Thursday, November 19, 2015

Honorary Chief Strikes Back After False Arrest

"Be Careful Who You Pick On"
By Ralph Cipriano

James J. Binns, Philadelphia trial lawyer and longtime cop booster, is a good friend of David Wolfson, Chief of the Margate City Police Department.

The friendship dates back to 2007. That's when Binns, who lives a half a block away from the Margate City Police Department, donated to the local cops four bicycles and four Harley Davidson police motorcycles. Binns also dedicated two "hero cop" plaques in memory of Sgt. Richard Himber and Patrolman John J. Donnelly, two Margate officers who died in the line of duty.

A year later, a grateful Chief Wolfson appointed Binns as honorary chief of the department.

That's why the chief was so surprised on Dec. 13, 2011 when he stopped by the Margate police station and discovered that one of his officers had arrested the 72-year-old honorary chief and locked him up in jail on a charge of criminal mischief.

That prompted the chief to start his own investigation. When it was over, the charge against Binns was dropped and subsequently expunged. Meanwhile, the cop who arrested Binns, Officer Christopher Taroncher, got hammered by a hearing officer for being dishonest and untrustworthy, and was suspended without pay for six months. He was also the subject of a civil rights lawsuit filed by Binns.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Feds Again Fail To Make Their Case In A Big Mob Trial

By George Anastasia

Have the feds lost their mojo when it comes to the mob?

That's certainly a reasonable question after another organized crime prosecution ended with a not guilty verdict last week. The acquittal of Vince Asaro, an 80-year-old reputed mob capo, in a case in federal court in Brooklyn, is the latest example of federal authorities coming up short in a high profile Mafia trial. 

The same could be said for the last three Mafia prosecutions in Philadelphia where, at best, the feds could only claim partial victories. 

Asaro, an alleged member of the Bonanno Crime Family, was charged with murder, extortion and robbery, including being one of the organizers of the infamous Lufthansa Airline heist celebrated in the movie Goodfellas. Mobsters made off with more than $5 million in cash and $1 million in jewelry after hitting a storage facility at JFK Airport in 1978.

While the robbery was allegedly set in motion by mob associate James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke (Robert DeNiro played a character based on Burke in the film), no one had ever been charged with the crime until Asaro was indicted two years ago. By then most of the others involved were dead. Burke died in prison after being convicted of other offenses.

The Asaro trial was billed by the New York Times as the last big mob trial in New York, a development based in part on the steady demise of the American Mafia and in equal part on a shift in prosecutorial interest to terrorism, drug trafficking and corruption.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Joe Vito Mastronardo Dies In Prison

Joe Vito and son
By George Anastasia

Joe Vito Mastronardo, the "Gentleman Gambler" who lived life on his own terms and moved to the beat of a drummer that only he could hear, died in a federal prison this afternoon where he was serving a 20-month sentence for bookmaking.

The cause of death was believed to be complications from pneumonia, although no official word was released from the Federal Medical Center Devens, in Ayers, MA, where Mastronardo was doing time after entering a guilty plea earlier this year in the high profile case.

He was 65.

Mastronardo was considered one of the premier odds makers in the Philadelphia area and one of the best in the country. His betting line  -- the "Joe Vito line" --  was an industry standard. Mastronardo, who got his start taking bets while working as a teenaged caddy at a suburban country club, made millions over the years and was constantly the focus of law enforcement attention.

This came in part because of his high volume business, but also because he was the son-in-law of former mayor and police commissioner Frank L. Rizzo. Joe Vito married Rizzo's only daughter, Joanna. They had one son, Joseph F.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Billy Doe Punks Out

You paid Billy Doe how much?
By Ralph Cipriano

In the civil case of Billy Doe vs. the Archdiocese of Philadelphia et al., it's all over before it even got started.

This morning, lawyers in the case were scheduled to pick a jury in Courtroom 480 at City Hall, in preparation for going to trial at 9:30 a.m. Monday, "trial date certain," according to the court docket.

But late last night, Billy Doe's lawyers notified other lawyers in the case that the trial was off and the case was "being discontinued."

The big question is why. The short answer appears to be that with no money left on the table, Billy Doe's lawyers decided not to risk exposing their client's complete lack of credibility by proceeding with what would have been at best, a show trial. A show trial where the only thing left to gain was some headlines about a big jury verdict that they would have never been able to collect from the three penniless defendants left in the case.

But on the risk side of the risk/reward ledger, there was a chance, depending on the judge's rulings, that the show trial could have turned into a real trial, and Billy Doe would have been unmasked in court as a complete fraud. The next big question is what was it that Billy Doe and his lawyers were so afraid of coming out that they didn't want to run the risk of going ahead with the trial, and putting their boy on the stand?

In the absence of official comment, let the speculation begin. But before we get to that, however, how do you think Archbishop Charles J. Chaput feels right now? He's the guy who gave Billy Doe a confidential settlement in August because he'd presumably been frightened to death by his lawyers about the prospect of a big jury verdict for Billy, and against the church.  But then, on the eve of trial, after that fat check from the archdiocese had already cleared the bank, Billy Doe and his lawyers punk out.

Who's left holding the bag? Archbishop Chaput, the chump who got suckered, possibly for millions. Not to mention all of those faithful Catholics who still throw their dollars in the collection basket.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Gerry's Sinking Ships

By Ralph Cipriano

In July, after he got through negotiating a new labor contract, H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, the  philanthropist who owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and, celebrated by passing out $1,000 bonuses to his employees.

Today, a month after Terry Egger, Lenfest's hand-picked successor, took over as publisher, he will lay off 46 newsroom employees.

