Friday, October 18, 2013
It looks like there's going to be at least one new witness in the retrial of mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and his nephew, George Borgesi.
New York mobster-turned-informant Anthony Aponick, an inmate with Borgesi in a federal prison in West Virginia back in 2002 and 2003, is apparently going to be called to testify this time around.
The alleged Bonanno crime family associate has been debriefed at length by the FBI. Among other things, he has said that he came to Philadelphia in 2003 and met with a top Borgesi associate at Borgesi's behest in order to establish himself in the local underworld. He did that, he has said, despite the fact that a New York mob leader cautioned him about the danger, referring to the Philadelphia mob that Borgesi and Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino once controlled as "kill crazy."
"They're Mad Hatters," Aponick said he was warned. "Stick with the devil you know."
Aponick opted to ignore that advice. Perhaps because he was cooperating with the government at the time?
"We look forward to questioning Mr. Aponick at length during cross-examination" was all Borgesi's lawyer, Christopher Warren, would say when asked about the potential new witness who has prior convictions for armed robbery and bank robbery and who will also be painted as a drug abuser by the defense.
Aponick's credibility is an issue.
The fact that the government opted not to use him as a witness in the first trial raises questions about both his effectiveness and the prosecution's strategy. Is this the government trying to fine tune and narrowly focus the racketeering conspiracy charge at the heart of the retrial? Or is it a desperate attempt by prosecutors to throw everything -- even evidence from a witness they thought better of using at the first trial -- against the wall in a last ditch attempt to make something stick?
Aponick appeared before a grand jury in 2010 and has given a number of statements to the FBI.
In one he apparently boasted that he could help them get "Georgie boy."
Aponick's twisted route to the witness stand began in 2003 when he showed up in South Philadelphia after his release from the federal prison in West Virginia where he had befriended Borgesi.
Evidence includes a video and photos of Aponick meeting in October 2003 with Borgesi's brother Anthony and the late Mauro Goffredo, then the owner of a trash company that employed Ligambi. Around that same time he had a dinner meeting at Ralph's, a restaurant on Ninth Street, with Louis "Bent Finger Lou" Monacello, a mob associate who authorities said was then overseeing Borgesi's gambling and loansharking operations.
The government played a tape of a phone call Borgesi made to Monacello at the restaurant that night, a phone call that the prosecution said was set up in advance and that the government will argue helps support the allegation that Aponick and Monacello were working for Borgesi in an underworld enterprise.
But the conversation from that call, played for the jury at the first trial, is vague and makes no specific references to criminal activity.
Monacello, 46, was a key government witness in the first trial, but his credibility also was suspect. The fact that Borgesi was found not guilty of 13 gambling and loansharking counts tied to Monacello's admitted underworld activities was a major victory of the defense.
The jury in that trial, however, hung on the racketeering conspiracy charge against Borgesi, forcing a retrial. Ligambi, who was acquitted of five counts, is facing a retrial on four counts -- racketeering conspiracy, two gambling charges related to the operation of an illegal video poker machine business and one charge of witness tampering.
Whether the tandem of Monacello and Aponick enhances the government's position or further undermines it is a key unanswered question as the case moves forward. Jury selection begins on Oct. 31. Opening statements are likely early in November. The case is once again being presided over by U.S. District Court Judge Eduardo Robreno.
While many of the details surrounding Aponick's deal with the government are contained in sealed documents that are not available to the public, it is clear the one-time New York mob figure has benefitted from a relationship with law enforcement.
He was originally sentenced in 1998 to eight years in prison after his conviction for armed robbery and weapons offenses. Documents indicate that sentence was reduced to six years in 2003 after he had begun cooperating against Borgesi, a fellow inmate at the federal prison in Beckley, West Virginia.
Among other things, Aponick alleged that Borgesi discussed mob business with his uncle who visited him in prison. Authorities used that allegation to win court approval to bug the visiting room conversations between the mob boss and his nephew.
The tapes, which were never played at trial, turned up no evidence of criminality, the defense contends.
Aponick also provided federal authorities with information about a fractured relationship between Borgesi and his uncle. Rumors that there was friction inside the "family" were widespread in the Philadelphia underworld at the time.
"Georgie felt his uncle was greedy and was taking away all his earnings," Aponick said. He also said that Borgesi described his uncle as merely the caretaker of the crime family while Borgesi, Merlino and others completed their sentences for racketeering convictions in 2001.
