show.

    It must be terribly difficult to have to deal with such people on a daily basis as a result of your job. I count myself fortunate being able to completely steer clear of them or in the case a year or so back with someone with ties to the underworld take the stairs rather than go up in the elevator with him.

    Swimming with the fish – I’d not heard that before but immediately understood.

    1. Tom … That idiomatic expression might have been popularized from the movie, “The Godfather.” Abe Vigoda (as Tessio), explaining the meaning of a package of fish to James Caan (as Sonny Corleone): “It’s a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” Brasi had been killed moments before the delivery.

      At times, as a reporter, I could distance myself from the drama. Other times, as an observer and reporter, it was very hard – especially when child victims were involved. I took those emotions home with me and they stayed with me for a long time.

      Wise move to take the stairs to avoid a shaky character rather than get in an enclosed space you can’t escape from.

  6. Interesting story . . . the comments are interesting as well, and familiar. I don’t think we do a good job of removing dangerous people from society, especially when it comes to abusers and just plain mean persons.

    My own experiences with dangerous people are from long ago, but they still speak to how I live my life.

    1. Disperser … Unfortunately, dangerous people seem to move in and out of prison like it has revolving doors. If they were rehabilitated there, fine. Too many, though, just seem to improve on their criminal skills while inside.

      Like you, my appreciation of the great outdoors grew from my need to find a calming, restorative place where I could quiet those negative, noisy images.

  7. I of course have no sure way of knowing Mr. Gotti’s whereabouts right now, but I strongly suspect that he’s in a place where, no matter how much he tips, he isn’t going to be getting any ice water any time soon.

  8. A sinister part of job Judy! You sound like you’ve met a wide variety of characters in your life. Unpleasant as that is, I do think though it imparts a lot of knowledge about life that many don’t have. You certainly won’t be naive after a few meetings with people like that. It’s strange how we can learn more through the unpleasant times of life than the nice bits! And who would want to be a waitress after hearing that story!! 😯

    I have come across a few nasty personalities quite a few times in my life so far, but none quite like Jonnie. The worst was someone who moved into the flat below me (we shared a hallway) it was all petty stuff, including stolen post, which involve the Police in the end. I got the feeling by what mail went missing she was creating a profile from me she could use – for crime I guess. It was just lucky I happened to catch her picking up my mail one morning, if I hadn’t the Police wouldn’t have been that interested. As it was, they dealt with it very well, no proof of my mail stolen, but going by a conversation I heard echoing up the hallway to my door, it sounded like a collection of opened mail for previous tenants was found. That made the Police more responsive to my complaint. At least my mind was at rest that if she did attempt crime in my name, the Police would have a clearer idea who to investigate first! 😉 Our neighbour battle went on for eight months, which felt like years (she was determined to drive me out) but finally she left – defeated. I remember feeling very tired and worn out after she’d left, she was a loud person in every way and there hadn’t been much peace and quiet from the time she moved in.

    I also served on jury once, it was an inquest (more than one case) quite disturbing, and also eye opening in many ways. The entire jury wasn’t happy about the options we were given to decide upon. None of us knew that we could have rejected the options and have chosen an open verdict (we weren’t informed about that). We all felt very manipulated by the court. And to be quite honest, how can anyone truly know what happened, how someone died, if they weren’t actually there? It feels quite ridiculous to me to ask complete strangers to decide on something they essentially know nothing about. You can only go on evidence you are given, and in my experience if something doesn’t sound credible – it probably isn’t. I’m just so glad it wasn’t a trial where we had to pronounce guilty or not guilty – I think I would have refused and walked out, I wouldn’t have wanted that weighing on my conscience.

    There are a few other people too, I won’t mention them here, but all I can say is, horrific as the experience was – thanks for the education, because that’s what it turned out to be. This world can be a dark place at times! 😐

    1. Actually, Suzy, “Jonnie” wasn’t the worst character I ever met or reported on. Some of those stories I might tell another day.

      But I wouldn’t have wanted to trade places with you when you had that woman stealing your mail. She does sound like a nasty person. The only time I went thru something similar was when I was advised to ignore the other person who had caused my family and me so much stress. She eventually wore out her welcome with people close to me and she moved on. Until that happy day, it was a stressful, unpleasant situation.

  9. wow, this is wild, judy. i’ve always been fascinated by crime and the criminal mind, though i have no desire to be involved on any other level other than reading about them or watching something about them. once went to a cigar shop in nyc with my daughter, apparently the one where gotti bought his – kind of a cool, old world feel to it all.

    1. My interest in crime and the criminal mind also stems from reading and watching TV. It often was fascinating when I was a reporter, too. There were exceptions, of course. They didn’t call John Gotti “Dapper Don” for nothing. He was a stylish dresser. 🙂

  10. Never had a close encounter although there are certain families attached to the school that we are advised not to cross! This means that their children learn to rule the roost from a young age with complete parental backing, and what’s more, they are all very aware of their ‘rights.’ Makes for problems, as you can imagine!

    1. I certainly do understand, Jenny. That “entitlement” and “helicopter parenting” does create problems. I often wonder what that child is like when they’re high school age or older. I saw that play out in a murder trial I covered. The suspect’s mother was still in denial about his criminal activities and blaming other’s for her adult son’s problems.

