Thursday, March 28, 2013

Expert Doubts Philly Mob's Art Connection

A stolen Rembrandt
By George Anastasia

The bottom line is that the Philadelphia  mob has always been a bottom-line kind of outfit.

So if mob boss Joe Ligambi or any of his associates had information about the art work  stolen from a Boston museum 23 years ago, they would have cashed that info in for the $5 million reward.

That, at least, is the view of Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent who specialized in art theft and who spent the bulk of his career working out of the FBI’s Philadelphia office.

“I sat next to the organized crime squad guys,” Wittman said in a telephone interview from his suburban Philadelphia office this week. “If they had heard anything, I would have known about it. We didn’t hear a thing.”

Friday, March 22, 2013

"A Tragic Miscarriage Of Justice"

By Ralph Cipriano

An alternate juror in the Engelhardt-Shero case recalled the moment she got a courtesy call from the court clerk, telling her the jury had reached a verdict.

It seemed pretty fast to her. The call came in at 7 p.m. on Jan. 30, 2013, after three days of deliberation, only five days after she had been dismissed as an alternate.

They came back guilty on all the charges except one, the court clerk told the alternate juror, a young woman in her 30s.

"I was like, 'Are you serious?' I couldn't believe it," she said in an interview. "I thought for sure they were going to vote not guilty because there was absolutely no proof that these men had done that." To the alternate juror, who wishes to remain anonymous, the guilty verdict was "incredible," even "insane."

"I was completely shocked by it," she said. "It was very hard for me. It was, however, an appropriate finish to her first experience of being a juror, which she described as "two weeks of insanity."

Was justice done in the case of Father Charles Engelhardt and Bernard Shero?

"No," she said. "I think it was a tragic miscarriage of justice."

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Masterworks, Murders And Mobsters, A Philadelphia Story?

 (From left) Ralph Abbruzzi, George Borgesi, the late Frank Gambino, Joey Merlino and "Uncle Joe" Ligambi

By George Anastasia

Is jailed mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi or any other member of his organization a secret "patron of the arts?"

That question surfaced this week as the FBI in Boston said it was close to solving a $500 million art heist that may have had a Philadelphia underworld connection.

In a week full of wild speculation, rumor and innuendo about the 1990 robbery -- one bizarre and unfounded report had some of the masterpieces stashed in the backroom of a South Philadelphia bar -- the story of mobsters and stolen masterworks was getting lots of traction.

In more mundane courtroom developments, meanwhile, two major players from the crime family, underboss Joseph "Mousie" Massimino and mob soldier Damion Canalichio are scheduled to be sentenced in May following their convictions last month on racketeering conspiracy charges. Each faces a potential double-digit prison term, given the nature of the charge and their lengthy criminal records.

Canalichio, 41, has two prior federal drug convictions. Massimino, 62, has been jailed on drug dealing and racketeering charges.

Ligambi, 73, his nephew George Borgesi, 49, and his top associate, Anthony Staino, 55, are to be retried on those same racketeering conspiracy charges in October after the jury hung on those counts at the earlier trial. Staino was convicted of two counts of extortion for which he is to be sentenced, but that has been put off until after the retrial.

There has been some speculation that Staino might be willing to cut a deal and plead guilty to the conspiracy count if the sentence for that crime would not bring more prison time than he is already facing for the extortion charges.

Several other prominent players in the Philadelphia mob, including Marty Angelina and Gaeton Lucibello, pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy charges prior to the start of the trial and are serving prison sentences. In all, nine of the original 13 defendants have either been convicted or have pleaded guilty.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Don't Write A Suicide Note Without Showing It To Your Lawyer

By Ralph Cipriano

On Feb. 9, 2011, Bernard Shero sat down to type a suicide note to his parents.

"Dear Mom and Dad," he began. "I know the Easter season has become a very sad season for us. We have lost many loved ones during the year. I am truly sorry for making the time of your birthday a time of loss as well but I feel that I do not have much of a choice here, and I think deep in your hearts, you know why."

On Feb. 9, 2011, Bernard Shero was a 47-year-old ex-Catholic school teacher accused of raping a former sixth-grade student named Billy Doe.

