This has got to stop,” Suffolk County judge Robert W. Doyle was saying to Danny Pelosi’s lawyer, Gerald Shargel.Danny was making faces again at the witnesses—glaring, mouthing things—and the judge thought Danny was being “too animated,” as Shargel charmingly phrased it outside the courtroom.
Though Shargel’s client is restrained by cuffs and his greased-up jailhouse haircut is slightly off-kilter in the back, there is swagger in his step whenever he enters the courtroom. If his lawyers are up at the bench, Danny Pelosi twists his head over his shoulder, seeking friends, affirmation, human contact. He blows kisses to Jennifer Zolnowski, his 28-year-old fiancée with the soft-core measurements. Sometimes he puffs up his chest and winks—to some lecherous effect. Danny has banned his three children from the jail, and so this is their chance to see him, in a smart suit, cuffed trou, tasseled loafers, and what looks like a coat of self-tanner.
On the day Danny Pelosi would finally stand trial for the murder of investment banker Ted Ammon, jailhouse snitches were suddenly saying he’d confessed to the crime. Ammon had been bludgeoned three years earlier in his bed at his East Hampton mansion, and everyone knew that Danny, an electrician, had been sleeping with Generosa, the tycoon’s wife. Not long after, the pair were married. And not long after that, she died of breast cancer.
As the trial has zigged and zagged, it’s become clear that Danny Pelosi is an exceedingly hard man to defend. He is a drunkard, a braggart, a philanderer, a manipulative narcissist, a guy who after Ted Ammon’s death talked about how bagging his wife made him feel like he’d won the lottery. He’s a paranoid who is excited by all things cloak-and-dagger. He owned at least one stun gun. He liked to brag that he was connected to the Mafia.
“Obviously I know how to caution a client. But Danny would talk to a lamp shade.”
“Oh, please,” says Shargel. “He didn’t know anybody in the Mafia. That was just Danny being Danny.” Shargel is perhaps best known for winning mobster John Gotti an acquittal, and as Danny’s trial kicked off, police were digging up remains from what appeared to be a Gambino-family graveyard out in Queens.
The case against Danny is wholly circumstantial: No murder weapon was found, no incriminating DNA, no forensic evidence of any kind yoking Pelosi to this crime. Shargel’s biggest obstacle is probably his client’s mouth. “Obviously, I know how to caution a client,” Shargel was saying with some frustration, “but as I’ve said before, Danny Pelosi would talk to a lampshade.” A little omertà would have been welcome here: The tabloids have clashed cymbals over a series of crypto-confessions Pelosi apparently made before and after the crime. There was the contractor who heard Danny say he wanted to bash Ted’s brains in while he was sleeping. The girlfriend who heard him say he made Ted cry like a bitch and beg for his life. The babysitter who heard him say somebody needed to knock some sense into Ted.
And as the trial began, some of Pelosi’s fellow inmates claimed he’d not only banged on about killing Ammon but had revealed a list of others who needed some sense knocked into them—which the prosecution’s chief witness, Clayton Moultrie, a man who looks like Mr. T, had compiled in the margins of that venerable prison read, Muscle & Fitness magazine. (Not long after Moultrie agreed to help the prosecution, he was released—and was promptly re-arrested for robbing a convenience store with an ice pick.) “Riverhead’s county jail reminds me of Angola,” Gerry Shargel was saying. “It’s survival of the fittest out there.” Danny Pelosi is the only fish at Riverhead bigger than Raul Gonzalez, another informant and a reputed head of the Latin Kings.
“They ain’t got no goddamn case against me,” Danny muttered within earshot of everybody. “If they had a murder case, they wouldn’t use this bullshit.”
Shargel asked potential jurors to look Danny in the eye and say whether they could give him a fair trial. This was important: In the nineties, several jurors on an injury suit he’d filed indicated they were so rattled by his pouncing-hawk glare that the court offered to have them escorted to their cars.
As he plays to this panel, Shargel is out to make sure they don’t pity Ted too much. The jury must consider the notion that Ted Ammon had other enemies. And if that means Shargel has to tip Ted Ammon’s remains out of their reliquary, so be it.
Any number of people were annoyed with Ted Ammon—a “Master of the Universe type” (as Shargel sometimes calls him outside the courtroom) who met with Bill Clinton the day before he died and whose worldly goods included a Porsche Carrera, an Aston Martin, his own golf cart, and a 50 percent interest in a cask of Springbank single-malt scotch.
