WESTMINSTER — Reputed underworld figure Robert (Fat Bobby) Paduano, accused of trying to take over the Newport Beach drug trade, pleaded guilty Monday to 43 felony counts of residential robberies, extortion, conspiracy to sell cocaine and false imprisonment.
As part of an agreement with county prosecutors, Paduano was sentenced to eight years in state prison.
Paduano's guilty plea came after a lively and unusual exchange between the defendant and Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher J. Evans. The two men verbally jabbed at each other before Monday's hearing, as Paduano taunted the prosecutor.
"You got me this time," Paduano told Evans. "It will never happen again."
Turning back to Evans a moment later, Paduano added: "You've been doing real good. You've done a helluva job."
Evans responded: "You're a great defendant."
Once the hearing began, Paduano sat quietly at the defense table. Asked by Orange County Superior Court Judge Luis A. Cardenas whether he was guilty, Paduano paused for an instant, then replied firmly: "Yes."
That guilty plea ended a complex, five-year investigation that was sparked after Paduano allegedly attempted to install himself as the drug kingpin of Newport Beach. Prosecutors said that Paduano--who federal investigators characterized as a minor underworld figure with ties to the Milano family in Los Angeles--masterminded a series of armed robberies, primarily at the homes of suspected drug dealers in Newport Beach.
The robberies were meant to coerce the dealers into paying him protection money or cutting him into their drug operations, prosecutors said.
One Paduano associate who turned against him told a 1987 grand jury that Paduano once boasted: "Ain't nobody going to deal (drugs) in my neighborhood. If they're going to deal, they're going to deal with us."
Paduano was arrested in February, 1988, and has been in jail ever since on $500,000 bail.
Nicknamed "Fat Bobby" because of his size, Paduano, 48, showed little emotion during the session in Cardenas' Westminster courtroom. If he had been convicted of the original 71 felony counts filed against him, Paduano could have been sentenced to 20 years in state prison.
Because he has already served three years in Orange County Jail and because he has received 565 days in credits for good behavior and work time, Paduano will probably serve only an additional 22 months in state prison, authorities said.
In spite of Paduano's guilty plea, one of his attorneys, Terrence P. Grant of Riverside, continued to deny the charges against his client Monday. Grant said Paduano was set up by his former live-in lover, Deidre O'Shea, and a former business associate.
"The man was set up, framed and placed in a compromising position with the aid of a former girlfriend," Grant said Monday outside the Westminster courtroom.
Grant said he had a secretly taped conversation in which the Paduano associate told a defense undercover investigator that he and O'Shea had plotted the armed robberies and then implicated Paduano. Grant did not produce the tape.
He also accused county investigators of using threats to gain the testimony of one of the robbery victims against Paduano in the preliminary hearing.
Evans, however, denied ever seeing or hearing the tape.
"We never saw the tape," Evans said in an interview after the hearing. "If Mr. Paduano was set up, and he had good evidence that he was set up, he should not have pled guilty."
As for county officials threatening a witness, Evans said: "The only person in this case that did any threatening was Robert George Paduano, and he pled guilty in Superior Court to 12 felony counts of extortion, which settles the matter once and for all as to who threatened whom."
Both Evans and Grant said they were satisfied with the plea, although Evans said he would have preferred that Paduano serve a longer sentence.
"I would have been happier had we had more time on (Paduano)," he said. "However, due to the passage of time . . . the case has changed, and I'm pleased with this disposition because it will send him to prison."
Evans added that the county agreed to a plea bargain with Paduano because the case had taken so long to go to trial.
The trial was delayed for three years because Paduano ran through a series of attorneys. He hired three different lawyers before he was finally represented by Grant and San Francisco attorney J. Tony Serra.
For his part, Grant said he advised his client to accept the plea bargain because it guaranteed that Paduano would not face a life sentence for the crimes he is accused of committing.
Paduano's agreement with the Orange County district attorney's office includes a separate pending trial in Riverside. Paduano was originally charged with seven felony counts in Riverside County, including conspiracy to kidnap a Palm Springs man for ransom in 1986. That charge carried a possible life sentence.
Grant said Paduano will plead guilty Wednesday to conspiracy to commit a robbery. Whatever sentence he receives in that case will be served concurrently with that in the Orange County case.
"It was a good bargain considering it would have taken Bobby at least two years for him to resolve all of his cases," said Grant, who added that he represented Paduano in the Orange County case free of charge. "This way he'll only serve (22) months without the risk of life imprisonment."