Genovese crime family members, associates charged in wide-ranging loansharking, gambling ring

NJ Attorney General's Office
Dan Ivers

NEWARK — Authorities have charged 11 members and associates of the notorious Genovese crime family with running a number of illegal financial schemes, including elaborate loansharking and sports gambling operations that raked in millions of dollars in recent years.
At a press conference in Newark this morning, Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman announced the takedown of the wide-ranging ring, saying their schemes were evidence that the Mafia had “evolved and learned to exploit sophisticated financial systems to hide and launder the proceeds of traditional street crimes.”
Seven defendants were arrested this morning, including a Genovese “capo”, 80-year-old Charles “Chuckie” Tuzzo and 55-year-old Vito Alberti, a “made” soldier – both of whom report directly to the crime family’s hierarchy in New York, authorities said. Another three were charged by summons, and one, Vincent Coppola, remains at large.
 Check-cashing schemes
According to Hoffman, the man at the helm of the family’s alleged check-cashing scheme is Domenick Puccillo, a 56-year-old Florham Park man who oversaw operations at Tri-State Check Cashing Inc., located on Avenue A in Newark’s Ironbound District, and other licensed check cashing locations.
There, he allegedly extended lines of both cash and credit to customers, and charged annual interest rates ranging between one to three “points”, or between 52 and 156 percent.
The victims, who Hoffman said were typically indigent with poor credit, were required to pay interest weekly, or face threats of violence from Puccillo and an associate, Robert “Bobby Spags” Spagnola.
They typically made payments by check, so that it appeared they were simply cashing them as part of the Tri-State’s regular course of business, but the two were in fact keeping the proceeds for themselves and kicking profits up the line to Tuzzo and Alberti.
The ring also ran an unlicensed check-cashing operation out of the Portucale Restaurant & Bar, also in Newark’s Ironbound District, which was allegedly used to launder money and evade taxes.
According to Hoffman, customers looking to avoid government scrutiny when cashing checks over $10,000 would visit the restaurant, where owner Abel Rodrigues would hand over cash provided by Tri-State in exchange for a fee. Customers typically cashed the checks in order to finance “under the table” payrolls at their own businesses, Hoffman said.
Rodrigues, meanwhile, would flout federal law by failing to file required transactions reports on the checks, and Tri-State would be reimbursed by another company, Viriato Corp., for six-figure sums they had directed to the illegal operation.
Over a four-year period, Rodrigues and an associate, Manuel Rodriguez, are accused of cashing more than $400 million in checks and collecting over $9 million in fees.
Two employees at Tri-State and Portucale, Flor Miranda of Newark and Jennifer Mann of Bayonne, are each accused of helping to keep records and file false reports related to the schemes.
 Sports Gambling
Authorities claim the ring ran a multi-million dollar illegal sports gambling business, headed by 37-year-old Coppola, the son of jailed Genovese capo Michael Coppola.
According to Hoffman, Coppola used an offshore “wire room” located in Costa Rica to process bets, and supervised underlings John Trainor and Jerry Albanese, who vetted new clients and dictated how much specific groups of bettors could gamble per week or per game.
During 2011, Coppola allegedly handled more than $1.7 million in bets, bringing in more than $400,000 in profits to the Genovese family.
