The Mafia Cops’ case could be the last of the red-hot organized-crime trials: equal parts titillating and chilling; a welcome dose of red meat coming after a long, bland diet of Wall Street cases. All the ingredients are in place for a courtroom pageant for the ages. There are two decorated police detectives, the first in New York history accused of leading double lives as murderers for the mob. There is a homicidal, possibly insane Mafia underboss who gleefully ratted them out, not just to the Feds but to 60 Minutes. There is a mysterious Hyman Roth–like criminal mastermind turned federal witness who nobody had thought would ever talk—until now. There are tenacious detectives who heated up this cold case years after others had given up. The killings themselves were more than just Cosa Nostra housecleanings. They make up a vital chapter in the decline and fall of the Mafia: Eppolito and Caracappa were apparently foot soldiers in a war between the Luchese and the Gambino families that targeted none other than Bruce Cutler’s old client and close friend, John Gotti.
Many of Eppolito and Caracappa’s colleagues had long suspected them of being dirty, but prosecutors were forced to wait for the perfect confluence of evidence to finally charge them. Now the U.S. Attorney’s office says it’s armed with new records from the NYPD, plus fresh testimony from the middleman who paid off the cops, to make an airtight case. But the Feds can’t help but be nervous about Hayes and Cutler.
The defense’s strategy? That’s easy. Chronically misunderstood Louie Eppolito and shy, retiring Steve Caracappa are just the latest victims of a prosecutorial abuse of power that pits the most vile, despicable turncoat government witnesses against honest, law-abiding citizens. You know—the Gotti Defense.
Practically every cop who worked Mafia cases in Brooklyn knew Louie Eppolito had not one but several blood connections to the Gambinos. It almost seemed like the detective from East Flatbush was one of the few Eppolitos not to have gone into the family business. His father, with whom he had a complicated relationship (dad beat son senseless; son loved dad anyway), was a made man but died shortly before Louie joined the force in 1969. Eppolito’s uncle Freddy was an early prospect to become Gambino boss before drinking himself to death. His other uncle, Jimmy “the Clam” Eppolito, was notoriously whacked in 1979 by his own colleagues in the Gambino family, who saw him as a threat.
Louie never really denied these connections; on the contrary, he seemed to revel in the mystique. He was partial to gaudy bracelets and rings, the more the better, and had even taken to greeting friends with a ceremonial kiss on the check. His wife, Fran, was often amused to see him sipping espresso and saying “Salud!” with his partner, Steve Caracappa. She had joked that he barely knew Italian.
Eppolito was a former bodybuilder who seemed to spend most of his days as a cop getting psyched to pummel somebody, anybody. He met Caracappa—a tiny, mustachioed, immaculately dressed cop known at times as the Stick—in 1979, when they were both assigned to the Brooklyn Robbery Squad. Caracappa was a few years older, a Vietnam vet, and, with the exception of the Italian connection, seemed like Eppolito’s polar opposite—quiet, unassuming, and, some say, worshipful of his larger partner. Caracappa worked hard at getting posts with access to as much mob intelligence as possible. And not long after the Gambinos killed Eppolito’s uncle Jimmy, Louie—by then a detective in Bensonhurst who drew scrutiny from the FBI for chatting at length with known Mafia capos—was allegedly receptive to an invitation to do some work for a rival family, the Lucheses.
The recruitment offer, prosecutors say, came in 1985 through a familiar intermediary: one of Eppolito’s cousins, Frank Santora, who had once worked for Eppolito’s uncle Jimmy. While serving time at the federal-prison camp in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, Santora had met a nebbishy, bespectacled Jewish businessman named Burton Kaplan—a Mafia money manager of sorts who had lucrative sidelines of his own, like importing drugs. Between prison terms, Kaplan maintained the aura of a legitimate businessman (his daughter Deborah is now a sitting judge in the criminal court). Santora is said to have told Kaplan that he had a cousin who was a cop who could do “business on the side if the price was right.” After Kaplan and Santora emerged from prison, they reportedly served as middlemen, channeling money to Eppolito and Caracappa from the Luchese family. The arrangement, according to prosecutors, was for the cops to be on retainer for $4,000 a month for inside information. Anything else—murder, say—earned them as much as $65,000.
The Luchese mobster who allegedly gave the orders was a highly placed capo named Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso, a clever, up-and-coming Mafia captain with a hot temper and a penchant for paying off insiders for information. Gaspipe reportedly liked to refer to the two cops as his “crystal ball,” letting him know which cars in his neighborhood were undercover cars and which of his Luchese foot soldiers were about to rat him out. The arrangement seemed secure, or at least well insulated: Eppolito and Caracappa would never even need to meet Casso in person; their only contact would be through Kaplan. But the political landscape of the Mafia was becoming much bloodier—thanks in large part to the sword-in-the-stone moment that brought about John Gotti’s rise to power—and the Mafia Cops got caught in the crossfire. Just before Christmas 1985, Gotti orchestrated a hit against his own boss, Paul Castellano, who was infamously riddled with bullets, Sonny Corleone–style, outside Sparks Steakhouse. Gotti promoted himself to boss and then went after Casso. When, in September 1986, Casso was almost murdered by a team of Gotti’s men, Casso allegedly turned to Eppolito and Caracappa to help him exact his revenge.