Sunday, May 21, 2006

And the Oscar goes to ... Gregory DePalma?

Friends of ours: Gambino Crime Family, Gregory DePalma, Vincent "Chin"Gigante, Joe Bonanno, Gennaro Angiulo, Stefano Maggodino, Aniello "Neill" Dellacroce
Friends of mine: Ilario Zannino

Gregory DePalma, the powerful Gambino family captain, allegedly bragged about his Academy Award-caliber performance playing a desperately ill man looking for a sentence reduction. It worked; a federal judge jailed DePalma for less than six years instead of the 13-year maximum back in 1999.

There was just one problem: The federal government was secretly taping DePalma's post-sentencing review. And now he's back in court, allegedly battling another debilitating illness as prosecutors attempt to convince another jury that DePalma is a racketeer.

The 74-year-old mobster, sitting at the defense table with an oxygen tube in his nose and his feet resting on a small stool, is the latest Mafiosi caught in a medical controversy over competency to stand trial. The government inevitably insists the defendant is a healthy candidate for prosecution; the defense is equally insistent that he is not.

"Surveillance photos will show you Gregory DePalma on the move, an energetic, active man," Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Marrah said in his opening statement at the reputed mobster's trial in Manhattan.

Not so, said defense attorney John Meringolo. DePalma was "a broken-down man who has a big mouth and is living through the past," Meringolo argued.

Trying to dodge prosecution through illness _ the "Sicilian flu," as federal agents once derisively called it _ is a long-standing Mafia defense. The most famous of all was Vincent Gigante, the so-called "Oddfather" who avoided conviction for nearly three decades by publicly acting like a loon.

Gigante strolled through his Greenwich Village neighborhood in bathrobe and slippers, whether it was time for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Gigante avoided conviction from 1970, when he first launched the ruse, until a 1997 conviction for racketeering and murder conspiracy.

FBI agents serving Gigante with a subpoena once found him standing naked in a running shower, clutching an open umbrella.

"With some of these guys, it would be hard to tell if it's dementia or just the way they are," said mob expert Howard Abadinsky. "They're that nutty."

The majority of cases run to heart problems rather than head cases.

Joe Bonanno, one of the founding fathers of New York City's mob, was summoned to testify in 1985 at a federal prosecution of the Mafia's ruling "Commission." Then 80, he was retired and living in Arizona - where he was definitely too ill to take the witness stand, said his lawyer, William Kunstler. The stress of testifying, Kunstler insisted, was too much for the octogenarian mobster. Bonanno did 14 months for contempt, coming out of prison in 1986. He died ... 16 years later, at the ripe old age of 97. Kunstler had died seven years earlier at 76.

Ilario Zannino, an associate of New England mob underboss Gennaro Angiulo, managed to avoid prosecution - albeit temporarily - after he was hospitalized with heart problems in 1985. He died in jail 11 years later at age 74.

Buffalo boss Stefano Maggodino, following his arrest, once claimed he was too sick to get fingerprinted. At a bedside arraignment, he told the assembled authorities, "Take the gun and shoot me. That's what you want!" He survived for another five years.

Not everyone lived as long as those three. Aniello "Neill" Dellacroce was arraigned by telephone in April 1985 from his Staten Island home, where he was laid up with heart disease and cancer. Dellacroce was dead before the end of the year.

"When you start to think of the lifestyles these guys live, there's a good chance it's not going to be so healthy," said Abadinsky. "One of the things that always fascinated me is that these guys didn't die earlier."

The Gigante case, with a mob boss feigning dementia to maintain his freedom, has become part of pop culture. Junior Soprano, on the hit HBO show, went from malingering to menacing mobster this year when he shot nephew Tony in a case of mistaken identity. The long-running hit TV show "Law And Order" did an episode using the Gigante premise. And author Jimmy Breslin did an entire book, "I Don't Want to Go to Jail: A Good Novel," that parodied Gigante with a character called Fausti ("The Fist") Dellacava.

"Gigante got a lot of exercise walking around the Village," Abadinsky said of the mobster who lived to age 77. "He just said he was nuts."

Thanks to Larry McShane

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