What the hell happened, union leaders want to know. When he was passing out bonuses, Lenfest bragged he had turned the company around, recalled Bill Ross, executive director of the Philadelphia Newspaper Guild. Then, "He [Lenfest] hires the guy" [Egger] . . . and has him do all the dirty work."

The layoffs begin a merger of what are now three distinct news operations, the Inquirer, Daily News and, into "a unified, one-newsroom approach," Egger wrote Monday in a letter to all employees.

Lenfest, along with the late Lewis Katz, were the winning bidders at a court-ordered auction in 2014, buying the city's only two daily newspapers and website for the inflated price of $88 million. But Philadelphia Media Network, the parent company that owns the two papers and website, has lost $90 million in advertising revenues since 2011, Egger said. The current layoffs are needed to save between $5 million and $6 million, Egger told employees.

That prompted union leaders to recall that Lenfest previously donated around that same amount, $5.8 million in 2010, to keep the SS United States, the rusting ocean liner docked on Delaware Avenue, out of the scrapyard.

"This isn't the only sinking ship Gerry's invested in," Ross cracked.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Will Billy Doe Face A Final Cross-Examination?

By Ralph Cipriano

Next Friday, in Courtroom 480 at City Hall, they're scheduled to pick a jury in the civil case of Billy Doe vs. the Archdiocese of Philadelphia et al.

The case still bears that title even though in August, the archdiocese settled with Billy Doe for a undisclosed pile of cash. It's an unholy pact that should have prompted every Catholic in town to demand that their archbishop tell them how much.

There are still three defendants left in the civil case; three men who went to jail for sexually abusing the credibility-challenged former altar boy turned heroin addict and accused dealer: ex-priest Edward Avery, the late Father Charles Engelhardt, and former Catholic school teacher Bernard Shero.

In the case of Shero, Judge Rosalyn K. Robinson ruled this morning that she was granting the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment in part. "It is hereby ordered, adjudged and decreed," the judge wrote, that "defendant Shero is collaterally estopped from denying or disputing that he committed the acts of sodomy and sexual abuse alleged in plaintiff's complaint."

A similar motion in the case of Avery is expected to be granted as well. That means for defendants Shero and Avery, rather than be allowed to contest the alleged sexual abuse of Billy, the civil trial, scheduled to begin Nov. 9th, would just become a hearing on how much more in damages should be awarded the plaintiff, to compensate for his alleged pain and suffering.

But here's where it gets interesting. Judge Robinson said she'll be ruling on the motion for summary judgment next week in the case of the late Father Engelhardt. And since the jury in Engelhardt's criminal case reached no verdict on the most serious charge, a count of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child, the judge may allow the civil jury to decide what actually transpired between the priest and the altar boy.

"Our argument is that a civil jury should be allowed to decide what assault if any occurred," said Thomas R. Hurd, the lawyer defending the estate of the late priest.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

George Martorano And The Case That Changed The Philly Mob

Ted Simon and George Martorano
By George Anastasia

Earlier this month, George Martorano was released from a prison.

It was long overdue.

Martorano, 65, had spent 32 years in federal institutions. Jailed in 1983, he pleaded guilty a year later to drug dealing charges, admitting that he ran a multi-million dollar narcotics ring that dealt in cocaine, heroin and marijuana.  It was his first offense. Yet the judge -- the late John B. Hannum -- sentenced him to life.

On the face of it, it hardly seemed logical or fair. It was the maximum sentence. Martorano could have gone to trial, gotten convicted and would have faced no harsher punishment. Where was the benefit in pleading out? Usually that factors in to the sentencing process. You take a plea, you catch a break.

Conventional wisdom at the time was that Martorano -- nicknamed "Cowboy George" and the son of mobster Raymond "Long John" Martorano -- was looking at a 10-year max. If he got lucky, maybe less.

Instead, the judge dropped the hammer.

Why Hannum chose to go in that direction is part of a bigger, more complicated story that literally changed the face of the Philadelphia mob.  At least that's the position of aging mob informant Nicholas "Nicky Crow" Caramandi whose testimony in the late 1980s decimated the crime family he and Long John Martorano had once served.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Scarfo's Wife Sentenced To Probation

Pelullo and Scarfo
By George Anastasia

Mrs. Scarfo won't be going to jail.

After pleading guilty to a mortgage fraud charge that was a small part of her husband's multi-million dollar looting of a Texas company, Lisa Scarfo, 36, was sentenced today to two years probation and 200 hours of community service.

"Mrs. Scarfo, good luck. I hope you get your life back together," U.S. District Court Judge Robert Kugler said after imposing the sentence during a 10-minute hearing in federal court in Camden.

Kugler cited her "limited role" in the scam orchestrated by her husband, mobster Nicodemo S. Scarfo. But the judge added that he did not doubt that she knew what she was doing when she filed false statements in a mortgage application in 2008 that allow the couple to purchase a $715,000 home in Egg Harbor Township outside of Atlantic City.   

In a statement read by her attorney, Richard Sparaco, Lisa Scarfo apologized to the court. She said she had made a "serious mistake" that had "devastated her family" and she pleaded for leniency.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven D'Aguanno, the lead prosecutor in the eight-year investigation, said the government did not oppose probation. Under sentencing guidelines, Mrs. Scarfo faced a maximum prison sentence of six months, according to the judge.

Her husband and his top associate, Salvatore Pelullo, were each sentenced to 30 years in prison in July after a jury convicted then of masterminding the behind-the-scenes takeover of FirstPlus Financial Group in 2007 and then systematically looting the company of $12 million.


Big Trial | Philadelphia Trial Blog Copyright © 2014