He served 22 years behind bars on a conviction for heroin trafficking. The U.S. wanted to deport him -- and Italy wanted him back.
But there was a problem: His name was Rosario Gambino, with alleged ties to the infamous Gambino crime family.
If removed to his native country, a Los Angeles-area immigration judge ruled, Gambino likely would be arrested and locked up in a prison system designed to physically and psychologically compel criminals like him to reveal information about the Sicilian Mafia.
"This . . . coercion is not related to any lawfully imposed sanction or punishment, and thus constitutes torture," Judge D.D. Sitgraves wrote in his opinion, issued Sept. 11.
Gambino could stay in the country, the judge decided.
P. Joseph Sandoval, Gambino's attorney, said the judge's ruling, based on the United Nations Convention Against Torture, was "100% correct."
"It's a humanitarian issue," Sandoval said. "The prison conditions in his specific case will be life-threatening and life-shortening."
This month, Sandoval filed a petition in federal court to have his client released from an immigration detention center in San Pedro, where he has been held for the last year, after his release from federal prison.
"If it wasn't because of my name," Gambino said through his attorney, "I would already be out."
But Gambino, according to some immigration attorneys, has already proved more fortunate than most.
Such relief, citing the threat of torture, is granted infrequently, according to the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which oversees the immigration courts. Last year, judges nationwide approved 578 petitions and denied 15,905.
Immigration attorneys say the outcome of such cases can be arbitrary, depending on the judge, the attorneys and the person's native country.
In recent years, attorneys increasingly have pushed to get relief for foreign-born gang members facing deportation but are rarely successful.
"It does make you wonder why aren't more Convention Against Torture cases being granted for people from Central America, given the countries' conditions and how poorly suspected gang members are treated by the government," said Alan Diamante, a Los Angeles immigration attorney
Diamante had two such cases recently. A Honduran former gangster who previously had been deported and had a criminal record won his case. But an 18th Street gang member with drug-related convictions lost, despite testimony that he would face grave danger if deported. Within weeks of returning to El Salvador, he was killed.
But Gambino himself is not in the clear.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has filed an appeal of his case. The agency also plans to contest any attempt to have Gambino released from custody, said spokeswoman Virginia Kice.
"He is detained because we believe he poses a potential threat to the community," Kice said. "First, he was convicted of heroin trafficking and second, he has ties to a notorious and ruthless crime family."
Gambino denies any connection to organized crime, though he has been referred to in court documents from his 1984 criminal trial as a "soldier" of the Gambino crime family, and testimony from this year's immigration trial revealed that the Italian government considers him a member of the Sicilian Mafia.
Mafia expert Jerry Capeci said in an interview that Gambino -- cousin of the late mob boss Carlo Gambino -- is not a "made" member in the United States and doesn't have much sway in the family because he has been in prison for more than 20 years.
"But his two brothers are made members of the crime family, and there is no question that he has some influence in the family," said Capeci, author of several books about the Mafia.
The Italian government attempted to extradite Gambino in 2001, based on an in absentia conviction for drug trafficking. The U.S. District Court in California denied the request because Gambino had already been acquitted on similar charges in New York. Gambino still has a pending Italian arrest warrant, Italian government officials said.
"We are talking about a bad guy -- someone who is wanted by Italian officials," said Luigi Rinella, an Italian national police liaison officer, in a telephone interview.
Rinella called Gambino "a member of a very important La Cosa Nostra family in New York" who took part in a major drug-trafficking operation between Italy and the United States in the 1980s.
Rinella said there was no guarantee that Gambino would be locked up in the special prison system, known as 41-bis. The prison system, which keeps Mafia members in isolation, was designed by the Italian government to ensure that people with links to organized crime could not give orders from behind bars, Rinella said.
The 41-bis prisons are harsh, he added, but inmates are not tortured. "We don't have torture in Italy," he said.