Ted was about to finalize a grisly divorce from his volatile wife, Generosa. She clearly despised him for his philandering and did things to needle him—like date Danny and allow her habitually DWI darling to climb behind the wheel of Ted’s expensive cars. But Shargel points to other static. Ted was threatening to fire his chauffeur, and also had words with a man sniffily identified on the stand by Ted’s personal assistant as Generosa’s “houseboy.” Just three weeks before Ted’s murder, the houseboy and his gay lover, the Ammons’ chef, had both filed suit against Ted for $7 million.
More controversial, Shargel is maintaining that Ted was “confused about his sexual orientation.” (“Quite the opposite,” huffed assistant district attorney Janet Albertson. “He was an intelligent, athletic, articulate ladies’ man,” she said—as if being bisexual somehow precluded the first three attributes.)
Ted had been conducting an on-and-off affair with a banker named Lori Finkel. Lori and Ted had a quickie in East Hampton the afternoon of his murder. “I worked on his transactions” is how she said they met, and this perhaps remained the dynamic. She said she couldn’t remember Ted’s ever spending a single night with her, couldn’t say whether he slept in the nude. Shargel got the Darien-ish blonde in kitten heels to angrily confirm that she was herself in a longtime relationship with a son of financier Marshall Cogan—with whom she had children. Finkel had also volunteered to police that Ted had “a short fuse” and was “abrupt” and “intimidating.” Shargel read this statement aloud to the jury.
Ted called Lori the night he died and left a message indicating that he’d gone for a scary walk on Two Mile Hollow Beach, a.k.a. “Two Miles of Horror Beach,” a notorious gay pickup scene near his gabled mansion. Shargel is suggesting Ammon actually met someone there and took him home; the killer absconded with the bedclothes, and what looked like a pubic hair on Ted’s shoulder went astray before it could be tested. (In just one of many zany moments, the forensics man revealed that the hair apparent was just some errant tuft growing out of Ted’s skin. “This isn’t over!” Shargel thundered, the next day introducing a different suspect pubic hair on Ted’s torso.)
Ted wriggled out of his jeans for a hurried dangerous liaison. In the crime-scene video, they appear in a crumple between Ted’s walk-in closet and dressing room. Shargel reminded Ted’s mistress of her grand-jury testimony that Ted was “fastidious” (read: gay!). He wanted her to agree that Ted would never have left his jeans on the floor.
The best kind of defense, says Shargel, is one that allows the jurors the opportunity to reason by themselves. “Look at the classic Twelve Angry Men,” he says, “That’s a paradigm.” Gerry Shargel sets out a Rubik’s Cube of possibilities: Ammon’s business partner, who discovered his body, seemed to be stalling when he wanted to feed the dogs before calling 911. He then pocketed Ted’s cell phone for an hour, and Shargel has hinted in court that all Ted’s messages were mysteriously erased. Whoever pried the panel off the security system could have done a neater job of it with a Phillips-head, and Tool-Belt Danny would have known to bring one. Cell-phone records will supposedly prove Danny was driving out to the village when the crime was committed.
As for the contractor who testified that Danny planned to bash Ted’s brains in and throw him in the pool: Danny had an affair with the guy’s wife, says Shargel. (On the stand, the now-divorced contractor grinned and said the first he’d heard of it was in Shargel’s courthouse remarks.) It was the perfect insinuation: entirely believable and virtually unverifiable. Shargel slapped the guy around a bit on the stand—getting him to admit Generosa had fired him and handed his job to Danny. Also: Danny used to tell him things, like he was in the witness-protection program. Could anyone ever take Danny seriously? was Shargel’s message.
Expect at least one more confession: Kathryn “Kay” Mayne, the children’s British nanny—either Mary Poppins or Mrs. Danvers, depending on which camp you talk to—is believed to have told the grand jury that Danny decided to scare her one night, rabbiting on about how he attacked Ted on the mansion’s first floor, wrapping his body in a plastic sheet. Even Mayne recognized that the particulars were false. Danny’s admissions contain plot points inconsistent with the facts of the crime—or baseline logic. They often are, in at least the most literal sense, unbelievable. But does that mean Shargel can get the jury not to believe them? It seems like it will be an uphill fight.
Shargel hopes that the nine women on the jury handpicked by the consultant who advised on the William Kennedy Smith and Robert Durst trials will find Danny handsome, his antics charming, and the manner of the female prosecutor brusque. Perhaps most important, they won’t be too critical of Danny and Generosa’s unconventional ménage. “It was like the frog and the princess,” Shargel says. “I think with the passage of time it was one of the worst things that ever happened to him. I’m sure he wishes he were still fixing people’s houses.”