  11. I was walking along a dam early one morning. The path dead-ended in a sort of cul-de-sac so one way in, one way out. A man was walking towards me and something about him made the hair on the back of my neck go up. I remember looking over my shoulder as he passed me and watching his shadow to make sure he didn’t turn and head towards me. On my way back to the car, I saw him on his back sunning himself along the water. As I got closer, I saw that he had exposed himself and was looking straight at me. I swear I was never so scared in my life. And I did make it safely back to my car obviously. But I learned to trust my instincts from then on which served me well once or twice during my years selling real estate.

    1. Yikes! Barbara, your instincts served you well. In your years of selling real estate, I’m sure your senses were finely honed. I’m glad you got out of that situation safely.

  12. I don’t remember experiencing a James Dean-like figure in my life (although I was enamored of James and his films when I was young-er). I loved the tough guy look, the t-shirt and all that rebel without a cause demeanor. My mother was a police dispatcher for the city of Miami though and I heard a few harrowing stories, and that was as close as I got to examining the criminal mind. 🙂

    1. James Dean was a teen heart throb, for sure. His death was devastating because he was so handsome and talented. Then, it seemed that just about every guy wanted to be like James Dean.

      I’ll bet your mother put you on guard to those shady characters. The closest I got to examining the criminal mind – before I was a reporter – was reading Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” Chilling.

  13. Judy a gripping read, with the work you did I am sure you would have a keen sense of reading people. I go with my inner feelings and they are usually right. Enjoyed this piece very much.

    1. Kath … I usually am good at reading people. That’s kept me from getting in some tight spots, especially as a reporter. 😉 Thank you for your comments. I’m glad you liked this story.

      1. Not liked…. I loved, you are a talented wordsmith Judy.

        comment from earthrider to Kath of Minuscule Moments:
        Thank you for your lovely comment, Kath. You made my day. 😉

  14. When we were freshmen in college, one of my friends had a thing for “bad boys”–including one who was in prison–so I got more vicarious chills than I wanted. Then, as a beginning teacher, I was assigned a young violent, angry male who threatened a previous teacher. When he failed the first test in my class and I wouldn’t let him retake it so he could play football, he keyed my car. Of course I couldn’t prove he did it, but I knew who did it.
    Fortunately (for me, not for her) he pushed another teacher and she fell and was hurt. He was expelled from our school and went into juvenile detention.

    1. That proximity to badness is scary, Marilyn. You want to protect your friend and yourself. I hope she got over that “bad boy” phase. It rarely ends well.

      One of my students, upset with another teacher after he had been suspended, implied a threat to her. He was later suspended – but not for that action. It is scary when someone acts impulsively and harms another.

  15. I felt bad for the waitress. She must be so scared and terrified upon knowing who he was. It does pay to be polite regardless of who we serve or meet. Somewhat like at my work, regardless of who the patient is, we treat them with respect though there are times a few will drive one crazy. As for bad guys, closest one was thief trying to open our window while we were asleep. My mom caught him peeping and trying to remove the rest of the glass windows. Thank God my dad was brave, he took his gun and all of us tried to ran after the thief. Scared me then. Great post my friend. Have a blessed week.

    1. Island Traveler… I also felt sorry for the waitress. She was able to joke off the incident years later. But I could tell that it still troubled her. I’m so happy for you that your Dad was able to scare off the thief. I don’t know what I would have done if it happened to me. Blessings to you and your family, IT.

  16. It is awful when your mouth issues a check you don’t want the receiver to cash, Judy. Your waitress friend at the table with John Gotti and his family is a great case of that, certainly. I think, though, that truly dangerous or famous people have been the brunt of enough offhand, unknowing smart-aleck comments from the great unwashed to let them go. I hope! It would be the intended slight that would irk them more seriously. In my celebrity-phone-interviewing duties I always wanted the person on the other end of the call to leave the conversation feeling as if I’d treated them as a “normal person.” That was a delicate balance, I wanted them to know that I considered them to be an equal, and yet I respected them, as I do everybody in life. Tricky business in 15 minutes and with a range of egos. 😉

    1. In fairness to the waitress, I know many who joke around with their customers. That can backfire. Fortunately, there were no repercussions – other than no tip.

      I’m like you, Mark. I treat interviewees like I’d want my Mom treated. That includes the wiseguys (Tony Soprano types). That probably accounts for the rapport I built up with some folks you might not want to meet in a dark alley.

      If someone gave me a hard time, however, well … sometimes, I took the gloves off. 😉

  17. Sobering tales, Judy, and yes, I’m sure that’s not the half of it, given what you saw as a crime reporter. I had a bad experience once when I was hitchhiking, back in my college days. The guy was immaculate in a three-piece suit. His conversation only hinted at what he wanted, but it was enough. I made it clear I wasn’t interested, and there was no trouble. I got off at the next exit, but it was the longest short ride I ever had. I swore off hitchhiking after I finally got home. You learn a lot when you’re a dumb kid. Thankfully, no harm done. And that concludes this exciting episode of Creepy Stories… : )

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