Friday, November 02, 2007

The Collapse of a Mob Murder Case Against a Retired FBI Agent

In a conference room on the 17th floor of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, in the winter of 2005, a prosecutor and a detective investigator sat down with a woman they did not trust.

The woman’s name was Linda Schiro, she had been a gangster’s mistress, and she told them a story worthy of the big screen: Right at her kitchen table in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, an F.B.I. supervisor and a notorious Mafia assassin had conspired to commit four long-unsolved murders.

The case was a tempting career-maker, but one with warning signs. Ms. Schiro had already told federal investigators and others of her Mafia life, playing down the role of the F.B.I. supervisor, Roy Lindley DeVecchio.

“We knew what her problems were, and it was important for us to corroborate everything she gave us,” said Michael F. Vecchione, the prosecutor, who is chief of the district attorney’s Rackets Division and keeps an office six steps from the conference room. “And we believed we had.”

But after all the efforts to verify her story, Ms. Schiro’s own words, preserved on 10-year-old cassette recordings, came back to confirm that she could not be trusted.

As the sensational quadruple-murder case based on her testimony was formally dismissed yesterday, the judge denounced the tactics used by the F.B.I. to fight organized crime, Mr. DeVecchio said he would never forgive the Brooklyn prosecutors, and Mr. Vecchione defended his case.

The woman at the center of it all, Ms. Schiro, prepared for possible perjury charges, hiding from the press behind closed doors. “She’s standing by what she said in court 100 percent,” said her appointed lawyer, Gary Farrell. “I understand the inconsistencies, they’re there, and she’s got a plausible explanation.”

Ms. Schiro’s explanation may emerge if prosecutors carry out their pledge to request a special prosecutor for a perjury inquiry. But as the murder case against Mr. DeVecchio dissolved yesterday, the decision to use her testimony came under intense scrutiny.

“The D.A. here did not take the simplest steps to verify what this mercenary and absolutely amoral human being was telling them,” said Douglas E. Grover, a lawyer for Mr. DeVecchio. He called the case “a model of what a responsible prosecutor should not do.”

The charges against Mr. DeVecchio dated to the 1980s and early 1990s, when he oversaw an F.B.I. unit assigned to the Colombo crime family. His primary informer was Gregory Scarpa, a capo. During a war for control of the family, agents working for Mr. DeVecchio voiced suspicions of his relationship with Mr. Scarpa. In trials that followed, prosecutors acknowledged that Mr. DeVecchio had disclosed confidential information to Mr. Scarpa.

In 1994, federal investigators pursuing an internal investigation interviewed Ms. Schiro, who had lived for years with Mr. Scarpa, who died in prison in 1994. Mr. DeVecchio was cleared of wrongdoing and allowed to retire.

Later, Ms. Schiro spoke to authors ranging from a hard-boiled crime writer to a purveyor of romantic advice, generally characterizing Mr. DeVecchio as a friendly, tangential figure in her Mafia tableau.

Dormant for years, the case was passed on to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office by Representative William Delahunt, Democrat of Massachusetts, after a Congressional investigation stalled.

Investigators first focused on the killing of Nicholas Grancio, a capo in the Colombo family. “We were able to dispel the notion that DeVecchio played a role in that homicide,” said Mr. Vecchione, who oversaw the investigation and tried the case. “There were other nuggets out there that needed pursuing.”

Prosecutors visited Ms. Schiro at her home in Staten Island. “The moment that the case first broke open was when Linda gave us these four homicides in toto,” Mr. Vecchione said.

Seeking confirmation, investigators spoke to imprisoned members of the crime family. One, Carmine Sessa, a onetime consigliere, told them Mr. Scarpa had spoken freely about his crimes in front of his mistress.

The prosecutors also spoke to the agents who had raised suspicions about their boss. Special Agent Chris Favo confirmed details of surveillance conducted on one of the slain men, information the prosecutors would accuse Mr. DeVecchio of giving Mr. Scarpa.

When they brought Ms. Schiro to that conference room in the winter of 2005, prosecutors began preparing her for a grand jury, Mr. Vecchione said. They moved her family for protection and began paying her $2,200 a month for living expenses. But in relying on their corroborating witnesses, the prosecutors did little to scrutinize Ms. Schiro’s prior statements.

“The fact is they never told the grand jury that Linda Schiro had made numerous statements for years inconsistent with her recent claims about Mr. DeVecchio’s guilt,” said Mr. Grover, the defense lawyer.

As opening statements were delivered on Oct. 15, the gears that would doom the case locked into place. Because Mr. DeVecchio had waived his right to a jury trial, the legal concept of jeopardy attached, meaning he could not be retried for the four killings in which he was indicted, a court official said. And in the gallery that day sat Tom Robbins, a reporter who would return to court with tape-recorded interviews of Ms. Schiro.

The prosecutor’s emphasis on Ms. Schiro’s testimony, Mr. Robbins has said, led him to revisit the tapes, confirming that she had denied any involvement by Mr. DeVecchio in the killings.

In State Supreme Court yesterday, Justice Gustin L. Reichbach dismissed the charges and ordered the return of Mr. DeVecchio’s $1 million bail, which had been raised in part by his former colleagues in the F.B.I.

A round of applause rose from the gallery. Outside the courtroom, Mr. DeVecchio’s supporters criticized the prosecution. “These people are incompetent,” said Jim Kossler, a retired F.B.I. agent.

Recounting the bureau’s accomplishments against organized crime and the quandaries of handling informants, he added, “They could have indicted me just as easily.”

Mr. DeVecchio, 67, spoke of returning home to Florida to ride his Harley and enjoy retirement. “I will never forgive the Brooklyn D.A. for irresponsibly pursuing this case after being warned by others that this one witness was untrustworthy,” he said.

In his written final word on the case, Justice Reichbach criticized the tactics of the F.B.I. Quoting from Nietzsche, he reminded those involved in the case that “he who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.”

Thanks to Michael Brick

1-800-PetMeds

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