"The Goodfellas Trial"
By J. R. de Szigethy
Part Two: Aquittal Provides Plot-Twist Ending
No one following the case of the “Goodfellas Trial” in Brooklyn Federal Court was more surprised than the Defendant himself, Vincent Asaro, when the 80-year-old accused Wiseguy was Acquitted of his alleged role in the 1978 Lufthansa airline heist as well as an unrelated murder. “I was shocked, I was really shocked!” Asaro said outside of the Courthouse. (1)
Asaro had every reason to believe he would be convicted; his own son Jerome had already pleaded guilty to his role in digging up the body of murder victim Paul Katz and relocating Katz’ remains to a new burial place at a property owned by the late mobster “Jimmy the Gent” Burke. It was his own father, Asaro, who had ordered him to do this, according to the younger Asaro’s confession. (2) Three other Co-Defendants in the case, Jack Bonventre, “Tommy D” DiFiore, and John “Bazoo” Ragano, had also previously pleaded guilty to the charges they were facing. (3)
The burial and re-burial of a mobster is one of the more memorable scenes from the 1990 film “Goodfellas,” in which Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci re-enact what Jerome Asaro has now pleaded to. The film was based on the 1985 book “WISEGUY: Life in a Mafia Family,” by Nicholas Pileggi. The stories in that book about the record theft from a Lufthansa airline facility at JFK airport and the subsequent murder spree led by Burke in order to not share the profits with the various participants was primarily based on interviews with the Irish-Italian mobster Henry Hill. Burke and Hill, like most of those involved in this long-ago crime saga are now dead, so it was a surprise when the FBI arrested the 5 Defendants in this case back in January of 2014.
The Indictment alleged that the 5 members of the Bonnano Mafia Family had engaged in a 45-year long racketeering conspiracy, which included crimes such as murder, murder solicitation, robbery, and extortion. “These ‘Goodfellas’ thought they had a license to steal, a license to kill, and a license to do whatever they wanted!” FBI official George Venizelos stated at the time of the arrests. One of the Indicted, John Ragano, was revealed by the FBI to have been recorded in an April, 2013 conversation in which Ragano asks Asaro as to when a mob associate who was delinquent in paying back money he owed to the gang could be stabbed. “When do we stab this guy in the neck?” Ragano pleads. “Stab him today!” Asaro reassuringly replies. (4)
While Asaro was reportedly still on good terms with his son Jerome, despite his Guilty plea, (2) the same is not true for “Fat Sammy” Valenti, the son of mob turncoat Gaspare Valenti, the key Prosecution “Witness” in this trial. The younger Valenti attended the trial and silently, through his facial expression and body language, revealed his contempt for his own father, who had broken the Mafia’s code of silence by turning “Rat.” Fat Sammy even paid a friendly visit to Asaro at his Staten Island home on the second day of Asaro’s freedom. (5)
Such a rare father vs. son Courtroom drama had not been witnessed since the “Mafia Cops” trial of 2006, which also took place in the Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn. That trial was covered for AmericanMafia.com by this reporter and Lou Eppolito, Jr., the oldest son of Defendant Lou Eppolito. Lou Jr. and I often sat just behind Anthony Eppolito, the Mafia cop’s youngest son, who was convicted on a drug charge in a separate trial in Las Vegas that was part of the Feds’ racketeering case against the former NYPD Detective. Lou Eppolito, Sr. was convicted of 8 murders committed on behalf of Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso of the Luchese Mafia Family. As an actor, Lou Eppolito, Sr. portrayed “Fat Andy” in the movie “Goodfellas.”