"'We fought for this,'" he said Borgesi told him. "`This is our family My uncle is just keeping the seat warm.'"
Monacello also testified about friction between uncle and nephew, but said he believed Borgesi, who was due to be released in the summer of 2011, would have killed him on his uncle's orders once he came out of prison.
Bent Finger Lou said he was marked for death because he had clashed with Ligambi and mob capo Martin Angelina in a dispute over loansharking money. He said since Borgesi had brought him into the organization, he would have been assigned the task of taking him out.
"I would have gone out one night and never come back," Monacello testified.
He said he agreed to cooperate for that reason.
Ligambi, Borgesi, Monacello and 10 others, including Angelina, were indicted in May 2011. Instead of being released to a halfway house to finish his 2001 sentence, Borgesi was detained on the new racketeering charges and has remained in prison. Both he and Ligambi have been denied bail repeatedly. (Angelina pleaded guilty prior to the start of the first trial.)
Monacello's feelings for Borgesi and Ligambi were clearly on display when he testified. He mocked both defendants from the witness stand, at one point mimicking Ligambi's high-pitched voice. Borgesi, in turn, has referred to Monacello as "Rat Finger Lou" and "Fuck Finger Lou."
Animosity toward Aponick will add another bit of tension to the pending courtroom face-off.
A June 2005 posting on the Internet website "Who's A Rat" blistered Aponick. The post was written by someone identified only as "Philly22." Sources say the person who posted the message was a member of Borgesi's family. Aponick believes it was Borgesi's wife.
"For anyone from NY that reads this," the post read in part, "Anthony Aponick from Brooklyn, NY, is a federal informant....He was doing his sentence in FBI-Beckley, WV, and was planted in a cell with an 'Alleged' high ranking Philadelphia mob figure. He had a wired FBI-Agent come to the prison to visit while this person was on a visit to try to set him up. He is a heavy heroin user and tried continuously to do illegal activity such as drugs with this person. This person wanted nothing to do with it, especially drugs...After he was released he robbed 5 banks in Brooklyn&Queens. He was a Serial Bank Robber."
Aponick's background will figure prominently in his courtroom appearance, with each side trying to spin it in their favor. Aponick contends he was once a key associate of former Bonanno crime family boss Joseph "Big Joey" Massino. It was Massino, he has said, who warned him about the "Mad Hatters" in Philadelphia.
Ironically Massino also cut a deal with the government, becoming a cooperator in 2004. Jailed for life on a murder charge, his cooperation earned him a sentence reduction to 10 years. He was released earlier this year.
Aponick apparently struck his first deal with the government in order to win a sentence reduction in the armed robbery case from 1998. And while he clearly did make at least one stop -- and perhaps two -- in Philadelphia after winning his release in 2003, he made his way back to New York City where in February 2004 he was arrested for bank robbery.
He was charged in connection with a half dozen bank robberies and prosecuted in New York state court. He also was cited by the federal government for violating the terms of his supervised release by robbing those banks.
The defense contends that Aponick wormed his way back into the federal fold while facing those New York state charges. It was at that time, according to sources, that he wrote a letter to the FBI promising to help make the case against Borgesi, referring to him as "Georgie boy," if the government would help get him out from under the bank robbery charges.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to less than three years in jail.
The details of Aponick's current agreement with the government have not been made public. Two documents, one filed in September 2005 and another in May 2006, are under seal in federal court.
But whatever deal he has with the government will be presented to the jury if he is called to the witness stand. Aponick brings a lot of baggage and his reasons for testifying -- past cash payments from the government and help in winning a reduced sentence in the bank robbery cases -- will further undermine his credibility.
"In this life...it's all about making money," he once said.
The defense will contend that he used that philosophy in his dealings with the government, fabricating stories and telling prosecutors and FBI agents what they wanted to hear in order to work his deals.
Prosecutors, however, hope to argue that whatever his background and his motivation, Anthony Aponick came to Philadelphia in 2003 and met with Louis Monacello. The meeting, they will argue, did not occur by chance. A New York mob associate does not just show up in South Philadelphia and meet with a local mob figure.
Borgesi, prosecutors will contend, set that meeting in motion. And that, the prosecution will argue, supports the racketeering conspiracy charge at the heart of the case.
George Anastasia can be reached a George@bigrtrial.net.