NEW YORK (AP) – Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, the powerful mob boss who avoided jail for decades by wandering the Greenwich Village streets in a ratty bathrobe and slippers as part of an elaborate feigned mental illness, died Monday in prison, federal officials said. He was 77.

Gigante died at the U.S. Medical Center for federal prisoners in Springfield, Mo., said prison spokesman Al Quintero. The cause of death was not immediately known, but Quintero said Gigante had a history of heart disease.

Dubbed the “Oddfather” for his bizarre behavior, the former Genovese crime family head, an ex-boxer whose lengthy string of victories over prosecutors ended with a July 1997 racketeering conviction, finally admitted his insanity ruse at an April 2003 court hearing.

After nearly a quarter-century of public craziness, Gigante calmly pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for his deception. He then chatted amiably with his son, shook hands with defense lawyers and even laughed at one point.

“God bless you,” he told the judge, offering a broad wave goodbye before leaving the Brooklyn courtroom. Gigante was jailed in the medical ward at the federal prison in Springfield – the same facility where rival mob boss John Gotti died.

Denying he was a gangster, Gigante would wander the streets of his native Greenwich Village in nightclothes, muttering incoherently. Relatives, including a brother was who a Roman Catholic priest, insisted Gigante suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Authorities charged it was a brazen act to avoid the law – although it wasn’t until 1997 that a jury agreed, and it took another six years for Gigante to concede his subterfuge. At the height of his power, Gigante’s empire stretched from the booths at Little Italy’s San Gennaro Festival to the docks of Miami.

“The looney tunes act served Gigante well – it kept him out of prison for 30 years – but in the end he was the victim of his own crazy act. He never had a chance to enjoy the fruits of his plunder, and he told some people that if given the chance, he wouldn’t do it that way again,” said Jerry Capeci, a Mafia expert and author of six books on organized crime.

For the man described by The New York Times Magazine as “the last great Mafioso of the century,” his admission was the final act in a 50-year career spanning the era of the old-time, publicity-shy “Mustache Petes” and the modern-day Mafia of the swaggering Gotti.

Gigante looked the part, a stocky figure with a pugilist’s face and 1940s Brylcreem pompadour. Mob experts called him a traditional boss, trusted by others, who settled issues by whatever means – verbal or violent – were required.

His fall from power was sealed in a Brooklyn courtroom where a parade of six turncoat mobsters, led by ex-Gotti underboss Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, described “Chin’s” power in the Genovese clan and the “Commission,” organized crime’s ruling directorate.

The trial was a spectacle, with Gigante in a wheelchair, mumbling silently, seemingly oblivious to the proceedings. His lawyers claimed they could not communicate in any “meaningful way” with a client who didn’t know where he was, or why.

At one point the trial turned into a “battle of the wheelchairs,” with testimony from Peter Chiodo, a 300-plus-pound mobster who had survived a ganglaand execution only because his fat stopped a dozen bullets.

None of that swayed jurors, who convicted Gigante of racketeering, extortion and plotting the murder – never carried out – of ex-mob associate Peter Savino.

“Defendant has been consistently feigning insanity for many years and is still doing so in a shrewd attempt to avoid punishment for his crimes,” U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein said in sentencing Gigante to 12 years in prison.

“He is a shadow of his former self – an old man finally brought to bay in his declining years after decades of vicious criminal tyranny.”

The verdict was a major blow to a Mafia already reeling from defections and convictions under the federal racketeering statute. Although Gigante allegedly ran the family from prison, the Genovese clan joined the city’s four other mob families in disarray after he was jailed.

Lawyer Michael Marinaccio, who led Gigante’s defense team, said Monday that “putting aside the mental stuff,” Gigante had suffered from “a multitude of medical issues relating to the heart,” and had undergone open heart surgery twice, in 1988 and 1996.

Recently when he complained of breathing difficulties, his family obtained a court order to have him treated at a hospital outside the prison until about two weeks ago, Marinaccio said in a telephone interview.

“Vincent was very frail, and I have to say the prison medical care was substandard, no matter where he was,” Marinaccio said. “The family is very close, they made regular visits, and I feel especially bad for them,” he added.

Born in the Bronx in 1928, one of five sons of Italian immigrant parents, Gigante was nicknamed “Chin” – short for “Vincenzo” – by his mother. He became a small-time boxer and drifted into the crime family founded in 1931 by legendary gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano.

In 1957, Gigante was the hitman in a botched attempt to assassinate then-boss Frank Costello. After refusing to name his attacker in court, the shaken Costello retired, making Gigante’s patron, Vito Genovese, kingpin of the family that still bears his name.

Over time, Gigante proved better at beating the law than Gotti, the so-called “Teflon Don” who won two acquittals before tapes and turncoats sent him to prison for life. Prior to 1997, Gigante had served only a five-year heroin rap in 1959.

As boss, Gigante’s watchword was secrecy. A sign at his headquarters warned, “Don’t talk. This place is bugged.” He held Commission meetings in his mother’s apartment house. Fellow mobsters, ordered never to say his name in public, referred to him by stroking their chins.

He also turned his claim of mental illness – first used to escape trial in a 1970 police-bribery case – into a full-time strategy, behaving weirdly in public, checking into psychiatric treatment clinics whenever the FBI turned up the heat.

There were comic-opera moments: Once, agents serving a subpoena found Gigante standing naked in the shower, holding an umbrella. Another time, upon spotting agents watching him, he fell to the sidewalk and prayed.

Such maneuvers paid off. In 1985 a federal crackdown on the Commission indicted 12 top hoodlums – but not Gigante, who some experts said was the actual leader.

Yet even “Chin’s” ruses were not always airtight; some mob cronies slipped up, and the FBI eventually obtained tapes of Gigante acting normally in private. Later, prison psychologists also said he appeared rational at times.

Gigante had eight children by his wife and a mistress, both named Olympia. Relatives, led by Rev. Louis Gigante, his priest-brother and most ardent defender, filled three rows at the 1997 trial.

Louis Gigante was in court when his brother finally admitted to faking his illness.

Associated Press Writer Marcus Kabel in Springfield, Mo., contributed to this report.

AP-ES-12-19-05 1706EST

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