The day he wrote his two-page note to his parents, Shero was a hunted man. Detectives from the district attorney's office had called Burton Rose, Shero's lawyer, to ask if Shero was going to turn himself in. The detectives wanted Shero to report to the D.A.'s office at 6 a.m. on Feb. 10, 2011. Or else, the detectives would be driving out to Shero's apartment armed with an arrest warrant.

Bernie Shero told his lawyer he couldn't be at the D.A.'s office by 6 a.m. And when Rose called him back, he couldn't get Shero on the phone.

On Feb. 10, 2011, the day after he wrote his suicide note, Shero took some sleeping pills and went to bed.

He did not foresee detectives banging on his door, or a groggy ride to the hospital in an ambulance.

He also made the mistake of not showing that suicide note to his lawyer.


Family Photos Show Firebomb Victims

By George Anastasia

The family photos brought tears to the eyes of government witness Eugene Coleman.

His mother, Marcella, 54, smiling in her living room. His sister, Tameka Nash, 34, hugging her 10-year-old daughter, Khadjah. Another photo of Khadjah smiling impishly. A nephew.
Tahj Porchea, 12, standing tall and proud. And Coleman's infant son, Damir Jenkins, 15-months, laughing in his father's arms.

Each color photo was flashed on large television screens in the eighth floor courtroom where Coleman was testifying in the racketeering-murder trial of drug kingpin Kaboni Savage.

Family members in happier times.

Family members killed when their North Sixth Street rowhouse was firebombed in the early morning hours of Oct. 9, 2004, on the orders, authorities allege, of Savage.

Six people, including another Coleman nephew, Sean Rodriguez, 15, died in that blaze, victims the government contends of the violent, take-no-prisoners, kill-all-the-rats reign of terror that Savage unleashed in the Philadelphia underworld ten years ago.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Pumping The Block

By George Anastasia

They called it "pumping the block" or "getting the block jumping."

It was the underworld equivalent of a retail "loss leader." The idea was to give something away for free in order to attract customers.

In this case, the product was drugs -- cocaine, marijuana and a methamphetamine concoction known as "wet."

Lamont Lewis had taken over a corner at 8th and Venango Streets in North Philadelphia, government witness Eugene Coleman said from the witness stand, and the kingpin he worked for, Kaboni Savage, decided they had to do something to "get the block jumping."

"We did this to let people know there was drugs on that corner," said Coleman, who took the stand this morning in the racketeering-murder trial of Savage and three co-defendants.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Money Woes For Mob Boss?

By George Anastasia

Is the mob out of money?

Lawyers for two high ranking members of the Philadelphia crime family said this afternoon that they are waiting to hear from their clients and their clients' families before committing to represent them in a racketeering retrial tentatively set for October.

Edwin Jacobs Jr. told Judge Eduardo Robreno that members of mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi's family "are attempting to gather sufficient funds to pay me for the retrial."

Gregory Pagano, the lawyer for top Ligambi associate Anthony Staino, said he is in the same position.

Robreno asked the lawyers to let him know by the end of the month. But with or without them, Robreno said, the retrial will start in October. In the alternative, the judge could appoint lawyers should Ligambi and Staino declare that they are unable to afford representation.


D.A.'s Grand Jury Report Riddled With Errors

By Ralph Cipriano

If the 2011 Grand Jury report on sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was a term paper, the district attorney would have gotten a failing grade for sloppy work habits and at least 20 factual errors.

It's too bad they're not taking questions down at the D.A.'s office right now, because the public has a right to know what went wrong with this grand jury report. But the spokesperson for the D.A.'s office has refused to answer questions all week.

The factual errors in the grand jury report are contradicted by grand jury testimony, trial testimony, and the results of the district attorney's own investigation.

It's a shameful work product. Somebody screwed up.


60 Minutes To Air John Veasey Story

By Ralph Cipriano

On Sunday night at 7 p.m., 60 Minutes will air a segment on John Veasey, the former Philadelphia hit man, mob turncoat, and government witness whose riveting testimony brought down the Stanfa mob.

It's a crazy story.

In a clip from the 60 Minutes segment, correspondent Byron Pitts explains to a national audience how back in the 1990s, John Veasey was volunteering during the day as a Boy Scout leader, driving around a station wagon full of scouts. And at night, he'd be driving around South Philly in a rented Cadillac, trying to hunt down and kill "Skinny Joey" Merlino.

