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Published in TORO Magazine

October 2006

 
Tough Guy: Guy Lawson and the Mafia Cops

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

Journalists tell stories; they aren’t meant to become characters in them. But earlier this year, Guy Lawson knew there was little he could do to avoid breaking this wobbly rule of the trade when the manuscript he was working on became the focal point of a courthouse drama. The previous summer, Lawson had signed on to co- write a book about a pair of retired New York City cops, Stephen Caracappa and Louis Eppolito, who were accused of having served as Mafia hit men back in the late 1980s. Lawson’s role as professional observer, however, was challenged on February 24, when a subpoena was delivered to the Manhattan offices of his publisher, Simon & Schuster. Initiated by the lawyer for Caracappa, Edward W. Hayes, the subpoena demanded that a slew of documents be brought before Judge Jack B. Weinstein at the U.S. District courthouse in Cadman Plaza, Brooklyn, ten days later.

In terms of actual writing, Lawson had yet to get very far with his story. His book, however, was clearly already known in publishing circles, not to mention in Hollywood and in the criminal case itself. Much of this attention, including the subpoena from Hayes, was due to Lawson’s collaborator on the project, William Oldham, a retired New York detective whose investigation had helped bring the gargantuan case – Caracappa and Eppolito were accused of seventy criminal counts, including kidnapping, money laundering, and conspiracy to commit eight murders – to trial. As a result, Hayes felt that, in the interest of obtaining fair treatment for his client, Judge Weinstein should force Simon & Schuster to hand over paperwork related to the book deal. In a letter to the court explaining his request, Hayes expressed his concern that Oldham’s business arrangement with his and Lawson’s publisher might cause him to withhold evidence from the defence, to later help boost hardcover sales.

Though Lawson wasn’t mentioned in the subpoena, Judge Weinstein requested that he join William Oldham and the lawyer for Simon & Schuster at a table at the front of the courtroom while its merits were debated. “Who’s the writer?” the judge called to the gallery. According to a reporter from The New York Times, Lawson “looked shellshocked” at being brought into the glare of the law.

As it turned out, Weinstein denied the defence’s request after hearing arguments from lawyers for both sides. The decision came as a relief to more than just Oldham and Lawson. Besides their manuscript, there were believed to be at least four other book projects underway about the ‘Mafia Cops,’ as they were being called, ranging from the credible – a study of police corruption by the legendary New York journalist Jimmy Breslin – to the nebulous, including a tell-all by Eppolito’s gay son and the memoir of a former Las Vegas call girl with a screen-writing grudge against the same ex-officer.

With the crisis passed, Lawson could return to his spot on the bench in the two rows reserved for reporters. (Oldham did not attend the trial.) For the next three weeks he would hold down his place most mornings and afternoons, taking and then comparing notes with the assistant he had hired to help with research, chatting in corridors and on the phone with whoever would talk to him. Lawson’s book had a working title – The Brotherhoods: The True Story of Two Mafia Cops Who Murdered for The Mob – but little else much hinged, naturally, on the outcome of the trial.

Regardless, The Brotherhoods was slated for a late fall or early winter publication with Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. As such, the text needed to hurry up and write itself. In turn, its author needed to think of producing, if not an ‘insta-book,’ as the industry calls products that chase the news in lurid pocketbook hues, then certainly a “Just-the-facts, Ma’am” account that would get the job done, and probably little more.

Except that Guy Lawson, who had written to tight deadlines for a number of leading American magazines, including Harper’s and GQ, where he is a long-time correspondent, and has filed pieces on subjects ranging from Bollywood to the Balkans to George Bush’s religious fundamentalism, had no intention of short-changing this story. Expectations and schedules notwithstanding, he planned to write a good book, one that would last. He would just have to do it fast.

He had his reasons for thinking large. Lawson was, first of all, far from the deer-caught-in-the- headlights portrayed by The New York Times. The forty-three-year-old holds a law degree from Cambridge and practised with a leading Wall Street firm during the period when the crimes occurred. Canadians may know him best as host of TV Ontario’s book show Imprint in the mid-1990s, but he has lived in the New York area for most of the last decade, and done some of his best writing about the place, including a 1999 investigative piece for Harper’s about a flophouse in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that included a month-long spell of no-star hotel dwelling. That kind of bravado made one of Lawson’s nervier decisions in the constructing of The Brotherhoods – to smuggle ‘Big Sal’ Micciota, a former Mafia hit man (and captain) who later turned snitch and now lives in hiding, to New York for secret interviews in a hotel – seem routine.

