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Family Secrets

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Family Secrets

Family Secrets

Family Secrets

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Rita Gigante grew up knowing her dad suffered from crippling mental illness, but she didn't know who her father really was.

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Now then, we know everything we need to know about ostracism, about exclusion. We learned it from childhood, right? But for our first guest, when she was a little girl, for some reason that sense, it wasn't really directed at her. But instead, it followed her father, and the problem was no one would tell her why.

RITA GIGANTE: My sister pretty much sat me down on my bed 'cause I was asking her questions. She was saying that he was sick and that this is what he had. He had paranoid schizophrenia, and I said, you know, what does that mean? She said it was a mental illness.

ANNA SUSSMAN, BYLINE: Rita's dad lived the life of a shut-in. He kept the blinds closed all day long. She remembers him pretty much sitting around his apartment in his underwear, eating cereal.

GIGANTE: Yeah, he used to wear these white boxer shorts and a white T-shirt, white socks. Everything was white except for his slippers. They were black. He wasn't very, very talkative, you know, and he would always speak very softly.

SUSSMAN: But he did have business associates. He wouldn't go to any office or telephone into meetings, but these guys would come to him in his dark apartment.

GIGANTE: And he never spoke on the phone. That was the other thing I realized. Never spoke on the phone. As a matter of fact, most of the time, the phone was off the hook. The other piece that was strange to me was that when these men used to come - you know, his people that were in this business with him - when they used to come and sit around my grandmother's dining room table, the radio would be on. The TV would be on. Nobody would be really speaking. There would be more of a whisper, and then people would be, you know, writing notes back and forth to my dad. And he would answer by writing.

SUSSMAN: There were a lot of things that didn't add up for Rita when she was a kid. Like if the family did go out to eat, they never had to wait in line at the neighborhood restaurants, and they would get taken in the back door. There were some kids that weren't allowed to come to her house to play, and she didn't know why.

GIGANTE: It was this feeling of not knowing truth, you know, like I knew something was not right, knew something wasn't the truth. There was a girl in high school that she was spreading a rumor about my family and about my dad and about me, calling me a Mafia princess. This went on for a while before I had had my full of her. And there were only a few times in my life where I raised my hands. I just said, you know, who the eff do you think you are? I wrap my hand around the back of her head. And I just took her head, and I hit her head against the sink in the bathroom, which created all this blood to come out of her nose and her lip.

And she fell on the floor her, and I just - I hit her again. And I says, don't you ever come here and talk about me or my family ever again. And I walked out. There was so many things that ran through me, and then all of a sudden, the adrenaline kicked in like, oh, my God. Could this be true? There was something inside of me that day that had to know at that point, you know, what this was, what was going on, what all the secrets, the lies, you know, the whispering, the - everything that was happening my whole life up until that time. I was 16 at that time. I got home. I took my bicycle, and I went to a good friend of the family. And I begged them to help me. I had blood on my hands from the girl when I hit her. I was hysterical, and she said to me sit down. And she said, you know who your father is, right? And I said no, but I want you to tell me exactly who he is and what's happening. What's going on? She said your father is the boss of the Genovese crime family. And I took a deep breath, and she said and that's not it. She said he's also the head of the Five Families. The Lucchese, the Genovese, the Bonanno, the Colombo and John Gotti was from Gambino. Nobody could make a move without asking my dad permission for anything. Meaning - say they wanted to do - let's just give an example - if they wanted to put a hit on somebody.

Nobody can do that unless they ask my dad permission. At some point, my ears shut down because I couldn't hear another word that she was saying because at that moment, all the pieces of the puzzle for my past that I didn't understand, all of those pieces of the puzzle snapped into place for me. I was really baffled at my dad being this powerful because when I saw him, he was in a robe, a pair of slippers and, you know, this was - this was my experience of him. I didn't see him wielding all this power. I said to her, well, what's this whole thing about, you know, my dad having paranoid schizophrenia? And she goes, no, that's just a ruse so that the government thinks that he's sick and that he couldn't possibly be running that family, running the Genovese crime family.

And I said, oh, OK. I go home, I'm numb. I'm really numb. You know, my mother knows something's wrong, and I just said I'm going to my room. And I don't even know how many hours I slept just from being depleted from the whole day. And then she realized that I knew. And, you know, she sat me down, but it was more of a sit me down and just reiterate - you can't tell anybody anything. If anybody asks, your father's sick. There was no kind of explanation 'cause mom didn't really have an explanation 'cause mom only knew so much.

SUSSMAN: Her dad was Vincent Gigante. A man The New York Times said ruled the Genovese crime family with impenetrable secrecy. The Genovese soldiers and associates were forbidden to utter his name or his nickname in conversations or even in phone calls.

GIGANTE: It's kind of a known thing in that dynamic, you don't talk about the business or anything having to do with the business. This was not something we sat at the dinner table and talked about. I don't think anybody thinks of their father as actually committing a crime or actually telling somebody to commit a crime. So yeah, I was definitely having an issue with - was struggling with the fact that he could do that and yet be this loving father at the same time. Once I knew about it and kind of digested it a bit, I kind of became part of the role-playing. And so I became one of the actors in this grand scheme. My dad would say to me come on, let's walk. I'd say OK. Tussle the hair, put the hood up, the robe was on, and underneath that he has his pajamas and he wore the slippers. And he says come on, walk me.

