The story began with the timbre of old New York. The night of March 13, a Wednesday, the reputed head of the Gambino crime family, 53-year-old Francesco Cali, was shot six times outside his house in the Todt Hill area of Staten Island, a neighborhood known for its old mob connections.
By the weekend, Anthony Comello, a 24-year-old man who lived with his parents, had been arrested after fleeing to Ocean County, New Jersey. Investigators quickly brushed away the likelihood that the murder had been an open hit like the kind of mob violence that the city felt in the ’80s and early ’90s. Law enforcement officials stated that Comello has no ties to organized crime, and that they’re considering the possibility that he was romantically interested in a relative of Francesco Cali. The Gambino family head reportedly told Comello to stay away; fearing Cali had a gun, Comello shot him after the two spoke on Wednesday night.
On Monday, at an extradition hearing in Ocean County New Jersey, the story promptly entered the Trump era. Comello appeared in court, agreeing to waive extradition so that he will be tried for murder in Staten Island. During the hearing, Comello drew with a blue pen, writing “MAGA Forever” on his hand. It’s a political statement that’s congruous with Staten Island, the only borough that favored Trump in 2016. But Comello’s other sketches — a large “Q” in the middle of his hand, and the phrases “United We Stand” and “Patriots in Charge” — suggest the influence of the bizarre and wholly uncredited QAnon theory.
Something of an umbrella far-right conspiracy theory, QAnon suggests that there is a deep-state plot against Donald Trump, and that the president actually appointed Robert Mueller to investigate top Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Podesta. Emerging from the message board 4chan, the theory has gained credit among conspiracy-minded factions of the right, including Roseanne Barr and Curt Schilling.
It’s unclear how much weight should be placed onto Comello’s conspiracist proclivities: Online theories such as QAnon are laced with irony and misdirection, and to take their presence at face value in the courtroom is probably shortsighted. Still, the fact that the story — a young man kills a Sicilian crime boss and shows up in court with conspiracist hand-drawings — was a minor moment on an otherwise normal Monday suggests the irreversible damage that the Trump era has wrought on our understanding of the definition of a “normal” news cycle.