Trainor allegedly became tied up with the ring after becoming indebted to the crime family. The ring then took over his car business, GTS Auto Carriers, and siphoned money from it - which Hoffman likened to a memorable episode of “The Sopranos” during which mobsters force a gambling addict to hand over profits from his sporting goods store until it hits bankruptcy.
“That’s the analogy that works for me. This guy Trainor got involved with the mafia, the mafia got involved in his business, and they really bled the business dry and took advantage of him,” he said.
Under a lucrative deal with Nissan, GTS transported cars from Port Newark to area dealerships. Alberti is accused of creating a company called AMJ Transport, which collected more than $300,000 a year to to lease trucks to GTS, and placed himself and another Genovese associate on the payroll, despite never performing any legitimate work.
 Drug Money, Tax Charges
Authorities say another check-cashing company acquired by Pucillo, Florida-based I&T Financial Services, was used to launder and transfer money from drug traffickers.
Money would initially be delivered to Miranda at Tri-State, then wired under a fictitious name to I&T to an account managed by the client, who authorities were unable to identify, Hoffman said.
I&T allegedly took in about $666,000 in laundered money from the scheme, and collected about $22,500 in fees. Hoffman declined to be specific about the type or amount of drugs the ring may have helped conceal, citing an ongoing investigation.
Tuzzo, Alberti, Pucillo, Spagnola, Rodriguez, Coppola, Rodrigues and Trainor are all facing charges including first-degree racketeering and money laundering, each of which could land them in jail for up to 20 years.
Alberti, Trainor, Rodrigues and Rodriguez are also facing tax-related charges for their illegal activity related to the check-cashing businesses and other endeavors.
Hoffman said the cases will be tried out of State Superior Court in Morris County.
A full list of the defendants and charges:
∙ Charles “Chuckie” Tuzzo, 80, Bayside, N.Y. – first-degree racketeering, first-degree money laundering, conspiracy, criminal usury and promoting gambling Vito Alberti
∙ Vito Alberti, 55, New Providence – first-degree racketeering, first-degree money laundering, conspiracy, criminal usury, promoting gambling and filing a fraudulent tax return
∙ Domenick Pucillo, 56, Florham Park – first-degree racketeering, first-degree money laundering, conspiracy, criminal usury, possession of usurious loan records, operating an unlicensed check-cashing facility
∙ Robert “Bobby Spags” Spagnola, 67, Morganville – first-degree racketeering, first-degree money laundering, conspiracy, criminal usury, possession of usurious loan records
∙ Manuel Rodriguez, 49, Chatham – first-degree racketeering, first-degree money laundering, conspiracy, operating an unlicensed check-cashing facility, filing a fraudulent tax return, failure to file a tax return
∙ Vincent P. Coppola, 37, Union – first-degree racketeering, first-degree money laundering, conspiracy, promoting gambling
∙ Abel J. Rodrigues, 52, Bridgewater – first-degree racketeering, first-degree money laundering, conspiracy, operating an unlicensed check-cashing facility, filing a fraudulent tax return
∙ John W. Trainor, 42, Brick – first-degree racketeering, first-degree money laundering, conspiracy, promoting gambling, forgery, failure to file a tax return
∙ Jerry J. Albanese, 47, Scotch Plains – first-degree money laundering, conspiracy, promoting gambling
∙ Flor Miranda, 40, Newark – first-degree money laundering, conspiracy, criminal usury, possession of usurious loan records
∙ Jennifer Mann, 30, Bayonne – first-degree money laundering, conspiracy, operating an unlicensed check-cashing facility, issuing a false financial statement, forgery

