Tuesday, March 17th 2009, 4:00 AM
Barry Gibbs sat in the witness chair and faced the Mafia cops at their sentencing. This was at 2 p.m., Friday, March 6, and his voice was as loud and harsh as the jailhouse where he spent 19 innocent years behind bars on a framed murder charge concocted by Louis Eppolito.
“You are going to die every day in jail, Eppolito,” Gibbs shouted. “Now you will know the hell you put me through.”
Eppolito sat stroking a white moustache, his round face like a gray boulder in a prison wall, trying to look astonished. Stephen Caracappa was unshaven, gaunt, haggard, resembling Dustin Hoffman in “Papillon.”
Gibbs’ voice boomed so loud that Judge Jack Weinstein told him to finish. “They’re gonna love you in jail,” Gibbs said, pointing at Eppolito. “And I’m gonna love it, too.”
Both Mafia cops stood and insisted that they were the ones being framed for eight murders and 70 racketeering charges.
Then Weinstein sentenced Eppolito to life plus 100 years and Caracappa to life plus 80 years. And then these two monsters who terrorized the streets of Brooklyn, using their NYPD gold shields, service weapons, handcuffs and lights and sirens to kidnap and murder for the mob, were led through a side door into the ferocious federal correctional system, and swallowed for the rest of their miserable days.
Outside, on the sidewalk in front of the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse, Barry Gibbs jabbed a fist into the balmy air. “This is the best day of my life,” he shouted. “These two lowlifes have no idea what their lives are gonna be like now. They’ll lie awake at night – because what’s the point of sleeping? – staring at the ceiling with no hope. They will remember family and friends and good meals and great parties. They will miss things like a private shower, going to the bathroom alone, walking to the fridge for a snack during a TV commercial. The company of a woman. …”
We crossed Cadman Plaza Park toward the subway that he would take back to the Prince George Hotel, a Manhattan SRO for the homeless.
“Mystery meat,” he said. “For 19 years – four in Attica and 15 in Eastern Correctional Facility, also known as Napanoch – I ate this vile stuff they called beef but like something you never tasted before. Mystery meat. Awful. These two guys liked their fancy Italian restaurants? Fancy mob meals? Okay, now it will be mystery meat until the day they die.”
Gibbs says he first met Louis Eppolito Nov. 14, 1986, when he came into the deli where he worked as a counterman at the junction of Flatbush and Nostrand Aves.
“Eppolito took a can of soda out of the fridge,” Gibbs remembers. “I says to him that will be 75 cents. He got so PO’d that I asked for the money that he locked me up. Took me down to the precinct and tried to beat me into confessing to a murder of a prostitute on the Belt Parkway that I had no idea about.”
Eppolito was referring to the murder of Virginia Robertson, whose body was discovered by a jogger named David Mitchell near the Mill Basin Bridge on the shoulder of the Belt Parkway Nov. 4, 1986. Mitchell said he saw a 5-foot, 6-inch white man with a moustache dump the body.
Gibbs is 5-feet-11 and had no facial hair, but Mitchell claims Eppolito coerced him into identifying Gibbs in a lineup at the 63rd Precinct. Based on Mitchell’s eyewitness testimony, Gibbs was convicted and sentenced to 20 years to life.
Noted attorney Barry Scheck, of the Innocence Project, took up Gibbs’ case in 1999, but the evidence file from the case had mysteriously disappeared.
In 2005, Gibbs says, he was lying awake in his cell at 5 a.m. when he heard a news report that Eppolito and Caracappa had been arrested in Las Vegas. He says, “I screamed through the prison, ‘There is a God!'”
When DEA agents arrested Eppolito in his Las Vegas home, they found Barry Gibbs’ missing evidence file, like a serial killer’s trophy. The Feds went back to Mitchell, and he recanted his testimony against Gibbs. Gibbs was freed, 18 years, 10 months, and 14 days after the day Eppolito entered the deli at the Flatbush junction.
Gibbs now lives on welfare, awaiting a wrongful imprisonment lawsuit against the city.
And on a fine springlike day, Gibbs walked as a free man past chirping birds in a downtown Brooklyn park after giving his victim impact statement and watching Louis Eppolito sentenced to life-plus-100-years of mystery meat.
“I intend to live every day to the fullest as a free man, while Eppolito’s in there dying a new death every day,” Gibbs said. “Starting with today, a beautiful day in Brooklyn, the best day of my life.”