PHOENIX - Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano is out of prison, according to Arizona inmate records.

The infamous 72-year-old mobster -- who helped federal investigators bring down mob boss John Gotti -- was released five years early from a 17-year sentence.

The former underboss of the Gambino crime family pleaded guilty in 2001 to running an ecstasy ring in the Valley. It was a nearly $500,000-a-week business, reports suggest.

His daughter, reality TV star Karen Gravano, told the New York Post her dad is happy to be out, is in good health and is anxious to move on with his life.


"He looked at me and said, 'What the "F" do you want?'"

That was the moment Dennis Wagner, a 30-year investigative reporter for The Arizona Republic, first came face to face with the notorious hit man.

"Then he lead me into a back room, and we started talking," Wagner told 12 News, admitting he was scared.

It was the start of a professional relationship with Gravano, which led to other interviews, including during his most recent prison stay.

"He has shark-like eyes. He's a little guy but he's really an imposing personality," Wagner recalled from his multiple encounters, including at his home with Gravano's public relations representative and his lawyer.

Gravano had previously dodged a major bullet with a plea deal -- serving only five years in prison for killing 19 people.


It's a number Wagner will never forget.

"[I said to Gravano] something like 18 murders, and he says, 'Why don't you get your facts straight? It's 19,'" Wagner recalled, shocked that someone would make such a correction.

So after all that, why would he get involved in the underground business of peddling ecstasy?

"His son had launched into the business. He was fearful that his son didn't know how to operate and might get in trouble with the law," said Wagner, remembering Gravano explaining his involvement was an act of love of sorts.

Before that time, Sammy the Bull cooperated with the FBI to arrest 39 other mobsters.

The Bull and his family found themselves in Tempe in 1999, shortly after which Wagner received a tip that Gravano was living in the Valley.

They had a restaurant in Scottsdale and a pool construction company in Phoenix.


"Kind of a like a student housing apartment," said Wagner. "I remember there was a punching bag in the room. The Venetian blinds were closed."

Wagner says Gravano was discreet but transparent.

"There were upwards of 200, 300 people who knew his real identity in Arizona, because he didn't hide it from people that he got to know," he said, remembering a neighbor brought Gravano coffee during the lengthy interview he agreed to.

His witness protection name was Jimmy Moran. It even warranted plastic surgery, according to Wagner's original report.

After almost two decades in prison, one may wonder: Do old habits really die hard?

"A 72-year-old guy -- I don't see him starting up a new mafia organization," said Wagner. "Every person is a puzzle, and this guy was among the bigger puzzles I ever encountered: A murderer, an extortionist and a criminal in many other ways."

Gravano's next steps remain to be seen, but in Wagner's original report back in 1999, he quoted Gravano saying, "You can't change what you are inside. A leopard doesn't change his spots.''

Gravano will remain on federal parole the rest of his life.