|Hayes, left, and Cutler leaving Brooklyn Federal Court after their clients' arraignment. (Photo Credit: Neil DeCrescenzo)|
If it seems a little like Oscar night for the mob-spotting set in the Brooklyn federal courthouse on the sunny, breezy April day that two police detectives are finally being hauled in on ancient, almost unbelievable charges that they moonlighted as Mafia hit men—that’s because it pretty much is. Outside, in lieu of a red carpet, the obligatory crush of reporters and photographers forms along Cadman Plaza. Inside, the long-awaited arraignment of Louie Eppolito and Steve Caracappa is overflowing with old friends and confidants—reporters, cops, and lawyers, most of whom know each other from great organized-crime trials of days gone by. There is Jimmy Breslin in the fourth row, rustled out of semi-retirement to write a book about this case. Across the aisle is Jerry Capeci, the dean of gangland reporting, rumored to be writing a book of his own, as are a few of the prosecutors. And there, for no apparent reason, is defense lawyer Lou Aidala (pronunciation: “Keep your eye on the dollah!”), sporting his Salvador Dalí mustache. That’s the kind of case this is: Eight guys are dead, two cops stand accused of helping the Luchese crime family murder them, and some folks are here just for fun. Or, as Breslin mutters to Daily News columnist Michael Daly, for whom he’s saved a seat, “A lot more fun than Tyco and Enron and those fucking things!”
This is just the arraignment, a perfunctory thing. But the crowd is already buzzing, delighted to watch the curtain rise on the spectacle that is the trial phase of what’s widely been called the worst scandal in the history of the New York Police Department. The indictment against Eppolito and Caracappa—or, per their tabloid insta-moniker, “the Mafia Cops”—is a lurid eighties period piece, a recitation of roadside hits, body-filled car trunks, dead informants, and John Doe witnesses that seems so over-the-top now that it wouldn’t make it out of a Sopranos story meeting. The resulting circus surrounding the trial seems a bit prefab, like a Mafia theme restaurant’s serving a chocolate-cement-shoe dessert. In court, Eppolito, once fat and imposing, is now dumpy and haggard, an Italian Jonathan Winters. Caracappa is so skinny that Eppolito could use him to pick his teeth. Eppolito, who played a bit part in GoodFellas, retired with Caracappa to (of course) Las Vegas and, since his arrest, has been trying to peddle his life story to Hollywood. A letter of Eppolito’s from jail has been listed on eBay. Today’s mob is often thought of as tragedy repeating itself as farce, but here, with the Mafia Cops, comes something extra: life imitating art imitating life.
Then there are the defense lawyers, Bruce Cutler and Eddie Hayes, both outsize icons of eighties New York. Cutler, with his wrestler’s build and wild courtroom antics, is, of course, famous for having faithfully and pugnaciously championed John Gotti for seventeen years, winning every trial he and the Dapper Don faced (he was thrown off the one Gotti lost). He’s a hot-tempered, instinctual beast, prone to uncontrollable outbursts: “He sweats, he works, and jurors feel that,” Hayes says. Hayes, ornately tailored and divinely connected, was the basis of the wily defense-lawyer character in his friend Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. He’s cool and calculating—more of a back-room operator than a strutting trial attorney, having famously handled (and more famously gone to court over) the Andy Warhol estate. Now Hayes is something of a political power broker, thanks in no small part to his friendship with George Pataki. “I call him the Edward Bennett Williams of New York,” Cutler says. They might not make the most obvious partners—they’ve been friends for years, but they’ve never worked a courtroom together until now—but each, in his own way, is expert in getting guys accused of nasty business off the hook.
First Cutler lays it on thick with the judge—“Nice to see you!” he says—then Hayes accuses prosecutors of polluting the jury pool with leaks about the case. Hayes complains that it’s too cold in their clients’ jail cells, then Cutler takes a moment to bemoan Eppolito’s heart condition and josh with prosecutors about how he’s too “old school” to listen to government wiretap recordings on CD. Finally, Hayes introduces one of his signature audacious courtroom ploys: The whole case, he has often suggested, is part of a larger government PR strategy to distract the public from abuses like Abu Ghraib. “They do it to take hostile criticism of the Justice Department off the front page!” he tells the judge. For one dizzying moment, George Bush is on trial.
When it’s over, Cutler and Hayes embrace their public. Donning fedoras, they stroll out of the scaffolded courthouse and into the afternoon sun, greeting news crews and reporters. Preceding them to the mike stand is Louie Eppolito’s 28-year-old daughter, Andrea. Willowy, with big hair, glistening lips, and a plunging neckline—like a cocktail waitress from the Mirage, only in a pantsuit—Andrea stares provocatively at the TV cameras, her eyes widening.
“Hello,” Andrea says. “My father loved being a cop. He protected women. He protected children. He worked with the elderly. My dad made a vow to protect and serve this city. And now it’s time for someone to protect and serve him.”
“That was very good,” one reporter says.
“That,” says another, “was the best thing to happen all day.”
“She should be his lawyer,” says a third.
Next comes Cutler—a bald-headed George Raft, with thick hands, a wide neck, and a boxy charcoal suit with yellow pocket hankie. “What’s on your mind?” he asks coyly. The reporters cram in tight, in a sort of group hug, and Cutler basks in the love. He hasn’t had a big organized-crime case like this in years. The time is right to dust off his courtroom clichés. “We’re privileged to be a part of this case,” he says. “We’re gonna try the case in the well, and win it in the well.”
If that seems like enough, you don’t know Bruce Cutler. He praises the burden of proof and the presumption of innocence. He waxes enthusiastic over how professional his adversaries were in court and how wonderful the judge is. Finally, Eddie Hayes can’t stand it anymore.
“Hey, Bruce!” he calls out. “I gotta get on television!”