Here's a clip:

Monday, March 11, 2013

D.A. Rolled Out Red Carpet For Billy Doe

By Ralph Cipriano

On Jan. 28, 2010, Detective Andrew Snyder showed up at Graterford Prison to spring "Billy Doe" out of jail, and transport him to the district attorney's office for questioning.

When Detective Snyder and Billy Doe arrived at the D.A.'s office, Billy's parents were waiting for him. And, according to what Billy Doe subsequently told a grand jury, so was Assistant District Attorney Mariana Sorensen from the Special Investigations Unit. Detective Snyder recorded what happened next on four pages of typed notes. Here's the first two sentences that Snyder wrote:

Picked up [Billy Doe] from Graterford Prison. [Billy Doe's] parents ... were present during the interview.

On Jan. 28, 2010, Billy Doe was 21 years old. The man who claimed that back when he was 10 and 11 years old, he was raped by two priests and a school teacher at St. Jerome's Church, was not under 18 when he visited the district attorney's office, so there was no reason for his parents to sit in on the interview. The longstanding practice in the district attorney's office, and the Philadelphia Police Department, would have been for detectives to interview an adult complainant by himself, and then interview his parents separately.

Did the district attorney's office bend the rules to let Billy's father, a Philadelphia police sergeant, and his mother sit in on the D.A.'s interview with their son? It sure looks like it. Another longstanding practice in the D.A's office, and the Philadelphia Police Department, would have been for detectives to interview Billy in a Q. and A. format on an "Investigation Interview Record," also known as a "483" because of the number on the bottom of the form.

When a detective gets through asking questions, the subject of the interview is usually asked to read over the questions and answers on the "483," make corrections, and finally, sign the document. But that's not what happened on Jan. 28, 2010. Neither Billy nor his parents had to submit to a standard Q. and A. interview on a "483." Instead, the only version of the D.A.'s session with Billy Doe kept for posterity was what Detective Snyder chose to record in his notes.

In the parlance of defense lawyers, the D.A. was giving Billy Doe the "red carpet treatment."And the interview with Mom and Dad sitting in was just the start of it.

What followed was a nonsensical law enforcement crusade that would invert the natural order. A review of police records and formerly secret grand jury transcripts shows that District Attorney Seth Williams' self-described "historic" prosecution of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was a classic back-asswards operation -- first came the indictments and the arrests, followed by the investigation.


The Rap Sheet For Two Star Witnesses

By Ralph Cipriano

They are two troubled young men with criminal records, suicidal tendencies, and a history of drug abuse.

"Billy Doe" is the grand jury's psuedonym for a 24-year-old former ambulance driver from Northeast Philadelphia now working as a landscaper in Florida where he's enrolled in a drug rehab. Billy Doe is the victim who claims back when he was a fifth and sixth grader at St. Jerome's Church in Northeast Philadelphia, between 1998 and 2000, he was raped by two priests and a Catholic school teacher.

Billy's own mother on the witness stand described him as a "lost soul" who was kicked out of two high schools. Billy has six adult arrests for drugs and retail theft, and has been in and out of 23 drug rehabs.

Mark Bukowski is a 31-year-old former short-time Marine who went AWOL and was discharged under "other than honorable conditions." Mark's own mother has accused him of stealing from her and her husband, and she told police that she was "suspicious" of Mark's claim to police that he had been a victim of a violent home invasion. Mark Bukowski has been arrested three times, and has a criminal track record for attempting to deceive law enforcement officials.

Lots of caution flags here if you're going to run with anything these guys tell you.

But to District Attorney Seth Williams, Billy Doe and Mark Bukowski were star witnesses for the D.A.'s self-described "historic" prosecution of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Even though both men were unstable drug-addicted criminals.

Here's what the rap sheets have to say about the D.A.'s two star witnesses.


Mob Soldier Indicted For Murder

By George Anastasia

Mobster Anthony Nicodemo has been indicted on first degree murder and conspiracy charges in the shooting death of a South Philadelphia drug dealer and suspected government informant.

The indictment was announced this afternoon at a status hearing for Nicodemo in Common Pleas Court. The 41-year-old mobster, who has been held without bail since his arrest in December, did not attend the session.

