Feds deny wiring wise guy's wazoo

Like great art, masterful crime writing can move our souls and thrill our hearts while conveying a timeless, yet utterly human, story.


Douglas Cruickshank
June 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

This just in, if you'll forgive my use of the word "in."

May I take a brief moment to exclaim, "God Bless the Associated Press!" Let
my song ring across the mountaintops, o'er the valleys wide, from glen to
glade. I sing this praise with tears of gratitude drooling down my cheeks,
shivers of thanks coursing through my fragile frame. There I was, facing a
hungry, immovable beast (Tyrannosaurus Deadlinehorribilis), its fangs
gnashing impatiently, its laser red orbs burning a hole in my wretched soul, and me with no flocking idea what I was going to feed the famished,
slathering monster commonly known as "The Thing that must always be satiated."

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Then, suddenly, a lovely ripe peach rolled out of the info-orchard of AP
stories that incessantly hum across the wire and came to rest against my
big toe. It was one of those succulent morsels, a piece of data-fruit that
is rarer than duck lips and an even greater delicacy. It leapt directly at
me from betwixt the grim war reports and dull pronouncements from over-eager politicians. The story's simple title -- "Feds: No Bug in 'Mobster's' Butt" -- was an elegant invitation to read a penetrating, true-life account of intrigue, accusation and denial, gangster vs. government, an insider's report from one of crime's darkest alleys.

The austere beauty of such concise, direct journalism is not necessarily
enhanced by over-analysis. Yet one would be remiss not to linger upon that
headline. Consider it. Rotate it, if you will, in your mind. It cannot be
improved upon. It's perfect. It does everything a title should do: It sums
up the report without revealing too much, while inviting the reader into an
irresistible cavern of exhilarating reportage.

Then came the dateline -- "Tuesday, June 15, 1999; 5:53 p.m. EDT." Straightforward, crisp, businesslike, accompanied by the city of origin -- "WORCESTER, Mass." (even Gabriel García Márquez couldn't do much
with that) -- followed by a dynamite lead, tight enough to wring tears from
Clark Kent: "There's no bug in a reputed mobster's buttocks, the government says." And from that point on there's no looking back -- we know
we're in the hands of a master (to whom, sadly, we cannot pay homage by name, as the story carried no byline).

And for the tale itself? It seems a certain alleged goodfella by the name
of Vincent "Gigi Portalla" Marino claims a federal drug agent once
informed him that a tracking device was inserted where the sun don't shine
while Marino was undergoing surgery to remove a bullet from his posterior.
It's not a happy story, but it is an intriguing one. And let's stop right there for a moment. Might the device have been designed for listening rather than tracking? If so (and every possible twist and turn, every dim corrugation, needs to be explored in a story such as this), important questions
remain. Would the audio recordings obtained in this fashion be of Dolby quality? And which hapless, low-level G-men would be forced to huddle in the sound room for endless hours as Mr. Portolla performed his
daily ablutions? Indeed, one can imagine the chaos -- and sheer terror-- that might ensue when Marino voiced a hankering for chili con carne.

In any case, on Monday, during preparations for Marino's racketeering trial, U.S. District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton said the
situation "sounds like some DEA agent trying to be funny," then approved
Marino's request to force the government to tell him the truth.

Did the DEA install said device in Gigi Portalla's caboose? The feds say
nope, according to the AP report. "We can confirm that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration did not implant a tracking device in defendant
Vincent M. 'Gigi Portalla' Marino's buttocks,'' U.S. Attorney Donald K.
Stern
said in a statement. "But we cannot speak, however, for any extraterrestrial beings."

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Thank you very much, Don -- that cavalier response will enable untold legions of conspiracy theorists to get a good five years of additional mileage out of this story. But getting back to the story itself, it ends in
classic style with a final comment from an expert, Randy Chapman,
former head of the Massachusetts Bar Association's criminal justice division. "Theoretically," Chapman said, "if you wanted to put a tracking
device in someone's body you would have to have court authority to do that,
and I imagine the courts would be reluctant ..."

Unless, of course, the freelance approach is employed, which is what the
late Scientology founder and science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard
claimed happened to him. In an FBI memo detailing such unpleasantness --
available for your reading pleasure at the Smoking Gun Web site -- reference
is made to a 1963 letter from Hubbard to the bureau in which the King of
Klear reported that he was set upon by intruders and "after being knocked
out, a needle was 'thrust into his heart to produce a coronary thrombosis
and he was given an electric shock.'" Yikes! (Not to mention ouch!)

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Uncomfortable as it sounds, Hubbard managed to overcome the trauma and live
on for years thereafter. However, he was long gone by the time Scientology
devotee John Travolta's comeback film, "Pulp Fiction" was released.
So that scene with the unceremonious insertion of the giant needle into Uma
Thurman's heart must have just been one of those wacky coincidences ...

Finally, speaking of guys -- wise and otherwise -- Jerry Capeci's Gang Land begins making weekly appearances in Salon People on June 23. Capeci, based in New York (where else?), has co-authored three books with Gene Mustain about the Mafia and regularly appears as an organized crime expert on network and cable television. Capeci's "Gotti: Rise and Fall" was the basis for the HBO movie "Gotti," and his knowledgeable, insightful reports on goings on among goodfellas are required reading for those who just can't get enough of the mob. So be in touch, OK?


Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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