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Son Refuses to Quit on Justice

Crime: Brian Godkin was 8 when his father was shot to death. The boy grew up to be a marshal. Then he went looking for the killer.

January 27, 2002|LARRY McSHANE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — More than two decades ago, on the night of his father's murder, Brian Godkin was just 8 years old.

His 10-year-old sister, Christine, sat watching television as their dad prepared for a shift pouring drinks at his Queens tavern. Richard Godkin hugged his oldest daughter, kissed her good night, and walked out his front door for the last time.

By the early morning hours of April 11, 1981, his neighborhood bar--opened six months earlier--was packed. Among the revelers, authorities say, was a mob wannabe celebrating his 24th birthday.

The party ended with Godkin and his co-owner dead on the barroom floor. Police identified a suspect named Frank Riccardi, the son of a reputed Gambino family bookie.

Riccardi walked out of the bar and into the wind. Two other suspects were eventually collared, but Riccardi became the invisible man.

The Godkin boy grew into a man--a 6-foot-6 Navy veteran intent on becoming a federal marshal. In August 2001, he achieved his goal and joined the Las Vegas office.

Brian Godkin was 28. And Frank Riccardi was still on the lam.

The murder case was in the hands of a New York City cold-case detective, a dogged investigator determined to find Riccardi. During four years on the case, the detective had become friendly with young Godkin.

One week into his new job, acting on a tip from the detective, Godkin typed a name into a federal database.

Another name popped up on the screen. It took 20 years, but Brian Godkin had tracked down the man accused of killing his father.

In April 1981, the nation was recovering from an assassination attempt on President Reagan. Nobody wanted their MTV; it didn't exist. "Celebration," the party anthem by Kool and the Gang, blared from jukeboxes around the city.

It was no different at the Shamrock Bar, a popular joint owned by Godkin and partner John D'Agnese.

Godkin, father of four and married for more than a decade, was working two jobs: days at the Queens Boys Club, a local youth organization, nights at the bar. "A little extra money to make life work," his widow, Catherine Godkin, says now.

About 2 a.m. on April 11, Frank Riccardi's birthday celebration was in full bore--until a drink was accidentally spilled on his date. Court papers detailed an incident that escalated from innocuous to incendiary.

An out-of-control Riccardi was tossed from the bar. "I will be back!" he screamed. Twenty minutes later, accompanied by two gun-toting friends, Riccardi returned.

D'Agnese was slammed against a pinball machine, then shot point-blank in the face. His girlfriend, Linda Gotti--the niece of local Mafioso John Gotti--stared in disbelief with two dozen other patrons. Godkin rushed to his partner's aid, and was mortally wounded too.

A suspect was quickly arrested, but his case was dismissed after Linda Gotti inexplicably recanted her identification.

The hunt for a second suspect, Bartolomeo "Pepe" Vernace, produced nothing. Riccardi disappeared too; he was indicted in absentia.

As the years passed, Catherine Godkin made her personal peace: "I've been past it a long time."

Brian Godkin wasn't past it. After finishing a stint in the Navy, he became a federal corrections officer, angling for that job as a U.S. marshal.

In 1997, Tom Mansfield was an NYPD cold-case detective investigating long-unsolved homicides.

When the 16-year-old Godkin murder arrived at his desk, one thing jumped out: "The amount of people in the bar." He re-interviewed witnesses and delved into the life of Frank Riccardi, known as "Frankie the Geech."

Riccardi's father was reputed Gambino family loan shark Frank "Cheech" Riccardi, who had died in 1979, reportedly leaving behind a hefty inheritance for his widow and son. Mansfield heard rumors that "Cheech" was killed by the mob for messing with Gotti's niece.

Mansfield's gut told him young Riccardi was alive and living with his mother.

"I always had this feeling that he was in Florida," the veteran detective said. "Where do retired mobsters go? Florida or Arizona. And my theory was if you find the mom, you're gonna find him."

Mansfield soon developed information about the third suspect in the bar shooting. In November 1998, 17 years after the slaying, he arrested a very surprised Vernace.

Mansfield was pleased. But his hunt for Frank Riccardi continued.

*

Last summer, in Boca Raton, Fla., Anthony Frank Alonzo was living in a posh condominium with his elderly mother. He drove a silver 1999 Mercedes and worked as a circulation manager for the Sun-Sentinel newspaper.

Neighbors described him as a quiet man who offered little more than a casual wave hello.

Alonzo knew nothing about Tom Mansfield, who had spent the last four years viewing mug shots and reviewing computer databases in his search.

The cop clung to his mother-and-son hunch--even after striking out in searches of the name Riccardi and the mother's maiden name, Lena Santilli.

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