How Mafia Pizzeria Drug Fronts Inspired One of the Most Complex Criminal Trials Ever
A billion-dollar international heroin scheme got dozens of mobsters arrested in the mid 80s. But did the 17-month trial actually do anything?
On the morning of April 9, 1984, legions of federal agents swarmed homes and pizzerias across America. They found all sorts of guns, thousands of rounds of ammo, and a shit ton of cash. Soon the numbers grew, with more people bagged by international law enforcement.
Nearly three years later, in March 1987, 17 of those people, two of them allegedly crime family executives, were found guilty in federal court in Downtown Manhattan for orchestrating an international, Mafia-led narcotics ring that stretched from Brazil to Sicily, and from New York to the rural Midwest. According to the feds, the mobsters used neighborhood Italian-American pizzerias as fronts for cash—and, of course, heroin.
The Pizza Connection, as it was wonderfully dubbed in newspapers, produced one of the longest-running criminal trials in American history. The prosecution team originally said it would last six or seven months—it lasted 17. What resulted was an astonishing legal circus that sucked in 35 defendants in total and cost at least $50 million.
By the end, only 19 people actually stood trial, as other suspects had their charges cleared. One of them—who was believed to have skipped town after posting bail—was found dead in a garbage bag in Brooklyn. And while lawyers were delivering their closing arguments, another defendant was shot three times after leaving the since-closed Balducci's Italian market in Greenwich Village. (He survived and eventually pleaded guilty from his hospital bed.) Two others pleaded out for lesser charges, and another was acquitted.
Needless to say, the case made for a massive media spectacle, and it seemed to reflect the old mafia adage that aspiring made men should steer clear of drugs. But decades later, the Pizza Connection saga arguably serves as a parable for how the application of justice en masse can spin wildly out of control.
"It was a trial with no end in sight involving a billion puzzle pieces," David Amoruso, an expert on organized crime and founder of the website Gangsters Inc., told me. "All its participants—defendants, lawyers, prosecutors, jurors, and the judge—had to do their best not to be driven totally insane."
The early-morning raids in 1984 were the result of a four year investigation conducted by the FBI. It was an operation that spanned several continents, tying together two major organized crime affiliates: the original Sicilian Mafia, and the Bonanno crime family, in New York. There were arrests made in Switzerland, Italy, Newark, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit.
According to federal prosecutors—who were led by Assistant US Attorney Louis Freeh—the groups wove a globalized web. Morphine was procured from Turkey; heroin was processed in Sicily; and through a shadow network of banks and brokers, dozens of pizzerias—some newly minted—were used to fan the product out across the United States. Cocaine was also sent from South America, prosecutors said in their summation, and sales were secretly transferred through "suitcases full of cash."
At the time of the raids, William French Smith, the US attorney general, called it ''the most significant case involving heroin trafficking by traditional organized crime that has ever been developed by the Government.'' In all, between 1979 and 1984, 1,650 pounds of heroin was smuggled into the country through this scheme, according to the feds. The street value of the heroin was said to be $1.65 billion.
Naturally, the mob bosses were alleged to be the chief provocateurs. In the US, that was Salvatore "Toto" Catalano, a boss of the Bonanno clan, who owned a bakery in Queens and barely spoke any English. (According to mob lore, the idea to start a massive heroin ring was actually his predecessor Carmine Galante's—but the old boss got whacked in 1979 when he was murdered at a restaurant.) Catalano's status as a "zip"—or a Sicilian-born mafioso who immigrated to America—connected him to Gaetano Badalamenti, one of the former heads of the Sicilian Mafia in Palermo. The day before the FBI crackdown in the US, Gaetano and his son, Vito, were arrested in Madrid by Spanish police after years of intense surveillance.
Catalano and Badalamenti deployed soldiers to do the legwork. They established relatives and friends both in Sicily, and in a string of pizza fronts across the country. (The man who was shot, Pietro Alfano, was Gaetano's cousin, who ran a pizzeria in Illinois.) And the vast majority of those involved were Sicilian, and didn't speak English—which produced one of the first major obstacles that dragged the trial on.
"Many of their conversations were not just in the Sicilian dialect, but in code," Amoruso said. "On top of that, men remained silent and loyal to Cosa Nostra, refusing to reveal to authorities anything about the operation."
When presented with some of the feds' tens of thousands of wiretapped phone conversations—which comprised the bulk of the case—Badalamenti, who was one of the only two defendants to actually testify in the trial, admitted that they were, in fact, using code. Drugs were never spoken about; instead, there was much talk of "precious stones," "shirts," and "precious cotton."
Meanwhile, violence engulfed the trial almost from the start. Around the time it began in October 1985, a civil crime war broke out in Sicily against Badalamenti's people, which put the boss and his cohorts in danger—even in New York City. And in December 1986, Gaetano Mazzara (his pizzeria was New Jersey) was found dead while out on bail. At one point during deliberations, a juror even recused herself from the case, after allegedly receiving a death threat.
These things, naturally, scared the shit out of everyone.
"After that, several of the other defendants asked to have their bail revoked and go inside," Pierre Leval, the federal judge presiding over the case, told theNew Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin in 2009. Even Leval himself grew weary: He later admitted that he, too, stopped taking the subway to the federal courthouse in Foley Square, out of fear for his life. "They kill judges all the time in Sicily, and I was counting on the idea of 'when in Rome,' you know?" he said.
