July 25, 2006


When Louis J. Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa appear in court today to ask a judge for bail, a pair of questions will be buzzing in the air.

The first is fairly simple: Will these two retired detectives, defendants in the so-called Mafia Cops corruption case, actually go free?

The second is more complex: How is it possible that — after an indictment, a monthlong federal trial, a jury verdict that determined they had murdered for the mob and life sentences for both — there is even a chance that they could be released?

The answer to the first will await a ruling by Judge Jack B. Weinstein, who presides in the case. The answer to the second is this: Last month, Judge Weinstein issued an astonishing acquittal in the case, arguing that even though the men were icy killers, the statute of limitations in their case had effectively run out.

Were the two men guilty of at least eight murders for the mob? No doubt, the judge decreed. Did the law nonetheless demand that they go free? The judge, with obvious reluctance, said that they should. The men have been in custody pending the government’s appeal.

The judge’s ruling was the latest twist in a case that has already seen more turns than a carousel. But if it was shocking, it was not quite unexpected, nor did it come completely out of the blue. There is, in fact, a history that led to what is now at hand, one suggesting that, however tangled the case may seem today, it was just as tangled, if not more so, in its past.

It could be argued that United States v. Eppolito and Caracappa began on Jan. 19, 1993, when, after 32 months on the run, a Luchese family gangster named Anthony Casso was arrested as he emerged from his morning shower in a hideaway in rural New Jersey. Twenty-five F.B.I. agents descended on his safe house in the woods outside Mount Olive and captured Mr. Casso with more than his guard down.

“He came out and had a towel around him, and we took him into custody,” said Bruce Gebhardt, an F.B.I. agent in the Newark office at the time.

Within a year, Mr. Casso began cooperating with investigators, confessing in the end to nearly 40 murders. He also dropped a bombshell, telling them that he had two New York detectives on his payroll. Their names were Eppolito and Caracappa — and they killed, he said, for cash.

The government wanted to prosecute the two detectives at the time, in the early 1990’s, before the five-year statute of limitations in murder conspiracy cases would have applied. It did not, however, largely because the prosecution did not trust Mr. Casso to be truthful and convincing on the stand. A few years later, these suspicions proved correct: Mr. Casso violated his cooperation agreement by plotting to assassinate a judge.

The loss of Mr. Casso was a setback to the case, but it was not the last. His self-destruction as a witness sent investigators searching for a substitute — a hunt that took the better part of the next 10 years.

In 2004, well after the statute of limitations had gone into effect, government investigators persuaded another man, Burton Kaplan, to take the stand and tell a jury that the two detectives had killed for Mr. Casso.

Had Mr. Kaplan agreed to testify before he did, the result might have been the same as if Mr. Casso had remained a witness. The statute of limitations — in the end the downfall of the case — might not have applied.

At more or less the same time that Mr. Kaplan grudgingly agreed to give his help, prosecutors in New York received a phone call from the Las Vegas office of the F.B.I. The agents in Nevada had, for several months, been listening to secret conversations recorded by a criminal informant on their payroll. They offered what, at first, seemed like a gift. Their informant, Steven Corso, a disgraced accountant, claimed to have recorded Mr. Eppolito and Mr. Caracappa brokering a drug deal. The agents had the tape.

The government played the tape at trial and put Mr. Corso on the witness stand, where he testified that the two retired detectives had indeed agreed to help him procure an ounce of methamphetamines for some “Hollywood punks” who were coming to town. The importance of the tape was that it helped the prosecution to argue that Mr. Eppolito and Mr. Caracappa’s criminal conspiracy had not ended in Brooklyn with gangland murders in the early 1990’s, but had continued with a drug deal in Nevada just last year.

It was, however, precisely this argument that Judge Weinstein attacked in the order that set the former lawmen free. He called the drug deal an “unrelated criminal act committed years later in an entirely different geographic area and milieu and under different circumstances” from the murders. It seemed that Mr. Corso’s gift had turned into a curse.

Throughout the trial, there were questions — mostly raised by reporters — as to why the case had not been tried in the state courts, which have no statute of limitations on murder. While the prosecution has never openly discussed its decision to try the case in the federal court, it is safe to say that with Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Corso on the witness stand, and with the powers of conspiracy law at its disposal, the federal government assumed that it could win the case.

It is an incongruous turn of events that Judge Weinstein, in singling out these witnesses and powers, did not agree.

It is still possible, of course, that the state — through the Brooklyn district attorney’s office — could step in and charge the men with murder. But even if it does, there could be problems.

Michael Vecchione, the chief of the district attorney’s rackets bureau, has placed himself in a difficult position, should there be state charges.

He has signed a deal with HarperCollins as a co-author of “Mafia Detectives,” a book about the case..