by BEN MCGRATH
The unmaking of the Mafia cops.
Issue of 2006-05-01
In United States v. Caracappa and Eppolito, in which a pair of decorated former New York City detectives were charged with moonlighting as Luchese-family hit men, the role of star witness fell to a sickly seventy-two-year-old dope dealer named Burton Kaplan. Kaplan has spent the past nine years in federal custody, where he suffered his second minor stroke and third detached retina. He also endured high blood pressure, poor hearing, arthritis, prostate cancer, and Raynaud’s disease. None of this stopped him from testifying for the better part of four days, with unflagging precision, about his years of service, in the nineteen-eighties and early nineties, as the middleman between a Mobbed-up killer named Anthony (Gaspipe) Casso and the two cops, Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, who he said helped Casso rub out suspected rats. (“Coöperating witnesses” is the government’s term.) Kaplan didn’t seem especially troubled that he had become, in his old age, exactly the sort of turncoat that he and his associates aimed to kill. “Anybody that’s in jail hopes to someday get out of jail,” he said. His current sentence—for running a multimillion-dollar marijuana-distribution ring—would have kept him in jail until his eighty-sixth birthday. Pending a judge’s final decision, he should be in witness protection in time to celebrate the Fourth of July.
The charges brought against the cops, under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, included eight murders and a variety of obstruction-of-justice, money-laundering, and drug-related conspiracy counts: all told, the most startling criminal accusation ever levelled against individual officers of the N.Y.P.D. For a monthly retainer of four thousand dollars, according to the government, Eppolito and Caracappa served in effect as Cosa Nostra spies, passing along police intelligence, and, on a contract basis, for as much as seventy-five thousand dollars a job, they helped kidnap and kill. If this weren’t enough to bring the Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin, the News’ Denis Hamill, the writer and TV commentator Jerry Capeci, and other veteran noir chroniclers to the federal courthouse in downtown Brooklyn for a reunion, alongside the dwindling ranks of bejewelled old men in tracksuits, there were other operatic touches: an uncontested Gambino lineage on the part of the cop Eppolito; an estranged gay son, Lou Eppolito, Jr., who attended every day, along with his lover, each with a shaved head; a pair of high-profile defense-attorney pals, Edward Hayes and Bruce Cutler, coming and going in complementary fedoras and overcoats; a highly respected eighty-four-year-old judge, Jack Weinstein, whose preferred method of listening to testimony seems to involve leaning back, tilting his head, and closing his eyes.
“I think I’m an average human being,” the star witness said at one point, on cross-examination. But the story of Burton Kaplan’s life, as it emerged, was at once remarkably international, spanning several continents, and remarkably provincial, set in a New York so small and narrow as to be almost unrecognizable. Kaplan, we learned, was born in Sheepshead Bay, and he confessed to being a gambling addict from the age of thirteen, although he persisted in showing law-abiding potential for a while longer, attending Brooklyn Tech, and then joining the Navy, where he studied Russian radio codes in Japan. He was even offered a job in the National Security Agency, he said, but he turned it down in order to return to Brooklyn, and join his family in the appliance business—principally, installing and repairing air-conditioners in and around the neighborhood of Bensonhurst, which was then a Mafia stronghold.
Gambling debts necessitate a lively entrepreneurial spirit, and Kaplan, it turned out, once concocted a scheme to sell hair grease in Africa; when the grease turned brown in transit, he had a chemist try cooking the remains into Quaaludes. (It failed, and he went to jail.) He dealt in diamonds with the nephew of a government official in Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso. He sold Peruvian passports to the Hong Kong Chinese. And he did business with a Mr. Ho, from Hubei Province, in China, whom he called “one of the first people to represent a Communist country in the free world.” All the while, back in Brooklyn and in a warehouse on Staten Island, he also sold clothes—leisure suits and bluejeans, Gloria Vanderbilt and Calvin Klein.
“I’m so enamored of him!” Breslin, one of half a dozen people now writing a book about the case, said during lunch recess one day. “He talks about designer jeans and dumping a body in the Connecticut River—because the ground was too frozen—in the same tone of voice!”
Kaplan, who wore large round glasses, blinked incessantly, and spoke in unbending Brooklynese, had a knack for introducing novelistic detail about incidentals. He said he learned that Gaspipe Casso was a rat in 1994, for instance, while taking a bath. The phone rang, and it was his lawyer, Judd Burstein: “So I got out of the tub and I wrapped some towels around me and—we had a telephone in the bathroom—I picked it up and I said, ‘Yeah, Judd, what seems to be the problem?’ ”
The problem was that Casso could easily have implicated Kaplan in several of the thirty-plus murders that he eventually admitted to. Kaplan went on the lam, travelling under an alias, first to Mexico and then to Portland, before settling in Las Vegas. There he reconnected with his old cop friend Louie Eppolito, who had retired from the police force and moved West to start a new career as a screenwriter and actor—with limited success. (He played Fat Andy, a bit part, in the movie “GoodFellas.”)
“I said, ‘How come you’re always in trouble with money?’ ” Kaplan testified, recalling one of his meetings with Eppolito. “He says, ‘I collect snakes—very expensive snakes. And it costs a lot of money to feed them.’ ”
Kaplan’s testimony illustrated one of the great flaws of the criminal-justice system: that small-time crooks—crooks, in some cases, with truly creative minds, of the sort that can dream of turning hair cream into Quaaludes—are sent to prison, where they have no choice but to befriend other crooks, thereby expanding the network of criminal conspiracy ever outward. It was in prison that Kaplan met a man named Frank (Junior) Santora, who had a cousin on the police force (Eppolito), and a friend high up on the Luchese masthead (Casso). And it was Frank Santora whom Kaplan described as having arrived at a Toys R Us parking lot on Flatbush Avenue, in the fall of 1986, with a man locked in his trunk:
He pulled into the lot with the car that we had gotten him, and he stopped. . . . I said, “What’s up, Frank?” And he says, “He was yelling and kicking in the trunk.” And he says, “I had to pull over and I punched him to keep him quiet. And you have to be careful that he don’t start screaming and yelling.” And I took the key to the car and I walked away from Frankie and I handed the key to Anthony Casso. Casso looked up and he said, “Who are those two guys at the foot of the parking lot?” And I looked up and I recognized Louie and Steve, and I walked over to Frankie. I said, “What are they doing here?” He said, “They followed me to back me up.” And at that time I thought, Wow, what great guys they were.
