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7 Alleged Southland Mafia Figures Enter Guilty Pleas

March 30, 1988|KIM MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

Seven alleged mobsters, including Peter J. Milano, the reputed Mafia boss who led a move to strengthen the Los Angeles crime family's grip on loan-sharking, bookmaking and narcotics, pleaded guilty Tuesday in a case that officials said may have sounded the death knell for organized crime in Southern California.

Milano pleaded guilty to conducting a racketeering enterprise that federal authorities have identified as a newly revitalized wing of La Cosa Nostra in Los Angeles. His brother, Carmen Milano, identified as underboss of the family, pleaded guilty to conspiring to extort money out of loan-shark victims who had unpaid debts to the family.

Milano, 62, of Westlake Village, faces a maximum of six years in prison as a result of the plea agreement. His brother, Carmen, 58, of Tarzana, agreed to six months in prison and three years' probation.

Neither the Milanos nor any of the five alleged family lieutenants who pleaded guilty Tuesday admitted any affiliation with the Los Angeles crime organization that law enforcement authorities say is one of 24 recognized Mafia families in the United States, and a family which the FBI claims Milano has headed since 1984.

Also entering pleas in Los Angeles federal court were alleged capo or "street boss" Vincent Dominic Caci, 62; his brother, Charles James Caci, 51; Stephen Cino, 51; Rocco Zangari, 54, and Albert Nunez, 57. Three other defendants, including the family's other purported capo, Luigi Gelfuso Jr., will go to trial next week.

The guilty pleas, entered after nearly two weeks of intense negotiations, came on the eve of what could have been a six-month trial targeting the entire hierarchy of the mob in Southern California--a case which U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III has called the most significant organized crime prosecution on the West Coast in more than a decade.

"I think it has absolutely crippled the family here," said James Henderson, lead prosecutor on the case for the Los Angeles Strike Force on Organized Crime.

"We indicted what we believe to be the hierarchy of the La Cosa Nostra family in Los Angeles, so we have effectively put them out of business," prosecutor Richard Small added. "This is it. This is the family."

Donald Marks, Milano's lawyer and the lead defense counsel, said he had mixed emotions about the plea bargains, although he said he believed that the agreement was a "fair package."

'Defensible Case'

"We felt we had a potentially defensible case, but we also felt that given my client's age, the potential exposure and the uncertainty of a trial, this was a reasonable way to resolve it," Marks said.

The plea bargain package was entered over the objections of U.S. Atty. Robert C. Bonner, who, sources said, upset delicate negotiations last week when he vetoed the sentencing agreement, calling Milano's six-year sentence too generous.

But strike force attorneys, at Bonner's invitation, appealed the decision to Assistant Atty. Gen. William F. Weld, head of the Justice Department's criminal division in Washington, who reinstated the plea agreement. Weld's decision came only days before he resigned Tuesday, reportedly leaving the Justice Department because his embattled boss, Meese, has refused to step down.

The pleas were again ready to be submitted Monday afternoon when three of the defendants decided to back out and go to trial, prompting one defense lawyer to remark bitterly: "Why do you think they call it the Mickey Mouse Mafia?"

Defense lawyers said the relatively light sentences provided for in the plea bargains--nearly all less than two years--reflect both the nature of the offenses charged and some important weaknesses in the government's case.

FBI Undercover Work

The 18-count indictment unsealed in May, 1987, and based on several years of undercover work by the FBI and three government informants who attempted to penetrate the mob, outlines a wide range of extortion, drug-dealing and attempted murder as Milano's organization tried to muscle in on bookmakers and loan sharks in Southern California.

But what actually happened hardly reads like a Mario Puzo novel.

For one thing, none of the murder attempts was ever carried out--although in one case two of the defendants drove all over the San Fernando Valley looking for their intended target, investigators said.

Nunez, whose 10-year sentence for two counts of extortion and narcotics conspiracy is the stiffest in the plea package, is accused of "whacking" a loan-shark victim behind on his debts--but he allegedly launched the attack with--of all things--a rolled-up newspaper.

Moreover, defense lawyers claim that much of the drug dealing and extortion complained of in the indictment was committed not by the accused mobsters, but by the government's two key informants, Craig Anthony Fiato and Lawrence Fiato, who allegedly cleared their activities with Gelfuso.

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