Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sammy 'The Bull' Gravano

Bensonhurst Memories

Salvatore Gravano was born on March 12, 1945, the son of Caterina and Giorlando Kay and Gerry both from Sicily. Kay arrived in America in a quite conventional way being brought here when she was a baby. Gerry jumped ship in Canada and entered the United States as an illegal alien. However, that appears to be the extent of his criminal actions. Salvatore was the last of five children born to the couple. Only two sisters would survive childhood. While still a young boy, the family dropped the name Salvatore and opted for Sammy because the child reminded them of an uncle with the same name.

The Gravano family resided on 78th Street in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, New York. Both parents worked. Kay was a talented seamstress and Gerry painted houses. Gravanos father contracted lead poisoning and was forced out of painting. He went to work with Kay in a dress factory financed for the pair by a Jewish clothing manufacturer.

Gravano attended P.S. 186 in Brooklyn. At an early age he was dyslexic, for which at the time, public schools could offer no help. Struggling with assignments, and adjudged a slow learner due to the disorder, Gravano was held back a grade before the age of ten. The experience turned into a humiliating one for him and he recalled years later that it would bring about his first dislike of authority. It also brought about his introduction to violence, as he would beat up anyone who made fun of him.

It was this propensity to start swinging at people who offended him that earned Gravano his nickname. He received a new bicycle for his tenth birthday. Due to his carelessness it was stolen. A few weeks later he discovered it in the possession of two older and bigger teenagers. The fact that he was outnumbered and outsized meant nothing to the aggressive Gravano and fists started flying. A few of the local wiseguys, who frequented a nearby watering hole, came over and broke up the free-for-all. After settling Gravano down, and ordering the older boys away, one of the wiseguys commented, Did you see Sammy? Hes like a little bull. From that incident the legendary nickname of Sammy the Bull was bestowed upon him.

One day a couple of beefy men showed up at his parents dress shop on 15th Avenue. Kay and Gerry hired non-union workers at their small factory. Gerry was told that if he wanted to continue operating without union employees he would have to start making payoffs. Gravano, thirteen years old, witnessed the encounter and seethed in anger. His father calmed him down and informed his son that he would take the matter up with Mr. Zuvito, a frail old man with mob connections in the neighborhood. Gravano, dumbfounded that this aging diminutive figure could accomplish anything, hedged this bet by borrowing a gun from a fellow member of his street gang, the Rampers. When the two thugs returned, instead of collecting money, they were handing out apologies and asking Gerry to make sure Zuvito was made aware of how sorry they were. Gravano learned the power and respect that connected men received.

Gravano continued to struggle with his schoolwork and in junior high he was held back for a second time. With his dislike of authority intensifying there were at least two incidents of him striking school officials in one he broke a mans jaw. In addition, Gravano was spending more time with the Rampers and less time in school. His heroes were the well-dressed wiseguys who hung around the street corners telling stories or were in the company of beautiful women. Gravano began high school at New Utrecht, but before long he was placed in a special school for incorrigibles. On his second day in the new system a bible-toting classmate called him the devil. Gravano responded by punching out the boy, which resulted in his official schooling coming to an end just short of his sixteenth birthday. Free to run full time with his gang, Gravano soon had a new authority figure to despise the New York City Police Department.

Gravano took up boxing and began to train in a local gym. When several of his trainers suggested that he join the Police Athletic League in order to fight his way into contention for the Golden Gloves, Gravano refused declaring, I wasnt fighting for no cops.

Sammy Gravano younger
A younger Sammy Gravano (AP)

In describing his days with the Rampers in the book Underboss, by Peter Maas, who also authored the best selling books Serpico and The Valachi Papers (both turned into movies), Gravano claims:

We did mostly burglaries and stealing cars. We did cars for their parts or to be shipped out of the country. We never burglarized homes. That was against what we wanted to do. It was all commercial places. Wed break in at night, robbing clothing stores, hardware stores, stuff like that. Wed hold up jewelry stores, you know, with ski masks on. They all had insurance.

Gravano also got used to carrying a gun. In the early 1960s, in a bar on 79th Street, he and other Rampers got into a shootout with members of Crazy Joe Gallos gang. Two men were wounded in the shooting. Afterward, a sit down was required between members of the Gambino and Profaci Families to straighten out the matter.

Not long after the shootout, Gravano was arrested for assaulting a police officer. Through the wangling of his attorney, Gravano got off with just a $500 fine. The cocky Gravano rubbed the judgment in the officers face. However, in his next scrape with the law, a bungled burglary, Gravano found himself handcuffed to a pipefitting at the station house, where he was pummeled to a bloody pulp by New Yorks finest. When the case came to trial, Gravanos lawyer told the judge his client would prefer to enlist in the Army than serve jail time. When Gravano told his attorney he had no intention of joining the Army the lawyer replied, You dont have to. I said that to get you off.

Much to his dismay, Gravano was soon drafted. In 1964 the Bensonhurst tough took his physical, was sworn in and shipped off to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. The regimentation of basic training didnt bother Gravano; neither did working KP kitchen patrol. After basic training he was sent to Indiana where he got his first real taste of running a gambling and loansharking operation while collecting a monthly check from the government. Gravano and his moneymaking operations were transferred to Fort Meade, Maryland, where he served as a bodyguard for a major. While there, Gravanos two-year hitch was up and he received an honorable discharge. He would later tell Peter Maas, I wouldnt have minded going to Vietnam. You get medals for killing people there.

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