You say capo, I say consigliere

A pigeon-loving mobster plays the "get out of jail" card: Is Anthony Spero a member of the Bonanno crime family's "administration" or not? And is the wannabe who ratted out "Tommy Karate" driven to drink or just driving drunk?

Published June 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Anthony Spero, 70, could be the first Mafia consigliere to be knocked down to capo in a federal courtroom -- and to be elated about it.

Last week, at Spero's umpteenth court proceeding since his May 27 arrest for racketeering and murder, his demotion was announced by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Walden. The news bulletin triggered one of those classic courtroom buzzes among the dozen or so mob types and lawyers who had hung around after their own legal business to find out the immediate fate of the Bonanno consigliere. Would the third-ranking member of the crime family -- behind the boss and underboss -- win his appeal and get out of jail on bail, or be locked up for the next year or so as a danger to society while his case sputtered along? Spero is charged with ordering the July 1993 murder of Paul (Paulie Brass) Gulino after the drug dealer, who was not a made mobster, shoved him during an argument at Spero's social club in Bath Beach, Brooklyn.

The revelation about Spero's reduction in rank, Walden told the judge, was fresh and credible. It had come from one of two confidential informers who, only a few weeks before, told the FBI that Spero was the Bonnano family consigliere, which would make him one of the top 15 gangsters among New York's five crime families, which also include the Gambino, Genovese, Luchese and Colombo clans. But, Walden said, Spero's arrest had apparently prevented him from carrying out his lofty gangster duties so he was demoted to capo. (A capo is sort of a high-level "working foreman." There are 10 or 12 capos in the Bonanno crime family, each of whom runs a crew of 10 to 60 soldiers and associates.) For security reasons Walden said he could give few other details.

And, "It's not official," said Walden, adding that the FBI still listed Spero as consigliere. "The FBI has a policy -- until they hear a fact from two sources they will not act on it. We're not taking the position that he is not the consigliere."

Since federal judges generally view "top three" mobsters as dangerous men merely because of their high rank, the distinction between consigliere and capo is a big one. This was shaping up as Spero's "get out of jail" card. He had been detained without bail as a danger to the community based primarily on clear and convincing evidence that he was an executive in the Bonanno family, a member of the administration. That evidence had gotten a little cloudy.

"Stand up, Anthony," whispered one defense lawyer in the gallery with a big smile. "You be the second source."

In the front of the courtroom, Spero's lawyer, Gerald Shargel, was already driving the point home to Judge Edward Korman of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. He lambasted the prosecution for using faceless and nameless paid informants to call his client "one of the top three members of an organized crime family" and for continuing to maintain that position when one of the informants had reversed himself.

Sensing things were going his way, Shargel forged ahead with another important factor in these kinds of detention cases: Money -- lots of it. Friends and relatives would post $3.5 million in property as assurances Spero would behave while out on bail. Spero's daughter Diana, whose Big Apple Car Service nets $1 million a year, would put up the business and sign a $10 million personal recognizance bond.

Walden argued that Spero had several prior convictions for violent activities, and as a capo, he now had a crew of made mobsters and mob associates (wannabes) he could call on to threaten and kill potential witnesses. Walden, however, did not explain whether the other stool pigeon was asked about the supposed demotion.

Two days later, on June 24, Judge Korman, citing the new information and the increased financial package, set strict house arrest conditions for Spero's release. His house on Staten Island will be surrounded by video cameras. His telephone will be tapped. Only blood relatives and those of his longtime companion, Louise Rizzuto, will be allowed to visit.

Spero should be home in time for a Fourth of July barbecue, but only after a lot of i's and t's are dotted and crossed, the surveillance equipment put in place and his benefactors have signed papers authorizing forfeiture of their properties if Spero violates his bail conditions.

"I certainly am happy my father's coming home, but very disappointed about the onerous and expensive conditions," said daughter Diana. "My father will be vindicated and to that end I will pledge all that I own, as well as my future earnings, to secure his release."