The man in the trunk was Jimmy Hydell, a twenty-six-year-old Gambino associate, whose body has never been found.
Lou Eppolito’s father, Ralph, hated cops, because they lacked dignity and self-respect—they always sold themselves out for cheap. When Lou was in his early teens, Ralph would bring him along to the Grand Mark, a social club in Bedford-Stuyvesant where Ralph and his friends gambled and played cards. Every few hours, Ralph would hand Lou an envelope with five dollars in it, and send him outside to greet a couple of officers who liked to park across the street.
In Ralph Eppolito’s estimation, there were only two things worse than cops: Feds and rats. The Feds, unlike the cops, had no appreciation for such local traditions as the payoff. They weren’t from the neighborhood. They didn’t play fair. And if there was any confusion about rats it was erased by Joseph (Joe Cargo) Valachi’s Senate testimony, in 1963, which the Eppolitos watched on television as a family at their home in East Flatbush, otherwise known as Pigtown. Lou recognized some of the names that Valachi gave up as belonging to men who’d visited the house.
Ralph Eppolito was one of four sons born to Luigi the Nablidan, a watchmaker who came over from Naples in 1901, and who later ran with Charles (Lucky) Luciano and Carlo Gambino during the Depression. Like his brothers Jimmy and Freddy, Ralph went into the family business, earning the nickname Fat the Gangster. (The eldest son, Joey, went to work as an honest longshoreman, and was thereafter rarely acknowledged.) Ralph dressed impeccably, and he was a stern, often violent father, who made sure to impart a particular kind of paternal wisdom: retaliating in front of witnesses is not classy; individuals must earn your disdain; no one is killed without a reason.
As a boy, Lou resented his father. He dressed sloppily and focussed on girls and lifting weights. In high school, at Erasmus Hall, the alma mater of Bernard Malamud and Barbra Streisand, Lou was, by his own recollection, “a little fuckin’ Casanova.” For his bodybuilding, he was named Mr. New York City in 1967. And in 1968, shortly after his father died, he did the unthinkable: he applied to the Police Academy.
Eppolito recounted his family history, and his experiences on the job, in “Mafia Cop: The Story of an Honest Cop Whose Family Was the Mob,” a book he co-wrote with the former Post reporter Bob Drury. The book’s contents were ruled off limits to the prosecution by Judge Weinstein before the start of the trial, but for all its misguided boastfulness “Mafia Cop,” if taken largely as the truth, presents a case study of a man’s struggles to maintain his dignity in a changing world, and of the perpetual conflict between individual pride and institutional necessity.
By Eppolito’s account, New York in the nineteen-seventies was a frightening place, particularly in the middle- and outer-ring neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx, as black and Hispanic gangs moved in on the small-time rackets once reserved for ethnic whites—Jews, Irish, and Italians. The heroin trade was booming. Survival on the streets demanded quick and decisive action, not subtlety of judgment and equivocation. Eppolito had a handy tag for the kinds of people who weren’t making Brooklyn any safer: they were the “three P’s—perps, pussies, and pencil-pushing prigs.”
He was assigned first to the Sixty-third Precinct, in Marine Park, a traditionally middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, where twice he was caught in the middle of a shootout. He quickly adopted what he later came to call the Cosa Nostra interpretation of police procedure, which involved bashing heads and shooting first and asking questions later. He broke the precinct’s rookie arrest record after just eight months.
Eppolito was next transferred to the Twenty-fifth Precinct, in Harlem, where gunfire was prevalent, and had his first experience of killing a man. “Really, who gives a fuck?” he wrote. “We weren’t out there shooting priests. I learned something about myself during that gunfight. I not only had the capacity to kill, I had the capacity to forget about it, to not let it bother me.”
He became friendly with the city’s crime reporters—guys who knew how tough it was on the street, and who weren’t often swayed by the misgivings of “liberal agitators” and civilian review boards. A News headline in 1973 announced, “EPPOLITO DOES IT AGAIN.” A Times story from 1974 credited Eppolito with helping to prevent what a sergeant speculated could have been “one of the biggest gang wars ever in Brooklyn,” between the Jolly Stompers and the Tomahawks.
Eppolito was aware that some of his tactics wouldn’t stand up to bureaucratic review, but he was convinced that he was serving the greater good. The longer he stayed on the job, the more he began to appreciate his father’s fearlessness, and his code of honor. The new breed of gangster he found himself up against—the Black Liberation Army, the Disco Gang—obeyed no such code, and left civilian casualties, something he believed his relatives never did. “The public will never understand the mentality of a cop—a good cop, anyway,” Eppolito wrote. “In a way, it’s very similar to the mentality of Organized Crime. You do what you have to do and don’t think twice about consequences, because when you gotta go, you gotta go.”
After a brief, failed marriage that produced Lou, Jr., in 1969, Eppolito met Frances Todisco, the daughter of an elevator operator in the Bronx. At their wedding, in 1973, Lou requested that the band play the theme from “The Godfather,” and his Uncle Jimmy, a.k.a. Jimmy the Clam, handed him an envelope stuffed with cash.
Eppolito met Steve Caracappa, a Brooklyn-born Vietnam vet, after he was promoted to detective, in 1977. Caracappa, who was seven years older, was a thinker, reserved where Eppolito was excitable, and they made an ideal pair. At one point, while investigating the Disco Gang, Eppolito was thrilled to find an especially ornery perp named David (Big T) McLeary lying naked in his bed. He broke his knuckles on McLeary’s head, and had his hands tightly around the perp’s neck, when Caracappa pulled him off. “Without Steve, I guarantee you David McLeary would be six feet under right now instead of doing three consecutive life terms upstate,” Eppolito wrote. (McLeary’s girlfriend filed a grievance, but Eppolito was cleared.)
In 1978, Luigi the Nablidan died, and after the funeral Eppolito accepted another envelope from his Uncle Jimmy. A year later, as Eppolito was preparing to serve on the Pope’s protection detail, he learned that Jimmy and his son Jim-Jim had been killed, with permission from the Gambino boss Paul Castellano. Eppolito’s cousin Frank Santora, who had served as Jimmy the Clam’s bodyguard, told him to expect a phone call, and three days later Castellano summoned Eppolito to a sit-down.
