Ex-Mobsters Can’t Escape Their Criminal History — So They Promote It on YouTube

mobsters-youtube-illo.jpg - Credit: Art by Rolling Stone. Images used in composite by cyano66/Getty Images; ansonsaw/Getty Images
mobsters-youtube-illo.jpg - Credit: Art by Rolling Stone. Images used in composite by cyano66/Getty Images; ansonsaw/Getty Images

Sammy Gravano is reflecting on the old days. “I grab him in a bear hug, the [van] door comes flying open, guys come running out,” he says, sitting back in a leather armchair, his voice gravelly. But Gravano isn’t reminiscing about some rough-and-tumble prank from his youth; he’s recounting the kidnapping and gangland slaying of Philadelphia gangster John “Johnny Keys” Simone forty years ago. Gravano is Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, the onetime underboss of New York’s notorious Gambino crime family, and these days, he’s giving up all his best stories as — what else? — a creator.

The story of Simone’s murder makes up two episodes of Our Thing, the podcast series Gravano hosts on his YouTube channel. “Louie Milito — with a .357 Magnum I believe it was that he had — he hit [Simone] in the head,” says Gravano, who infamously turned state’s evidence against his boss John Gotti in 1991. “His body is down. He hits him two or three more times.” Since the videos were uploaded in March 2021, they are each approaching 1.5 million views.

More from Rolling Stone

At 77, Gravano is one of the most prominent figures on what can be labeled “Mafia YouTube,” a corner of the platform that features ex-mobsters and their associates talking about their lives in organized crime or offering their takes on current events. Some have their own pages. Others guest on shows run by both former wiseguys and Mob enthusiasts-cum-amateur historians. Popular interview channels such as VladTV and Valuetainment, which aren’t solely Mafia-focused, have formed associations with the scene, attracting millions of clicks to their videos featuring erstwhile gangsters. Ex-affiliates from all five New York Mafia families are active on YouTube, and old Mob strongholds like Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia are represented, too.

“It’s talking and reflecting [on] what I am and what I did,” says Gravano simply of his YouTube programming. Two years after getting out of prison in 2017, he was interviewed about his life on Valuetainment by host Patrick Bet-David. The chat has received 17 million views and was a catalyst in Gravano starting his own YouTube venture. In just two years of making original videos, he has amassed 520,000 subscribers. He is not alone in turning YouTube into the Mafia’s latest racket: Michael Franzese, a caporegime with the Colombos who later became a born again Christian, is verging on one million.

YouTube is the newest and most intimate frontier of a classic phenomenon where those who have left the American Mafia try to build a brand off their time in “the life.” “Ex-wiseguys and their family members have been looking to sell something, anything, even their own notoriety, to make a buck for years,” says Mafia journalist and author Jerry Capeci. “It’s the American way.” Gravano, who confessed to taking part in 19 murders, has had videos sponsored by online therapy provider BetterHelp. “Joe Bonanno and his son Bill wrote books; Junior Gotti made a movie; his sister Victoria and her three sons had a TV show; Henry Hill had a cottage industry after Goodfellas,” Capeci adds. For former mobsters who still need to make a living, YouTube offers a chance to repurpose their past criminality toward marketable ends without even signing a publishing contract. In the U.S., where Mafia media has been consistently popular since the 1970s, it’s a shot at fame many can’t refuse.

youtube mobsters organized crime mafia brooklyn new york
Gravano in 2022.

ALMOST EVERY EX-MAFIOSO on YouTube left the Mob by cooperating with the federal government. Since the 1980s, developments in legal methods — the draconian RICO and Sentencing Reform Acts abolished federal parole and expanded penalties on crimes performed under a criminal organization — and forensic and surveillance technologies have significantly weakened the Mafia. Longer sentences became more prevalent and it is easier to get convicted, which has increased the number of mobsters who have “flipped” — working with the Department of Justice against their Mob brothers — to avoid spending decades in prison.

When Anthony Arillotta, a former leader in the Genovese crime family’s Springfield, Massachusetts, faction, was charged in 2010 for felonies including murder, his first instinct was to fight the case. Staring down a bleak future, however, he decided to cooperate.