It would all be worth the trouble. The daily court proceedings were, even by Hollywood standards, a three-ring circus of murder and malfeasance, full of the right stuff for a page-turner: dirty deeds and raw betrayals, out-of-control cops and grandstanding lawyers. The trial was also rekindling the glorious bad-old days of the mob and, to an extent, of the New York Police Department (NYPD), the era that produced a bookshelf (and then a film library) of American classics: The Godfather, Serpico, and Wiseguy (which became the film Goodfellas), to name a few.

With Mafia culture on the criminal wane and the NYPD on the ethical mend in recent decades, it was unlikely there would be another parade of such florid cops-and-robbers colours again. What was happening in Weinstein’s courtroom in Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn was no Sopranos episode, after all, much as it sometimes resembled the series; it was real life. As Lawson and others speculated, United States of America versus Stephen Caracappa and Louis Eppolito could well be the last great mob trial on this continent.

Finally, though he kept this thought to himself, Lawson wondered if his status as a Canadian might help him write the archetypal American story. He couldn’t help but think that he might be exactly the right guy to see a narrative as familiar and even over-determined as this one, and find something fresh in it.

The night before the trial’s closing arguments, I sat with Guy Lawson on the sidewalk outside the Mulberry Street Bar in Little Italy. It was the second day of April, a Sunday, but the evening was muggy and the streets of lower Manhattan were in pedestrian bloom. The bar, an old Italian social club dating back to 1908, more closely resembles a movie set with a liquor licence, having ‘starred’ in mob films ranging from Donny Brasco and Godfather III to numerous episodes of The Sopranos. Walls there are adorned with the requisite movie-star photos, including, of course, the iconic mug shot of the young Frank Sinatra. Lawson wanted to show me the kitsch of Little Italy, especially its sepia-toned gangster heritage, by way of preparation for the courthouse the following day. A dinner-theatre production over at Thirty-Eighth Street near Broadway advertised a show called Murdered by the Mob.

“I don’t love the Mafia and I don’t think it’s glamourous,” Lawson said over a beer. “I think it’s sick, especially the celebration of violence. There’s an outlaw culture in this country and this is definitely a strand of it.” Part Italian himself, he has no more respect for supposed Old World codes of honour, either among the bad guys or, in the case of Caracappa and Eppolito, the ones who are, officially, supposed to be good. “It’s a convenient lie,” he said, “as well as a self-glamourizing pathology. It’s one they even believe themselves. But this stuff is almost never about honour. Almost always, it’s about money.”

Lawson took the project in part to ease himself into the book-writing world, in part for the pay stub – a six-figure advance, shared with Oldham – and in part because the tale of the Mafia Cops wedded his two great passions: the law and storytelling. “in a sense,” he said, “the subject is that the police and the mob are on opposite sides of the war, and the places where these societies overlap is where the complexity lies. There, the human element becomes everything.” as the title suggests, the ties that bind the brotherhoods of the police and organized crime are not so different.

Take the case at hand. Lou Eppolito, the son of Mafia hit man Ralph “Fat the Gangster” Eppolito, decided to become a police officer instead of joining the mob (although there are some who believe he never really was a true cop). Mid-way through a stormy career with the NYPD, Eppolito was teamed briefly with Steve Caracappa in the Brooklyn Robbery Squad. Though their time together in the squad didn’t last long, the two detectives became friends. In the 1980s, while Eppolito worked out of the Sixty-Second Precinct in South Brooklyn, Caracappa was promoted to the Organized Crime Homicide Unit in Manhattan, an elite squad of half-a-dozen detectives. There, he became one of the foremost experts on the Mafia and had access to confidential files.

It was during this period that leaks from inside the NYPD, usually in the form of information passed to the Luchese crime family, resulted in the disappearances and deaths of several informants. The leaks were never traced, and then Eppolito, whose tenure as an officer of the law included a 1984 internal investigation against him for corruption, retired with full honours in 1989. He was forty-one years old.

Shortly before he left the force, Lou Eppolito landed a bit part in Goodfellas, playing the captain of the very crime syndicate – the Gambinos – that had employed his father. While on the set, he dined with Robert de Niro, providing the actor tips on how to properly imitate a wiseguy. The retired cop soon moved his family to Las Vegas, hoping to write screenplays and make movies about La Cosa Nostra. In 1992, Caracappa, seven years his senior, also retired and relocated to Nevada. He wound up living on the same block as his former partner.