The Asaro trial is also notable given that a serious crime appears to have been committed in the Courtroom of Federal Judge Allyne Ross. That crime is called Perjury. Gaspare Valenti testified that during the Lufthansa heist he and an accomplice beat up a young Security officer identified as Kerry Whalen. Valenti testified Under Oath that his accomplice was Frank Burke, the son of Jimmy Burke. However, during the Defense portion of the trial, Kerry Whelan testified Under Oath that he was assaulted by Angelo Sepe and his accomplice Thomas DeSimone, whose character is portrayed by Joe Pesci in the motion picture based upon these events. (6)
Tommy DeSimone was involved with Henry Hill in a previous robbery of an Air France cargo in 1967. Soon after the Lufthansa heist, DeSimone was murdered, apparently for his role in the murders of William “Billy Batts” DeVino and Ronald “Foxy” Jerothe, two “Made Members” of the Gambino Family. The murder of “Billy Batts” plays a key role in the book “Wiseguy” and the film version “Goodfellas.” Angelo Sepe, a member of the Luchese Family, was murdered, along with his girlfriend, in 1984, in an unsolved murder case believed to be drug related. (7) In 1987, a convicted drug dealer was charged with the murder of Frank Burke. (8)
Thus, of these 5 men, Gaspare Valenti, Frank Burke, Kerry Whelan, Angelo Sepe, and Tommy DeSimone, only Valenti and Whelan are still alive to tell their tales. The Prosecutors in this case, as is their duty, sought to discredit Whelan during their cross-examination of him. Whelan was asked about a sandwich board ad he wore outside the Courthouse promoting his book: “Inside the Lufthansa Hei$t: The FBI Lied.” (9) Whelan’s Facebook page shows 2 young women, dressed as Firefighters, also promoting this book. What some might deem eccentric behavior on Whelan’s part is not a crime. What is a crime is the art fraud, welfare fraud, and insurance fraud that has marked Gaspare Valenti’s life of crime. (10) Once acquitted, Asaro stated that cousin Valenti was being paid $3,000 a month by the Feds to having confessed to crimes the Feds wanted to solve, (11) crimes that Kerry Whelan says Valenti did not commit. (9)
Why would a Co-operating “Witness” do such a thing? The fact is that there is a troubled history of such cases in Federal criminal trials in New York during the past 20 years. In several celebrated cases, FBI Agents and Informants have been detected committing Perjury by journalists, Jury members, and, in some cases, Federal Prosecutors and FBI Agents themselves.
This pattern started over 20 years ago, in Brooklyn Federal Court, where Colombo Mafia member “Big Sal” Miciotta, a drug dealer and murderer, testified that NYPD Detective Joe Simone had accepted a bribe from him to provide inside law enforcement information regarding the Colombo Family War that had raged in the early 1990s. However, Miciotta's own secretly tape recorded conversations proved that Simone was not corrupt, and thus the jury acquitted Simone in 2 hours, with 10 of those jurors standing outside the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in the cold, Winter rain to offer their emotional support for the beleaguered cop and his wife. Miciotta testified in other trials in Brooklyn Federal Court in regards to the Mob War in which at least 12 people were murdered, including one innocent bystander. In those trials, jurors also acquitted the Defendants, not believing the testimony of Miciotta.
Another case in Brooklyn was that of the prosecution of Peter Gatien, the owner of 4 famous Manhattan nightclubs back in the 1990s that were the scene of rampant drug trafficking. Gatien himself was tried on federal drug charges, but was Acquitted. After the verdict, one of the jurors told the Media that the Prosecution Witnesses against Gatien were totally lacking in credibility.
Similar outcomes have occurred in Brooklyn Federal Court in more recent years. In 2012, Colombo Family figure Francis Guerra was Acquitted on 2 counts of murder. Also that year, Colombo Family members Thomas Gioeli and Dino Saracino were Acquitted on several counts of murder. In 2013, Colombo Family mobster Joel Cacace was Acquitted for the murder of New York City Police Officer Ralph Dols. (12)
Similar outcomes in Federal trials have also occurred in Manhattan Federal Court, just across from Brooklyn Federal Court and the East River that the Brooklyn Bridge transverses. Back in 1993, Thomas R. Stevens, a local political leader in New York, was arrested on a Federal murder solicitation charge a few weeks before the Feds arrested Detective Joe Simone. Stevens was accused of trying to hire an FBI Informant, pretending to be a hitman for the Luchese Mafia Family, to murder a political rival. Just days before Jury selection was to begin, this reporter turned over evidence of criminal behavior on the part of FBI Informants involved in the case. The Judge in the case later dismissed the charges “With Prejudice” and a spokesman for the U. S. Attorney’s Office publicly stated that the Feds “made a determination not to pursue false statement charges against anyone.” (13)
Some years later, the Feds in Manhattan would put John “Junior” Gotti, the late Godfather’s son, on trial 4 consecutive times on charges ranging from racketeering, kidnaping, and murder, but each of those cases ended with a hung jury. Some jurors in those cases expressed their conviction that the Prosecution Witnesses in those cases simply were not deemed to be credible.
Various polls in recent years show that a majority of Americans do not trust the Federal government. The corruption scandals in Boston and New York City involving Mafia drug dealers and murderers such as Whitey Bulger and Greg Scarpa, who received protection due to their being on the FBI’s payroll, are among the reasons many Americans distrust Federal Prosecutors and the “Witnesses” they parade before juries. Organizations such as The Innocence Project have uncovered numerous cases where Defendants were convicted of crimes, including murders, that they did not commit. These cases have occurred around the country, further eroding citizen’s trust of Prosecutors.
This distrust is healthy - to a point - but in some cases, the net result of this skepticism is that inevitably some people will literally get away with murder.
J. R. de Szigethy can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Related Features by this author:
License to Steal: The ‘Goodfellas’ Trial
Last Days of the Gotti Gang:
License to Kill: Greg Scarpa and the FBI
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