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Anti-crime group targets 'sweepstakes' machines


 CHICAGO — An anti-crime group in Illinois launched a campaign Thursday to eradicate unregulated casino-like kiosks in bars and other venues that mimic legal video gambling, arguing the "sweepstakes" or "coupon" machines are sometimes fixed to cheat players and invite the involvement of organized crime.
Those installing the machines, which accept cash but typically pay out coupons or credits that can be used for online purchases, exploit a loophole in Illinois law that legislators have not closed, according to the Chicago Crime Commission, a 95-year-old nonpartisan group of civic leaders.
The machines are present in more than a dozen states, many of which are grappling with similar issues, a report by the American Gaming Association found. Revenues nationwide may run into the billions of dollars, with single terminals generating up to $5,000 a month, the 2012 report said.
Rough estimates are that there are more than 100 operational in Illinois — with 600 machines waiting to be installed, said Art Bilek, the commission's executive vice president. The gaming association report said there are several thousand in some states.
Once they become established in a state, Bilek warned, "They are like parasites — they never go away."
There are around 13,000 legal and strictly regulated video gambling machines in Illinois, which generate tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue, according to the Illinois Gaming Board. No money from the unregulated devices goes into government coffers.
Bilek says in some instances anecdotal evidence suggests reputed organized crime figures involved in extortion or illegal cigarette sales are the same figures who approach bars to gauge whether their owners will sign up for sweepstakes and coupon machines.
"The guy's a runner — a goon for the Outfit," he said referring to one name for the Chicago-area mob.
Bilek's group is mailing a new guidebook called "The Nightmare of Sweepstakes Video Gaming" to every sheriff and state's attorney in Illinois. In Cook County, where the devices are more prevalent, mayors and police chiefs will get one, too.
Defenders of the machines say they don't directly distribute cash and, hence, shouldn't be subject to gambling controls.
A notice on the Illinois Gaming Board's website says that line of reasoning "has been universally rejected in jurisdictions across the country," including by courts in eight states.
Bilek, who joined undercover police to play the machines, says they clearly meet criteria for gambling, including because they rely on chance, not skill. At some venues, he said bartenders paid him cash if he produced receipts indicating he won on a machine.
There have been no arrests in Illinois of anyone linked to the machines, Belik said, in part because of the absence of a definitive Illinois court decision finding they violate state law.
Some establishments, he said, justify the machines by pointing to a 2-year-old amendment exempting some games from gambling rules, including raffles. A bill to explicitly ban sweepstakes and coupon machines unanimously passed Illinois' Senate this year, but it stalled in the House.

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Merlino's lawyers: Stop trying to revoke 'Skinny Joey's' probation

By Jeremy Roebuck, Inquirer Staff Writer

Lawyers for former Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino said Monday that "the government is out of time" and urged a federal judge to halt prosecutors' efforts to put their client back behind bars for an alleged probation violation three years after his release from prison.
In a filing Monday in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, attorneys Edwin J. Jacobs Jr. and Michael F. Myers said the 52-year-old ex-don had faithfully complied with all requirements of his postprison supervision and questioned prosecutors' efforts to incarcerate him just as the probationary term was set to end.
"For the last three years, Joseph has scrupulously abided by the conditions of his supervised release," the lawyers wrote. "Yet, on Sept. 2, 2014, the United States Probation Office obtained a signed violation petition . . . at the eleventh hour, only five days before the expiration of his three-year supervised release term."
They argue that because a summons for Merlino to appear in federal court in Philadelphia was not issued until Sept. 16, his probation had ended, and he should be free and clear.
The filing came days before Merlino, who now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., is set to return to Philadelphia for a probation revocation hearing.
Last month, his probation officers reported that Merlino violated his release terms in June with a night on the town with one of his former mob captains and two convicted felons.
Authorities in Broward County, Fla., conducted surveillance on what they described as a June 18 dinner involving Merlino and two ex-cons at an Italian restaurant in a Boca Raton strip mall.
The group departed for after-dinner drinks in the VIP area of the swank Havana Nights Cigar Bar & Lounge. In attendance, were John Ciancaglini, a mob captain convicted alongside Merlino in 2001; Brad Sirkin, a convicted fraudster and money launderer; and Frank Fiore, the cigar bar's owner, who has a record of his own.
In their filings Monday, Merlino's lawyers argued that the former mob boss did not know Ciancaglini was at the bar that night and said Fiore merely greeted Merlino, as he did with all of his customers.
Merlino's new hearing, scheduled for Friday, comes more than a decade after he was sentenced to 14 years in prison for his conviction in a racketeering conspiracy case. Though he was charged with more than half a dozen shootings, including those of a video-poker operator who refused to pay street tax, a rival mob leader, and the brother of a witness in an earlier mob trial, jurors acquitted him on those counts.
Federal investigators have kept a close watch on his activities ever since.
In late 2011, they sent a wired mob turncoat to secretly record a conversation about the mob with Merlino at a Florida Dunkin' Donuts - an exchange, his lawyers said Monday, he dutifully reported to his probation officer at the time.