In Las Vegas, Eppolito penned his memoirs with the help of the New York Daily News writer Bob Drury. An ode to muddled, self-serving loyalties and sadistic violence, Mob Cop: The Story Of An Honest Cop Whose Family Was The Mob offered a vision of law and order in 1970s and ’80s New York as a perpetual street brawl. In one scene, a group of off-duty cops cover their heads with pantyhose to exact revenge on thugs in a Brooklyn park. “He was barely semiconscious when I sat down on the curb,” Eppolito wrote, “picked up the biggest rock I could find, and crushed every one of his fingers, one by one. I could feel the bones smash.”

In 1994, a Luchese thug named Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso, a confessed murderer of thirty-seven people, flipped and became a government snitch. He told the FBI that two cops had been on his payroll between 1986 and 1990. For US$4,000 a month these detectives would do whatever was necessary – give away information on pending investigations, deliver informants, or do the killing themselves.

Casso also revealed that the officers had provided him with the address of a Luchese enemy named Nicholas Guido. Only the NYPD insider had looked up the wrong Nicholas Guido in the database. As a result, an innocent twenty-six-year-old was slain outside his mother’s house on Christmas Day in 1986. Though gaspipe Casso named Caracappa and Eppolito as his co-conspirators, the FBI decided a lunatic like Casso couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth on the witness stand. No charges were laid.

How were authorities going to nab a pair of crooked cops so many years after the crimes in question? The U.S. Government’s RICO Act (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) had been gutting the New York Mafia for years, especially once a young assistant attorney general named Rudolph Giuliani launched his crusade in the mid-1980s. Under RICO, organized crime, always difficult to prosecute successfully, could be strung together into a “conspiracy” called “racketeering.” the catch was, the conspiracy had to be ongoing, the time limit being to within five years of the present. Since they’d retired as police officers, there was no evidence that Caracappa or Eppolito had participated in any criminal activity.

The story now leaps ahead several years. In 2003, Oldham, employed with the United States Attorney’s Office, picked up where things had been left off with”gaspipe” Casso. Out of the blue, a defrocked accountant, sent to Las Vegas by the FBI (in exchange for jail time) to troll for mob crime, informed federal authorities that he had met the famous Mafia Cop Lou Eppolito. A failing screenplay writer, Eppolito was desperate to find financing for his latest script. In a sting coordinated with Oldham, the accountant promised to set up a meeting with some Hollywood stars.

But there was a catch: the stars wanted to score some crystal meth and ecstasy in exchange for bankrolling the film. Eppolito duly sent his twenty-four-year-old son, anthony, and a friend to deliver the purchased drugs. Feds arrested the two ex-officers in March 2005 (along with Eppolito’s son Anthony), claiming the conspiracy was indeed still alive, and thus could be linked to the earlier crimes, including the murders, the last of which was committed in November 1990. The accused eventually posted bail – US$5-million each – and a trial date was set for the following spring.

For the next two days, Guy Lawson explained, I would get to watch first the prosecution, and then the defence, summarize their cases. The task would be both easy for the government – evidence against the cops, mostly in the form of witness testimony from various criminal associates, was overwhelming – and tricky, given the statute of limitations. (The eighty-four-year-old Judge Weinstein, Lawson noted, a revered figure in American law, had voiced pre-trial reservations about prosecuting such old crimes.) For the two defence teams, neither of which had allowed their clients to open their mouths in court, the challenge was greater. They had, Lawson said, “nothing to work with” in defending the accused, and could only try to huff and puff and blow the house of RICO down, never an easy task in rough-justice- minded America. Given that the defenders, bruce Cutler for Eppolito and Hayes for Caracappa, were legendary for their sartorial displays and rhetorical overkills alike – “You will be astonished that people talk this way,” said Lawson – it promised to be quite a show.