Castellano explained that his beef had been more with the son than with the father—that “the kid did a lot of bad things wrong”—and asked if there was anything he could do to make amends. Lou walked away, offended: “If my old man had told me anything, it was never to whore myself out for a dollar.”
In the months following Jimmy’s death, Fran saw a noticeable change in Lou’s behavior. “I mean, when Steve Caracappa came over you’d think there were two Godfathers sitting at our kitchen table,” she said in “Mafia Cop.” “The talking with the hands. The drinking of the double espressos. ‘Salud ’-ing each other to death after every sip. And Louie was starting to kiss everybody on the cheek. Before, he’d just kiss the family, and shake hands with anyone else. Now it was Kiss City.”
In the spring of 1983, Eppolito was on patrol, driving by the Café Italia, on Eighteenth Avenue in Bensonhurst, when he spotted a “greaseball” adjusting his crotch and looking Eppolito’s way. Not one to back down, Eppolito stopped the car and grabbed the guy by the throat. “I was just fixin’ my pants,” he protested. Eppolito wrote, “I told him that if he ever fixed his pants like that in front of me again I’d fix what’s inside his pants.”
The greaseball was Rosario Gambino, a made man from the Sicilian crew, who was under surveillance from the Organized Crime Control Bureau, and Eppolito’s exchange had been caught on tape: “a two-minute, off-the-cuff conversation that was about to ruin my career.”
The next year, Gambino was arrested for selling heroin to a federal agent, and a week after that Eppolito was summoned to a hearing with Internal Affairs; the F.B.I. had found copies of police records in Gambino’s home, and Eppolito was being accused of passing documents.
Eppolito insisted that he’d been Rembrandted—framed—but he was suspended for the duration of the investigation. Most cops he knew turned their backs, but the wiseguys from his old neighborhood paid their respects. “I always treated the men of Cosa Nostra with honor,” he wrote. “I always did for them. And now they were offering to do for me. That thought fed me strength.”
“Mafia Cop” was published in 1992, but the events it describes conclude in 1985, with Eppolito’s acquittal, and with the restoration of his job—for which he’d lost nearly all esteem. (In the epilogue, he wrote, “The bad guys respected Louie Eppolito. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the good guys.”) The first murder charged under the conspiracy occurred in 1986.
Eppolito retired from the N.Y.P.D. in December of 1989, and moved to Las Vegas a few years later with Fran and their three children: Andrea, Deanna, and Anthony. His old partner, Steve Caracappa, retired in 1992, and eventually joined him in Nevada.
“I went to visit my dad in Vegas in 2000,” Lou Eppolito, Jr., told me. “As soon as we got to my father’s house, five minutes later, Steve came in. And I found that a little odd. I was a little put back at that. I’m, like, ‘What’s he doing here?’ Dad says, ‘He lives across the street.’ ”
Last March, when federal agents searched Eppolito’s house, they found glass cases full of knives, and a hundred and fourteen guns, including five assault rifles, a sawed-off shotgun, and a snub-nosed revolver with the words “Mafia Cop, Louis Eppolito” engraved on the handle. The arresting officer, Ken Luzak, told Eppolito, “Lou, it’s been a long time coming.”
“I know,” Eppolito replied.
Eddie Hayes, who is best known as the inspiration for Tommy Killian, the hustling defense attorney in Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” offered what could be called the sartorial defense for his client, Caracappa, often injecting his cross-examinations with a stylistic critique: “Your taste in clothing seems to run toward the traditional, isn’t that fair to say? Tweed jacket, nice dark tie?” “You used to like to dress very sharp, didn’t you? You liked those special collars—what do you call them?”
Hayes’s co-counsel, Bruce Cutler, in defending the writer Eppolito, provided strings of synonyms—“talkative, garrulous, loquacious”; “Hell, perdition, destruction”—presumably as a means of raising self-doubt in his less articulate witnesses. Cutler, who is hulking and bald, and resembles both Telly Savalas and Jesse Ventura, made his bones defending the late Gambino boss John Gotti. He has a booming rasp that his old friend Hayes once described as sounding like he “gargles Brillo pads for breakfast.” Hayes is merely robust, and also bald. His most famous client, Andy Warhol (whom he represented posthumously), wrote that Hayes “looked like he was from ‘Laverne and Shirley,’ like a plant that people invite to parties to wear funny clothes and jump around and make things ‘kooky.’ . . . He said, ‘I can get ya outta anything.’ ” Together, Cutler and Hayes looked, as one former prosecutor put it, “right out of central casting,” which is another way of saying that their pocket squares probably cost more than the off-the-rack suits worn by their substantially younger adversaries in the U.S. Attorney’s office.
The defense counsellors presented a tag-team physical-comedy routine, with Hayes, the speed guy, pacing to and from the witness stand while rubbing his crown (to signify skepticism) or clutching at the knot in his tie (as an expression of disgust). A study in mannered deliberation, Cutler assumed a series of poses, not unlike a bodybuilder’s: the Astronomer (hands thrust toward the ceiling, head tilted up and to the left, staring into the light); the Atlas (bending and lifting an imaginary boulder several times in succession); the Receiver (arms parallel and outstretched, palms upturned); the Commander (palms slammed down on the lectern, slightly wide stance); the Puzzler (right hand on head, head cocked, left arm akimbo); and, my favorite, the Backward Stumbling Buddha (reverse shuffle steps into an increasingly wide stance, head down, palms together).
The act sometimes obscured a fairly well orchestrated decline-and-fall narrative—the “Mafia Cop” thesis, stripped of violence, and expanded to include not only wiseguys and cops but criminal defenders. (Cutler to Judd Burstein, Burt Kaplan’s erstwhile lawyer: “You used to wear a big pair of pink glasses. . . . And you knew that lawyers certainly shared information in the criminal-defense bar, at least at one time, when there was a camaraderie, an esprit de corps. . . . You’re in a different milieu. I hate to use these fancy terms. You’re in a different milieu than you were. . . . Didn’t you open a big office at one time that had green furniture and you served cappuccinos?”) Modernity, in all its manifestations, was the perp, and good “neighborhood white boys” like Hayes (Irish, Jackson Heights) and Cutler (Jewish, Flatbush) and their clients were the victims.
