While a couple of dozen accused mobsters milled around outside Judge Stanton Kaplan's courtroom last week, one of their lawyers summed up Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne's big stand against Cosa Nostra.
"It's all about the salmon," attorney Alvin Entin remarked to fellow Mob defender Fred Haddad. "You shouldn't fuck with lox."
There was truth in the joke. Jenne's case against the Bonanno crime family hinges on about 10,000 pounds of stolen Chilean salmon. Deputies never recovered the seafood and didn't charge anyone with the theft, but that didn't stop them from using it to catch their own big fish, 70-year-old Gerard Chilli, a reputed capo in the Bonanno crime family.
Chilli's crime? He spoke in December with an undercover agent at his restaurant on the Hollywood Broadwalk about selling suspiciously low-priced salmon. The deal never went down, though deputies reported that Chilli gave them a sample of salmon that matched the stolen fish.
Based on that spotty evidence, Jenne and his boys hit Chilli with several counts of dealing in stolen merchandise. The same undercover detective who busted the old man also sold a few cases of liquor to former JJ's manager Nicholas Pappas. Those transactions, reeking of entrapment, netted more stolen-property charges.
Besides the sensational salmon and booze-related stuff, Jenne's crack team of detectives also managed to infiltrate a devious poker game and a diabolical sports-betting operation that they claim were lorded over by Chilli. And, in the coup de grâce, deputies uncovered a few felonious slot machines. You know, those dastardly one-armed bandits that Broward County residents find so evil that they voted last month to legalize them at pari-mutuels.
Martin Scorcese hasn't shown any interest in the film rights yet, but if you listened to the sheriff after he made 23 initial arrests, you'd think it was a blockbuster. Our own Eliot Ness boasted that he'd "penetrated the heart of the Mob." He even gave the investigation one of those silly names: Operation Coldwater.
And you wondered why Entin and Haddad were laughing.
"They are taking traditional nickel-and-dime bullshit and blowing it up out of proportion," says Haddad, who is representing Chilli and is the undisputed king of Mob lawyers in South Florida. "This is just another statistic for the Sheriff's Office. And they're great with statistics, from what I understand."
Here the defense attorney is referring to the infamous crime-reporting scandal at BSO in which huge numbers of cases were fraudulently cleared to make it appear that Jenne was the greatest lawman in America. The sheriff claims he knew nothing of the massive cheating in his department, even though he benefited from it until the scandal blew up last year. Just this week, he's come under fire -- and criminal investigation -- for his work with a private security firm.
"Who is he to call the kettle black?" says Tom Fiore, Chilli's nephew and one of about 30 defendants in the case. "The guy [Jenne] smells. Who's the real gangster here, him or us? He's the biggest racketeer of all, and it's all legit, and he's doing it on taxpayers' money."
The 42-year-old Fiore is charged with running a poker game with his brother in an isolated warehouse in Pompano Beach. Oh, and there were a few slot machines there as well.
Fiore, however, is a bit of a community man. He runs a boxing gym in Delray Beach and has been written up in the Sun-Sentinel a couple of dozen times for his work both with young fighters and with numerous boxing entities, from USA Boxing to Don King Productions to the Broward County Sheriff's PAL.
The former kickboxer, whose criminal record consists of a drug charge back when he was a teenager, says BSO alleges that he's a made man, an accusation he neither confirms nor denies. Whatever the case, it's clear that the guy, if not a hardened gangster, is at least, um, connected. Take this Fiore statement, which comes straight from the Mob manual on how to talk about that thing of theirs: "What is Mafia? I don't know what it is. You tell me what it is."
Connected or not, Fiore is unlikely to go away for long because of a game of Texas Hold 'Em. An undercover detective sat at Fiore's table a couple of nights last fall, buying into the games for $200 -- less than what plenty of people lose each night playing poker at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. "It was just a way for guys to get away from their wives two nights a week," Fiore says. "I served cannoli in there. This rat that was at the table has to say that it was a friendly game."