Scrambling the next morning for a seat in the rows reserved for the public, I watched the courtroom proceedings from directly behind the defence team. Lawson and other journalists were seated near the jury. Between the public gallery and the defendants were two further rows, reserved for family. Most seated there belonged to Eppolito, including his wife and three grown children, with Lou Eppolito, Jr., the estranged gay son from an earlier marriage, next to his lover a few feet away. Eppolito, an obese, sickly looking man who could have passed for being ten years older than his fifty-seven years, turned frequently to whisper to his wife. He also stopped for the TV cameras most days while crossing a park to eat lunch with his family in a diner. His eyes were blurry and wet, like an old dog’s. Caracappa, slim, debonair, and silent as the grave, rarely glanced around the room. He took his meals inside the courthouse and spoke to no one.

Edward “Fast Eddie” Hayes went first. The inspiration for the lawyer Tommy Killian in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Hayes, who had just published a memoir called Mouthpiece, a book endorsed by the very same Tom Wolfe, wore a double-breasted suit and a pocket square. After a few general proclamations about his client – “The man has no vices,” he said in a thick New York accent, and, “You take Steve Caracappa’s life, a man who risked himself a thousand times for you, and you ruin it” – he focused on encouraging jury members to resent the federal government, calling the trial “a Washington case with a New York jury.”

Bruce Cutler, also the author of a book, in this instance about defending the last celebrity New York crime boss, John Gotti, ratcheted up both the pseudo-drama and the rhetoric. Barrel-chested and bald, Cutler, who had already characterized mob snitches as men who “wet their pants and then called Mommy – the government,” wasted no time displaying his penchant for synonyms. “Before I begin this peroration, or summation,” he said, his voice booming. Though his peroration consisted mostly of a string of non sequiturs, including a confession of weight loss during the trial, a history of the Brooklyn Bridge, and a sidebar on the “American Indian Warrior” Crazy Horse whose name adorned a strip club in Las Vegas, Cutler did score a few points about the legal foundations of the trial. Finally, adopting a pose before the jury box that was part preacher, part christ upon the cross, the lawyer channelled the silent Lou Eppolito at the moment of his arrest: “I know you’ve been after me. I know what happened as a result of my book. Come and take me,” he paraphrased. The finale? “He is in your hands.”

On April 6, after two days of deliberation, the jury delivered verdicts on the seventy counts against the Mafia Cops: “Proven,” each and every one. “One of the most spectacular police corruption scandals in the city’s history” is how The New York Times summarized the verdict. Lawyers for Caracappa and Eppolito vowed to appeal, naturally, and with sentencing set for May 22, the murderers were taken away to jail. With its theatrics and personalities, the trial seemed dream material for the climactic chapters of The Brotherhoods. Guy Lawson was still squeezed for time – the manuscript was due in mid-summer – but now, finally, he had a beginning, middle, and end to his story. All he had to do was go write it.

For authors, especially those on contract, there is no substitute for sitting alone in a room for hours with a computer. The guilty verdicts allowed Guy Lawson to quit haunting the courthouse. Having left New York with his wife, the Indian cookbook author and sauce maker Maya Kaimal, and their twin daughters, Anna and Lucy, eighteen months ago for upstate New York, Lawson had been commuting up and down to the city every week. Now he could take fewer trains and sequester himself in the office he was renting near his house.

A good day of work for most book writers might be a thousand words, but for Lawson, who also had to factor in almost daily phone chats with Oldham, the output needed to be double or triple that count. His vision of The Brotherhoods wasn’t only of a good book, but also a sizable one: 150,000 or more words might be needed to amplify the story to the operatic volume it deserved. Typically, a text of that size requires years of work. Lawson had three months.

In July, Scribner issued a promotional eighty-two-page advance excerpt of the big-book-in-progress. In an introductory note, Lawson’s editor, Colin Harrison, described the tale as “tantalizingly complex, even epic,” and “laced with violence, intrigue, and treachery.” Mentioning how the story came to him – soon after the arrests of Caracappa and Eppolito, he received a “mysterious call” from the detective who had “made the case” – and that William Oldham then teamed up with journalist Guy Lawson, Harrison welcomed readers to enjoy “the last great Mafia story of our time.” Publication of the completed book was to be January 2007.

Besides the prologue, three of the twelve proposed chapters were included. The opening belongs to Oldham. Following the investigator to Las Vegas in 2005, where he arrests the rogue cops, the narrative arcs back to the younger man’s days as a Major Case Squad detective, where he first encountered Stephen Caracappa. As is the case with most books that share authorship between a non-writer and a writer, no attempt is made to hide the fact that someone – i.e., Lawson – is telling Oldham’s story for him. The telling is sharp and crisp and vivid with details. That style, and long extended direct quotations from William Oldham, now fifty-three, establishes a tone both of authority and, impressively, of the vivid spoken-word Cutler of New York’s law enforcers and breakers alike.

