Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Love Is A Risk

by E.W. Count

E.W. Count is the author of COP TALK: TRUE DETECTIVE STORIES FROM THE NYPD (Pocket Books), and is the moderator of Prodigy's online interest group, Cops & Crime. She is working on her third book about NYPD detectives.

When I met retired Mafia Detective Roland Cadieux, I couldn't tell a Gambino from a Genovese. Along with a few other NYPD mob mavens I interviewed, Cadieux made the names, the families, spring to life, in all their rich, scheming brutality.

The mob does business in every borough of New York City, of course, and Cadieux chased them all over, but Brooklyn -- full of mob flavor and history -- seems the quintessential venue. Bensonhurst and Bath Beach, for instance -- about as far south as you can get in Brooklyn, short of Coney Island -- are neighborhoods full of warmth, color, and streets kept clean and safe by fear. Don't mess with the neighborhood, or you'll hear from mob neighbors, cozy in their private houses.

Brooklyn-born Ron Cadieux, whose French-Canadian name can seem to the casual observer the most complicated thing about him, worked his first organized crime case in Brooklyn's 10th Homicide in 1972. With his partner, Kenny McCabe, Cadieux put the cuffs on the Gambino godfather, "Big Paul" Castellano, in March, 1984. Both partners know the silk socks set inside out.

Unfortunately, while Cadieux and McCabe, and the rest of the federal/city strike force that took down the godfather, were looking forward to getting him in front of a judge and jury, Gotti's black coat guys finished off Big Paul instead. Pop pop pop pop pop -- the hit of the century happened outside Spark's steak house, in the midst of the evening rush hour.

The money that mobsters live for never has proved bulletproof, not even for a godfather -- a 'capo'. In the Mafia, according to Cadieux, ruling hands come with sweaty palms. Once the strike force had amassed their evidence against Big Paul, they arranged a quiet, gentleman's arrest at his attorney's midtown Manhattan office. When Ron and Kenny cuffed him, the capo's palms had been soaking wet.

Cadieux's career full of quality collars notwithstanding, arresting Big Paul was the high point for the detective, and he retired after twenty-three years on the job. By then, he could tell you enough tales of Mafia blood and betrayal to put Scheherezade to shame.

Despite the trenchcoat, Cadieux, a private investigator now, is hard to stereotype. Tall and polished, he could have been working Wall Street white-collar crime in the NYPD as easily as murders and mobsters. Practically speaking, though, he has the kind of investigative background that La Cosa Nostra lawyers love to hire. Many respectable PIs accept mob lawyers' fat fees; Cadieux politely declines. He has enough mob stories, surely -- and plenty of work. He can even take a time-consuming case for next to nothing, if a good family needs his help.

When Cadieux met a grieving father named Gerald Vasquez in mid-1989, the PI felt for him. And, Cadieux was intrigued. A pretty daughter, a bad guy, a greedy scheme with a familiar whiff of the mob. Cadieux was the second PI to confront the baffling case. The pretty thirty-year-old daughter, Rosemary Vasquez, was missing, and so was her mother, Rose Santoro. Were they murder victims? The official NYPD position -- missing. Since when? Tuesday, September 14, 1988, according to one of a handful of clues.

The first time I met him, Cadieux regaled me for hours with Mafia tales full of money and murder. We were winding down when he spoke of the startling, sensational find awhile back, in a South Brooklyn parking lot: a Cadillac with two women's mummified bodies in the trunk. Corpses in the trunks of cars are a mob signature, but this discovery of two murdered women was bizarre, even for Brooklyn; I remembered the media splash.

Cadieux reviewed the reports of a PI who had already worked the case, and he gumshoed his way over the same territory. An NYPD insider, Cadieux had an advantage over the first PI -- his colleagues of the Detective Bureau willingly shared whatever they knew. Unofficially, the detectives agreed with Ron Cadieux and his client: the women had died violently, at the hands of a likely suspect. But opinions, even those of seasoned detectives, have never been accepted as evidence by a DA, much less in court.

Lacking any hard evidence at all, Cadieux took an unorthodox step -- he called a reporter. News coverage might jolt someone or something out of the woodwork, that would help nail the suspected murderer.

Introduced by Cadieux to Rosemary's surviving relatives, Daily News reporter Gene Mustain wrote up the mystery. The story ran in May '91 -- more than two-and-a-half years since anyone had last seen the two women.