In the end, while the rest of the defendants were given shorter sentences, the alleged masterminds—Badalamenti and Catalano—were handed 45 years each in a federal penitentiary. Badalamenti died in prison in 2004, and Catalano was released in 2009, after serving 29 years of his term.
Most of the implicated pizza parlors in the New York area have closed, or are under new management. When I entered Al Dente's, in Forest Hills, Queens—one of the alleged former fronts—on a recent afternoon, there was no tangible sign of past criminality.
Susan G. Kellman, a longtime defense lawyer in New York, says she got into the Pizza Connection trial about ten months late. She didn't know the background of the case particularly well, but she had heard it was already breaking records in the Manhattan federal courthouse, and, simultaneously, driving everyone involved nuts. When Kellman signed on to represent Salvatore Salamone (his pizzeria was in Pennsylvania), who was charged with racketeering and drug conspiracy, she said Judge Leval gave her the summer to read over the trial's 120-page indictment.
"I remember reading the indictment in a hammock out in the Hamptons, and seeing that my client had only been charged with one racketeering act," she told me in an interview. "Anyone who knew how RICO laws worked knows that you need at least two acts to be charged with this. I thought, 'Huh, that's odd.'"
Kellman is referring to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act—part of legislation passed by Congress in 1970 that is partially credited with the Mafia's fall from grace. It gave federal prosecutors the legal latitude to charge organized crime family heads with ordering foot soldiers to conduct crimes, and foot soldiers for merely participating in said crimes. If you ever read or hear about a mob case, there is a very good chance a RICO charge is somewhere in the indictment. (It's also mentioned frequently on The Sopranos.)
According to Kellman, the lack of sufficient acts for a RICO charge against Salamone was the first of many peculiarities she noticed over the course of the trial. When she arrived in the courthouse that fall, it only got more bizarre. The day-to-day scene she described was chaotic, but not because it was unruly—it just didn't make much sense.
"On some days, the courtroom would be empty," she told me recently. "And the cafeteria would be filled with trial lawyers, on the phone, trying to salvage their firms. There would be days, weeks, and months without my client's name ever being mentioned. I think he was mentioned maybe one or two days out of the whole time I was there."
The defendants, she said, were in and out. It was the same with the infuriated translators. It was almost an assembly line: The jurors—the same 12 people who had to bravely endure seventeen months of duty—just sat and watched as individual after individual was brought in, reprimanded, and then escorted back out. To expect them to make a reasonable conclusion after so many hours of testimony, she continued, was ludicrous.
"It didn't look like an American court of justice," she explained. "Just the size of it made it impossible to connect with the defendants. The fact that you were dealing with humans was totally lost. People lose perspective."
She wasn't alone in her sympathy for the defense. Journalist Shana Alexander, whose book, The Pizza Connection: Lawyers, Money, Drugs, Mafia, dove into the trial's inner-workings, concluded that, in the end, "the trial was too big, too complex and contradictory, and too long to serve the interests of justice and the efficiency of the legal system."
After the trial, 13 of the defendants appealed their decision to higher courts, raising these issues of length and complexity as violations of their due process rights. The Supreme Court ultimately rejected the appeal, but a lower federal appeals court expressed some sympathy for the defendants: Although their convictions should be upheld, they had a point about how much of a shit show the whole thing was.
"To me, it was everything that's wrong with our criminal justice system," Kellman continued. "Sure, there may have been reasonable convictions, but you can't cast the net that large. If you throw it over 30 people, there's a very good chance that several people shouldn't be in it. Innocent people will have their lives ruined." (Like Vito Badalamenti, the only defendant to be acquitted of all charges but still somehow spent over four years behind bars.)
According to Kellman—who obviously had a dog in this fight—her client was caught in the net. Sure, he was tied up with the wrong people, she said, but he was not a drug smuggler involved in an international heroin ring. The RICO and drug conspiracy charges against him would later be dropped, and although Salamone was eventually convicted on a lesser act of currency manipulation through falsifying statements, and had to subsequently serve five years in prison, Kellman argues that the government heavily charged him just so it could say it did.
"Whoever you can go after to get whatever headline you can get," she said.
Kellman say the prosecution was typical for the US Attorney who was in charge of the Southern District of New York then: Rudolph Giuliani. The future New York City mayor and Republican presidential candidate was slowly constructing a name for himself, she said, with an image of being tough in a terrified city. This would later materialize in his grueling use of the "broken windows" policing model. And at the time, the mob was his Public Enemy No. 1.
With that in mind, Giuliani craved the spotlight, Kellman argued, calling him the "Donald Trump of prosecutors." (Giuliani was contacted for this article, but was unable to comment.)
"Whatever ails the system," she continued, "was just exacerbated in the Giuliani years. I just kept thinking to myself, 'This shouldn't happen in an American court.'"
Of course, the biggest irony of the Pizza Connection trial is that, even with its flashy FBI raids and super-sized trial, it didn't really achieve much on the street. After it was all over, the mob still sold dope—the defendants were merely replaced with new slacks, according to Amoruso, and the stream continued.
"The trial impacted the mob in that it shut down a very lucrative operation that was running smoothly and brought in a lot of steady income for American and Sicilian mobsters," he explained. "In the long run, however, it was business as usual. Heroin continued to flow into New York and other American cities."
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