Suited up and sporting a pompadour, “the German” can be seen lurking menacingly outside John Gotti’s social club, the Ravenite, in FBI surveillance footage and news clips from the 1980s. A feared gangland gunslinger, Joe Watts played a pivotal role in organized crime as a strong-arm enforcer who wasn’t afraid to put in the “work.” While relatively unknown outside of criminal circles, Watts participated in the infamous 1985 mob assassination of Paul “Big Paul” Castellano in front of Sparks Steak House in Manhattan that was paramount in propelling Gotti to power.
Being a backup shooter in the Castellano hit really paid off. Watts’ reward? Information, in the form of the loan records of Tommy Bilotti, Castellano’s underboss, who was also killed at Sparks. “Gotti gave Watts Bilotti’s loan shark book, which made Watts a millionaire,” says Ed Scarpo, who runs Cosa Nostra News.
Watts was never made, due to his German blood, but he had an illustrious career by Mafia standards. He started out as a hit man in the 1970s, killing people for the Gambinos during Carlo Gambino’s reign. A lifetime of thieving and murdering culminated with the rubout of Castalleno, Watts’ former boss. With that strategic move, Watts became one of Gotti’s most trusted confidants and rose high in the mob hierarchy.
“Mob sources confirmed for me that he has at least 30 hits under his belt,” Scarpo says. Watts’ work was so valued, Scarpo says, that Castellano “ordered the murder of a made member of the Bonanno crime family, Jerry Chilli, for Watts.” (A drunk Chilli had mouthed off to Watts one night in a Staten Island bar.) The hit was never consummated, though.
Over the years, Watts has faced an array of federal charges, including murder, extortion, loan-sharking and other mob-related activities. The robust mafioso — who is currently serving a 13-year sentence at Federal Correctional Institution Cumberland in Maryland — managed to age gracefully, but never left the life, returning to crime after every prison sentence. Manhattan federal Judge Colleen McMahon said that Watts apparently didn’t know how to live without violence and killing and labeled him a “cold-blooded killer.”
According to court documents, prosecutors said Watts was “accorded the respect of a captain in the Gambino family,” even though he was barred from formal membership in Cosa Nostra because he lacked Italian blood. Scarpo believes Watts was actually a non-made Gambino capo, based on something a former Gambino capo told him. “An unmade member is an associate,” Scarpo explains, noting how his source “specifically told me that Watts wasn’t an associate, which can only mean he held rank.” Such an allowance was kept very quiet, Scapo says, and “only a John Gotti could’ve done that.”
Watts also acted as Gotti’s liaison to the Westies, the Irish street gang under the Gambinos on Manhattan’s West Side, and he owned what the feds called a “fortress” and “magnificent estate” in Sarasota, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The beachfront compound — complete with two large houses, a tennis court, a high-tech security system, a pack of Dobermans and a 10-foot concrete wall — was at the center of a 2001 case against Watts.
Watts was even rumored to have had words with Frank Sinatra on behalf of Gotti. Apparently Gotti believed that the famed crooner had snubbed him. Old Blue Eyes sent Gotti tickets to see him at Carnegie Hall and promised a backstage dinner beforehand, but then reneged, claiming illness. Before the show, Gotti, who was eating at the Savoy Grill, saw Sinatra walk in smiling and joking, seemingly “cured.” Gotti sent Watts to Sinatra’s table, according to John A. Gotti’s Shadow of My Father, where the hit man told the singer, “The next time John sends for you, and you make an excuse, I will be the last face you’ll see on earth.”
In 2011, at the age of 69, Watts was facing the death penalty for a 1989 murder plot involving sanitation executive Frederick Weiss, who was killed on Gotti’s orders when the Dapper Don thought he turned rat. Watts ended up pleading guilty to conspiracy to murder and admitted beating down ex-con Abe Berger, a former prison friend who allegedly lost $400,000 of Watt’s money on the stock market.
“The German” was sentenced to 13 years, and when his lawyers complained that he might not live through the sentence, the judge called Watts a “healthy fellow” who “was accustomed to prison life.” At sentencing, the gravelly-voiced Watts didn’t speak on his own behalf. According to Scarpo, he “will most likely die in prison.”