By George Anastasia
Steven D'Aguanno, a hard-driving federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey, died this week.
The details are not important.
His passing is.
Born and raised in South Philadelphia, D'Aguanno, 48, fashioned a 21-year career as an attorney by building cases against organized crime figures, first with the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office and then as an Assistant U.S. Attorney.
In many ways, it was personal.
"He was one of the most dedicated anti-Mafia prosecutors I've ever encountered in court," said defense attorney Christopher Warren, who like dozens of others said he was shocked to learn of D'Aguanno's passing. "There was something that motivated him that went beyond the law."
High strung and intense, D'Aguanno seldom discussed his motivation. But in court he took a bulldog approach to trying cases. Broad chested with thick dark hair and piercing dark eyes, the veteran prosecutor brought a laser-like focus to whatever case was at hand.
More often than not, those cases involved members of Cosa Nostra.
"He was an Italian from South Philadelphia," said mobster-turned-government witness Ron Previte who got to know D'Aguanno while testifying for the government in a high profile 2001 racketeering case. "He knew you didn't have to be a mobster to be Italian. Some of those guys think that way."
Whatever demons D'Aguanno was dealing with at the time of his death, he does not deserve the snide and self-serving comments making the rounds today in underworld circles by individuals he prosecuted.
D'Aguanno grew up in the same South Philadelphia neighborhood as those he helped put in jail. They shared the same ethnic background and coming of age experiences, went to the same parish churches, played on the same youth baseball and hockey teams.
He went one way.
They went the other.
And in the end, he saw them for what they were -- gangsters who have taken the positive values of the Italian-American experience, a strong sense of family, fierce and unwavering loyalty and an unshakeable sense of honor -- and bastardized them to justify who they were and what they did.
He never bought into that and it came across as he methodically and doggedly went about his business.
"If he put his head to anything, he conquered it," said Joe Goodavage, a friend who grew up in the same neighborhood around 9th and McKean in South Philadelphia. "He was methodical, not flashy. But if he wanted something, he got it."
D'Aguanno's nickname growing up was "Boops," said Goodavage who described his friend as an avid hockey player who tried, but failed, to turn professional.
"He went to Canada to play," said Goodavage. "But those guys up there are skating from the time they're five."
D'Aguanno came home, he said, and focused on his education, graduating from Temple and going on to law school. He worked as a summer cop in Wildwood one year and as a valet parking attendant at a restaurant on Passyunk Avenue. He was, Goodavage said, a neighborhood guy who made himself into a professional through hard work and dedication.
"His ambition in life was to be more than just a guy from the corner," Goodavage said.
As a prosecutor he never lost sight of where he had come from, but he never let it cloud his judgment.
"He was never officious," said Previte who sometimes clashed with members of law enforcement while being debriefed. "He was down to earth. He talked to you like he lived next door. Just a regular guy."
In 2001, while still with the District Attorney's Office, he was cross-deputized and served as a federal prosecutor in a racketeering case against mob leader Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino and six co-defendants. All seven ended up in prison.
A year later, as an Assistant U.S. Attorney based in Newark, he was co-counsel for the prosecution in a murder case that ended with Merlino's acquittal.
"I'll never forget the look on his face when the verdict came back," said Warren, one of Merlino's defense attorneys. "It was like a member of his family had died."
That kind of commitment can take its toll. D'Aguanno was described by several people who knew him as "tightly wound" and as someone who "had difficulty letting go."
Two years ago he capped an eight-year investigation by convicting mobster Nicky Scarfo Jr. and mob associate Salvatore Pelullo in the FirstPlus Financial fraud case, a $12 million scam that D'Aguanno's boss, Paul Fishman, said gave new meaning to the term "corporate takeover."
In a statement released this morning, Fishman said, "Steve D'Aguanno was an outstanding attorney and dedicated public servant who took on some of the most important and complex cases this office has handled. More importantly, he was a cherished friend and colleague whose untimely death leaves us all deeply saddened. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family."
D'Aguanno leaves a wife and two children.
"He was a formidable prosecutor who truly believed in what he was doing," said Michael Riley, the defense attorney who represented Scarfo in the FirstPlus case.
Rich Sparaco, another defense attorney in that case, said "Steve had a great sense of the human side of the law (and) he handled the most difficult cases with the highest degree of professionalism and an uncanny ability for compassion."
The case, which began in 2007, included tens of thousands of financial documents, hundreds of secretly recorded conversations, thousands of emails and dozens of cooperating witnesses. Those familiar with the investigation said it was not unusual for D'Aguanno to work 12- to 15-hour days while the case was being built and again while the trial was taking place.
The emotional and psychological drain is difficult to measure, said Riley, himself a former prosecutor.
"There's a grind to it," he said. "There's a tremendous amount of pressure. It can permeate every aspect of your life. You're sitting at the dinner table and all of a sudden you realize you haven't heard what your wife or one of your children has said because you're thinking about the case. Your brain is off somewhere else."
D'Aguanno's career was built around that kind of dedication. But there are those who believe he paid a terrible price for it.
George Anastasia can be reached at George@bigtrial.net.