And although Burt Kaplan was the star witness, the best performance in a supporting role, in keeping with this theme, belonged to Stephen Corso, a crooked C.P.A. whose Connecticut home and midtown Manhattan office life contrasted nicely with the blue-collar world of South Brooklyn. Corso, who has the heavyset build of a lapsed gym rat, strode into the courtroom wearing his dark hair slicked back and an artificial-looking tan.
Whereas Kaplan told stories freely and dispassionately, like a man unburdened, Corso exuded smugness in his reticence, slumping back and away from the microphone after each question. His testimony began as follows:
Q: Were you at one time a Certified Public Accountant?
A: I was.
Q: Did there come a time that you got into trouble with the law?
A: There was.
Q: How did you get into trouble with the law?
A: By misappropriating funds from clients.
Specifically, Corso told his clients how much they owed in taxes, and asked them to wire the money to his own bank account, so that he in turn could pay the government. His “misappropriation” scheme—which netted almost six million dollars over five years—was straightforward: he never paid the government. When he learned, in 2002, that federal agents were searching his office on Fifty-seventh Street, he, too, headed for Las Vegas.
Unlike Kaplan, Corso knew nothing of Mob assassinations and corrupt cops; his value lay elsewhere. The last of the eight charged murders occurred in 1991, and a RICO indictment requires that criminal conspiracy continue to within five years of the present. The government had to get around the statute of limitations, and that’s where Corso came in.
Instead of going to jail for his theft, Corso agreed to wear a wire as he explored the underbelly of Las Vegas, like an amateur undercover agent equipped with a gambling-and-booze allowance. He wore his wire to the Crazy Horse Too strip club, where he clocked hundreds of hours, and he wore it when he was introduced to Lou Eppolito, who told him that he was looking for investors to back his latest screenplay (“Murder in Youngstown”). Corso, with some guidance from the F.B.I., conjured up four “Hollywood punks” who he said were coming to town, and who might be interested in financing the movie. The catch: they needed to be shown a good time—they wanted some “designer drugs.” Eppolito put Corso in touch with his son Anthony, who is twenty-four, and with a friend of Anthony’s named Guido Bravatti (“the Guidster,” Corso called him), who was helping Steve Caracappa’s wife with computer lessons. Last February, Bravatti and Anthony Eppolito sold an ounce of crystal meth and half a dozen Ecstasy pills to Corso. The statute of limitations, according to the prosecution, was now irrelevant, because the alleged conspiracy that had begun in 1986 was ongoing.
For this—for the high-tech entrapment, and the use of Eppolito’s son—Hayes later called Corso “the worst kind of pig,” worse even than a confessed killer who had already testified. (To further emphasize the cultural divide, Hayes referred to the setup as having involved “this speed drug, that’s good for sex drive, or something.”)
Since the defendants never took the stand, it was Corso’s wire that provided the jurors, who were equipped with headphones, with their only taste of Eppolito’s conversational gifts. This snippet was recorded over dinner at a casino restaurant:
Let me talk to you the way the Jews do it. There is no better way. The Jews say, “You’re Jewish, you’re Jewish, he’s Jewish, he’s Jewish, there’s four of us, that’s a quarter each, we all make a quarter.” Italians do it, “I want sixty-five cents. I’ll give you a dime, I’ll give him three cents, give him seven, but I make sure I get the most.” . . . Jews don’t care, because there’ll be another dollar, and there’ll be another dollar. “We have four dollars, we each make a dollar.” . . . Italians aren’t like that. Italian people, for some reason, and I don’t know the reason why, they almost feel, “How am I getting fucked? Where am I getting fucked?” It’s, like, their assholes are always puckered.
Corso brought out the best in Cutler, who implicated technology in the societal breakdown responsible for putting a man like Corso on the witness stand.
“Do you know how to use those fancy computer machines?” Cutler asked.
He kept pressing. “You know how to use the e-mail?”
Cutler approached and handed Corso a stack of printouts, then employed the Puzzler.
“There is communication in the electronic world between you and Lou, is that the idea?”
“They are e-mails.”
At another point, after naming some of Corso’s victims, and the amounts he had stolen from them, Cutler said, “You stole for the worst reasons: indifference, callousness, profligacy, greed.”
Judge Weinstein interrupted: “Is that a question?”
“Yes, sir,” Cutler replied, sliding into the Backward Stumbling Buddha, holding it for a moment, and then lifting his head to look at Corso. “Are those adjectives apt?”
“It’s been an amazing experience,” Lou Eppolito, Jr., who is thirty-six, and works at a vitamin warehouse in New Jersey, told me after court one day in the second week of the trial. “I’m trying to stay optimistic, but it’s going a little worse than I thought. I’m trying to prepare myself for the guilty verdict right now.”
Eppolito, Sr., who is fifty-seven but could pass for seventy, has long since lost his weight-lifter’s build; he is hugely fat and jowly. His hair, in the past year, has gone completely gray, to match his pallor. Still, he seemed to be weathering the trial without great difficulty, settling into a regular routine and even maintaining a limited code of chivalry during what seemed more and more likely to be his last days as a free man. He wore the same gray suit almost every day, and made sure to smile at the courtroom sketch artist and exchange pleasantries with the photographers who gathered in Cadman Plaza, across the street, to shoot pictures of him and Fran as they lumbered across to their lunch, at the same back table of the same restaurant, the Park Plaza Diner. He held doors for women, and on one occasion even bent down, with considerable effort, to pick up a dropped scarf for a stranger.
Lou, Jr., was excluded from the family lunchtime ritual. (Fran and her kids do not speak to him.) “We’ve had problems in the past, and they’re holding on to that,” he said. So he clung to chance encounters in the hall, during breaks, in order to speak with his father, about whom he is now attempting to write a book.
“Throughout our life, we’ve butted heads,” Eppolito, Jr., said to me. “But I told him, ‘I’m not out to get you.’ I’m kind of following in his footsteps, in a way.”
Ed Hayes presented an optimistic front in his own daily routines, which included reminding reporters of the small victories he’d scored on recent cross-examinations (exposing a previously unknown money-laundering scheme that Burt Kaplan had set up in Antigua, say, or calling attention to a missing homicide file), and requesting that they acknowledge how well dressed he was. “Yesterday I did not feel was a good day for them,” he said of the prosecutors, as he did almost every day, when I joined him for lunch at the diner in the middle of week two.
