Curtis Sliwa admits he's a born showman, and during the 1980s, he turned New York's crime wave into a media event. The founder and leader of the Guardian Angels became a household name--and not just because the Angels were a potent force in discouraging criminals. Sliwa's critics say he's nothing more than a publicity hound and he's given them a lot of ammunition over the years. Sliwa has admitted to a handful of fabrications to drum up headlines, including one in 1980, where he staged his own kidnapping before reporting it to police.
So it should come as little surprise that law-enforcement officials didn't take Sliwa seriously when he accused John Gotti Jr., the son of the late Mafia crime boss John Gotti, of ordering a "hit" that nearly took his life during an early-morning cab ride in 1992. Sliwa said he was shot three times by a masked gun- man as payback for repeatedly attacking the elder Gotti as a drug dealer on his popular local radio show, and for the past 13 years has demanded his day in court. That day will finally come this week as the racketeering trial of John Jr. begins in Manhattan federal court for the kidnapping of Sliwa. (An attempted-murder charge against Junior was dropped after a witness said Gotti wanted to hurt Sliwa, not kill him. The alleged gunman still faces that charge.)
For Gotti and the New York City mob, the case has big implications. If convicted, the 41-year-old reputed crime boss faces 30 years in jail, a virtual life sentence. Gotti, for his part, denies he ordered the attack, and says he is no longer working in the family business. In fact, his lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, says that Gotti rejected a plea bargain in order to have his day in court, and start a new life outside of the mob. As for Sliwa's accusations that Gotti was behind the shooting, Lichtman says he's "still waiting for Curtis's apology," since the government dropped that part of the case.
He shouldn't hold his breath. Sliwa, who is scheduled to testify later this week or early next, told NEWSWEEK that he can't wait to take the stand. "These guys have turned so many people I know into speed bumps and I still hear from their goombahs that I'm a dead man walking," Sliwa said. "But I survived, and now I'm in the position to end their reign of terror once and for all. They're learning that not every guy they deal with will fold like a cheap camera."
Sliwa certainly knows how to survive. He grew up in the tough Canarsie section of Brooklyn, next door to many of the future mobsters who joined the Gotti clan. He was inspired to start the Guardian Angels after riding the city's subway system, which had become a haven for criminals, from his home in Brooklyn to his job as a manager of a McDonald's in the South Bronx during the 1970s. "The city was a mess," he says. He formed the Guardian Angels in 1979, and for the next decade, Sliwa, with his trademark red beret and sharp sound bites, became a national spokesman for the victims of violent crime. But when crime began to taper off in the 1990s, particularly on their home turf of New York City, Sliwa and the Angels lost much of their appeal.
That's when Sliwa began a slow but subtle career change. He de-emphasized the Angels' New York activities (membership dropped from its peak of about 1,000 during the Angels' heyday in the 1980s to about 100 today), and began to set up offices elsewhere, particularly overseas. Sliwa recently added a chapter in Tokyo (the Angels have 24 offices in Japan, and a total of 28 worldwide). He has also started to focus the Angels' efforts on the growing drug epidemic in small-town America. He raised some eyebrows last month when he joined forces with the mayor of the tiny village of Greenport, N.Y., who asked him to assist local police with the town's burgeoning drug problem. "We go where the trouble is," he says.
Sliwa has also found a niche in conservative politics. He recently teamed up with Sean Hannity of Fox News and Oliver North to host a country-music concert that raised money to provide scholarships for children who lost parents in the Iraq war. He's the cohost of a popular talk-radio show on WABC where he says he's been "talking nonstop" about the Gotti trial because he needs to counter "the Gotti PR blitz." Sliwa says he can't wait to stare down the men he says tried to kill him. "It's over for these psychotic, espresso-sipping killers. They're through." Sliwa isn't--if he has anything to say about it.