He often shuffles along the sidewalks of his Greenwich Village neighborhood dressed in a bathrobe and slippers and babbling to himself. Vincent (Chin) Gigante, 62, looks as if he can barely attend to his own affairs, much less oversee the country's most powerful Mob family. His lawyers contend that Chin, a former glass-jawed prizefighter (hence the nickname), is mentally ill. But federal agents believe his behavior is an act designed to avoid prosecution. Recalls John Pritchard, a former FBI supervisor: "Once in 1985 I saw Gigante walk outdoors in a bathrobe. He climbed into a car, and several blocks later the robe came off and he was wearing a suit and tie."
Genuine insanity would be dangerous for someone in Gigante's reputed line of work. A Mafia gambling czar named Willie Moretti was shot to death in 1951 because he had become mentally ill and was talking too much. That doesn't appear to be the case with Gigante, who has carefully avoided spilling any secrets about his long career with the Genovese family. Gigante has a rap sheet going back four decades, with arrests for bookmaking, gambling, receiving stolen goods and handgun possession. In most cases the charges were dropped or reduced, but in the early 1960s Gigante served five years in prison on drug charges, along with then godfather Vito Genovese. He apparently resolved to avoid the slammer: before this May, Gigante was arrested only once more, in 1970 on charges of trying to bribe the entire police force of Old Tappan, N.J. Gigante got the charges dropped after submitting a hospital report stating that he was mentally unfit to stand trial.
Since Gigante's arrest in May on racketeering charges, his competence has been the primary legal issue. Gigante's lawyers say they have 2,000 pages of medical records that will prove Gigante has suffered from depression and schizophrenia since 1969. "Sometimes he talks to inanimate objects, like trees, and sometimes he talks to animals that aren't there," explains Gigante lawyer Michael Shapiro. An official who tried to serve Gigante with a subpoena once entered his mother's apartment and found the gangster naked in the shower--with an umbrella over his head.
Investigative journalist William Bastone, who is writing a book about Gigante and his younger brother Louis, a controversial Roman Catholic priest, says he believes Chin really has gone mad in recent years. Gigante is now undergoing a couchful of psychiatric tests, and a federal judge may rule next month on whether he is competent to stand trial. Until then, he rests in a locked unit at a psychiatric hospital in upstate New York. His brother is outraged at the federal prosecutors. "If I had an American flag in front of me, I would spit on it and burn it," shouted Louis over his car phone last week as he drove to visit his brother. "He should be allowed to come home."
But New York prosecutor Charles Rose is willing to concede very little. "There are probably some psychological problems in his makeup, but that doesn't make him incapable of running the family," says Rose. "Gigante is one of the most astute crime bosses you'll ever encounter."
By Richard Behar.
Copyright (c) TIME Magazine, 1995 TIME Inc. Magazine Company; (c) 1995 Compact Publishing, Inc.