Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Possible Organized Crime Link to Rockford Shooting

Those who knew him say 80-year-old Vaughn “Curly” Fitzgerald loved to play cards and shoot pool. Fitzgerald, a World War II veteran, was shot and killed by police Oct. 16, apparently while trying to foil an armed robbery on his property at 3307 Kishwaukee St.

Although police are tight-lipped about numerous details, it is widely believed a high-stakes “executive” card game was the target of robbers armed with handguns­-not the first such game Fitzgerald has allegedly played. He was formally charged with keeping a gambling place in 2002, but the case was dismissed in 2004.

Responding to this year’s Oct. 16 Kishwaukee Street 911 call, reporting an armed robbery in progress, Officer Cheryl Buntjer, a veteran of more than 18 years, was first to arrive on the scene. Officer Jeffrey Oberts, a seven-and-a-half-year veteran, arrived shortly thereafter.

Police say officers witnessed two gunmen attempting to flee the scene. One of the men, Byron Starks, was ordered to the ground as he surrendered to police. A second suspect eluded officers.

Police Chief Chet Epperson stated Fitzgerald then fired two shots at Starks, hitting him once, before officers were able to take Starks into custody.

Epperson reported officers identified themselves and ordered Fitzgerald to drop his weapon several times.

“The first officer by the doorway fires her weapon at the armed subject, as he continues to point the barrel at her and the subject that was just shot, and a third officer behind this female officer,” Epperson recounted at a press conference Oct. 17.

Fitzgerald, who was hearing impaired, was allegedly told to drop his weapon again. Fitzgerald’s rifle barrel then allegedly swung in the direction of Oberts, who responded by firing his weapon at the property owner. Fitzgerald is then said to have retreated behind an entryway, and the area was quickly secured, according to Epperson, before medical response was summoned.

Starks, whom Epperson described as “a victim of a shooting,” was said to be in “guarded condition” by the chief. Epperson reserved commenting about whether Starks is cooperating in the investigation.

Coroner Sue Fiduccia indicated Fitzgerald was struck “more than one time” in the torso.

Per procedure, Buntjer and Oberts were placed on leave pending a grand jury investigation. Epperson said the shooting incident is tentatively slated to go before the grand jury Oct. 31.

Based on the information he’d received, Epperson said Buntjer and Oberts “acted appropriately, professionally and used the proper amount of force in this incident.

“I would have been very upset if they had not done what they did last evening,” the chief added during the Oct. 17 briefing.

Fitzgerald’s family, along with their attorney, were said to have been present at the press conference, but have been unwilling to speak with the media.

The morning after the incident, Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) said, “We don’t want [officers] to have to use deadly force, but in the situation where their lives are at risk, when they’re following the protocol that they’ve been trained on, they need to use deadly force when it’s appropriate and when the circumstances justify it.”

The use of deadly force by police is not the only matter being investigated. Epperson told The Rock River Times gambling and the armed robbery are also facets of the investigation.

According to Deputy Chief Greg Lindmark, Starks was charged Oct. 22 with armed robbery and unlawful use of a weapon by a felon. His bond was set at $1 million, according to police, who would not release Starks’ mugshot “due to the nature of the investigation.”

Judge Gary Pumilia, who dismissed the case against Fitzgerald in 2004, will arraign Starks Nov. 29.

Starks’ rap sheet reflects a number of prior charges, including disorderly conduct, aggravated discharge of a firearm, battery, attempted criminal damage to property and home invasion.

A press release issued Oct. 23 states, “The victims of the robbery were involved in a card game at the time of the incident,” and that further charges related to the incident are possible.

In 2002 the alleged gambling related to the charge against Fitzgerald was said to have occurred at 5526 Linden Road, a property owned by son Gregory and his wife Patricia.

Fitzgerald, the owner of nine properties in Winnebago County, is known to have hosted many such card games throughout the region. A prior charge against him, alleging he’d kept a place of gambling, was dismissed in 2004 after the search warrant was quashed. Reportedly, police were unable to turn over video evidence, which was part of a separate ongoing investigation into a sports betting operation.

Rockford Police and the FBI began that joint investigation into a bookmaking business in August 2000. Evidence leading to guilty pleas from nine local men included wire taps and surveillance.

This year, U.S. District Court Judge Philip G. Reinhard sentenced Joseph F. “Pep” Fiorenza, along with sons Nicolas T. and Rick J., John P. “Tiger” Frisella, Frank C. Giardono, Nick Provenzano, Charles A. Purin, John F. Salamone and Joseph W. Saladino for their roles in the gambling ring.

Epperson wouldn’t say how many suspects were involved in the Oct. 16 incident, or who had been present. Instead, he described the occurrence as “another incident involving the use of illegal firearms.