Hayes has just written a book, “Mouthpiece: A Life in—and Sometimes Just Outside—the Law,” in which he lays out his theory of “the neighborhood white boy,” and says that “you’re a fool if you operate in the court system or anywhere else without a keen sense of ethnic identity.” He talks about his boyhood among the Irish in Jackson Heights, where the chief rule was “that the worst thing you can do is rat out a friend.” And he explains, at considerable length, the role that tailors and, especially, cobblers have played in insuring his success. (“Anyone can dress well up top; shoes make the man.”)
As he ate, he expounded on the ethnic idea. “It was a much different Police Department then, a lot of Irish and Italian officers,” he said. “Now it’s eighteen per cent Hispanic, a lot of African-Americans. Back then, the guys came from the neighborhoods, and they knew a lot of the crime guys. When I was a D.A. in homicide, I loved it. All the cops were from my background.”
A little girl walked up to our booth and pointed at Hayes, who was dressed in a brown-and-blue pin-striped suit, with his fedora at his side. He looked like a character out of a colorized forties movie. “Funny man!” she said.
Hayes has built his career on a network of trading favors, representing the kinds of people—cops and journalists, largely—who are apt to be able to help him in return. “I see myself more like an Irish politician of another era,” he said. “I take care of the people in my building. When I’ve been in trouble, my friends have been a great help. My friends stuck with me like fucking glue.”
One such friend is Ray Kelly, the Police Commissioner, with whom he used to have lunch regularly. This case was straining their relationship, however, and he said he hadn’t eaten with Kelly since the defendants’ arrest, last spring.
As we waited in line to pay, by the exit, an investigator from the U.S. Attorney’s office admired Hayes’s brown overcoat. “It’s Polo,” Hayes said. “I get ’em cheap, because I represent all those guys.”
Hayes held the door for a woman who appeared to be in her forties, and who thanked him before adding, “I like your hat. I wish more men still wore hats.”
We caught up to Lou and Fran Eppolito, crossing the park, and chatted as we entered the courthouse. Moments later, as the four of us—Fran, Lou, Ed, and I—were waiting for the elevator, Eppolito blurted out, “Excuse me, gentlemen, I don’t mean any offense,” and began very demonstrably adjusting his crotch. I was reminded of Rosario Gambino, outside the Café Italia, in 1983, and Eppolito’s choke hold.
However betrayed Eppolito may have felt by the supposed “thin blue line” during his corruption hearing, in the eighties, he seemed to be benefitting from another cop code—the Blue Wall of Silence—this time around. Someone close to the prosecution complained to me that several of the officers who did testify had initially been more forthcoming about their knowledge of the defendants’ activities, only to take the stand and reveal little, and then shake Eppolito’s or Cutler’s hand on the way out.
“Most people think they’re dirty,” one current detective told me, describing the feeling among the cops. But, he added, “there’s a general attitude of just enjoying the spectacle.”
The spectacle, as the trial progressed, was certainly hard to ignore. We saw Eppolito’s onetime mistress, Cabrini Cama, take the stand, wearing bangs and big, magenta-colored hair, just as she might have had when, as she testified, Lou and Steve and Burt Kaplan used to visit her at her house in Bensonhurst. (Fran Eppolito shot a disapproving look at Cama’s several-inch-high heels as she passed by.) There were sentimental moments, too. Pictures from the Sweet Sixteen party of Frank Santora’s daughter were shown on a big screen: of Lou Eppolito, looking much healthier, lighting candles and dancing with the birthday girl; of a younger Fran Eppolito, with blond hair, which brought a wistful smile to the defendant’s otherwise dour wife.
The more time you spent in the courthouse, the smaller New York’s underworld came to seem. Early on, Burt Kaplan, the sickly star witness, revealed that he once had Murray Cutler—Bruce’s father—as a defense attorney. The judge in that case was Jack Weinstein. In 1973, Kaplan’s twelve-year-old daughter, Deborah, stood before Weinstein and pleaded for leniency on her father’s behalf in a larceny sentencing. (Kaplan got four years, with a recommendation for early parole.) Deborah Kaplan is now a judge in Manhattan, and when her father was asked why he had jeopardized her career by inviting known gangsters like Anthony Casso and Frank Santora to her wedding, in 1985, he replied, “She might have become a criminal-defense lawyer.” By the time a minor witness named Thomas Licata mentioned in passing, during the third week, that he’d had a high-school job, in the seventies, at the Toys R Us on Flatbush Avenue—the one with the parking lot where Jimmy Hydell later arrived, in the trunk, to meet his fate at the hands of Anthony Casso—the coincidence hardly seemed surprising.
Steve Caracappa, who is sixty-four and trim, with a well-groomed mustache, was the cipher in the trial. He avoided all encounters with the press, never leaving the courthouse for lunch, and what little we learned of him from testimony—that he was a cat person; that he hand-delivered conciliatory cookies to Burt Kaplan after a falling-out between Kaplan and Eppolito—did not suggest that he was a likely killer. He was, by all accounts, smart and competent, rising to the élite Major Case Squad. And yet it was Caracappa’s apparent sloppiness that produced the trial’s saddest testimony.
In November of 1986, records show, Caracappa ran a computer search on the name Nicholas Guido, and turned up the address, in Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace neighborhood, of a young man born on February 2, 1960. A month later, on Christmas Day, Guido, a twenty-six-year-old phone-company employee who’d recently put in for a job with the Fire Department, stepped outside to show his uncle his new, bright-red Nissan Maxima—and was shot to death in a drive-by.
Nicholas Guido was also the name of a Gambino associate who had failed in an assassination attempt on Anthony Casso. That Nicky Guido was born on January 29, 1957, and lived a couple of miles away. When news of the Christmas shooting got out, he fled to Florida.
The killing of the Windsor Terrace Guido, to borrow from Paul Castellano, was a bad thing done wrong—tragically wrong. After Guido’s mother, Pauline Pepitone, appeared and testified that she’d given her son a gold Christ head as a gift on that fateful day, Judge Weinstein excused the jury and admonished the prosecution. “I don’t want witnesses like this brought in the case unnecessarily,” he said.