In the background of the tragic story was the ugly divorce that had strained Gerald's relationship with his only child. After his marriage ended, the mother was unwilling, as misguided parents sometimes are, to risk sharing her child's affection with her dad. Trust only your mother and God the Father, was the lesson the child absorbed.

Gerald did manage, finally, to re-establish contact with his grown daughter, but even then, he told Cadieux, meetings seemed awkward. Lately, he had once again lost touch with Rosemary. Rose, the divorced mother, had never really loosened her adoring hold. Rosemary, a secretary, hardly dated. When she worked on Wall Street, Rose met her each evening at the subway to walk her safely to their tidy one-bedroom apartment upstairs in a private house. The women went together to their church, St. Finbar's in Bath Beach, and regularly to others, as well, chosen from the many in the neighborhood. Brooklyn also is the Borough of Churches.

Ironically, the news of Rosemary's disappearance came to Gerald in a call from the women's landlord. The landlord counted on their rent check, like clockwork by the third of each month. He had delayed an extra week before going upstairs to see what was going on. The scene, when he did go, was eerie: food in a pan on the kitchen stove; Rose's reading glasses and her newspaper, dated Friday, September 14, 1988, on the table. No sign that anyone intended to be gone longer than an hour or so.

The unnerving tableau sent the landlord straight to the police station, where officers speculated that his tenants had no doubt left town temporarily. Even if the tenants were missing persons, the landlord learned, only a relative may file a report to that effect. No report was filed.

Rosemary and her mother were missed by church friends, too, who came looking for them at the house. The worried landlord rushed to the station for the second time -- again, to no avail. Revisiting the upstairs apartment, he unearthed the telephone number of a relative. Three weeks after the date on Rose's newspaper, Gerald heard the landlord's disturbing news.

Gerald and his wife were kin to the missing women, of course -- but they, too, struck out with the police. Since Rosemary and Rose were of sound mind and body, the father learned, and both older than age eighteen and younger than sixty-five (Rose was sixty-four), they did not fit NYPD guidelines for opening a missing persons investigation.

By the time Cadieux took the case, the police had long since opened the missing persons case. But the months of bureaucratic delay bothered him, not only for the sake of his clients and their case, but for the cops who had come after him. In his day, if the bosses chose to so slavishly adhere to case guidelines, detectives would have found a little time when their tour was over to take a ride to the Vasquez girl's place and see what the story was. There's always a way, he insisted, to help someone with a problem.

Well before Friday, September 14, the likely day of Rose and Rosemary's disappearance, their landlord had received from Rose Santoro some startling news. Rosemary had accepted a suitor's proposal -- indeed, would marry him -- and what's more, Rose would be going to live with the couple in their new house.

Rosemary's suitor was Demetrio Lifrieri, a Sicilian immigrant and an old business friend of her father's -- it was, in fact, through her father that Rosemary had met him. Years back, Gerald had brought his friend around, hoping to lighten those awkward meetings between himself and his daughter; he had thought another voice in the conversation might just help put her at ease. The father was by no means matchmaking; Lifrieri, a mechanic by trade, was married.

Around the same time in late summer of '88, when the women's landlord heard that Rose and Rosemary would be moving, Gerald Vasquez received a surprising phone call from Marina Lifrieri, Demetrio's wife. Marina, in her turn, reported an odd phone call from Rose, demanding to know what was holding up Marina's and Demetrio's divorce. If there were something between Rosemary and Demetrio, Vasquez told Marina, this was the first he'd heard of it.

As that summer waned, a friend of Rosemary's heard from her that the marriage was off; all she wanted now was the $40,000 -- her mother's life savings -- that she had loaned to Demetrio. Rosemary was frantic to get the money back.

In November 1988, Gerald and Helen Vasquez had retained their first PI, and set about searching the apartment from which Rose and Rosemary had vanished. What they found provided their investigator with a solid lead. In one search, they came up with four checks totaling over $40,000, each payable to Rosemary, signed by none other than Lifrieri -- but returned to her by the bank marked 'Insufficient Funds'. Scouring the place again, Gerald and Helen discovered an IOU for $40,000 to Rosemary from Lifrieri. When their investigator confronted him, the "fiance" stonewalled.

Lifrieri now worked a couple of jobs, one at Blue Chip Coffee, where he had started as a mechanic and moved up to salesman. The coffee import business was run from a warehouse in the Park Slope section by the owner, Anthony Viola. (Cadieux had been raised in Park Slope.)

