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What followed, prosecutors say, was a six-year run of bloodshed. First, Eppolito and Caracappa went after anyone responsible for the attempted hit on Casso—allegedly stuffing a Gotti underling named Jimmy Hydell in a car trunk and delivering him to Casso, who tortured and killed him. (This was supposedly the only time the Mafia Cops met their paymaster face-to-face.) Next, they’re said to have gone after anyone high-ranking in the Gambino crime family, like Gotti’s six-foot-three-inch chauffeur, Bobby Borriello. Finally, when even Casso seemed to have run out of enemies, prosecutors say the two cops found more people for him to kill, digging into their fellow detectives’ cases to expose the identities—and home addresses—of confidential police informants who were ratting out Casso: an informant named John “Otto” Heidel, a wayward Luchese soldier named Anthony Dilapi, a flipped state’s witness named Jimmy Bishop, and Gambino hood Bruno Facciola.

At times, the cops got personally involved with their work. In 1990, prosecutors say, they pulled over a Gambino capo named Eddie Lino on the Belt Parkway, rolled down the window, and started firing. Lino was an extremely close confidant of Gotti’s—one of the triggermen in the Castellano assassination. He was ventilated with nine bullets and dead not long after hitting the gas one last time. On another occasion, Eppolito and Caracappa seem to have botched a job when they apparently gave Casso information on a Gambino soldier named Nicky Guido, only it was the wrong information—or, rather, the wrong Guido. The man Casso had killed, police say, was a telephone installer named Nicholas Guido who had nothing to do with the mob.

Eppolito and Caracappa got away with so much for so long, the Feds say, because the arrangement with Kaplan, an insider but not a capo, threw them off the scent. “They trusted each other and kept their own counsel,” says one lawyer close to the prosecution. “The nature of how they communicated is sophisticated and unique.” (All that, the lawyer says, will come out in the trial.)

After narrowly dodging a corruption probe in 1985, Eppolito retired from the force in 1989 and spent the nineties scoring bit parts in gangster movies. He co-wrote a memoir in 1992, Mafia Cop—a hackneyed Serpico-meets-Wiseguy tale of a cage-rattler who bucked the system and never did anything by the book—which he’s been trying to make into a movie ever since. He settled into retirement in a Spanish-style stucco house in Vegas, becoming something of a raconteur and aspiring actor and developer of screenplays. Caracappa moved in across the street and went into the security business. From his book and bit movie parts, Eppolito became enough of a D-list Vegas celebrity to have his picture taken with Robert De Niro and to throw a party at his house with some of the Sopranos cast present.

Cutler and Hayes call the Mafia Cops targets of overzealous feds. It’s the Gotti defense.

Much of Mafia Cop reads as a kiss-off letter to colleagues of Eppolito’s who suspected him of being connected. So it was more than a little ironic that the memoir may have been his undoing. In 1993, a year after the book came out, Casso was apprehended by the Feds, and soon after he offered to make a deal. Lawyers with the U.S. Attorney’s office listened as Casso blithely admitted to 36 murders (a record that made Sammy “Bull” Gravano seem like an altar boy), and—having apparently read Eppolito’s book while he was on the lam and recognized Eppolito’s face—implicated Eppolito and Caracappa in several of them. Casso even sat down with Ed Bradley for a 1998 interview that aired only recently on 60 Minutes (the network wouldn’t run it until charges were filed against the cops). Arrests had seemed imminent, but then, just as abruptly, Casso was booted as a witness and all but entirely discredited. He was bribing guards in jail, beating up a fellow inmate, and, in a scene straight out of a Scorsese picture, getting a guard at Otisville Correctional Facility to slip him steaks, turkeys, vodka, wine, even sushi. In 1998, he received fifteen life sentences.

The only other hope of getting the Mafia Cops was through Burton Kaplan. But Kaplan wouldn’t crack, even after getting 27 years in 1998 for selling 44 pounds of cocaine and 24 tons of pot, plus a tax-fraud conviction. Eppolito and Caracappa seemed bulletproof.

Eppolito and Caracappa signed on with Cutler and Hayes, respectively, as soon as Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso’s allegations leaked into the papers in 1995. At the time, Cutler and Hayes seemed like tabloid immortals, ideally suited to defend charges of this scale. The two were paired on the matter by sheer happenstance—Eppolito and Cutler knew many of the same cops and lawyers from Brooklyn; Caracappa knew Hayes because he had represented many other cops—and Cutler, for his part, salivated at the possibilities. “I thought, My God, my very close friend and I?” Cutler remembers. They’d been tight since 1981, and if on the surface they seem like different animals—Cutler lettered in football at Hamilton College; Hayes tended bar to put himself through Columbia Law School—they had some significant common ground: Both started out in the seventies as homicide prosecutors, Cutler in Brooklyn and Hayes in the Bronx.

If Cutler and Hayes seem a little less larger-than-life now than they did a decade ago, that’s because life has dealt them some decent knocks. In 1981, Cutler left the district attorney’s office to become a defense lawyer, and soon after took on as a client a young capo named John Gotti. With three straight successful Gotti defenses, Cutler became the bane of federal prosecutors, making mincemeat of the government’s early attempts at getting Gotti on the federal RICO statute—the racketeering law that allows reputed mobsters to be prosecuted simply for maintaining ties to their criminal partners. But Cutler could be his own worst enemy. He led one witness on the stand to call a prosecutor a slut, and in a press conference he compared a Jewish judge to a Nazi collaborator. Perhaps inevitably, in 1994, he became the only lawyer in history to be cited in contempt for violating a judge’s order not to talk about a case. He was thrown off the fourth Gotti defense, and Gotti went down. “I can be immature and I lose my temper and I get exercised when I exorcise certain demons,” Cutler says.

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