James M. LaRossa, Defender of Mob Bosses in Court, Dies at 82


James M. LaRossa outside court in Brooklyn in 1996. Credit Wally Santana/Associated Press
James M. LaRossa, who numbered himself among “the last of the gladiators” — his characterization of defense lawyers — and proved it in decades of spirited courtroom battles on behalf of mob bosses, politicians, labor leaders and judges, died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan Beach, Calif. He was 82.
The cause was esophageal cancer, his daughter Susan LaRossa said.
In a career that included defending hundreds of white-collar criminals and establishing an important precedent of criminal law in the United States Supreme Court, Mr. LaRossa’s best-known cases involved Mafia chiefs. He represented Paul Castellano, boss of the Gambino crime family, after Mr. Castellano was indicted in 1985 with other heads of Mafia families charged with taking part in a so-called commission that ran organized crime in New York.
Mr. LaRossa met with Mr. Castellano on Dec. 16, 1985, shortly before he and an associate were murdered near the entrance of Sparks Steak House in Midtown Manhattan.
John Gotti, the infamous mobster, succeeded Mr. Castellano as the Gambino boss. In 1989, federal investigators taped a conversation that they said had revealed “that Gotti intended to ‘put out a feeler’ to Mr. LaRossa to act as co-counsel for him in his anticipated prosecution for murdering Castellano.”
In a letter to a judge, the investigators wrote that “if Mr. LaRossa refused, Gotti would kill him.”
When The New York Times asked Mr. LaRossa about this seemingly ominous remark in 1991, he said:
“There is no doubt in my mind this was meant as a joke and no more than that. He and I have known each other for 15 years, and he wouldn’t say anything like that about me other than in jest.”
Mr. LaRossa decided not to take the case when prosecutors told him he might be a witness because of his association with Mr. Castellano. He later represented Vincent Gigante, the boss of the Genovese family and a bitter rival of Mr. Gotti, in a 1996 racketeering and murder trial.
In an interview with People magazine in 1978, Mr. LaRossa said he did not mind defending someone he knew was guilty. “I’m not proving their innocence,” he said. “I’m attempting to stop the prosecution from proving their guilt.”
Among Mr. LaRossa’s many well-known cases was his defense in the mid-1970s of Judge Ross J. DiLorenzo of Civil Court, who was charged with perjury for denying he had tried to interfere with an investigation of corruption on the New York waterfront. He won the judge’s acquittal.
In 1979, Mr. LaRossa represented Anthony M. Scotto, the leader of the International Longshoremen’s Association, who was charged with extorting $200,000 from shipping companies. Mr. LaRossa enlisted two former mayors, John V. Lindsay and Robert F. Wagner Jr., and Gov. Hugh L. Carey to praise Mr. Scotto’s character.
“He’s a considerate, good family man,” Mr. LaRossa said. “He’s not a common thief and he shouldn’t be treated as such.”
Mr. Scotto was convicted of racketeering and sentenced to five years in prison.
In the 1980s, Mr. LaRossa twice defended Mario Biaggi, a Bronx congressman. The first case involved charges that Mr. Biaggi had accepted free vacations from the Brooklyn Democratic leader, Meade Esposito, in exchange for favors. Mr. Biaggi was convicted and sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
The second case involved charges that Mr. Biaggi had accepted bribes for helping Wedtech, a Bronx defense contractor, get federal contracts. Mr. Biaggi was convicted of 15 counts of obstruction of justice and accepting illegal gifts and sentenced to eight years.
In 1971, Mr. LaRossa represented John Giglio, who had been convicted of passing forged money orders. Evidence emerged that the federal government had failed to disclose that one prosecutor promised a witness that he would not be charged if he testified against Mr. Giglio. But the prosecutor who tried the case did not know about the agreement, and thus could not inform Mr. LaRossa about it.
The United States Supreme Court reversed the conviction, establishing the precedent that a prosecutor’s office must maintain a system ensuring that all lawyers in a prosecutor’s office have access to all information about promises to witnesses.
James Michael LaRossa, the son of a mailman, was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 4, 1931. He graduated from Fordham University and its law school, and served in the Marines during the Korean War. He chose the legal profession, he once said, because if “you really worked, you could grow without the obvious family connections.”
He worked for several years on the staff of the United States attorney in Manhattan, which he said was excellent experience for a defense lawyer. Despite his success in murder cases, Mr. LaRossa’s preference was handling more complex cases against white-collar defendants.
In 1991, the New York State Bar Association named him outstanding criminal lawyer of the year.
Mr. LaRossa’s marriages to the former Gayle Marino and the former Dominique Thall ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Susan, he is survived by another daughter, Nancy LaRossa; a son, Thomas; a sister, Dolores Nelson; and four grandchildren.
Mr. LaRossa had a commanding bass voice, and a sense of humor. In the Wedtech trial, he hammered away at a witness’s bad memory. The witness then suggested there might be a memo of the conversation. Incredulous, Mr. LaRossa suggested that there might also be a rabbit where this memo lurked.
The prosecutor objected. “About the rabbit?” the judge asked. Yes, the prosecutor responded.
Mr. LaRossa said, “I withdraw the rabbit, your honor.”