Weinstein, who was appointed to the bench by Lyndon Johnson in 1967, moved the trial along briskly, twice cutting Cutler’s crosses short, and expressing exasperation with the government’s attempts to narrate a “history of organized crime.” His age and experience belied his distaste for pomp. Weinstein never once wore a robe, and when Cutler asked his permission to approach a witness on the opening day, he replied, “Yes. You need not ask.”
CUTLER: O.K., sir. I need not ask?
JUDGE: Correct. You don’t need my permission.
CUTLER: Oh, yes, sir. It’s the old-fashioned way, Your Honor. I don’t want to take liberties.
JUDGE: We don’t do it that way anymore.
The most graphic testimony came from the prosecution’s thirtieth witness, an illiterate fifty-six-year-old man named Peter Franzone, who stood just five feet four. Franzone testified that he’d dropped out of P.S. 9, in Crown Heights, at the age of sixteen, at which point he was still in the sixth grade.
Franzone had once, as a boy, taken sixty-five dollars from a recycling plant, with which he treated himself to a cowboy hat on Coney Island, and when he was fourteen or fifteen he stole a car, but the story of his life was mainly one of hard, honest work: he drove a laundry truck, and then a tow truck, eventually managing to buy his own towing company, auto-body shop, and parking lot, on Nostrand Avenue. After leaving the business, Franzone took a maintenance job with the city, which he worked at for seventeen years, without taking a day off. He retired, last year, with two hundred and fifty-four unused sick days; he had continued receiving a full city salary until a week before his testimony began.
One of the regular customers at Franzone’s lot on Nostrand Avenue was Eppolito’s cousin Frank Santora. Sometime in the winter of 1986, Franzone testified, Santora showed up with two men—one in “a skullcap,” the other in a trenchcoat—and the three headed inside a garage, to Santora’s usual parking spot. Franzone recalled seeing Eppolito parked near the entrance, and he said that, about half an hour later, only two men—Santora and the man in the trenchcoat—emerged from the garage.
Soon afterward, Santora told Franzone that he had something to show him:
Q: And you talked about what you saw when you got into the garage and you turned on the light. What happened next?
A: Saw the man leaning on the wall, and Frankie told me that I got to help bury the body, because I’m an accessory with it, and if I didn’t help him, if I go and tell anybody, that he would kill me and my effin’ family.
Santora pulled two shovels out of the trunk of his car and ordered Franzone to start digging a hole, in an unpaved portion of the garage floor. He dug for hours, five feet down. “I was afraid that he might make me dig it deep enough and leave me in there,” Franzone said.
Q: And was it after he was in the hole that you put the cement on him? What was the sequence after the man gets put in the hole?
A: Put the man in the hole—the man was like this—and Frankie put the lime on top of him, and then dumped that, and he opened the jugs and poured the jugs of liquid on him and told me to go get water . . . and we started mixing up the cement and then we pushed the cement in the hole.
Q: And what happened next?
A: Then I threw dirt on top of him.
It was dark when they finished, and Franzone went home and never told anyone—not even his wife—about what had happened. A year later, he had a son, and Santora dropped by with a gift: baby clothes, in a black garbage bag. In 1988, Franzone attended Santora’s daughter’s Sweet Sixteen party, and recognized Eppolito’s cop friend as the man in the trenchcoat. He said nothing.
Last March, following the arrest of Eppolito and Caracappa, an F.B.I. agent came calling, with questions about Frank Santora. Franzone looked in the Yellow Pages for a lawyer. He stopped his search at “Abramson, Alan.” In April, Franzone took the police back to the lot, where they exhumed the remains of Israel Greenwald, an Orthodox Jew (the “skullcap” was a yarmulke) who had been involved in a bond-dealing scheme with Burt Kaplan twenty years earlier.
Hayes, in his cross-examination, addressed the matter of the trenchcoat: “Were these big lapels or were these small lapels, do you remember?” Then he retrieved a bright-red shovel he’d picked up at a hardware store (“Would it shock you if I told you that in my time I dug a lot of holes?”), and asked Franzone to step down from the witness stand. Using four plastic cups, he asked Franzone to map out the perimeter of the hole.
For the next five minutes, the two men pretended to dig a hole in the floor of the federal courthouse:
Q: Mr. Franzone, you say the hole was a little over five foot deep?
Q: The shovel is two and a half feet to three feet long?
Q: That means if you dig down with the shovel, right?
Q: By the way, you can’t dig right through, you have to squat down?
A: And drag it along the wall and throw it up.
Q: You throw it up like that?
Bruce Cutler, who took over the questioning, has never met a coöperating witness who wasn’t, in some way or another, the most shameful person on earth. Franzone, who is now in witness protection, was no exception.
For this questioning, Cutler adopted the Puzzler: “Did you ever call your wife and say, ‘Dear, I won’t be home for dinner, I’m digging a grave at my place of business?’ ” Then the Commander, with repeated slams for emphasis. “That’s what you created in your collision shop—you created a cemetery! It’s the most despicable, loathsome thing that a man could do—if he calls himself a man.”
The defense contended—not implausibly—that Franzone had been more complicit in the Greenwald affair than he was letting on. But since Frank Santora is now dead, and therefore incapable of incriminating or contradicting Franzone or anyone else, it wasn’t clear what Franzone would have stood to gain by falsely implicating the defendants.
It was clear, by this stage anyway, that the two sides were talking past one another, not even trying the same case, really. The prosecution, led by a forty-three-year-old Army Reserve lieutenant colonel named Robert Henoch, who wore glasses and moved about the courtroom with a determined, almost cadenced gait, presented facts, bolstered by blown-up photographs and diagrams. The defense countered those facts with a world view.
The day the prosecution called its last witness, a Thursday, was unseasonably warm, and Bruce Cutler and Ed Hayes took a lunchtime stroll, eventually settling down to eat at a stone chessboard in Cadman Plaza—just a couple of neighborhood white boys, reminiscing.
“This is our first case together, would you believe it?” Cutler said. “I’m in Heaven. Freedom, fresh air, food: this, to me, right now, I’m in Heaven. A day’s work, some exercise—it sounds silly, but it is true. Most of the heavy lifting is done.”
Cutler said that he planned to handle the broad, thematic arguments, while leaving the factual matters to Hayes.
