Monday, July 30, 2007

Tipster Helps Put Mob Turncoat Behind Bars

Friends of ours: Peter "Petey Cap" Caporino, Genovese Crime Family, Michael Crincoli, Louis "Bobby" Manna, Lawrence "Little Larry" Dentico, Joseph Scarbrough

Peter Caporino stood in a Jersey City courtroom last week in a green prison jumpsuit and blue slippers, with his hands cuffed behind his back. He held his head high but looked tired.

"Mr. Caporino, are you thinking clearly today?" Superior Court Judge Peter Vazquez asked him. "Yes," Caporino replied, nodding.

The exchange began the final ironic twist in the strange, sorry tale of "Petey Cap," one of the better-known and well-liked mobsters to grace or -- depending on your view -- plague North Jersey.

Caporino was the Hasbrouck Heights wiseguy who traded four decades of service in the mob for an FBI wire and the chance to spare himself and his wife from prison. He secretly recorded hundreds of conversations, and later helped federal prosecutors win convictions against 16 Jersey-based members and associates of the Genovese crime family. But as most of them marched off to prison last summer, a whisper campaign was in the works: Caporino, the rumors went, was not only back on the streets, but still brazenly running the lucrative six-figure gambling racket the feds had ordered him -- twice -- to shut down.

A new nickname was in the air. Greedy Petey, they called him.

Anonymous letters found their way to the Jersey City police, the county prosecutors, even The Star-Ledger, identifying locations where Caporino and underlings were said to still be operating. Someone was ratting out the rat.

Last month, police raided his home, seized betting records and cash and charged Caporino and his wife. The end came Thursday, when the 70-year-old mobster admitted his crimes in a plea deal with Hudson County prosecutors, and agreed to a seven-year prison term, most of which will probably be spent in isolation.

Caporino's punishment could ultimately be longer and lonelier than any given to most of the men he helped put away. "It's poetic justice, that's what it is," said Joseph Ferrante, a defense attorney who grilled Caporino on the witness stand during a federal racketeering trial last year. "You can't go and be a rat and put it in everybody's face."

Caporino wasn't a boss or even a ranking member in New Jersey's most dominant crime family. But he was a fixture -- a slight, chatty fellow, known and liked by cops, criminals and politicians alike, fond of fine wines and quick to pick up the tab. With his white hair and silver-rimmed glasses, he was more lottery agent than bruiser.

He was also the proprietor of a Hoboken members-only social hall, the Character Club, that occupied a faded brick building in the shadow of gleaming new condos. Like the building, its owner represented the new realities of the modern mob in New Jersey. A lifelong Genovese associate, Caporino turned informant to save the family that mattered most to him, but couldn't abandon the job. "It's all he knows," said his defense attorney, Sam DeLuca.

Caporino isn't the first wiseguy cooperator to return to his criminal ways. It happens so often that some in Garden State law enforcement circles have a saying about their witness protection participants: You can take the wiseguy out of Jersey, but you can't take Jersey out of the wiseguy.

Caporino refused to enter the program, even after he was forced to testify at the May 2006 trial of reputed Genovese soldier Michael Crincoli. On the stand, Caporino calmly admitted peddling information to the FBI for more than 15 years, including intelligence that helped in the prosecution of Louis "Bobby" Manna, a reputed Genovese underboss who ran operations in New Jersey.

He also acknowledged under oath that agents had repeatedly ordered him to end his numbers racket. But at the hearing Thursday, Caporino admitted he was running it again last June, weeks after the Crincoli trial, raising the prospect that he never really shut it down. "It certainly looked that way," said Assistant Hudson County Prosecutor Thomas Carroll.

Caporino was first arrested and released last summer on minor gambling promotion charges. At the time, Jersey City Police Lt. Gary Lallo credited "community complaints in various sectors of the city" for jump-starting the investigation, but declined to say more. But there was no shortage of suspects behind the campaign to topple him, according to attorneys, investigators and others who know him.

Near the top would be the wiseguys he helped convict, or their friends, looking to exact some revenge, even if it's not a traditional form. "They like to see a guy suffer," said Assistant U.S. Attorney V. Grady O'Malley, a veteran organized crime prosecutor who oversees that office's Strike Force. "He's going to suffer with this. You're talking about spending the remaining good years of his life in jail."

There are other theories. One blames competitors coveting his lucrative turf. Or federal authorities angry at Caporino or looking for a way to force him into the protective custody he had repeatedly refused. Or local law enforcement, relishing the chance to embarrass the FBI by nailing one of its informants.

Another grapevine theory said Caporino's arrest was police payback after one of his right-hand men, Steve French, became a federal witness against a Jersey City detective, Frank D'Agosta, who was convicted of extorting the ring operators.

French became a cooperator after his arrest in a gambling raid by Hudson County investigators in 2002, the same one that snared Caporino, his wife, Ann, and more than a dozen others. By that point, Caporino had secretly been an FBI informant for more than a decade. But the prospect of he and his wife being sent to jail turned him into a full-fledged cooperating witness. In the two and a half years that followed, he recorded more than 300 conversations, most often with a microphone embedded on the pager he wore on his belt.

The racketeering indictment that ensued outlined loan-sharking operations, extortion attempts, and shakedowns against bettors by associates, soldiers, and Lawrence "Little Larry" Dentico, believed to be one of the ranking captains in the crime family.

One of Caporino's recordings captured Joseph Scarbrough, the reputed Jersey crew boss who presided at his own Hoboken social club, musing about whether to execute one gambler before his debts got too big. On another, Scarbrough waxed nostalgic about a particularly ruthless killer from Chicago. "Good man. Good (bleeping) man," said Scarbrough, who later pleaded guilty and was sentenced last year to five years in federal prison. "I loved the guy."

Caporino's role was more benign. He was the bank, the financier of an illegal daily lottery across North Jersey. He and his wife owned a house in middle-class Hasbrouck Heights, where they cared for their adult disabled daughter. Petey Cap's "office" -- the headquarters for the betting operation -- was a rented apartment in Staten Island, he admitted Thursday.

The take was sometimes as high as $40,000 a day, he testified last year, and he passed the proceeds both up and down the organizational ladder. Assistants and the legions of runners got paid for taking daily bets in office buildings, housing projects and storefronts. Scarbrough took as much as $5,000 a month, his "tribute" payment.

Caporino's cooperation won him a five-year suspended sentence in connection with the 2002 arrest and persuaded prosecutors to drop the charges against his wife.

The plea deal announced Thursday calls for Vazquez to reinstate the five-year term when he formally sentences Caporino in September. The judge is also expected to add a concurrent seven-year term for being the leader of an organized crime network. Again, prosecutors will drop their charges against Ann Caporino.

Thursday's plea hearing lasted just 15 minutes. Caporino stood at the defense table, guarded by two sheriff's officers and flanked on his left by DeLuca, his lawyer for more than 20 years. "Are you satisfied with the services of your attorney?" the judge asked. "Totally," Caporino said.

DeLuca then asked him a brief series of pre-arranged questions about the gambling ring and his role. Caporino limited his answers to one- or two-word replies. He wasn't asked to explain why he committed the crimes, though he'll get the chance to do so at sentencing. By that time, about half of the defendants he cooperated against will be free.

DeLuca said he hopes that Caporino will be eligible for parole in less than two years, although prosecutors said that was unlikely. Meanwhile, DeLuca said he will ask that Caporino serve his time somewhere outside of North Jersey.

He also can't expect any 11th hour assistance from the federal government. "We're not going to step in now and rescue him," said O'Malley, the federal prosecutor. "He takes the entire weight -- and he deserves it."

Thanks to John P. Martin

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