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While Americans await the opening of "The Godfather, Part III" on Christmas Day, federal prosecutors are staging a Mafia show all their own.

They have succeeded in getting an indictment of reputed Mafia chieftain John Gotti, saying they hope to break the back of his powerful Gambino crime family and put the swaggering "godfather" behind bars for years. Expect this drama to open soon at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn.

Gotti, who despite his snappy suits insists he just peddles zippers and plumbing supplies, was indicted last week on charges of murdering four people, including Paul "Big Paulie" Castellano, the man he allegedly succeeded as head of the Gambino crime family.

Prosecutors say it's estimated 500 "soldiers" are involved in murder, loan-sharking, money-laundering and drug-trafficking. They also allegedly control sizable chunks of the garment and construction industries and have global reach.

Law enforcement experts say that, with the exception of New York City and Chicago, the Mafia's dominance over organized crime has been broken. But the Gambinos have avoided a string of federal prosecutions that have left the city's other four crime families reeling.

Prosecutors acknowledge that Gotti is different from a legion of other reputed mob figures. He is viewed by many ordinary citizens as a "folk hero."

He preens in $2,000 suits, cultivating an image inspired more by Hollywood than his roots in petty crime and truck hijackings. The suits earned him the nickname of "the Dapper Don."

He also is called "the Teflon Don," for having beaten three previous state or federal attempts to put him behind bars.

In his last trial, he was acquitted because no one in the court could understand a word of the secretly recorded tapes played by the prosecution. Law enforcement sources say this time will be different. "You can hear the tapes this time. They are loud, clear and damning," one source said.

"We also got witnesses," he added.

Officials say that for the first time they have witnesses who will put Gotti near the scene of Castellano's 1985 murder outside a Manhattan steak house.

They say they also have a one-time Philadelphia Mafia underboss, who will testify that Gotti boasted in a non-stop monologue that he had "Big Paulie" rubbed out because the old-style don was going to move against him.

The problem, according to officials, was drugs. Castellano didn't want his gang selling them, which is what Gotti and his bother, Gene, were doing, they say.

Gotti remains in jail, pending a decision at a bail hearing now postponed until Friday while U.S. District Judge I. Leo Glasser considers a defense request to close the hearing to the public.

Prosecutors have said six tapes made from listening devices planted in the Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy, one of Gotti's hangouts, will show he is a threat to the community and does not deserve bail. Defense attorney Gerald L. Shargel claimed Gotti's rights to privacy and a fair trial would be violated if the tapes were played in open court.

The New York Post reported that one tape reveals Gotti paid at least $10,000 to a police officer for tipping him off to another wiretap. Federal agents recorded a conversation between Gotti and two co-defendants, Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano and Frank "Frankie Locks" Locascio, during which they agreed to bribe a public servant, authorities said.

Detective William J. Peist, 43, was stripped of his shield and guns and put on desk duty after refusing to cooperate with the FBI, police said Monday. Peist, a 16-year-veteran with four departmental awards, passed a tip that police had bugged Gravano's S&G Construction Co., police said.

No criminal charges were filed, but Peist faces departmental charges for failing to cooperate.

Meanwhile, Gotti wears a prison jumpsuit and is said to be unhappy he is awakened daily at 5 a.m.

His main lawyer, Bruce Cutler, calls the whole thing inhuman and accuses prosecutors of prostituting the Constitution by denying Gotti the presumption of innocence. He calls it, "this Mafia madness."

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