“People come to New York City from all over the world to become actors and musicians and Wall Street brokers,” Lawson quotes Oldham. “but I didn’t want to be famous or rich. I wanted to put people in jail. The attraction for me was the crime…. What made people afraid of the city was the draw for me. Crime was everywhere, but in New York City it was for real. Criminals were smart and resourceful and determined. Crime was organized.”

That same month, with Lawson pressing the word count towards the 75,000 mark, strange things began happening at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn. Having announced that he would be sending Caracappa and Eppolito to prison for life, and adding, “This is probably the most heinous series of crimes ever tried in this courthouse,” Judge Weinstein suddenly delayed formal sentencing, to allow the defendants to make a case that their dream-team lawyers had been incompetent. At a hearing on June 26, Lou Eppolito denounced Bruce Cutler for demanding a $250,000 retainer and then refusing to work through lunch. He also decried Cutler’s decision not to let him take the stand.

Cutler, who did not call any witnesses on behalf of his client, defended his strategy. His approach to this case, he explained to the court, was to “pulverize, to eviscerate, the government’s case. That’s my defence: attack.” Judge Weinstein denied the motion.

But then, just a week later, on June 30, Weinstein overturned all seventy convictions against the Mafia Cops. Paragraph one of his ruling reiterated that the original trial “established the defendants’ participation in a large number of heinous and violent crimes, including eight murders.” Paragraph two, however, said this: “An extended trial, evidentiary hearings, briefings, and argument establishes that the five-year statute of limitations mandates granting the defendants a judgement of acquittal on the key charge against them: racketeering conspiracy.”

In other words, if the conspiracy charge collapses in a RICO case, so do all the others, including those related to the murders. Amongst observers, there was much talk about the wisdom of trying the Mafia Cops in federal court, where statutes of limitation applied, instead of Brooklyn district court, where there was no statute of limitation on murder.

The judge overturned the convictions but kept the cops, whose guilt he stressed over and over, in jail, pending government appeal. “They did the crimes but might not do the time,” rhymed the New York tabloid Newsday the next morning.

When I spoke with Guy Lawson on July 1, he was astonished by the decision. “The judge said up and down that they did everything,” he assured me. He doubted the Mafia Cops would be granted bail – “Are they a flight risk? I’d say so” – and figured that every new twist and turn in the tale would be good for the book. “I’m writing about the facts, not the law,” he said.

Twenty-four days later, Lawson’s editor, Colin Harrison, Googled the case while talking on the phone from his office at Scribner, curious to learn any news about the bail hearing for Caracappa and Eppolito, scheduled for that afternoon. With The Brotherhoods down to the wire, and the story it tells resisting closure, Harrison, the former deputy editor at Harper’s, expressed confidence in the co-author’s ability to put the project to bed. After listing Guy Lawson’s attributes, including his intrepidness, work ethic, and intelligence – Harrison was especially impressed that his writer had passed the New York State Bar Exam on the first go, despite studying law in England – he offered up the ultimate endorsement: hockey. “The fact that guy had played hockey at a fairly high amateur level in Canada was a factor,” Harrison said. “those guys are tough.”

“There’s a lot of risk involved in a book like this,” he continued. “There is still a lot of risk.” In the four months since the trial, several of the other books on the subject had apparently faded away. “If they have fallen by the wayside,” Harrison said, “it represents part of the enormous difficulty of this project.” Though still awaiting the full manuscript, and intending to vet it carefully with his lawyers, he was convinced The Brotherhoods would be both a great book, and a timely one. “We’re very aware that the topic is immensely fascinating and has generated responses not only in New York publishing circles but also in Hollywood.” Unwilling to commit to the size of the first print run, harrison simply said, “We’re looking at a vigorous figure.”

Caracappa and Eppolito were, in fact, denied bail that day, and were returned to the cell they are said to share. (Caracappa apparently asked for a change of cellmate.) By the next morning, Lawson was likewise back at his desk, pushing the word count over 100,000. A long-time smoker who finally quit six years ago, the pressure had him craving a Marlboro. He was also looking forward to the winter, and playing some hockey again. Publication date for The Brotherhoods, he admitted, had recently been bumped up to late November – subject, of course, to further developments.


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