The papers found by Gerald Vasquez sent his first investigator to the police, who went to Lifrieri-- who had little to say. They offered a lie detector test, a simple way he could take the heat off himself, but he brushed them off, telling them to talk to his lawyer. When Marina, his wife, asked why didn't he let the police give him the test, he got furious and and violently shoved her. Marina threw her husband out-- better to divorce him than to disappear.

On December 5, 1988, police at last took the missing persons report from Gerald and Helen, and began a real investigation. But a time lapse is always an investigative handicap, especially when a crime happens unobtrusively. Someone who had noticed the sudden departure of Rosemary and her mother, but thought little of it in September, would likely have trouble recalling details almost three months later. In a pattern that would repeat itself, the detectives made some progress but then hit a wall.

Upset and impatient, the Vasquez family had consulted a PI and a psychic, before retaining Cadieux. They wanted to follow up on the psychic's advice that the bodies were in a marsh. Cadieux had no problem with that. "If my daughter was missing," he said, "I'd try anything, too." Even the police now went along, diligently searching the nearest marshland, but it was impossibly wet -- a body wouldn't even stay buried.

Then Cadieux followed Lifrieri through Brooklyn, noting the subject's many stops at businesses where he went in and came out in less than a minute, always empty-handed. With a thirty-second spiel, tops, Lifrieri wasn't exactly selling coffee -- nor any other legitimate product or service.

On Wednesday afternoon, July 5, 1989, Cadieux watched covertly as Lifrieri came home, then approached Lifrieri's door and rang the bell. The suspect was not about to open the door.

"I'm not a cop," Cadieux recalls telling the door, "I'm a private investigator, you can talk to me."

"Why do you want to speak to me?" Lifrieri asked, through the door now partly open.

"Do you know Rosemary Vasquez and Rose Santoro?"

"Yes, but I don't know why you want to talk to me about them."

"I'm working for the family," Cadieux stated the obvious, and wondered aloud whether he might be expected to question people at random. "How did you know them," he continued, "and what kind of realationship did you have?"

"I was friends with Rosemary. Her father introduced me to her seven years ago. I know her father, Jerry, fifteen years."

"Was Rosemary your girlfriend?"

"No, we were just friends."

"When did you see Rosemary or her mother, Rose, last?"

"Sometime in early August of last year."

"Do you know where they are," asked Cadieux, "or if something has happened to them?"

"I have no idea," Lifrieri protested. "The police questioned me about them. I told them the same thing -- that I know nothing about them or where they might be."

Cadieux asked about another woman, whom Lifrieri admitted was his longtime girlfriend, and then the PI changed the focus, "Did you ever borrow $40,000 from Rosemary and her mother?"

"No, I didn't. In 1987, I owed her $15,000. I paid her $15,000 and $2,500 interest."

"Where did you get the money to pay Rosemary?"

Lifrieri said he had sold assets, to satisfy an IRS bill.

"Did you ever sign a note for a $40,000 loan?"

"Absolutely not," said the man Rosemary had loved. The only man her mother had trusted with her cherished daughter was lying to a PI about the loan to him of their life savings.
"Did the police ask you to take a lie detector test?"

"I offered to take one," Lifrieri announced, "but changed my mind, because I didn't like the way the police were handling everything."

"Would you take a lie detector test if I could set one up?" asked Cadieux. "Nothing to do with the police."

"No, not after the way I've been treated."

"Did you give Rosemary checks for $29,000 and $20,800?"

Lifrieri admitted he had -- the checks were for "some condo deal... I know they bounced," he admitted. "They weren't supposed to be cashed or deposited. I was pissed off that she put those checks through."

Cadieux was understanding. "Did you think they were trying to pull a fast one on you?"

"Yes," Lifrieri said, "I did."

"Did you think they were trying to rip you off?"

"That's exactly what I thought."

"Were you angry at Rosemary?"

"I wouldn't say angry, but I was upset." Cadieux knew Lifrieri had written a new set of checks and he got Lifrieri to confirm it. "They were for the same condo deal -- not for deposit."

"If you were upset about the first two checks," Cadieux wondered, "why did you give them more checks?"

"I felt sorry for them. I wanted to help them out."

"You thought they were trying to rip you off -- why would you want to help them?"

"That's it, I'm done," snapped Lifrieri. "If anyone wants to ask questions, they can do it through my attorney."

