'Gotti: Father and Son' director Richard Stratton has had as interesting a life as subject of his docu-series, and we will soon get to see it on TV
Stratton's memoir, 'Kingpin: Prisoner of War on Drugs,' about the eight years he spent in prison, is being turned into a TV show
Richard Stratton is the man who made A&E's docu-series about the famous and often-romanticized mob boss John Gotti Sr and his son John Gotti Jr a reality. The director, producer and writer met the subject of his biography during his own incarceration in the 80s and went on to meet the primary subject of the series – Gotti Jr — eventually, during his trial.
Unlike most other filmmakers, Stratton is not interested in the mob life of Gotti Sr. Instead, he wanted to narrate the story of the son who wanted to leave the mob life behind. The reason: the story of Gotti Sr has been told far too many times.
As exciting as the Gotti family's story is, Stratton has led an equally exciting one. From a drug kingpin to a bestselling author to a successful filmmaker, Stratton's journey has been anything but predictable and boring. During the course of this journey he has not only interacted with Gotti Sr and his family, but also with the infamous gangster Whitey Bulger, who was "definitely the most powerful organized crime gangster in Boston."
"He controlled the Irish mob, which was in many ways more powerful in Boston than the Gotti mob — the Irish had been around a lot longer and they were more feared and more relevant," reveals Stratton, before detailing the circumstances in which they met.
Stratton smuggled marijuana and hashish from around the world during the time of its highest demand. The Boston mafia heard about his business and tried to extort him, which is when Whitey's help saved him.
"What happened was I had imported some hashish from Lebanon and landed at the airport in Boston and I had made an arrangement with a guy who was an air luggage handler. We used to pay him off and he would clear our loads without having to go through customs," Stratton explains.
The mafia in Boston found out about the arrangement and made Stratton go over for a "sit-down". "They told me that from now on, I need to pay them a million dollars in cash and I’m gonna have to give half of everything that I brought in through the airport to them," he relates.
"I said I can’t do that. Firstly, I don’t have a million dollars in cash, and secondly, if I gave that away, I won't have any money. It became this whole stand-off — this Lebanese guy who was my boss at the time told me I shouldn't give them any money. He asked me to just tell them I wasn't going to do it," Stratton elaborates.
When he found out that the mafia, which already threatened to kill him, had also put a target on his back, he met up with an Irish guy he knew that was working with Whitey.
On his suggestion, Stratton met up with Whitey at a real estate broker’s office and told him the situation and he said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.” And sure enough, a couple of weeks later he learned that the contract has been lifted. However, this meant continuing to pay off Whitey.
"The point is Whitey was the most powerful gangster in Boston. If you were gonna go up against Whitey, he was going to control the situation, which is what he did."
However, Stratton's life on the edge and the exceptionally strict rules against dealing marijuana, which he reiterates is a plant that grows naturally in our world, landed him in jail. He was incarcerated for eight years, during which time he did accomplish the proud task of writing two books and learning about the American legal system, the knowledge of which he used to get himself out.
On his experience being locked up, Stratton says, the first thing that comes to his mind about what he missed inside his cell is women. "When you are locked up in prison you don’t see any women. That’s the first think I would say, but also good food. You miss good food."
However, it is ultimately the simple things in life that Stratton ached for. "When I got out of prison the first thing I wanted to do was walk down the street, go into a café, buy a copy of the New York Times, or a cappuccino and sit down to read a newspaper. People say 'what?' It doesn’t seem like a big deal but it is those little things that make the difference."
In simpler terms, "The idea of being able to do just what you want to do. Walk down the street buy a newspaper and read the newspaper."
Stratton talks about how your life is completely controlled, 24 hours a day when you are in prison. "You are being told what to do, you are living in a cell, you’re isolated. Ultimately, the thing is that you’re lonely. You miss your family, you miss the people you love, you are surrounded by people you don’t necessarily want to be close to, it’s noisy. You’re never alone but you’re always lonely. That's the thing about prison — it’s an awful difficult world to survive in, because you’re miserable and you feel bad."
Despite the miseries it bestowed on him, Stratton says he learned quite a bit about himself while he was locked up and that, he is happy about.
"When you’re in prison, you’re stripped of all your external things – you don’t have the car, you don’t have the money, you don’t have the clothes; you are really down to your basics. It’s just you. It’s all about your character. It’s the ultimate test of your character."
"What I was able to learn about myself is that I was able to go inside my own mind and my own world of my own intelligence and live there and survive there, and not be damaged by the eight years that I spent in prison. When I was told I have a 25-year sentence, I thought I was going to be locked up a lot longer. I was determined to get out. It is a test of character. And for that, I don’t regret having spent that time," he says.
However, he does think that the laws on marijuana are ridiculously extreme, and that the steps we are taking to rectify that are long overdue.
"This is a plant that grows naturally in the world. It is not a dangerous drug, it does not have detrimental effects on people. The biggest problem is that it's currently illegal and it gets people in prison. It gets people in trouble. It is incredible that there are still people serving life sentences with no possibility of parole for marijuana."
"It goes back to the 30s and 40s where they spread news that making pot would make people go crazy, that you would start raping people and killing people."
There is enough scientific evidence today to show the medical benefits of marijuana — many people with a variety of health problems have responded to marijuana, he added.
Stratton, who was sentenced in 1984, would have been given a mandatory life sentence had he been sentenced just two years later, in 1986.
Had that happened, the world would not have been privy to A&E's 'Gotti: Father and Son' or Emmy-winning HBO prison documentary 'Thug Life in D.C.' or his many literary masterpieces such as 'Kingpin: Prisoner of the War on Drugs' and 'Smack Goddess.'
A writer for most of his life, Stratton had written short stories and magazine articles for the likes of 'Rolling Stones' before he went to prison. He says marijuana smuggling was something he did in order to support his writing habit. When he was locked up though he was forced to give up smuggling pot and really focus on his writing. "The writing was always important to me than anything else."
Even as the world watched 'Gotti: Father and Son' in awe, when it aired on A&E Network last week, 72-year-old Stratton has already moved on to new projects. He has a new book in the making, while one of his best-selling books, 'Kingpin: Prisoner of War on Drugs,' — about the 8 years in prison — is being adapted into a TV show, along with 'Smuggler', his other widely popular book which gives an "incredible inside account of international drug trafficking from one of America's biggest marijuana smugglers."