Thursday, March 3, 2016

Steve D'Aguanno, Dedicated Federal Prosecutor

By George Anastasia
For Bigtrial.net

Steven D'Aguanno, a hard-driving federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey, died this week.

Unexpectedly.

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.

29 comments:

  1. Our ideologies differed, but our intensities were dangerously similar. I join with all courtroom warriors to salute you. Rest Steve. Rest

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  2. I had known Steve D as a friend and fellow attorney since my second year of Temple Univ. undergrad. Steve was 1 year ahead of me in Law School at Temple. He was a huge influence in my life personally and professionally. My wife and I were at his wedding. We studied for the LSAT's together. We shared ideas on how to pass the bar exam etc. As recent as last week Steve and I had texted back an forth for a time to talk on the phone to catch up etc. I never got to make that phone call and now I hate myself for not pushing aside work to make that call. I am truly devastated at this loss. The world lost a true great person when Steve passed. He always told me how much he loved his wife and 2 children. I always told my wife, son and daughters about him but because of our crazy schedules we never we able to get together. I will never forgive myself for not trying harder to stay truly connected. Ken

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  4. George, thank you for a terrific article.

    Having seen him in action, it was immediately apparent that Steve was a great prosecutor and a great person. My condolences to all who knew him.

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  5. Strange, Paul Fishman's office says they can neither confirm nor deny his death and that there has been no press release.

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  6. Having seen him in action and to have worked with him was a honor. He was a special person that left us to soon. He loved what he did and it showed. I am a better person because of him. We will carry on without you Steve but will never forget you or what you stood for, RIP Steve you are already missed

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  7. This was a really good man. I was across the courtroom from him for four months on Merlino case in 2002 and he truly dedicated, intense, talented trial lawyer. He could have opted for more money in private practice but he had a bigger sense of commitment and justice. Rest in Peace my friend- Jack McMahon

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  8. What is the standard of making it on the blog? Only positive statements will be approved? Just asking so all readers know in advance

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    1. In the interest of decency and civility, given the nature of this story, any comments that could add to the pain and suffering of family members are being deleted. Comments pro or con about Steve D'Aguanno as a lawyer are fine. Comments about the more sensitive issue of how he died are not.

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    2. George, your concern about not adding to the pain and suffering of family members is commendable. It is unfortunate that everyone was and is not of the same mind.

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    3. Personal anger and bitterness in light of tragedy to a family and kids is just ugly

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    4. Bitterness in the face of real tragedy is just ugly

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    5. Repetitive. Your closing arguments must be painful. Concise and to the point is recommended. Might be time to hang up your cleats.

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    6. Mr.A, Can you share with your readers how many comments so far (and update us from time to time in the future) are not approved by you under your standards. Are they all shown--with it being stated that removed by you; or do they not even make it to the blog---I think the latter.

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  9. That is a fair reply by GA. Interesting that Mr. Fishman is silent as to not confirming or denying his passing--likely to avoid further pain and suffering by the family. That also is understood; other than the double standard when he publicizes charges and innuendo about others without any concern of the impact on family, etc...This is possibly done to further his own career and agenda. Respect, civility and decency should be applied across the board. The passing of Mr. D is a tragic event and only prayers and faith will ease the pain. May Mr. D rest in peace, and may his family find solace with prayer and fond memories.

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  10. Steve was a good friend, and opponent. This is a real shock and loss to both sides of the criminal bar!

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  11. Steve you will be missed! I will remember you as the hard working AUSA who would change in to your sweats to go to your children's sporting events. That is how I choose to remember you and carry on your memory! Rest In Peace Steve

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  12. Now reflected on the website for the New Jersey US Attorney's Office (https://www.justice.gov/usao-nj):

    IN MEMORIAM

    STEVEN D'AGUANNO

    Our U.S. Attorney's Office family has lost a great lawyer, a terrific colleague, and a dear friend. Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven D'Aguanno joined the U.S. Attorney's Office in 2003 after serving for eight years as an Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia. He served with great distinction in both our Newark and Camden offices. He 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. He will always be remembered as a highly dedicated and extremely talented career prosecutor.

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  13. I worked with Steve many years ago in the Philly D.A.'s Office. He was a great guy and a great lawyer. With an inspiring personal story. He will be missed.

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  14. Rest in peace. Knew him from when he began at D.As. Straight shooter. Fierce advocate for the government. A good guy.

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  15. Just wondering if there is more to this story.....something just doesn't sound right?

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  16. Why has the Inquirer deliberately omitted mention of this dedicated Officer of the Court?

    Are the circumstances of his death in dispute?

    This is an extreme dereliction of duty, particularly, if the cases he was involved in may have influenced his sudden and unexplained demise.

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  17. From the Philly.com Obituary Section:

    D'AGUANNO
    STEVE JAMES, Career prosecutor, age 48, passed away on the evening of March 1, 2016. Steve was born on Sept. 1, 1967 in Phila., Pennsylvania to Henry and Elizabeth D'Aguanno. At the time of his death, Steve was an Assistant United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey. He is survived by his wife, Emily Adams D'Aguanno; their two sons, Brian (11) and Jason (8); and brother Henry D'Aguanno. Relatives and friends are invited to attend his visitation with the family on Friday from 1:00 - 2:00 P.M. at The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Broadway Street Camden. Service 2:00 P.M. Burial at Lakeview Memorial Park will be private.
    Published on Philly.com on Mar. 10, 2016
    - See more at: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/philly/obituary.aspx?n=steve-james-daguanno&pid=178001765#sthash.HwkJdt59.dpuf

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  18. Condolences and prayers for Mr. D'Aguanno's family. I was one of many who had the opportunity to witness his dedication and quest for justice.
    Rest in peace, Sir.

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  19. Annette Ferrara, EsquireMarch 11, 2016 at 4:00 PM

    I grew up across the street from Steven and his family in South Philly. He did not have an easy life growing up, as he lost both his father and middle brother when he was still just a kid. Through focus and determination, he overcame the obstacles of his early life to become a dedicated public servant. My sincere condolences.

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  20. Hung out with Steven in my younger years lost touch but remembered what a nice guy he was. Wish I would have seen him in action as a lawyer. Rest in Peace!!

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  21. Steven and I were close friends in our late teens/early 20s. Although we lost touch over the years, I think of him often. I hold our long telephone conversations dear to my heart and will always remember his wit and passion about everything. Rest peacefully, my friend.

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