Cadieux had kept Lifrieri talking for forty minutes on his doorstep, catching him out several times. The PI knew the cops had asked Lifrieri what happened to the Cadillac Fleetwood registered in his name; Lifrieri had told them he "sold it to some Spanish guys on the street." He told Cadieux he sold the car for junk.

Lifrieri's boss at Blue Chip was under investigation by the state Waterfront Commission, Cadieux knew, for highjacking goods off the piers, and by Customs and the DEA for importing Colombian drugs stashed among huge bags of coffee. Viola's was 'blue chip' coffee, all right. The boss of the Waterfront Commission cops was Jack Ferguson, a retired NYPD detective pal of Cadieux. (Detectives frequently remain in law enforcement after retiring with twenty years of NYPD service.)

Anthony Viola, though not an actual "made guy," was a bona fide Genovese associate. Lifrieri had to have been thrilled by the mob connections he had made -- for the big money-making potential. Cadieux figured Lifrieri saw himself as a loan shark or a coke dealer -- all he needed was a stake. Say, forty thousand dollars, for openers. The Daily News story about Rosemary and her mom omitted Lifrieri's mob connection and the fact that his boss was under investigation.

Early on, Ron Cadieux had called Jack Ferguson at his Waterfront office. Over coffee, the PI talked about his new case, and about the suspect, Lifrieri, working for Blue Chip. Ferguson took a few notes. He would call Cadieux if anything popped up. The PI knew that to solve this puzzle, he must stay in touch with all the investigators, get them all cooperating. "You can never have too much cooperation," he believes. Lone-wolf heroes are for PI novels.

Periodically, the mystery of Rosemary and her mom was brought to the attention of the Brooklyn DA, and a prosecutor was assigned. About two years after the women disappeared, Brooklyn South Homicide put a mob detective, Bill Tomasulo, on the case with Bath Beach detective, Frank LaBarbera. To get the DA to indict Lifrieri, Tomasulo and LaBarbera needed those bodies -- the bosses took the partners "off the chart" so they could work this case exclusively.

Tomasulo was another guy Cadieux had worked murders with, on the job. Tomasulo also was one of the NYPD mob mavens who helped me sort out the Mafia names and styles. His grasp of the Columbo family, for instance, is respected, especially by the Columbos, who would much rather have someone less knowledgeable on their case.

Brooklyn to the core, "Billy Jack" Tomasulo has a thick accent to prove it (never mind that he actually lives in Staten Island). Average height, with a ready chuckle, he's dedicated to the street and knows where it can lead. If ever his kids show signs of getting too fond of the street, he takes them on a cautionary trip to the morgue.

Tomasulo may hold the record in New York for "digging up bodies that were not given proper burials." In the mid-eighties, two bodies exhumed from beneath a cement floor on South Brooklyn mob turf. In the late eighties, five dismembered corpses, "Samsonited" -- packed in suitcases -- disinterred from a Staten Island secret "Mafia graveyard" near a bird sanctuary. Billy led the white-jumpsuit brigade of detectives and technicians who dug for weeks in that site -- to the immense delight of Staten Island Advance photographers, who got a lot of mileage out of the operation.

Billy Jack knew about the Federal/State investigation of Viola's Blue Chip Coffee, so he reached out for Waterfront and hooked up with Ferguson. All the good guys were in this together.

By the time the Daily News story came out, the feds and the Waterfront cops had a "wire" (phone tap) up on Viola. Cadieux hoped someone would soon be overheard complaining about detectives snooping around about murders. It didn't happen, but Jack Ferguson says the murders were solved because of what Cadieux told him over coffee about the case he was investigating.

By July, Ferguson and the feds had enough on Viola's drug wholesaling and smuggling crimes, and they were ready to pick him up. Billy Jack Tomasulo and LaBarbara were in on the bust. On a rainy Monday afternoon, the umarked detective car waited with Ferguson's, out of sight of the Blue Chip warehouse but close by. Viola's new Mercedes could outrun the cops, Ferguson knew, so they would have to grab him fast.

From an observation point in a building with a good view, a surveillance team would radio when Viola came out. With luck, he would come out alone, and be in custody before his workers found out. Viola left with two other guys, one of whom got into an old Chevy with Florida plates.

As Ferguson moved on Viola's Mercedes, he radioed Billy Jack, "Take the guy in the Chevy over to the Waterfront Commission, give him a summons and hold the car." Ferguson recognized the guy, a heroin junkie who hung around Viola's place.