His lawyer, Brian McMonagle, declined to comment.

The indictment is expected to up the ante in the case against Nicodemo who now faces life in prison or a potential death sentence for the murder of Gino DiPietro. The case has also fueled speculation about whether Nicodemo, long a suspect in a second gangland murder, would agree to cooperate in order to get out from under his legal problems.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Mom's Calendars Undermine Billy Doe's Story

By Ralph Cipriano

Billy Doe's mother kept meticulous track of both of her sons' grade school events.

On monthly calendars, she noted dates and times for football and hockey games, doctor's appointments, and guitar lessons, flu shots and snow days. She wrote down dates for upcoming exams, school projects, home and school meetings, as well as the day that report cards came out.

She also kept track of the Masses that her sons were scheduled to serve at as altar boys at St. Jerome's Church.

Billy Doe's mother kept all those calendars, including the 1998 and 1999 calendars when Billy was a fifth grader at St. Jerome's. That's the school year when Billy claims he was raped by Father Charles Engelhardt after a 6:30 a.m. Mass.

The calendars kept by Billy's mother were turned over to the district attorney's office as evidence in the case. So the D.A. searched the calendars, seeking a 6:30 a.m. Mass that Billy served at to corroborate the rape victim's story.

But the search came up empty. And it wasn't the only time that Billy's story didn't check out.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Mystery Of "Sessions"

By Ralph Cipriano

It's a lingering mystery from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sex abuse trials -- where did the term "sessions" come from?

In the 2011 grand jury report, "sessions" is the code name that two predator priests used for having sex with a 10-year-old altar boy known as "Billy Doe."

But the two priests in question -- Father Charles Engelhardt and former priest Edward V. Avery -- went off to their jail cells telling their lawyers that they had never used that word before and had no idea where it came from.

"He [Engelhardt] said that's a phrase that's been put in my mouth, it's been put in Avery's mouth," defense lawyer Michael J. McGovern remembered his client telling him. "That's a term I've never used,"the priest told his lawyer. Furthermore, "He [Engelhardt] has never heard a priest use that phrase,"McGovern said.

Avery was just as mystified, according to his lawyer, Michael E. Wallace. "I was with him 16 months and I never heard him use the term," Wallace said. "He didn't know what the hell he [Billy Doe] was talking about."

Even the district attorney, in the grand jury report issued Jan. 21, 2011, refers to the first time one of the priests mentioned "sessions" to Billy Doe as an "enigmatic statement." The answer to the mystery, however, may have been uncovered by the district attorney's own detectives a year after that grand jury report was issued.

But in the case of any mistakes in that grand jury report, the D.A.'s office doesn't seem to ever run corrections.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Split In The D.A.'s Office Over Billy Doe's [Lack Of] Credibility

By Ralph Cipriano

In July 2012, Michael J. McGovern was preparing for the upcoming trial of his client, Father Charles Engelhardt, on charges that he had raped a former 10-year-old altar boy.

The phone rang. A high-ranking official at the district attorney's office was on the line, wanting to know why McGovern was refusing to even discuss a plea deal on a case scheduled to go to trial in early September 2012.

Father Charles Engelhardt
I've got a problem, McGovern recalled saying to the official, whom he declined to publicly name. My client's been a priest since 1967. If he even pleads no contest to a misdemeanor, such as corrupting the morals of a minor, and just gets probation, he can't be a priest anymore. And that's the only thing that matters to him. He also happens to be completely innocent.

The response he got surprised him, McGovern said. The high-ranking official on the other end of the line said, well there's a split opinion over here [in the district attorney's office] about whether the complainant is credible.

"He's incredible," McGovern recalled telling the official about the former altar boy identified in the 2011 grand jury report as "Billy Doe." "He's a lying sack of shit."

The official's response: "He shared with me that there were people in the D.A.'s office who agreed with me," McGovern said. They were wondering whether they should go through with prosecuting the case.

McGovern himself is a former prosecutor; from 1980 to 1993, he was Assistant Chief of Homicide and Chief of Major Trials under former Philadelphia District Attorneys Ed Rendell and Lynne Abraham. So McGovern offered some free advice; he suggested to the high-ranking official in the D.A.'s office that the right thing to do on this case was to not prosecute.