Thursday, February 09, 2006

Dramatic mob trials still fill the seats

Friends of ours: John "Junior" Gotti, John "Dapper Don" Gotti, Joey "the Clown" Lombardo, Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, Genovese Crime Family, Vincent "Chin" Gigante, Gambino Crime Family, Peter Gotti, Colombo Crime Family, Alphonse "Allie Boy" Persico, Lucchese Crime Family, Steven "Stevie Wonder" Crea, Bonanno Crime Family, Joseph "Big Joe" Massino, Vincent "Vinny Gorgeous" Basciano, Patrick "Patty from the Bronx" DeFilippo
Friends of mine: Louis Eppolito, Stephen Caracappa

Organized crime may be on the decline, but Mafia trials are getting as much attention as ever.

In New York City alone, three upcoming federal prosecutions are targeting La Cosa Nostra, the Italian-American crime syndicate made famous by The Godfather books and films, and the HBO series The Sopranos. Defendants include John A. Gotti, son of John J. Gotti, the "Dapper Don" who died in federal prison in 2002 while serving a life sentence for murder and racketeering.

In Chicago, federal prosecutors hope to try alleged mobster Joey "The Clown" Lombardo, 76, and 10 alleged associates later this year for conspiracy to commit at least 18 unsolved murders, some dating back more than 30 years.

The cases all have the ruthlessness, and the color, that America has come to expect from the Mob.

First, there are the names. "Vinny Bionics," "Jackie Nose," "Mikey Scars," "Louie Electric" and "Skinny Dom," are among the characters who appear in court papers filed in the New York cases.

Then, there are the details. One case features an apparent first: the boss of a New York City crime family who, court papers say, "wore a wire" to secretly record conversations that were used to bring charges against other members. In another, two former New York City police detectives are accused of accepting thousands of dollars to carry out or aid seven Mafia-related slayings.

The public and the media are sure to be watching. Last month, a standing-room-only crowd showed up for Lombardo's first court appearance. Lombardo, who got his nickname by making jokes during legal proceedings, had disappeared soon after he was indicted and was on the lam for nine months before he was captured in a Chicago suburb Jan. 13.

Mafiosi "are not as large and as powerful as they once were, but they can still draw a crowd," says Jerry Capeci, organized crime specialist for Ganglandnews.com and author and co-author of six books on the Mob. "And let's face it, (Mob trials) are a lot more colorful than, what, Enron and like that."

Defendants in all of the Mafia cases have pleaded not guilty.

In Chicago, Lombardo and his associates are charged with plotting to kill a potential grand jury witness. They're also charged in the June 1986 killings of Chicago organized crime figure Tony "Ant" Spilotro and his brother Michael, who were beaten, then buried alive in a cornfield. The episode was fictionalized in Casino, a 1995 movie in which actor Joe Pesci played a character based on Spilotro.


MAFIA CONVICTIONS AT A GLANCE
During the past nine years, federal and local prosecutors in New York City have secured convictions and prison sentences for defendants they described as the bosses or acting bosses of all five of the city's Mafia "families."
Family Boss Conviction Sentence
Genovese Vincent "Chin" Gigante Racketeering (1997) 12 years (died in prison, 2005)
Gambino Peter Gotti Conspiracy; money laundering (2003) 9 1/2 years
Colombo Alphonse "Allie Boy" Persico Racketeering (2003) 13 years
Luchese Steven "Stevie Wonder" Crea Construction bid rigging (2004) 3 to 6 years
Bonanno Joseph "Big Joe" Massino Multiple murders (2005) Life


In federal court in Brooklyn, testimony is scheduled to begin Feb. 22 in the murder, racketeering, bookmaking and extortion trial of Vincent "Vinny Gorgeous" Basciano, 46. Court papers describe him as the acting head of the Bonannos, one of five Mob "families" in New York City. Since mid-January, jury selection has been going on in secret to protect potential jurors' identities, court spokesman Robert Nardoza said.

Basciano, whose nickname, Capeci says, derived from a Bronx beauty parlor Basciano once owned, is charged with killing a Mob associate and plotting two other slayings. Patrick "Patty from the Bronx" DeFilippo, 66, an alleged Bonanno capo, or crime crew chief, is accused of killing another family associate.

Both men also face gambling, loan sharking and extortion charges. The charges are based in part on secret recordings made by convicted Bonanno boss Joseph Massino, 66, in January 2005, when he and Basciano met in a detention center in New York City, court papers say.

Basciano, awaiting trial, was unaware that Massino — who was awaiting sentencing for a racketeering conviction — had agreed to work for the FBI, Basciano's attorneys say in court papers.

"That's huge," says Ronald Kessler, who has written two books on the FBI. "Getting a family leader to wear a wire is something that's never happened before. It should make for very interesting testimony."

One of the most interested parties might be DeFilippo, Basciano's co-defendant and, according to prosecutors, his fellow Bonanno family member.

Transcripts of the tapes in court papers indicate that Basciano asked Massino, the family leader, for permission to "jocko" — Mob slang for kill — DeFilippo in a dispute over money and Basciano's leadership style. "I have a problem living in the same world as this guy," Basciano said of DeFilippo, the court papers say.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday in the retrial of John A. Gotti in federal court in Manhattan. Gotti, 41, called "Junior" in court papers, is charged with ordering the kidnapping and non-fatal shooting of Curtis Sliwa, a New York City radio talk-show host and founder of the Guardian Angels citizen-patrol group. Sliwa was abducted by Gambino family crime members under Gotti's control in 1992, prosecutors allege, because Gotti was upset by Sliwa's criticism of his father. When Gotti was first tried in September, jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict on the kidnapping and extortion and loan-sharking charges. He was found not guilty of securities fraud. His attorneys disputed prosecutors' claims that he is boss of the crime family his father once led. They said he had severed his ties with organized crime.

The younger Gotti was convicted of racketeering in 1999 and was imprisoned for six years.

This week, Judge Shira Scheindlin turned down Gotti's request that Sliwa not be allowed to criticize him on Sliwa's show during the trial. Gotti said Sliwa's comments could unfairly influence jurors.

On Feb. 21, also in federal court in Brooklyn, jury selection is scheduled to begin in the murder and racketeering trial of former New York City police detectives Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa.

Eppolito, 57, and Caracappa, 64, are charged with accepting up to $4,000 a month in the 1980s and early 1990s to give members of the Luchese crime family information on police surveillance and help them find the targets of seven family-ordered hits.

The retired detectives also are accused of fatally shooting a Mafia member who had agreed to turn over information to the government.

Jack Weinstein, the judge in the case, has asked for a larger courtroom to accommodate crowds.

"They don't get better than this," Capeci says.

Thanks to Richard Willing

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