“When you’re going to jail for the rest of your life, come on!” he says. “You gotta look at it like this: What did I live for? Do I make a decision here to keep my family and get back to life one day, or do I go rot in jail the rest of my life? For me, it’s an easy decision.” Over the past two years, Arillotta, 54, has become a well-known face on Mafia YouTube, appearing on a variety of scene-adjacent shows. At the end of last month, he started making videos on his own channel, Anthony Arillotta MONEY MAYHEM and the MAFIA, the first of which was shot at Springfield’s Lady of Mount Carmel Society Social Club in a room that looks like Richie Aprile’s hangout in The Sopranos.

Part of any deal with the government involves confessing to the crimes one has committed; the confessor is granted immunity and the freedom to speak openly about prior offenses. It’s how Arillotta, for instance, is able to discuss his participation in the killing of Springfield mafioso Adolfo “Big Al” Bruno.

“[My life] is an open book,” he says. “I pled guilty to everything, so I can talk about it.” Following his release from prison in 2017, Arillotta chose not to enter the Witness Protection Program. He still lives in his hometown, unbothered by the threat of retaliation from a Mob much diminished since its 20th-century glory days.

“They’d rather put guys ‘on the shelf’ now,” notes former Boston-born mobster Bobby Luisi, referencing the contemporary Mafia practice of ostracizing objectionable members rather than killing them. “Murder brings the heat.” This change in protocol makes “rats” feel safer today about going public with their Mob experiences. On Wednesday nights, 61-year-old Luisi, also born-again, broadcasts live-streamed Q&As on his channel, From Capo to Christian With Bobby Luisi, where listeners can probe him on his past life, though the conversation often drifts to other topics. On a recent airing, he raved about his love of tortellini and Ron DeSantis.

IF THE SOPRANOS BROUGHT its audience inside a mobster’s home, Mafia YouTube lets viewers live vicariously through the people who were actually there. It is an online community reveling in nostalgia for an offline way of life. The roster of characters could fill volumes of pulpy literature. Tales of crime family mutinies, sons testifying against fathers, absurd celebrity shakedowns, and lucrative gas-tax scams have become folklore in this social media milieu; storytelling gangsters have recreated a world where goombahs in garish attire play cards in espresso-stenched social clubs until sunrise. For every mobster who leaves the scene, a new one seemingly emerges, providing fresh perspectives. One of the latest additions is former Gambino “made man” Michael “Mikey Scars” DiLeonardo, who started his channel, Mikey Scars, this past summer.

The content can be startling in its blasé depictions of violence. Ex-Gambino family associate John Alite can rattle off a list of men he claims he had altercations with “on the street” so fast it’s as though he has them memorized for show.

“I could give you fifteen names right quick that I shot,” says Alite, whose page has nearly 60,000 subscribers. “Paul Forgione, Ricky Stratton, Georgie Grosso, Stevie Newell, Mike Livigni… Mike Pipp… Nicky Pasquale, my own distant cousin… I baseball-batted the Kryzanowski brothers, I baseball-batted the Keegans.” Alite has given speeches at schools deterring kids from crime, yet offers critiques of video game assassins (“That’s what I would have did,” he says as one character kicks another off a ledge) and sells custom baseball bats on his website for $200. He did play baseball in his younger years, but it’s hard not to chuckle at the subtext.

As Mafia YouTube pages grow, it is not uncommon for hosts to diversify their output, hoping they can expand into fields like business strategy and politics. Their charisma and shrewd confidence is not unlike many of today’s get-rich-quick “grindset” influencers. In October, Gravano premiered a new segment called The Bullpen, where he wields his authority as a tough-talking gangster to provide a blunt perspective on the news of the day. One topic he particularly wants to address is the U.S. opioid epidemic, a crisis he thinks is so dreadful he “can’t be quiet no more.”

“I did a lot of fucked up things in my life,” Gravano admits. “Maybe this is my way to pay back?” Post-Mafia career, Gravano served a 20-year sentence for being part of an Arizona ecstasy drug ring, but considers fentanyl peerless in its destructive capabilities. His anti-opioid PSA comes off as surprisingly sincere thanks to his anger about the issue.

