The New York Times by RALPH BLUMENTHAL - February 22, 2009
In prison, far from the Brooklyn haunts where his name was scrawled in blood, Anthony Casso stews. He stews over old vendettas. He stews over betrayals of the flesh — heart problems and prostate cancer. And Mr. Casso, the once fearsome underboss of the Lucchese family who is now serving multiple life sentences amounting to 455 years for murder, stews over his secrets: unsolved crimes that, he says in an outpouring of letters, he is eager to help close if only he could show the authorities where the bodies are buried (especially if it entails a trip outside the gates). “I would go out there in a heartbeat,” Mr. Casso said on Friday in a telephone call to a former detective seeking the mobster’s help in clearing his own name. But as much as he hopes for a taste of freedom, or a reduction of his sentence, prosecutors question what his information may be worth and what perils may lie in reopening contact with an antagonist some compare to the fictional monster Hannibal Lecter. Dangling as a prize is the answer to one of New York’s most scandalous mysteries: how 400 pounds of heroin and cocaine, much of it seized in the so-called French Connection drug bust in 1962, were spirited out of the police property vault for resale back on the street. By the time the record theft was discovered in December 1972, the drugs — then valued at $73 million — had been replaced with flour and cornstarch.
Who committed the deed? “There were four narcotics detectives,” Mr. Casso wrote the former detective, Pat Intrieri, in October, amplifying information he offered in his 2008 biography. “One worked inside the property clerk’s office.” One, he added, was later shot to death; Mr. Casso said he remembers where the gun was thrown. But Mr. Casso, 66, whose mob nickname was Gaspipe, says he is having trouble with exact locations. So, naturally, he would like to get out, if only for a day, to be helpful. Or at least win some leniency along the lines of a plea deal he says the government reneged on: six and a half years in prison. “Of course he’d like to get out — he’s serving 55 million years,” said Michael F. Vecchione, chief of the rackets division in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. Like other prosecutors, Mr. Vecchione has little stomach for Mr. Casso. But without any promises, he has arranged to visit Mr. Casso on Tuesday at the Federal Medical Center in Butner, N.C., where he has been undergoing cancer treatment, although it would take corroboration far beyond the mobster’s word to make any case. “I bet you when the state guys come, they don’t know half the things,” Mr. Casso said on Friday to Mr. Intrieri, who relayed his remarks to The New York Times.
There is little chance that Mr. Casso, now 15 years behind the stoutest walls America can contrive, will ever see his release — not after pleading guilty in 15 murders and being tied to some 22 others. He has also been accused of plotting to kill a federal judge and prosecutors, and violating the terms of his agreement to turn informant as one of the highest-level mobsters ever to flip — becoming the only major Mafia defector to be thrown out of the federal witness protection program. Mr. Casso has also waffled on whether he corrupted an F.B.I. agent and hired two New York City police detectives, Louis J. Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, as mob assassins. The former detectives are to be sentenced on March 6 on racketeering charges. If, moreover, he still wonders why the authorities are leery of his offers, Mr. Casso may have provided the answer to his biographer, Philip Carlo. In his 2008 book, “Gaspipe: Confessions of a Mafia Boss,” Mr. Carlo, a longtime friend of the Casso family, outlined several of the mobster’s escape schemes, including the planned ambush of a van carrying him back from court after his capture in New Jersey in 1993.
“He’s where he should be,” said Gregory O’Connell, a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn who initially interviewed Mr. Casso with his late partner, Charles Rose, and called him “the most treacherous sociopath we ever dealt with.” But a man can dream, and for Mr. Casso, that means being back once again in the Brooklyn sunshine, pinpointing old Mafia execution grounds and the watery grave of a murder weapon. Not rising at 5 a.m. every day to meticulously clean his cell in a federal “supermax” prison in Florence, Colo., that also houses the likes of the Unabomber, Theodore J. Kaczynski; the Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols; and such fellow mobsters as Gregory Scarpa Jr. and Salvatore Gravano, known as Sammy the Bull. “I think he got a raw deal,” said Joshua L. Dratel, the latest of Mr. Casso’s many lawyers. Mr. Dratel said Mr. Casso was “poor at playing the system” and threatened major cases by exposing Mr. Gravano and other government witnesses and federal agents as liars. Mr. Casso has long claimed that the records of his F.B.I. debriefings, never made public, would show that the government covered up his warnings of moles in its ranks and that to get out of their plea deal with him, prosecutors used other Mafia turncoats as witnesses instead.