Dozens arrested had mob ties in gambling ring bust, authorities say


This story was originally published in the Thursday, Dec. 2, 2004 edition of The Record.
The Genovese crime family controlled an offshore gambling venture through which members of four area mob groups placed millions of dollars in illicit sports bets, authorities charged Wednesday.
Prosecutors accused more than 40 alleged mobsters, associates and wannabes of running the ring, which they said boasted more than 12,000 customers nationwide and raked in about $300,000 a week for the nation's most powerful Mafia family.
Capping an investigation by the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office and the New Jersey State Police, more than 100 officers fanned out across North Jersey early Wednesday, executing 25 search warrants at homes and businesses.
Those arrested included Joseph "The Eagle" Gatto, who controlled one of two Costa Rican "wire rooms" that accepted the bets from associates of the Genovese, Lucchese, Bonanno/Massino and Gambino crime families, authorities said.
Gatto, the 60-year-old son of legendary North Jersey Genovese mobster Louis "Streaky" Gatto, was quickly led in handcuffs from his Paterson town house atop Garret Mountain to an unmarked police car.
Also taken into custody were more than a half-dozen former area high school athletes, including Edgar Puzio, 23, of Garfield, a onetime football player and wrestler at St. Joseph's in Montvale, and former Rutgers and Bergenfield High School fullback Marc Demyen, 28.
Investigators also seized more than $1 million in cash, 25 guns, and "distribution quantities" of cocaine, said Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli.
"This was a large, substantial operation, and these arrests will have a significant impact on the group," said Nick Theodos, acting deputy superintendent of the state police.
Still at large Wednesday was 73-year-old Carmen Cicalese of Short Hills, a reputed longtime Genovese associate who authorities said operated a second wire room in Costa Rica called DataWagers. Cicalese was in Costa Rica, Molinelli said.
Authorities seized $670,000 from a safety deposit box held by Cicalese and his wife, Rose, 72, who was also charged.
The investigation began in April 2003 as a probe into gambling at Caffe Roma, a small Italian dessert shop on Park Avenue in East Rutherford, where authorities said gamblers could place bets as they sipped cappuccinos. The further detectives delved into the operation, they said, the clearer the scope became.
Authorities raided the café, a nearby restaurant and an Italian bakery around midmorning Wednesday. At Caffe Roma, investigators loaded a "joker poker" video gaming machine into a white van as other detectives searched inside the small shop.
"It was a base of operations for a certain faction of the Genovese crime family," Molinelli said, adding that authorities believe the owner was not involved. "I don't think that when we started we knew it was going to be as big as it was."
Louis Amendola, 71, of Totowa ran the Catalina Sports wire room with Gatto, the prosecutor said. Paul Mancuso, a 38-year-old Fair Lawn real estate developer, led the Bonanno/Massino family participation in the gambling cooperative, and Frank Legano, 65, of Tenafly acted as the point person for the Lucchese clan, he said.
All three, like Gatto, were charged with a variety of racketeering and gambling offenses.
Most of those arrested in the sting, code-named "Operation Jersey Boyz," are accused of being bookies, or "agents."
