The call came unexpectedly last August. The man on the line told Chicago Police Detective Salvador Esparza that his conscience was bothering him.
More than a quarter-century before, the man allegedly had witnessed the fatal shooting of pizza delivery driver Milton Rodriguez outside Bella's Pizza on Chicago's Near Northwest Side. The caller, a fellow driver, and several other witnesses allegedly did not come forward out of fear the killer was connected to the mob.
Time dulled the fear but not the guilt. Now, the witness was ready to talk.
Over the next eight months, detectives from the department's cold-case unit crisscrossed the country, finding other deliverymen from the pizzeria who worked that night and saw what happened. In questioning the men, Detectives John Pellegrini and Robert Rodriguez talked of Milton Rodriguez's daughter, just 3 at the time of the 1981 murder. They asked the witnesses what they would want done if it had been their families left behind.
"That was one of his last words," Pellegrini said of Milton Rodriguez. "He told one of the witnesses, 'What about my family?' as he was laying there dying."
On Wednesday, armed with the accounts of six eyewitnesses, authorities arrested Bella's Pizza owner Michael Cosmano, 56, in his Naperville home and charged him with Rodriguez's murder.
Sgt. Carlos Valez, who also worked on the investigation, said the witnesses were key.
"Sometimes that's all you need. Just one little piece," he said. "Then everything just fell into place."
Pellegrini called Rodriguez's daughter, who had been pressing police for years to solve her father's murder.
"She was ecstatic," he said.
On Thursday, Cook County Circuit Judge Donald Panarese ordered Cosmano held in lieu of $500,000 bail. Prosecutors at the hearing said Rodriguez was trying to organize his fellow pizza delivery drivers to carry out a work stoppage for better pay and working conditions. When he arrived for work, Rodriguez approached his manager first about getting pay raises, a conversation overheard by Cosmano, who then was 30.
Cosmano, whom prosecutors said had been using cocaine that day, became enraged and quarreled with Rodriguez. The manager had to separate them, telling Rodriguez to go outside, said Assistant State's Atty. Matthew Thrun.
Rodriguez allegedly walked out the back door and into an alley where the other drivers were, sat down on a short concrete wall and began drinking from a beer bottle another driver handed him. Inside the restaurant, Cosmano was talking to another employee, who told him that a few weeks earlier Rodriguez had argued with a cook close to Cosmano, Thrun said.
Cosmano flew into a rage again and went outside, yelling at Rodriguez, Thrun said. He then is alleged to have pulled a semiautomatic gun from the small of his back and pointed it at Rodriguez.
"What are you going to do, shoot me?" Thrun quoted the victim as saying. Cosmano fired a single bullet, piercing Rodriguez's heart, Thrun said.
Police found a .45 automatic shell casing at the scene and learned that at the time of the murder Cosmano had a registered semiautomatic pistol that fired a .45 bullet.
The witnesses didn't tell police what they saw back in 1981 "because they were intimidated by rumors of this defendant's ties to organized crime," Thrun said.
Police never determined any connections to the mob, said Cmdr. Ed O'Donnell of the central investigations unit.
Cosmano's wife, Nancy, said she was shocked by the arrest. She said her husband is not connected to the mob and is innocent of the murder.
Cosmano has five children age 14 to 29 from two marriages, she said. The oldest of four children, Cosmano started his pizza business 30 years ago with money he made on a real-estate deal. He also works part time as a security guard, she said, and the family regularly attends church. The family moved to Naperville 10 years ago.
"We do believe the truth will come to the surface," she said.
Cosmano was convicted of misdemeanor battery in Lombard in 1990 for which he received court supervision, according to court records.
His attorney, Anthony Onesto, said the rumors about Cosmano's ties to organized crime are unsubstantiated.
"It's unfortunate that anyone whose name ends in a vowel is connected with organized crime," Onesto said at the court hearing.
Onesto also said that Cosmano was included in a police lineup after the 1981 murder and that two eyewitnesses failed to identify him as the gunman at the time.
Thrun said the two witnesses who took part in that lineup are not among the same witnesses who came forward now.
Thanks to Robert Mitchum, Angela Rozas, James Kimberly
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