“It’s been heavy,” he continued. “It’s been heavy. The pace has been relentless. I’ve never worked so hard in my life—as a lawyer. I’ve worked harder in construction work, and in the gym.”
He opened a bag he’d brought from a nearby deli and retrieved a sandwich, while Hayes drank a smoothie. “Ed and I appreciate the small things,” he said.
“I’d rather be doing this in Brooklyn than sitting in La Grenouille,” Hayes said.
“The greatest lunches I’ve ever had were on construction gangs,” Cutler said, holding up his sandwich. “Ham and Swiss.”
He took a few bites and sat back, spreading his shoulders. “Eddie is more sanguine, more optimistic. I think there’s been a moral breakdown in this country—in politics, in government, in hoodlums.”
“You think the government is more deceitful now?” Hayes asked
“More powerful, yes,” Cutler replied. “And you see it in sports, too—in college athletics. With certain exceptions, of course. Judge Weinstein is old school. He wrote the law. He built that building. Our clients are old school.”
“The government, especially the Feds, they just tell you what they want to tell you,” Hayes said.
“They’ve been denuding the so-called Mob of leadership. It has brought about a horrific gangland opportunism that has infiltrated every part of society.”
“If you take the classical point of view, and look back to the Greeks and Romans, because I think, Bruce, those are the classical points of view,” Hayes began, “in all these cases, senators were expected to make daily appearances at the gym. Governments today, they have no values. It’s all taking power, making money.”
“Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t making money from the Second World War,” Cutler said. “And President Wilson wasn’t making money from the First World War. And Harry Truman wasn’t profiting from Korea.”
“The concept of the U.S., what this country was based on, was individual rights,” Hayes said. “It’s a big part of the American myth: cowboys, trial lawyers. You really find a war on that kind of thinking today, the myth of the individual. Thank God the jury can still look you in the eye and say, ‘Go fuck yourself.’ ” He paused. “This is my idea of happiness.”
“It’s here,” Cutler said.
“Everyone said, ‘Don’t take this case, they’re dirty.’ But you know what? I could never do the corporate life,” Hayes said. “I do my own thing, what I want, and how I want. And I think we’ve made a very honest case.”
A man walking by on the street recognized Hayes, and stopped. “Hey, Eddie, I’m reading your book,” he called out. “How do you like my shoes?” He lifted his feet, one after the other, and presented them for inspection. “What do you think? Cole Haan, out in East Hampton. . . .”
Hayes got up to shake the man’s hand, and Cutler attempted to diagnose the decline. “It began in 1980, when Reagan took over, and when Giuliani was the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District, and brought an unprecedented war on the underworld. He used the RICO statutes to take out all the old-timers. All the acolytes and wanna-bes became people of note—”
Hayes, who had returned, cut back in: “Bruce, you don’t think it’s wrong that they broke the force of the Mafia, do you?”
“I can’t say I see it as black-and-white as that, Eddie. There’s a place for gambling. There’s a place for neighborhood.”
Hayes moved over to a nearby bench, and played the devil’s advocate for a moment. “Cops always tell you they’re disillusioned with the world,” he said. “Well, I think the world’s better off. Fifty years ago, we had Hitler and Stalin.”
“But, Ed, your Irish brethren aren’t better off.”
“I will say that standards in public life are declining,” Hayes said. “And this adulation of celebrities is obscene.”
“But, Ed, some of them are true artists.”
A free-associative digression followed, touching on actors, politicians, and sports stars, and the value of single-sex prep schools and colleges.
“My point is, I don’t want to seem like, as the New York Times fella says, ‘an apocalyptic aura,’ ” Cutler said. “I don’t want to be apocalyptic, but there’s a veneer of disrespect. I’m a romantic. Everybody today, they have no manners, they have no civility. They don’t dress well. Every time people of this generation act civilized, I thank them up and down for being civilized.”
“You have to understand who both these guys are, our clients,” Hayes said. “Lou is a very, very strong guy. A tough guy. New York City was a war zone in the seventies. He’s been in a lot of hand-to-hand combat. I think we have a shot, Bruce.”
“Ed, I feel better than that. Kaplan is the case. Don’t lose sight of it. He is the case.”
Hayes took a call on his cell phone, from his daughter, and began pacing. Cutler finished his sandwich and retrieved another from the bag, this time taking only half. “I know I’m an outrageous anachronism,” he said. “I admit that. I’m a prima donna. I admit that. I’ve made some terrible mistakes in life, but I try to do the right thing. And, you know, I’ve got a son, but he’s with his mother. In the end, I’m all by myself, and I have to live with myself, all alone.”
Hayes was using his BlackBerry, which led to the subject of e-mail, and computers. “It creates a cowardly individual that feels empowered when he puts on the machine,” Cutler said. “They don’t test the mettle of the man. I read e-mails, and then I delete them. I can’t type. I understand the usefulness of it. But I’d rather open up a dictionary or an encyclopedia. The effort of it—there’s effort involved. I think effort pays off. The things you enjoy in life you ought to savor a little bit. You think a love offer is made on a computer screen? Your whole life is changed by love.”
He went on, now referring to a different kind of machine. “For instance, Turner Classic Movies is my favorite station. I enjoy them: ‘Bridge on the River Kwai,’ ‘Spartacus.’ My father took me to those as a boy. It’s the same thing, Ed. Agony, suffering, and brutality, and triumph in the end. Freedom! And I don’t mean that froufrou ‘Gladiator,’ with the Australian who got in a fight at the hotel. That ‘Gladiator’ movie is typical of these days. I’m talking about ‘Spartacus,’ with Kirk Douglas, a Jewish kid from Amsterdam, New York. Was on the wrestling team at St. Lawrence. ‘Spartacus.’ And his son Michael is a good actor as well. Much of trial work is theatre. I’m emoting. I’m transporting myself into the jury box. ”
Hayes lay down on a park bench, placed his hat on his chest, and drifted off to sleep. Cutler continued his monologue. “The captain of the football team at Hamilton came to watch me. A lot of my friends have been showing up. Eddie’s friends, too. I find out they’re there, and I can’t believe it. They care. It’s loyalty. Part of this case has my whole professional life in it. I left the D.A.’s office in 1981. There’s a lot of personal aspects to this case in me.” He mentioned John Gotti. “I equate John as a real stand-up true believer. He went to jail and died. It’s like a homecoming for me. And there’s Eddie, who I met in 1981. It’s all coming back. There were more gangland killings from 1985 to 1992 than in the history of the country. Then it became almost a joke, a metaphor, and HBO came along: ‘The Sopranos.’ The actors, I know them, and they’re great people, but what they’re portraying is the lowest form of life. There’s not a single redeeming character, not a single person with respect. Not even the psychiatrist—she doesn’t have respect for herself. Except—that one Sicilian kid, with the ponytail, he had a little bit of respect, and then he went running back. They’re just fat, greedy, foulmouthed lowlifes. The Sicilian kid—he had a crush on the wife, I think—he was the one character that I thought had a little dignity to him.” He paused. “And the Russian girl, who lost her leg, and who worked so hard.”
