Richard Stratton will never forget the time he was locked up behind bars with mob boss John Gotti.
The writer and filmmaker was convicted in 1982 under the kingpin statue of conspiracy to import marijuana and hashish and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
He is currently the executive producer and director of a new A&E documentary based on a April 2010 article he wrote for Playboy about the Teflon Don and his son, John Gotti Jr.
But back in 1983, he found himself face to face with Gotti inside the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
“I kept hearing a lot about John Gotti,” Stratton told Fox News. “All the mob bosses were there at the time because [Rudy] Giuliani was creating a big case against them at that time… In fact, his right-hand guy was there.
"I remembered they arrested John and he impressed, even in a jumpsuit. He took the time to introduce himself to me, shake my hand and call me Richie… Most mob guys are grumpy. They’re not outgoing or friendly. But John was the opposite. He was always smiling, happy, telling jokes and waving to people. He seemed to be enjoying what was happening to him.”
But Stratton’s documentary, titled “Gotti: Godfather & Son,” doesn’t focus on his encounter with the leader of the Gambino crime family.
Instead, it takes place in 1999 when then-35-year-old Junior spoke to his dying father for the last time at the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, MO.
It was during this meeting when Junior asked his father for his blessing to take the unprecedented steps of quitting what might have been one of the last of the major mafia dynasties.
The documentary features never-before-seen segments from the 90-minute video of that final visit, as well as a first-hand account from Junior. It also highlights interviews with Gotti’s other children Peter and Angel and former FBI agents, among others.
Stratton, who was contracted by Playboy to cover Junior’s fourth racketeering trial in New York City, said he kept hearing about the recording, which could have proved whether Junior was still involved with the mafia or not. Gotti was such a high-profile inmate that every visit he had was required to be videotaped.
Stratton managed to get access to the tape for his story and still believes it sheds new insight into the father and son confrontation.
“It was very difficult for him to ask his father permission to leave [the lifestyle],” said Stratton. “His father wasn’t happy about it. In the tape, you can see his father basically ripping through Junior. ‘Where’s your dignity? Where’s your manhood?’ But then he changes at a certain point. He becomes a father, instead of the godfather and the boss of the Gambino family. He understand that the life he led can go one or two ways. You die in prison or you die on the street.”
Gotti passed away in 2002 at age 61 from throat cancer. In the tape, an emotional Junior is seen breaking down at the sight of his father. Gotti, who was once hailed as the charismatic Dapper Don who favored $2,000 suits and hand-painted floral silk ties, was struck by the deadly disease that resulted in parts of his jaw being reportedly gone.
“You can see [Junior] crying when he sees his father and how he’s basically disfigured by cancer,” said Stratton. “But even with cancer, his father is making jokes about it. He’s talking about how he had half of his face removed, how he had some muscle taken off and put on his face. He’s like, ‘Yeah, I told your mother I don’t even have tits anymore.’”
Still, Stratton noted Junior was “brave” for coming forward and asking his father “for closure,” an alleged code word for leaving the mob.
“His father wasn’t happy,” said Stratton. “But what’s interesting is you really see the father change… He said, ‘John, if this is what you want to do, you’re your own man. But they will never leave you alone. The government will never accept it. You think they’re going to stop if you plead guilty? They’ll just bring another case. And another case.’
“And when his father died, Junior said, ‘I could still hear my father’s words ringing in my ear. ‘John, they’re never going to leave you alone.’ And Junior went to trial four times after that. His father foretold Junior’s future.”
Junior, who idolized his celebrity father from the time he was a child, was raised to follow in the dominating patriarch’s footsteps. But in the documentary, Junior admitted he didn’t want to suffer from a similar fate and instead, yearned to be a hands-on parent to his own children.
“Why did he want to leave? I think it becomes obvious,” said Stratton. “The life his father chose was not for him. He didn’t really like it. Didn’t want it. Didn’t want to be a part of it. He was drawn into it because of who his dad was. He wanted to go into the military and be a different kind of person.
"But he got captured by the life. Spending time with his father, hanging out at a the social club every day, meeting all these guys, and his father was a huge celebrity. He said his father was an easy person to idolize. That drew him into it. But when his father went to prison, I don’t think there was anything left that [Junior] wanted.”
Gotti was ultimately convicted in 1992 for murder and racketeering. But Stratton said Junior had an epiphany when he attended a family gathering.
“He remembers going to an event and seeing all the women,” said Stratton. “All the men were either dead or in prison… He looked around and felt that if he led the life Gotti had, there was going to be a lot of pain. He didn’t want that. He wanted to be a dad to his kids. He wanted to be a very involved father. He wanted to be an uncle to his nephews and nieces.”
Stratton noted Junior could have easily waited for his terminally ill father to pass away and officially leave the mafia world behind. However, Junior didn’t want to disappoint his father to the very end.
“I think that really proves the kind of man Junior is,” said Stratton. “All he had to do was wait until his father died. He could have said, ‘I’m not going to fight against everything he stands for.’… He was very nervous and tense about asking permission from his father… And to say to his father, who was dying of throat cancer in prison, ‘Dad this is your life, but this is not my life. I want out.’ That struck me as being very brave.”
Some of the FBI agents interviewed for the documentary still believe Junior never left the mob. Some even claimed that both father and son must have acted out the dramatic scene for the courtroom. But Stratton insisted Junior was telling the truth.
“Some believe the only way you quit is to become an informant,” said Stratton. “But Junior doesn’t think so. He chose to leave that life… And based on what we know, he left. We can’t find any involvement in any criminal activity… He chose his blood family over the mafia family."
"Gotti: Father and Son" premieres Saturday, June 9 at 10 p.m. on A&E.