And so I would be like, oh, my God, like, devastated that I had to go out into the world, you know, with this. So I would be holding his arm, he'd whisper to me, you know, hold me up, like, make like you're holding me up kind of thing. And he'd walk disheveled. He would stop and he would mumble under his breath. I'd have my head down rolling my eyes like, oh, God, please can we get this over with kind of thing. But there was also the protection that he was my father and, you know, I wanted to protect him from others who either made fun or whatever. So many emotions going on in that moment. It was not an easy task.

SUSSMAN: In the neighborhood, Vincent Gigante was called "The Oddfather" or "The Enigma." And as his playacting became an almost 24-hour gig, the lines between performance and reality blurred.

GIGANTE: When you've played that role so many times, there is a definitely, you know, a piece of paranoia that has to come with that. Not schizophrenia, but there is definitely a piece of paranoia that has to come with that where you go yeah, he's looking over his shoulder for his whole life. When he felt like the government was getting too close, he would check himself into a mental hospital and he'd stay for about three weeks. We'd have to go and visit, to have to walk into one of those places and go to the third floor, which is where, you know, the real sickly people were. These were the people who had paranoid schizophrenia. I was enraged about that piece because I - you know, you walk up in this place and you have people groping at you and saying things and you see the struggle.

I'd think to myself, you don't have any of this. How could you, you know - how could you make a mockery of this? This is not right. This is not, you know - not right. There was a definite pull on both ends. You know, it's like that little devil on one shoulder and the little angel on the other telling you two separate things. And deep down, I knew what was right, but also knew that I loved my father. It was like, how could you put your kids through this? How dare you ask us to perform in this way of life. And yet, this became the normal way of life for all of us and for him.

SUSSMAN: There were certain benefits, some privileges that Rita enjoyed being the daughter of a mob boss.

GIGANTE: I think what I enjoyed was I felt safe in the respect that nobody could hurt us, but then there was this feeling of, well, yeah, somebody can hurt us because the government could come at any time.

SUSSMAN: And they did come. After years of extensive surveillance by the FBI, Vincent Gigante was arrested.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: These charges represent the government's continuing effort to dismantle the Genovese crime family from top to bottom, and to rid this city...

GIGANTE: When I was in my 30's, my dad was brought to court for a multitude of things between racketeering and money laundering and attempted murder. Even when dad was in court, he was still trying to kind of keep up the act of being mentally ill. He came in with a robe and slippers, and we were all sitting together. All his children were sitting together in the seats behind him in the courtroom. And when they wheeled him around, he looked at all of us and he smiled at us as if to say, you know, I see you. I love you. I'm OK, kind of thing. It was heartbreaking in a way. He broke character at that moment 'cause he smiled and, you know, it was like he was lucid and he knew.

And you could tell, which was, in a way, nice to see because you saw that human side of him again. I don't remember my dad ever feeling free, feeling like, ah, like he could take a deep breath. I think that's what made me sad for him the most. All I could do was hope that he would want to free himself by speaking his own truth for his whole family.

SUSSMAN: Gigante was convicted and sentenced in his trial.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The extended biological family of Vincent Gigante brushed past reporters.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Excuse me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Barbara, I'll talk to you soon just not right now.

REPORTER #2: In the Brooklyn federal courthouse, minutes earlier, 69-year-old Vincent Gigante in a dark jacket and shirt, white stubble on his cheeks seemed confused. Judge Jack Weinstein sentenced him to 12 years in prison and fined him more than a million dollars for labor extortion and conspiring to kill John Gotti and another mobster.

SUSSMAN: Even after Vincent Gigante was behind bars, federal prosecutors weren't satisfied. They wanted him to admit that the whole mental illness thing was a ruse. So they played hardball and they went after his family.

GIGANTE: And so the only way they knew he would come clean is if he thought that, you know, they were coming after us.

SUSSMAN: Gigante's choice was laid out before him - confess or your family is charged too.

GIGANTE: The threat was they would come after us with obstruction of justice on the grounds that we aided and abetted in his little scheme. So he finally came clean. Dad finally came clean realizing that he didn't want the family to be antagonized in any way. He finally knew it was time for him to speak the truth, which was huge.

SUSSMAN: When he was 75 years old, Vincent Gigante pled guilty to obstruction of justice, admitting that he had run a con on the legal system for years.

GIGANTE: That's not something Dad would've ever, ever done in a million years. Based on that code of ethics, you just go to your grave with this kind of stuff. He didn't have to, but he did. It was like 10,000 pounds was lifted off of me. This was like an albatross that was hanging around everybody's neck. Dad was tired. He was tired. I really feel like he even willed himself to pass because he knew this was done. Once he admitted it, it was like, OK, I can rest now.

SUSSMAN: Only a year and a half after his confession, Vincent Gigante died in prison.

GIGANTE: If you think about it, my dad even though he wasn't in jail for 30-some-odd years, he was really in jail. He didn't have a life. It was like living in jail within himself without having the bars in front of him. Seventy-seven years, I mean, enough is enough, right? I don't know how he did it that long. I really don't know how he did it that long.

WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Rita Gigante for sharing her story with SNAP. We'll have more information at snapjudgment.org. That piece, it was produced by Anna Sussman with sound design by Renzo Gorrio.

(MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: Now when SNAP JUDGMENT "The Pariah" episode returns, we're about to have our freedoms revoked in a very strange way. When SNAP JUDGMENT "The Pariah" episode continues, do stay tuned.

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