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Defense in `Mafia Cops' Trial Closes in a Blaze of Name-Calling

April 05, 2006|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — After three weeks of testimony about gunshot wounds and buried bodies, about capos and whispered orders, the defense in the "Mafia cops" trial rested Tuesday morning with the image of a gnome.

"Franzone is a gnome," attorney Bruce Cutler said of a key government witness against his client, a retired New York City Police detective named Louis Eppolito.

"A gnome," he said, "is defined as one of a race of dwarf-like creatures who lives underground and guards treasure hoards.... He's a creep and a lowlife and a liar."

It was a fitting end to a trial that has provided a three-week tour through Brooklyn's criminal underworld. Eppolito and his onetime partner, Stephen Caracappa, who retired from the force in the early 1990s, are accused of assisting a Luchese crime family underboss and participating in killings and racketeering.

Jurors will begin deliberations in the case today. Eppolito and Caracappa face the possibility of life in prison if convicted.

Prosecutor Daniel Wenner has called the case "one of the bloodiest and most violent betrayals of the badge this city has ever seen."

With little physical evidence, the government has built its case on the testimony of a series of shady figures -- made men, felons, errand boys, stool pigeons -- who testified that the two cops crossed over into their world.

The government's star witness was Burton Kaplan, 72, who is serving a 27-year sentence for drug dealing. Kaplan -- a querulous, arthritic man -- described himself as so ill-equipped for violence that when he was asked to ferry a corpse to Connecticut, he was "scared to death" and trembled the whole way.

Kaplan, a Jew, knew he could never be a made man, but he was well-connected. He introduced Eppolito and Caracappa to Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso, a Luchese underboss who began paying them a $4,000-a-month retainer to pass on police intelligence, Kaplan testified.

The prosecution also called Steven Corso, a New York accountant who moved to Las Vegas in 2002 after being convicted of embezzling almost $6 million. Corso made a deal with the government and became a one-man sting operation.

It was in Nevada that he crossed paths with Eppolito, who had moved west to become a screenwriter. Last year, Corso said, he offered to introduce Eppolito to a group of movie industry players, telling him, "They're Hollywood punks -- some of 'em are famous." When the contacts wanted methamphetamine, Corso testified, Eppolito offered to supply the drugs.

Then last week, the jury heard from Peter Franzone, 56, a Flatbush tow-truck driver. He described a February afternoon in 1986 when Eppolito's cousin, Frank Santora Jr., strode into his garage with two other men while Eppolito stood watch outside. Twenty minutes later, Santora led Franzone into the garage, where he showed him a body and handed him a shovel, he testified.

"Frankie told me I gotta help bury the body because I'm an accessory, and if I didn't help him, he would kill me," Franzone said. He did not report the crime until last year -- when he was approached by prosecutors -- because, he said, "Who would believe me?"

In closing arguments, Cutler and Caracappa's lawyer, Edward Hayes, heaped disdain on the government's witnesses.

By the 1980s, Hayes said, "the Mafia's over. What are you left with? Informants. Casso is an escapee from the Bronx Zoo." As for Corso, Cutler called him a "sophisticated, unctuous, polished, lowlife thief."

But chief prosecutor Robert Henoch said Cutler and Hayes had failed to explain why Eppolito and Caracappa had relationships with criminals like Kaplan in the first place. Why, he asked, would someone like Kaplan be able to describe Eppolito's basement, or Caracappa's pet cat?

"The truth is not always pretty, but the truth is always perfect," he said, addressing one of the defense attorneys. "You're the best lawyer in America, but you can't explain that away."

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