At the Waterfront office, the guy in the Chevy told the detectives his name: Robert Paolucci. He did odd jobs around Viola's warehouse, and he had worked for a funeral parlor. And, like a lot of junkies, he was an informant anytime he could be. Junkies-- street people-- know what goes on, and they know that detectives can pay small amounts for useful information. They know whatever they need to know to get money from "the system."

Almost before Tomasulo and LaBarbara could ask, Paolucci excitedly spoke up. "I'll help you," he said. "I know two bodies . . ."

The detectives tried hard to keep their cool as Paolucci explained that he had not killed the two women -- only disposed of their bodies after the murders. Lifrieri had choked the victims to death, and then paid Paolucci to wrapped them up in plastic and put them in the trunk of Lifrieri's Caddy. The junkie then parked the car within sight of Blue Chip.

Jack Ferguson was in Manhattan with the prisoner, Anthony Viola, and the feds, when their phone rang. Det. Tomasulo and his partner were elated. The junkie "gave it up," yelled Tomasulo -- cop talk for "confessed," or "provided key information". Cadieux's office phone rang and Ferguson relayed the amazing news.

Paolucci did not give up where the Caddy was, because he did not know, but the witness did know where Lifrieri had done the murders. Crime Scene was called to Viola's coffee warehouse, and they recovered blood evidence in the very closet Paolucci described. He also told the detectives how Lifrieri had lured the younger woman to Blue Chip with a promise to pay her back. . . and how, before very long, the mother had followed her daughter there -- only to meet the same horrible fate.

The detectives still had no clue to the bodies' location. The Caddy had remained where the junkie had parked it, until an odor made it unwelcome. Viola told Lifrieri, "Get rid of the car." Mob guys often push cars into the water, and Paolucci offered Tomasulo a likely location on the Brooklyn waterfront. As soon as the detective could, he called the NYPD scuba team to do a search. No Caddy.

To try a murder, prosecutors really like to have a body -- at the very least, proof of death under violent circumstances. The Brooklyn DA needed proof that the blood found in Blue Chip's closet was Rosemary's. Her father, Gerald Vasquez, gave the detectives a sample of his blood for DNA comparison with the crime scene blood. The delicate DNA lab tests were completed over the summer, and came back a positive match.

"In a rare move for a murder case," reported the Daily News on Tuesday, September 17, 1991, "Lifrieri was arrested, even though the bodies have not been recovered." Cadieux had asked The News reporter to emphasize that point; other media noted it, as well. The PI was sure that someone would come forward with information.

On the night of the collar, Lifrieri denied the crimes to the arresting detectives, and lied again about what he had done with his Caddy Fleetwood. Lifrieri occupied the prisoners' cell adjacent to the squad room at Brooklyn South Homicide. Det. Tomasulo and the informant, Paolucci, put their heads together. Paolucci, "under arrest as an accessory," would be thrown in the cell with Lifrieri, and would tell Lifrieri to do the right thing. "I don't wanna go for two murders! Tell them where you put your car." Hours later, when Tomasulo released Paolucci, the junkie did not say where the car was, but he told Billy Jack, "Not to worry -- you'll find it. . . "

Before midnight that same Tuesday night, September 17, the 577-TIPS line rang at 1 Police Plaza, in the Crime Stoppers squad office. Referring to The News article, the anonymous tipster gave an address only blocks from Lifrieri's home. The bodies, the tipster said, were in the trunk of a car, parked in an open air lot in the Bay Ridge section of South Brooklyn. It was too late for the next day's papers, but on Thursday, shots of the gray Cadillac were featured -- along with the bizarre news that since April, 1990, Lifrieri had been paying to park the car -- a hundred dollars per month. Why he kept the bodies is an abiding mystery.

In New York City, the Crime Stoppers squad advertises rewards of up to a thousand dollars if a caller's tip pans out. Anonymity is key: the caller gets an ID number, and never need give a name to collect the money. The identity of the hotline caller will never be known. Well, not for sure. The junkie has since died of AIDS. But, Det. Tomasulo contends, "Of course, Paolucci knew the hotline and he knew their rewards are plenty more than we could pay him. . . ."

In 1988, the year Rose Santoro and her daughter died at Lifrieri's hands, more than two percent of all New York City murders were committed by spouses (legally married, or common law) who killed their partners. Rose Santoro never should have put aside her fear of sharing her daughter with any man. Indeed, the story and statistics confirm what the mother had always known, love is a risk.


1 comment:

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