How a Little Alliteration Muddled Mobsters Sent to Muscle Local Merchant
When workmen carted off the last remains of one of Battery Park City’s first businesses, the Bulls & Bears Winery, during the July Fourth weekend, they carried with them a piece of the neighborhood’s more colorful history.
The plastic sign, with its depiction of a bull and a bear that for the better part of four decades hung above the door of the liquor store at 309 South End Avenue, was the victim in 1986 of a mistaken-identity gangland shooting.
As the sign was about to be dumpstered, proprietor Steve Siemiatkowski (now of Las Vegas) pointed out the patched-over bullet hole left by a slug fired from a passing car by gangsters who couldn’t shoot straight. “Wiseguys were sending a warning, only they got the wrong place,” he said. “They meant to hit Bankers & Brokers [a steak house under construction two doors down at 301 South End, the site of today’s Treadwell Park sports bar] and got Bulls & Bears instead.”
The intended target was both a family restaurant and a corner laundry, but not of the sort normally associated with this quiet residential neighborhood. At the time of the drive-by, Bankers & Brokers was at the center of a dispute that involved then newly anointed Godfather of the Gambino crime family, John Gotti, a silent-partner owner of the eatery, and a corrupt carpenters union official with ties to the Genovese family, then bitter and bloody rivals of the Gambinos. Freelance gunmen, members of the notorious Hell’s Kitchen gang known as the Westies, had supporting roles in a separate, but related shooting incident at the carpenters union Manhattan headquarters.
Trouble had begun in February 1986 when, The New York Times reported, thugs allegedly dispatched by John O’Connor, a mobbed-up Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners local vice-president previously indicted for extorting bribes from construction contractors, broke into Bankers & Brokers and committed $30,000 worth of damage. The vandalism was ordered, law enforcement authorities determined, because the restaurant’s off-the-record owner, Paul Medico, identified by police as a soldier in the Gambino family, refused to pay off O’Connor for using non-union labor to construct Bankers & Brokers.
Three months later, on May 7, 1986, O’Connor was ambushed by four shooters as he waited for an elevator in the lobby of his union headquarters on Broadway at 51st Street. Shot four times in the legs and buttocks, O’Connor survived and, according to Selwyn Raab’s definitive Mob history epic, Five Families, claimed that he did not know that Bankers & Brokers was “protected” by another Mob family.
Secret wiretaps planted by the FBI in Gotti’s Ravenite Social Club headquarters on Mulberry Street in Little Italy captured the Gambino boss in the first weeks of his reign—he had succeeded his predecessor Big Paul Castellano, after orchestrating his execution in front of Sparks steakhouse at Christmastime, 1985—as he ordered the tit-for-tat teaching point hit on O’Connor. Gotti wanted to “bust him up” he said on tapes later heard in court, in retaliation for busting up Bankers & Brokers. The job was out-sourced to the Westies.
The hit team included one notorious killer turned informant who would later testify in court against Gotti, who was arrested and indicted, along with the previously charged O’Connor, in 1989, by the Manhattan D.A.’s office investigating labor racketeering and the Mob’s hammerlock control of the New York City construction industry.
Evidence of the Mob’s role in Battery Park City’s development has long been rumored to be found in the poured concrete towers of Gateway Plaza and throughout the adjacent World Financial Center (now Brookfield Place), as well as in the World Trade Center across West Street, where the body of a Gambino capo in charge of the family’s contract to fireproof the Twin Towers was found in the trunk of a Lincoln abandoned in the WTC parking garage in 1990.
As for the warning shot mistakenly fired at the Bulls & Bears liquor store, presumably in retaliation for the retaliatory hit on O’Connor, the perpetrators have never been identified.
For his part in the O’Connor shooting, Gotti was acquitted of all charges in his 1990 jury trial, cementing his status as the untouchable Teflon Don. For a brief few years he was a familiar figure in our family-friendly neighborhood and a frequent customer at Bankers & Brokers, which was repaired and opened months after its trashing. Like many Mob-owned restaurants, it served a double role as a purveyor of steaks and a convenient laundry for the washing of his crime family’s dirty cash. Longtime residents recall that underlings often idled their cars for hours at the curb on South End Avenue at Albany Street, saving a choice spot in front of the restaurant and driving off upon the approach of Gotti’s chauffeured Lincoln when the Don arrived to dine.
But Gotti’s regal reign and his freedom to roam ended for good with his 1992 conviction for five murders—among them that of the Gambino captain trunked in the trade center parking garage—and other crimes for which he was sentenced to prison for life without parole.
Like Gotti, who died in 2002, Bankers & Brokers is long gone but the building it occupied remains. Sadly for residents, the Bulls & Bears liquor store and the beloved pizza parlor next door, which like it, served the community throughout the existence of Battery Park City and that survived, then thrived in the severely wounded neighborhood’s resurgence in the wake of the September 2001 terror attacks, are no more, victims of a whacking committed not by the Mob or terrorists, but by a landlord desirous of higher rents.
Even that weathered white plastic sign, with its bullet hole reminder of an all-but-forgotten history, is gone.