The rat in question, however, reported that Fiore and his older brother, Nicholas, who is also charged in the case, weren't always friendly. According to court papers, Fiore talked of going after an associate named James Boniello with guns after Boniello started his own poker game. Last week, the State Attorney's Office charged Fiore with conspiracy to commit a capital felony.
"I was just kidding," Fiore explains. "I even said I was kidding. Me and Jimmy are buddies. This whole thing is retarded."
When Fiore and Boniello, another Coldwater defendant, greeted each other outside Kaplan's courtroom last week, they indeed appeared to be buddies. And the last time I checked, it was damned hard to prosecute a crime with an uncooperative victim, especially when the "crime" appears to be either a joke or, at worst, an empty boast.
They were among 24 defendants gathered at the courthouse last Wednesday morning for bond hearings in the case. The big fish, however, was absent. Chilli sat in jail, unable to make $5 million bail -- a ludicrous amount considering the weak nature of the charges.
The top dog in attendance Wednesday was clearly the menacing-looking Salvatore Puccio, a thick-necked 34-year-old reputed Mafia soldier who lives in a million-dollar Parkland house. I suspect he's the only real-deal mobster of the bunch. The rest seemed to be strictly minnows, bit players in the bookmaking scene, like Christopher Williams, a bearded, rather unkempt 35-year-old former club DJ who looked a lot more like a bored slacker than a Mob whacker. Watch for him on the next video installment of White Boys Gone Bad.
Williams was hanging out with his 45-year-old buddy, John Spannos. With his ZZ Top beard and long, gray ponytail, Spannos was one rubber band short of perfectly re-creating the magic of Capt. Lou Albano. But Spannos has a lot more to worry about than Jenne's case: The big fellow is facing an unrelated federal indictment in Cleveland alleging that he was involved in a major operation that moved thousands of pounds of marijuana from Florida to Ohio and Pennsylvania.
There was also the dapper and dignified 59-year-old Gregory Romano, an Italian-born barber with no prior criminal record. "He cuts-a the hair-a," quipped Allison Gilman, his lawyer.
And how can you forget 77-year-old John Belviso, an ancient fellow who could speak only with the help of one of those electronic voice boxes on his neck. It's hard to imagine Belviso getting through his morning oatmeal without help, let alone being part of a sophisticated racketeering operation. But both he and Romano were dragged into the case on allegations that they passed football betting cards around.
Clearly, they both deserve to die in jail for that.
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Don't think I'm defending the Mafia here. It's made up of a bunch of murderous animals who only sometimes pretend to belong to the human race. They're a lot of cheap, stupid, sociopathic bastards, criminals of the lowest order. And I have no doubt that some of the people named in Jenne's case do very bad things on a regular basis. The problem is that the sheriff didn't catch them at it. He caught them talking about fish, buying some alcohol, and partaking in America's new favorite pastime, gambling.
Used to be that organized-crime investigators wouldn't even bring such a weak case forward. They usually looked the other way on gambling because they knew that a lot of judges didn't take it seriously. And Kaplan, who is as well-respected a judge as there is in Broward County, not only seems to possess a healthy store of reason but also a sense of humor, which is a definite prerequisite for overseeing this absurd mess. When Kaplan walked into his courtroom (an hour late) and saw what looked like a bad casting call for The Sopranos waiting for him, he said, "Looks like they're giving something away here."
Even the defendants gave it a chuckle. I don't think Jenne's usual ploy of trading on his political power will work in Kaplan's courtroom. Maybe the sheriff has an ace in the hole, a case in the wings that will dwarf this penny-ante exercise. Let's hope so. He did promise after announcing the arrests that they were "just the beginning."
As it stands now, though, Jenne will be lucky if Coldwater doesn't get flushed down the toilet. Whatever happens, we're left with an ethically deficient sheriff who has done much more serious harm to the public than most of the people charged in his first big showdown with the Mafia. That's the real crime.