Perhaps Mr. Casso’s staunchest pen pal is Mr. Intrieri, 79, a onetime decorated New York detective lieutenant who was convicted of tax evasion in 1976 in the aftermath of the French Connection drug thefts. Mr. Intrieri, who has drafted a memoir asserting his innocence, saw new information on the case in Mr. Carlo’s book and said he found Mr. Casso’s accounts of unsolved crimes credible. “He wants to get out a little bit, I guess; he’s going stir-crazy,” Mr. Intrieri said, after getting more than a dozen phone calls from Mr. Casso in recent weeks. “But his goal is a sentence reduction.” The drugs at the core of the mystery — popularized as “The French Connection” in a 1969 book by Robin Moore and an Academy Award-winning film that followed two years later — were secreted in compartments in a 1960 Buick loaded aboard the liner United States sailing from Le Havre, France, to New York. The car and its 112 pounds of heroin were later claimed by a Lucchese family underling, Patsy Fuca, who, as it happened, was being tailed by a pair of dogged New York narcotics detectives, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso.
The drug bust in January 1962 was widely hailed as a record. But the heroics proved short-lived. In six thefts between March 1969 and January 1972, someone signing the register as Detective Joseph Nunziata, a member of the narcotics bureau’s widely corrupt special investigations unit, and using fictitious badge numbers, removed the French Connection drugs along with another 300 pounds of heroin and cocaine from the police property vault at 400 Broome Street (now a New York University dorm). Handwriting analysis and a discovered fingerprint never established that Detective Nunziata actually signed the police register. But eight months before the thefts were discovered, Detective Nunziata, charged with corruption in an unrelated case, was found shot to death in his car. It was ruled a suicide. Mr. Moore, the author, wrote that as far back as 1967, he and Detectives Nunziata, Egan and Grosso joked about stealing the French Connection heroin.
Many suspects emerged, including Vincent Papa, a major drug dealer; Frank King, a retired narcotics detective and private eye working for Mr. Papa; and Mr. Intrieri, who upon his retirement had joined Mr. King as a bodyguard for one of Mr. Papa’s sons — “the biggest mistake of my life,” Mr. Intrieri now says. (Mr. Papa’s lawyer was overheard on a wiretap asking Mr. King, “Do we have anything to worry about the handwriting analysis?”) After providing what he thought was confidential information on four corrupt narcotics detectives, Mr. Papa was stabbed to death in prison. Also under scrutiny was Vincent Albano, another former narcotics detective, who had served under Mr. Intrieri and had survived a mysterious hail of bullets in 1969, only to be slain in 1985. Thomas P. Puccio, then a Brooklyn federal prosecutor, focused on Mr. King and Mr. Intrieri, but failed to tie them to the drug thefts. Mr. Puccio charged them instead with tax evasion for unexplained income, winning convictions and five-year sentences for both, along with three years for tax evasion by Mr. Albano. But the case remained a puzzle, Mr. Puccio conceded in an interview. “We never really conclusively solved it,” he said.
Still indignant over his conviction more than 30 years later, Mr. Intrieri — who held 15 police citations for bravery and valor — saw in Mr. Carlo’s book that Mr. Casso had named Mr. Albano and a mob associate as two of the French Connection thieves. The book related how Mr. Albano had been shot to death in Brooklyn in 1985, and how Mr. Casso had supplied the gun and helped dump the body on Staten Island. Mr. Carlo, in an interview, said Mr. Casso had told him Mr. Albano had conceived the drug heist and asked Mr. Casso how to carry it out. Mr. Intrieri, in his own manuscript, “The French Connection: The Aftermath,” told of running into Mr. Albano several times over the years — including in 1980 while Mr. Albano was casing a Queens bank — and said that Mr. Albano had laughed at hearing that Mr. Intrieri was a suspect in the drug thefts. By opening an exchange of letters with Mr. Casso — a correspondence that grew to include this reporter — Mr. Intrieri elicited other details, and other crimes. Mr. Casso offered details of the 1986 car bombing aimed at John Gotti that killed his Gambino family underboss, Frank DeCicco; the killing of a Russian mob associate, Michael Markowitz, in 1989; and the apparently unreported killing of a Jewish drug importer near Mr. Albano’s office around 1980, among other crimes.
Officials at the Federal Medical Center in North Carolina did not respond to repeated requests to interview Mr. Casso by phone. “I’ll be here awhile receiving treatments for prostate cancer,” Mr. Casso wrote Mr. Intrieri in December. “Just my luck.” As for the gun that killed Mr. Albano, Mr. Casso supplied a hand-drawn map with imperfect punctuation showing, he said, where it had been thrown: “Its in Sheepshead Bay.” He also sketched a site where, he said, another mob victim was buried, calling it: “Drawing for the Colombians remains.” Mr. Intrieri said that his follow-up inquiries gave credence to Mr. Casso’s information and that it was worth giving the old mob boss a chance to hand prosecutors new evidence. “I sincerely believe that until he goes to the site, he won’t remember,” Mr. Intrieri said.