“There’s a limit to the content that you can create that’s original — the stories you haven’t told before,” says Mafia historian and author Scott Deitche. “In order to smartly keep their brand, [they need] to branch out to other things.” Just this September, Gravano announced that he is in discussion with a film production company about adapting a version of his life for the big screen. His reputation as a YouTube raconteur has opened the door to bigger projects and greater financial reward.

Like all creators looking to make money on YouTube, mafiosi are subject to the website’s stringent monetization policies. Revenue can be generated, but for many it is a tool to grow their online image. “Sammy has developed a decent income from YouTube, which is just enough to put every penny back into the business, expand his team, and reinvest into future projects,” says Melissa Sutkowski, head of operations and producer at Debra’s Way, Gravano’s production company with 10 employees on staff. “The number varies by month, depending on views, however the number isn’t going to make headlines.” Luisi, whose audience is much smaller, claims he has made $1,500 in a month from Mafia content. His Wednesday live-streams, which he calls “the staple for my show,” allows viewers to pay him directly through the platform’s Super Chat function.

IT IS TELLING that Mafia YouTube has emerged in an era where the actual Mob is a shadow of its former self. Profitable rackets like gambling have become licit, would-be recruits grew up comfortably in the suburbs, and legal and technological innovations broke crime families’ kneecaps. The most exciting Mafia action in America took place decades ago, which suits rose-colored internet storytelling well.

A question that inevitably trails the community is whether its members are truly sorry for their past actions. Many ex-mobsters claim to now see the error of their ways but walk a contradictory line. Few I spoke with completely disavow the Mafia; they reminisce about the camaraderie, occasionally pointing out things they wish had gone differently. Luisi, who sold cocaine, dislikes drug dealing, while Larry Mazza — who vividly recounted his role in a Colombo family gang war murder to 2.5 million views — says if it were up to him he’d “make sure there’s no killing because that’s gonna be the downfall.”

Even though he has no personal channel, Mazza uses the Mafia YouTube interview circuit to promote his autobiography and his authority on Mob matters. (In addition to now running a fitness facility in Merritt Island, Florida, he is the host of The Life, a Mafia-themed interview series on Plex’s MOB TV.) When I asked him what he thinks about his time in la cosa nostra, he answered with unconflicted honesty: “I’m not ashamed of being a very successful bookmaker,” he says.During the [Colombo] war, I have zero regrets. You can call me anything you want. They were trying to kill me and I wasn’t going to sit there and let them do it.”

Mazza, 62, does not consider himself a hitman because he never killed anyone not involved with the Mafia, nor was he ever paid for such work; he called his cooperation agreement a “business decision” brought on by seeing other Colombo members flip, including his mentor, Greg “The Grim Reaper” Scarpa.

“It’s not so much remorse,” Gravano says about the motivations for his post-Mafia YouTube career. “I don’t use that as an excuse: ‘Oh, I want to help kids.’ I can live with myself because I’m honest and I’m sincere. Guys will say, ‘Did you find God in jail?’ Nah, I really didn’t bump into him.”

Luisi, who works as an estimator for a flooring company, is fine with keeping YouTube a side hustle. “I’m not like Sammy [Gravano] and Mike [Franzese]. I don’t push it that much. I’m content with what I’m doing,” he says. Upon leaving the Witness Protection Program in 2018, Luisi has, at times, found it difficult holding down steady employment. “Once they found out who I was, they didn’t want me working at their places. Today, they Google you, they see everything and they get nervous.” Ironically, this conundrum has led former gangsters to retreat into places like YouTube to self-promote because they can’t escape their criminal history.

Arillotta, on the other hand, looks at Gravano and Franzese’s success as inspiration. Since exiting the Mob, he has found work but is unsatisfied with the lack of status it brings him compared to his Mafia days. Setting up his channel is a move he sees as a first step in building a future venture arsenal that could include books and speaking engagements. “What is the best approach for me to give me the life I had before in my past? The money life, the living-good life. For me, it is my past life, but capitalizing on it,” he says. “You’re not going to get rich by doing interviews. You gotta get into a niche. I’m not on that level yet, but that’s where I’m hoping to be.”

Best of Rolling Stone

Click here to read the full article.