Bettors, each assigned a user ID, placed their wages with bookies, Molinelli said. The bookies then either phoned in the bets to the wire rooms or entered them via a Web site, he said.
A series of runners visited each bookie and collected a fee of $25 to $30 from each per week. With 12,000 regular bettors, the fees reached about $300,000 per week - but were only a fraction of the total amount wagered, the prosecutor said.
"There were millions and millions and millions of dollars changing hands," Molinelli said.
Twenty-four alleged Genovese associates and bookmakers operating under Gatto were charged with a litany of criminal offenses, including racketeering, gambling, drug distribution, money laundering, arson for hire, extortion and trafficking in stolen property.
Police said members of the crew also operated a truck-hijacking enterprise. Investigators received cooperation from Target, Home Depot, Circuit City and Best Buy in the investigation, which included loading a tractor-trailer with fake electronic equipment for a successful sting operation, Molinelli said.
Gatto's rank in the Genovese crime family was not clear Wednesday night.
In May, the State Commission of Investigation claimed he filled the captain's role vacated by his deceased father, who had been in prison, and reported directly to family leaders in New York. The FBI also named him a captain in a 1998 federal racketeering indictment.
But law enforcement officials on Wednesday said Gatto controls much of his father's old numbers rackets but isn't one of the Genovese family's three New Jersey captains. Gatto, released from federal prison last year after serving a 61-month term, remains a soldier, said state police Detective Mark Doyle.
In any case, "Joe Gatto is one of the higher operatives for the Genovese crime family," Doyle said.
"Streaky" Gatto, who controlled a multimillion-dollar gambling empire until he was sent to prison for 65 years in 1991 for racketeering and murder conspiracy, was a favorite of imprisoned Genovese boss Vincent "The Chin" Gigante. Gatto died of cancer in 2002.
State authorities said three captains control New Jersey for the Genovese family: Angelo M. Prisco runs the Jersey City and Bayonne waterfront; Ocean County resident Ludwig "Ninny" Bruschi, who awaits trial on a 2003 racketeering charge, controls Northern New Jersey and Silvio DeVita controls the Newark area.
The Genoveses are considered New Jersey's preeminent La Cosa Nostra group. The family reportedly operates three to five "main crews," and has about 40 active soldiers, as well as a network of more than 400 "criminal associates," primarily in North and Central Jersey.
Authorities hope the charges will hurt the gambling operation.
"With 12,000 weekly bettors, one would hope to put a dent in it for the near future," Molinelli said.
Puzio was charged with illegally distributing painkillers, and Demyen was charged with racketeering and promoting gambling.
Other former athletes charged with conspiracy to promote gambling, or racketeering, or both: Sean Alberti, 36, a former Lyndhurst High School basketball coach and player; former Garfield High School football player Randy Calderio, 24; former Nutley wrestling champion Vito Mielnicki, 34; former Saddle Brook football player Tomasso Scaduto, 24, who was the manager of Caffe Roma, and former Montclair State University linebacker and Clifton resident John Turi, 25.

Juan Gonzalez, 35, of Lincoln Park and David Pille, 44, of Paterson, were each also charged with torching the car of a indebted gambler.