A Murder in Howard Beach, the Ghost of John Gotti and John Travolta in a Wig

Photofest; Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
John Travolta, John Gotti

The brutal slaying of a 30-year-old white woman has some in this Queens neighborhood longing for the law and order days of John Gotti, as Travolta brings the mob boss back to life on the big screen.

HOWARD BEACH, N.Y. – Howard Beach is no stranger to murder, but this latest slaying — on Aug. 2 — has the whole town talking.

The victim was Karina Vetrano, 30, a self-described “thrillseeker” who wrote about her sex life and self-destructive tendencies in candid online journals.

Vetrano was beaten, strangled and raped with a foreign object during her late-afternoon run in the spooky, remote marshland — “the Weeds,” locals call it — that abuts Jamaica Bay. A surveillance video shows a few minutes of her running in the street before she entered the desolate parkland. 

Her father, who normally ran with her but had a back injury and couldn’t go that day, specifically warned her “not to go into the Weeds.” Philip Vetrano, 60, was with the police when they found her body later that evening.

With provocative photos of Karina from her Instagram account all over the front pages of the New York Post and Daily News, along with explicit excerpts from her blog about her sex life and flirtation with the “dark side,” the still-unsolved Vetrano killing has had a retro, late 1970s-in-New York vibe, although the racial and gender elements have flipped. In the past, when mob chief John Gotti ran these streets, it wasn’t white women who got killed in Howard Beach — it was black men, like the Michael Griffith murder 30 years ago (when a 23-year-old black man was killed while running into oncoming traffic to avoid a mob of white kids attacking him).

Ironically, Vetrano’s slaying occurred just a week after filming began on The Life and Death of John Gotti, a John Travolta movie that largely takes place in Howard Beach (although it’s actually being shot in Cincinnati). The film attempts to recapture the days when the Gambino family made this suburban Italian-American neighborhood in Queens arguably one of the safest in the five boroughs — as long as you looked like you belonged there.

Back in the day, locals will tell you, nobody would dare lay a hand on a local girl like Vetrano. John Gotti’s grandson, Johnny Gotti, called Vetrano a “sweetheart"; he and his friends took to Facebook to decry her murder. “This disaster would've never happened before the government locked the good guys up in that neighborhood,” Johnny Gotti wrote. “They did a better job then [sic] the bullshit patrol we have now. The neighborhood was something to fear then apparently not anymore and we lost one of our own due to it.”

WABC radio personality Curtis Sliwa, now 62, who founded the crime-fighting Guardian Angels almost 30 years ago (and who narrowly survived a gunshot wound during a kidnapping attempt in 1992 allegedly ordered by John Gotti Jr.), began patrolling “the Weeds” at the end of August.

Sliwa, who always has been an arch-enemy of the Gotti family, said he was following up on clues he got from a local “confidential informant.” His radio show frequently featured the case throughout September, and Karina’s parents have come on as guests.

Since August, the main topic of conversation in Howard Beach during the backyard pool parties at the Sopranos-like mini-mansions was the Vetrano slaying, how it symbolized a changing Howard Beach — and how many missed the Gotti era. As the investigation continues into its third month, police at the 106th Precinct say they still don’t have a suspect, despite at least 104 tips, and believe it was a random killing.

“It’s been like the Son of Sam summer around here with this murder,” says longtime resident Anthony Russo, 61. “But now it’s turning more into the JonBenet [Ramsey] case because they can’t find the killer. This never would have happened if John Gotti were still alive.”

Gotti died of cancer in prison in 2002 at age 61 after eluding conviction in three previous criminal trials. On location in Cincinnati, Travolta wore a wig that mimicked Gotti’s graying pompadour and seemed to nail his swagger. The Travolta movie, in the works for more than five years with various stars and directors attached, is based partly on the book In the Shadow of My Father, by Gotti’s son John Jr., who is also one of the producers. Kevin Connolly directs. Scheduled for release in February 2017, the film depicts the godfather’s later years and his long, painful death in prison. It’s also about John Gotti Jr.’s attempt to leave “the life” after serving time himself.

“Junior,” as he’s called, regularly posts pictures and complimentary comments about Travolta and the cast from the set on his Instagram account — as does his sister, Angel Gotti — but all may not have gone as smoothly as his feed would indicate. His longtime assistant, Big Steve, tells THR that Gotti “has some concerns about the movie that he can’t talk about yet.”

Things rarely went smoothly in his father’s life either, even as John Gotti rose to the top of the Gambino family and eluded prosecutors for years. But one thing that remained stable was Gotti’s all-white Howard Beach.

In addition to the 1986 racial incident, there were others. In 2005, for example, a group of white men with baseball bats set upon three black men only a few blocks from the site of the 1986 beating. One of the victims’ skull was fractured and an earring ripped from his ear.

Howard Beach is still a place where they refer to African-Americans as “moulignons,” a racial slur that is a warped version of the Italian word for eggplant. The talk around Vetro’s seaside restaurant, where Karina Vetrano worked as a waitress, was that the killer must have been a “moulignon” who entered the Weeds from predominantly black East New York.

But the most sensational murder of the summer is turning into a cold case as autumn descends, despite a more than $300,000 reward for the killer and the support of what remains of the Gotti family. On Aug. 31, police released a sketch of an African-American male who they said was not a suspect or a person of interest, but was believed to be a witness who was seen near the East New York entrance to the Weeds, long a dumping ground for bodies offed by the Mafia. 

“That’s always their excuse, they always say the black guy did it,” says Russo. “When Gotti had Paulie Castellano killed at Sparks steakhouse they said they were black guys at first. They only sold their drugs in black neighborhoods and made sure to keep Howard Beach clean.”

Gotti himself was taped in jail railing against what he often called “n—ers.” “Being a n—er is an embarrassment,” he told his daughter Victoria during a prison visit. “Being John Gotti’s grandson is an honor.”

But in the old Howard Beach, the “black guy” was never the perpetrator. “Blacks were the ones who were afraid to come here,” says Charles McLellan, 48, who recalled roaming the area as a junior high and high school student as part of “gangs of little gangster wannabes” who “beat up any weak kids we came across.” Now, says McLellan, Howard Beach is not quite as white as it was and the generation under 30 “is almost colorblind.” 

Another longtime Howard Beach resident, Dominick Salerno, 57, says he knows his views aren’t politically correct but that “back in my day, we played sports with the black kids but we all went home to our own neighborhoods at night and it worked best that way. My daughter and her friends don’t see things my view, but I think it’s all going to come back and bite her generation in the ass.”

As if to eerily emphasize even more how things have changed in Howard Beach, Gotti’s grandson Johnny Gotti was arrested two days after Karina’s murder on charges of running a drug ring out of his grandfather’s home — a place Gotti Sr. considered so sacred he never did business from there. Until this summer, police never managed to get a warrant to enter it.

When THR visited the iconic but surprisingly modest two-story home on a small lot, one of John Gotti’s other grandsons was willing to talk a little, he said, about the movie and what a great job Travolta was doing as his grandfather — but only on the sidewalk.

“Don’t go near the house!” he said. “You can’t go near the house.”

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