She noted that six years ago federal prosecutors in Manhattan had charged her father with another murder and dropped the whole thing. "The government is wrong now, as it was then," she said.

The government is also curtailing the 70-year-old man's only avocation. He has bred and raced pigeons for half a century, but won't be able to visit his coops on the roof of the Big Apple Car Service in Bath Beach, which he has done virtually every day since his release from prison in 1997. Walden claims Spero has used his hobby to facilitate his role as consigliere, using fellow pigeon enthusiasts to carry messages to and from the Bonanno social club, which was off limits for Spero as a condition of his parole.

But one of Spero's loyal friends and a fellow pigeon fancier, Murray Kufeld, former owner of the Big Apple Car Service, has been in court every time Spero's case has come up. Kufeld, when called to testify by Walden, answered every question with doubletalk and mobspeak and essentially said he didn't know nothing about nobody. With friends like this, if Spero beats the case, he can be assured his flock of champion pigeons will be awaiting him.

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Oops: Junior Gotti misses a payment

John A. (Junior) Gotti, who has whined and whimpered about the high cost of his house-arrest and bail package, is having trouble raising the $1 million he owes the feds as part of his plea bargain. He missed a deadline for a $750,000 payment due 20 days before his July 8 sentencing and wants to put it off a few weeks. Gerald Shargel, who is also Junior's lawyer, downplayed the hassle as a minor snag. "The case has had its twists and turns, but it will all work out," he said.

Frank Gangi, a wannabe mobster, was a high-class burglar and a low-class drug dealer and killer when he was arrested for drunken driving after a police chase in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in April 1990.

He was taken to the 62nd Precinct and absolutely floored the cops, who were pissing and moaning about all the paperwork they had ahead of them.

He told them he was a serial killer and wanted to confess his sins, tell authorities where the bodies were buried, cooperate and start a new life for himself. "The feds have already approached me. Now I'm ready," Gangi said.

Gangi made good on his promise. He served up Bonanno mobster Thomas (Tommy Karate) Pitera for a litany of brutal murders that landed Pitera in federal prison for life and earned Gangi a new lease on his.

Most of the victims -- authorities dug up the remains of five -- were dismembered and buried in marshland on Staten Island by Pitera and Gangi, who admitted roles in five slayings, including a woman.

"I still have hope for you; you still will have a chance for a life, which is more than those five people you killed will," Judge Reena Raggi of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn told Gangi as she sentenced him to 10 years, a light term justified by his cooperation.

But some gangsters want everything. He bitched about the length of the sentence and appealed the judge's refusal to reduce it. He finally shut up and did the time. His new life began in December, when he got out of prison after serving eight and a half years and was given a new identity under the federal Witness Protection Program.

Within a few months, Gangi, now 41, had been arrested twice for drunk driving in his new hometown and jailed for violating his parole. He was hauled back to Brooklyn and on June 15 made a personal plea behind sealed courtroom doors to Raggi. She gave him another chance and released him with the caveat that he undergo alcohol counseling, seek and maintain a job and report once a week to parole officials.

Pitera, who berated Gangi after he appealed his sentence for "weeping and whimpering to the judge" instead of taking his punishment "like a man," couldn't be reached for comment at Leavenworth. But Pitera's trial lawyer, Mathew Mari, had this reaction: "This slap on the wrist bolsters Tommy's nine-year contention that Gangi was given a lifetime license to kill and can get away with anything and everything."

Gangi may still be weeping and whimpering to the judge, but he probably hasn't killed anyone, yet. He's had two chances to use the incredible but true story he used to dodge the drunken driving rap in Brooklyn nearly nine years ago and hasn't.

By Jerry Capeci

Jerry Capeci has been a crime reporter in New York for more than 30 years, during which time he's won numerous awards including a John S. Knight Fellowship from Stanford University. Capeci is the co-author of three books: "Mob Star" (1988), "Murder Machine" (1992) and "Gotti: Rise and Fall" (1996), which was the basis for the HBO movie "Gotti."

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