Tuesday, September 12, 2006

"Bizarro FBI" Roots for "Defendant"

When Lin DeVecchio goes to court, he never goes alone.

His lawyers are there, making arguments. The news media are there, taking photographs and notes. His wife sometimes shows up, making small, sorrowful faces as she grips him by the hand. Then there are the men who make a path for him as they escort him back and forth through the crowd. The ones with the gray hair and the jowls, the stern faces and the off-the-rack suits.

Almost from the moment he was charged in March with helping to commit four murders for the mob, R. Lindley DeVecchio has been surrounded by this posse of supporters: retired F.B.I. men who for years were not only his colleagues, but also his friends.

They watch his back. Personally guarantee his million-dollar bond. Solicit money for his legal bills. Scoff at his accusers. Interview — or, some have said, intimidate — witnesses in the case. And at every chance they get, tell whoever cares to listen that Mr. DeVecchio is an innocent man.

Sixty-five years old and retired from the F.B.I., Mr. DeVecchio stands accused in a state indictment of four counts of second-degree murder. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office says he helped an informant in the mob, Gregory Scarpa Sr., kill four times in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, so that Mr. Scarpa could rid himself of rivals and win bloody battles in a war within the Colombo family.

To a federal agent, there is nothing more toxic than a corruption charge — which even by association can ruin a career. And the charges faced by Mr. DeVecchio are radioactive: that he gave secret information to Mr. Scarpa in exchange for $66,000.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that 19 former F.B.I. agents have put their names and reputations on the line to save their troubled friend. These were not the bureaucrats or pencil pushers of the New York office, but its veteran undercover and investigative men. “We’ve all worked with Lin since the early 1970’s,” said Joseph D. Pistone, the real-life Donnie Brasco, who infiltrated the Bonanno crime family as an undercover agent in the 1970’s.

“We’re all veteran street guys,” Mr. Pistone said. “If anyone could smell something bad, it would be us. And with Lin, we never smelled bad.”

The so-called Friends of Lin DeVecchio have a total of 480 years of street experience, give or take a few, and while most spend their time these days on a golf course or at the shore, they remain encyclopedic on the subject of the mob.

Who knows better than us, they say, what happened 20 years ago at Carmine Sessa’s bar or at Larry Lampesi’s house near McDonald Avenue in Brooklyn? (Both places will figure prominently at trial.) “We gathered the information,” said James M. Kossler, who from 1979 to 1989 was Mr. DeVecchio’s boss.

Much of that information has been posted on a Web site, www.lindevecchio.com, which attempts to refute the state indictment with transcripts of federal trials and with private F.B.I. reports called 302’s. There is information about how to donate money toward Mr. DeVecchio’s legal expenses. The Web site also levels personal attacks against the state’s lead prosecutor, Michael Vecchione; its chief witness, Linda Schiro, Mr. Scarpa’s former companion; and Sandra Harmon, who is a self-described relationship coach and the co-author with Priscilla Presley of a tell-all book on Elvis Presley, and who had planned to write a book with Ms. Schiro but wrote one instead about Mr. Scarpa’s son.

Mr. DeVecchio’s supporters make no bones about their deep disdain for the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, who they say considers a good Mafia case to be rounding up gamblers on Super Bowl Sunday. “Here you have a rackets bureau that doesn’t know a thing about organized crime,” Mr. Kossler said. “They don’t know what they’re doing. If they had a track record of making great O.C. cases, fine — but they don’t.”

The bad blood between the state and the F.B.I. goes back many years, to at least 1992, when Mr. Scarpa went into hiding after Brooklyn prosecutors obtained a warrant for his arrest on a gun possession charge. From April to August of that year, court papers say, Mr. Scarpa met or spoke with Mr. DeVecchio seven times, but the F.B.I. neither informed the state of his whereabouts nor arrested Mr. Scarpa.

Jerry Schmetterer, a spokesman for Mr. Hynes, waved off accusations that the office was incompetent. “These people who are making these allegations can’t possibly know the depth of the evidence we have compiled to make this case,” he said.

Part of that evidence is likely to include the testimony of Lawrence Mazza, Mr. Scarpa’s one-time disciple, who has already told investigators that Mr. Scarpa had a friend in law enforcement, whom he used to call “the girlfriend.” Mr. Mazza, who now works at a gym in southern Florida, said that several weeks ago, one of the retired agents paid him a visit. Without saying exactly what happened, he said the agent had tried to intimidate him in connection with the case.

Mr. Kossler scoffed at the charge, saying the former agent had gone to Florida merely to interview Mr. Mazza on Mr. DeVecchio’s behalf. As a witness for the prosecution, Mr. Mazza is of obvious interest to the defense, he said. While the prosecution has said in court that intimidation of witnesses may have occurred, it will not publicly discuss Mr. Mazza’s accusation.

At its core, the DeVecchio case is about the tenuous give-and-take that exists between an agent and a confidential source. Prosecutors say that Mr. DeVecchio abused that give-and-take, giving Mr. Scarpa names and addresses of men who wound up dead.

Mr. DeVecchio has said that in the 12 years he “ran” Mr. Scarpa, he never leaked a secret and never received anything more than a Cabbage Patch doll, a bottle of wine and a pan of lasagna.

As for the Friends of Lin DeVecchio, they maintain it takes a special sort of man to handle Mafia informants. He must speak the language of the street and of the F.B.I. He must appreciate the criminal mind without admiring it. He must be able to cultivate trust among those who trust no one but themselves. “That’s the fine line the agent has to walk — to always remember who he is and who he’s dealing with,” said Christopher Mattice, who served for many years as the F.B.I.’s informant coordinator in New York. “You have to talk the language and make them understand you understand what’s going on.” And most important, he said, you must remember that no conversation between an agent and a mole takes place in a vacuum. Questions fashioned to elicit information give information: If Agent X asks about Gangster Y, it means that he is interested in Gangster Y. If Gangster Y winds up dead, is that Agent X’s fault?

For now, Mr. DeVecchio’s trial is scheduled to open at the beginning of next year, and his federal friends are planning to attend. “The bond is very close,” said Douglas E. Grover, Mr. DeVecchio’s lawyer. “It’s not just that they worked together; it’s like they were in the Army together, like they went through the wars.”

Should things go poorly for Mr. DeVecchio, his supporters will not quit, they say. “We’ll continue to do what we’re doing,” Mr. Kossler said. “We’ll fight this as far as it has to go.”

Thanks to Alan Feuer

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