NEW YORK — Francesco Cali wore the label quietly: old school. The reputed boss of the Gambino crime family was nothing like John J. Gotti, the “Dapper Don” who ruled the same operation when Cali was a young man.
He kept a low profile in his Staten Island neighborhood, yet he met the same bloody fate as many of his predecessors Wednesday night, gunned down in the street outside his brick home in a brazen assassination that recalled the mob wars of decades past.
Cali, 53, was shot six times around 9:20 p.m., police said. Neighbors heard a staccato burst of gunshots — “pow-pow-pow-pow-pow,” one said Wednesday night — all the same volume, as if fired from the same gun. A blue pickup truck was spotted fleeing the scene, police said.
Cali was pronounced dead at Staten Island University Hospital.
The bloody attack stood out against its serene setting on Hilltop Terrace: a tree-lined, curving lane of stately homes with circular driveways and swimming pools. Cali’s body lying on the street was a throwback to black-and-white photographs from Mafia assassinations past in Manhattan.
Former Gambino boss Paul Castellano was gunned down outside Sparks Steak House in Midtown in 1985, a power grab orchestrated by a young Gotti, who ran the family through the late 1980s.
Cali rose quickly through the ranks of the family, becoming a “made” member in the late 1990s, on the way to a “swift promotion” to acting captain in less than 10 years, a prosecutor, Joey Lipton, said at a 2008 detention hearing after Cali’s arrest in an extortion case. In US District Court in Brooklyn, Lipton cited Cali’s “familial and blood ties” to the Gambino family tracing back to Sicily.
His wife, Rosaria Inzerillo, had several relatives associated with the Gambino family, including her cousin, Tommy Gambino, according to a prosecution memorandum related to that hearing. Cali started out in a crew under a rising captain, John D. D’Amico, known as Jackie, who became acting boss of the family around 2005.
Prosecutors said Cali tapped connections in Italy, importing many members and associates in his crew, and where he was seen as a man of “influence and power” by other crime figures.
In one wiretapped call, two mobsters speaking in Italian were overheard discussing Cali. “He’s a friend of ours,” one said, “He is everything over there.”
Cali was arrested only once, in a 2008 extortion case involving a failed attempt to build a NASCAR track in Staten Island. The Gambino family controlled the trucking operation that would have hauled the dirt to fill the track’s foundation.
Cali pleaded guilty to extortion conspiracy and was sentenced to 16 months in prison.
He was remembered as a good neighbor on Hilltop Terrace. “He waved to me; I wave to him; I don’t ask no questions,” said Mike Deluca, whose house was behind Cali’s. A 76-year-old woman who lives nearby recalled hearing the shots.
Cali rose to power largely by avoiding detection, law enforcement officials said. Other captains were not allowed to call him directly, and he avoided speaking on the phone.
“He’s directing the activity from above,” Lipton, the prosecutor, said. He added: “Cali did not have to get his hands dirty.”
“He was very, very, very low-key,” the law enforcement official said. “He’s basically a ghost. Where Gotti was always out, he was a ghost. You wouldn’t see him at social clubs or nightclubs or boxing matches.”