“Police business today, here and throughout this country has changed dramatically because of the continued heightened use of illegal firearms,” Epperson told reporters. “Illegal firearms, which Rockford police officers confiscate from dangerous criminals every day.”

Asked whether Fitzgerald possessed a valid Firearm Owner’s Identification (FOID), the chief answered, “That’s still under investigation.”

Asked the same question five days later, Epperson said he still didn’t have an answer.

Mayor Morrissey reported about a third of Rockford shootings this year have been perpetrated by convicted felons, who are not legally able to possess firearms. Morrissey believes there’s a lack of reporting when guns change hands after the initial sale.

“I have nothing against people who are lawfully using guns,” asserted Morrissey, who said he hunted while growing up and still has a FOID in his wallet. “The vast majority of cases where guns are being used in the commission of crimes; these are folks who don’t have a Firearm Owner’s Identification card.”

Asked if any other weapons had been recovered from the crime scene, the chief responded, “It’s still under investigation.”

Asked if thieves had gotten away with any cash, Epperson again replied, “It’s still under investigation.”

Rockford regional FBI Supervisory Senior Resident Agent G.B. Jones was also summoned to the scene in the early morning hours of Oct. 17, although he could say no more about any possible federal involvement.

The Rock River Times asked Chief Epperson why the FBI had been called in. After a 6-second pause, he responded: “Well, the gambling did take place, and some of the names of the individuals who were there rose some attention. …There has been some investigations in the past.”

During the 2004 case against Fitzgerald, court records show Rockford Police Detective Jeffrey Stovall indicated the illegal card games were part of a gambling operation known as the “Soccer Club.”

Stovall’s affidavit also reports a confidential source identified brothers Salvatore “Sam” Galluzzo and Natale Galluzzo to be running the Soccer Club. The local daily identified Salvatore Galluzzo as an alleged Mob figure in 1984.

Asked who was present at the card game, Epperson said: “I know who was there. I don’t want to comment, because it’s an ongoing investigation.”

Stovall’s 2002 affidavit indicates sites hosting the high-stakes games are commonly equipped with surveillance systems for security. Players are typically buzzed-in from the outside after being identified, according to Stovall.

Asked whether an on-site video surveillance system had yielded any evidence from the incident, the chief responded, “If it was there, it’d be part of the investigation, so I wouldn’t want to comment about that.”

During this summer’s blockbuster Family Secrets trial in Chicago against the Chicago Mob, Department of Justice exhibits included surveillance photos of Salvatore Galluzzo with Frank G. “Gumba” or “Fat Frank” Saladino.

Saladino was found dead April 25, 2005, apparently of natural causes, when authorities raided his Hampshire, Ill., hotel room during the simultaneous arrests of numerous reputed Chicago Mobsters related to Operation Family Secrets indictments.

Saladino was also named as a co-conspirator in the Rockford sports gambling ring, which many argue is a clear indication Rockford is a territory of the Chicago Outfit.

Prosecutors said Saladino was involved in five of the Family Secrets trial’s 18 murders.

At the press conference where Phil Nicolosi was named the Republican appointee for Winnebago County State’s Attorney June 24, he was asked by The Rock River Times, considering his Italian-American heritage, if he’d pursue the prosecution of organized crime in Rockford. When that question was asked, many Italian-Americans in the room groaned loudly in protest.

“I intend to prosecute vigorously any crime that’s committed in this county,” Nicolosi pledged confidently in response, which elicited supportive laughter from those who had protested.

Although all the local media were present in the room, most did not report on those questions or the response of Nicolosi or those present at the press conference.

Before taking over for Paul Logli as state’s attorney, Nicolosi was an attorney for Nicolosi & Associates. Gerlando “Gino” Galluzzo, son of Salvatore, is a partner with the firm. Paul S. Nicolosi, the state’s attorney’s brother, is also a firm partner and a past business associate of Salvatore and Natale Galluzzo, as reported in the Nov. 2-8, 2005, issue.

Asked what impact the list of those involved in the Oct. 16 shooting might have on his prosecution of the case, Phil Nicolosi responded: “Since I have not gotten the police reports, I don’t know, officially, the names of the parties that were there. What I will tell you is, if there is any party that’s there that I, you know, have either an acquaintance of or prior relationship with, I would recuse myself and then, in all likelihood, if I felt there was even an appearance of a conflict, ask the Attorney General’s office to step in.”

Phil Nicolosi could not be reached by police the night of the incident. He said the reason he could not be reached was the officer who had his personal home phone number was on vacation.

Thanks to Stuart R. Wahlin

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