He named a few of his favorite books—“Freedom from Fear,” “When Pride Still Mattered,” “They Marched Into Sunlight.” Then he stood, grabbed his briefcase, and walked back into the courthouse, leaving Hayes behind, still sleeping.
The next day, the defense requested a mistrial. Gaspipe Casso, asserting his authority as the “official acting boss of the Luchese crime family,” had written a late-arriving letter to the U.S. Attorney’s office from his cell in the ADX Supermax prison in Colorado, stating that “Detectives Eppolito and Caracappa have never supplied confidential information to the Lucheses,” and claiming to have exculpatory knowledge about some of the murders being charged. The letter also mentioned Casso’s kindness to the prosecutors: “my three and a half years of phenomenal, substantial assistance.”
Casso had been following the trial in the newspapers, and was frustrated that he hadn’t been included in the show. In a hastily arranged conference call with representatives of the defense team, he said, “I can’t see how either attorney could honestly wholeheartedly cross-examine them people without speaking to me first and learning the truth.”
Casso said that he’d always had an F.B.I. agent feeding him information, but that the crooked cops he knew were from Suffolk County, not Brooklyn. “I wish youse luck,” he signed off, and, before the line disconnected, Eppolito spoke up: “Anthony, this is Lou Eppolito. Thank you very much.”
Judge Weinstein denied the mistrial—the attorneys had known for months of Casso’s availability to testify—but offered the defense the option of changing its mind and calling Casso as a witness after all.
The problem with calling Casso as a defense witness, of course, was that he was a confessed rat and a proven liar. Cutler and Hayes, between them, had already referred to Casso as a “homicidal maniac” perhaps a dozen times in front of the jury.
JUDGE: What is your decision with respect to Mr. Casso?
HAYES: I’m not going to call Mr. Casso.
JUDGE: You are not going to call him?
JUDGE: Then both sides rest.
Daniel Wenner, the youngest of the three prosecutors, at thirty-four, summarized the government’s exhaustive evidence, from thirty-eight State’s witnesses, using PowerPoint slides and plasma TV screens. Judge Weinstein spotted a few closed eyes in the jury box at about the midpoint, and requested a stretching session.
“Rats,” a former prosecutor told me, are “the central engine that drives the justice system.” Without them, prosecuting gangs and organized-crime families would be impossible. It is therefore received wisdom in the legal community that all defense summations in Mafia trials are exactly the same. When boiled down, they amount to little more than questioning the motive—and therefore the honesty—of rats.
But there are many ways to impugn a rat. “When you go home tonight, visualize those ten-year-old kids and six-year-old kids in Upper Volta who have ringworm,” Ed Hayes said, by way of blaming Burt Kaplan for Third World poverty. (There were just two neighborhood white guys on the jury, in the end, and Hayes confided to me that he’d noticed the black jurors’ faces light up whenever he talked about Kaplan’s dealings in African “blood diamonds,” which he linked to the present civil war in Liberia.)
Cutler began his summation with a dictionary: a 2,072-page American Heritage Fourth Edition. He defined “justice,” “Martin Luther King,” “spring” (“because we had a little window of spring that came”), and “hope,” all in the course of working his way to “Franzone.”
“I looked up the definition of ‘Franzone’ in the dictionary, where I start all my work,” he said. “I didn’t look up his name but I looked up ‘gnome’: G-N-O-M-E.” Pete Franzone, the diminutive gravedigger, was “one of a race of dwarflike creatures who live underground and guard treasure hoards.”
Stephen Corso, on the other hand, was more like a coyote—there’d been a coyote on the loose in Central Park recently—and Eppolito a duck, the unsuspecting prey, lulled into a false sense of security in his natural habitat.
Cutler cited a number of facts, too: that he’d lost fourteen and a half pounds during the trial; that Brooklyn was “the borough of churches”; that construction on the Brooklyn Bridge began in 1869 and concluded in 1883; that Lou Eppolito’s picture once hung on the walls of Chinese restaurants; that “Crazy Horse” referred not only to a strip club visited by Stephen Corso but to “one of the great American Indian warriors of all times.”
Finally, he brought up the testimony of Agent Luzak, the arresting officer in Nevada, and that brief exchange with Eppolito. “ ‘It’s been a long time coming.’ And Lou’s answer was ‘I know.’ I know. I know what the life of my father was like. I know what the life of my uncle was like. I know what the lives of my cousins were like. . . . I know you have been after me. I know what happened as a result of my book. Come and take me.” He adopted the Receiver. “He is in your hands.”
Hayes saw the verdict coming. He’d seen the way the individual jurors avoided looking in his eyes when they asked for testimony to be read aloud by the court stenographer. And when they all broke for a long lunch on the second day—Judge Weinstein was due to give a speech on capital punishment at Brooklyn Law School—Hayes shook his head nervously and said, “You win some, and you lose some. And you know what? If they did it, that’s the life they chose.”
Anthony Eppolito clutched one of his dad’s plaques as the jury foreperson—a middle-aged black woman—stood, at ten past two, and quietly spoke the word “proved” seventy times: guilty on all counts.
As the verdict was read, Cutler rested his left elbow on the table and propped his head up with his hand. Without realizing it, perhaps, he had his middle finger extended, and facing the jury box, while the others curled under at the knuckle. He sniffled once or twice, and finally drew a finger to the side of his eye, mopping up.
Hayes stood and shook Caracappa’s hand. He kissed Eppolito on both cheeks. And then he broke down in tears..