Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tony, Louie, "the Skirt" & Me: Life Imitates Art at the 1992 Gotti Trial

Sometimes, stories just fall into your lap. This is one of those stories. It happened to me in the winter of 1992, after I had left a secure government job as an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn to pursue my muse as a writer.  I was living in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn at the time, then still heavily italian-american.  The neighborhood was "in transition," as the realtors like to say, with its italian-american population aging and dwindling, and being replaced by young urban professionals.  The neighborhood's connection to its much rougher waterfront past, however, hung over the streets like a fog blown in off the Buttermilk Channel on a winter day.  One day in the late summer of 1992, a flyer appeared taped to lamposts throughout the 'hood.  It recalled nothing so much as a much earlier flyer I had heard of which had appeared, years before on these same blocks, after a neighborhood hero by the name of Pietro Panto had vanished from the piers after having incurred Albert Anastasia's wrath.  (Those flyers bore the likeness of Panto, with the simple inquisitive "Dove Pietro Panto"?  His body was never found).  This flyer, however, was meant as a warning, not a lament.  It bore no text whatsoever, but showed the head of Sammy Gravano grafted onto the body of large rat.  Its meaning was clear.

It is impossible to write about the Italian mafia in the last decade of the 20th Century without writing about the myth of the mafia as portrayed in a dozen movies, chief among them Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, and the way in which life often imitates art, particularly in New York. If you happen into any Italian pizzeria, even today and certainly in the early 1990’s, you would almost certainly find on the walls the following photographic portraits: John F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Marlon Brando. Of these, the only sure bet was Pacino's photo, as Michael from The Godfather.

Perhaps it has always been true that life has imitated the movies in the culture of the mafia. Perhaps Albert Anastasia, when he ordered that Abe "Kid Twist" Reles be whacked, had in mind a scene from Angels with Dirty Faces, though I sort of doubt it. Just the other day, Junior Gotti just got off on federal racketeering and murder charges, for a fourth time, after the judge declared a mistrial. Maybe life does imitate art, after all. As Faulkner once said, "the past is not dead - it isn't even past."

The names have been changed to protect the innocent and the not-so-innocent.

"...It is all of eight-thirty of a gray Friday morning in February of 1992, and I am standing inside of the lobby of the federal courthouse in Brooklyn yawning and trying to blink the sleep out of my eyes. I am a night person by habit, and have grown used to writing until late at night and sometimes into the early hours of the morning. I am not used to being anywhere other than my shower at 8:30 in the morning. But that morning I jumped out of bed and into the shower not an hour before, dressed and ran out the door to catch the IRT into the Heights without even pausing for coffee. I did all of this because John Gotti père was on trial in Brooklyn and I had heard that you had to get there early if you hoped to have any chance of getting in to see what may be the last of the great Cosa Nostra trials of this century.

A few months earlier Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano , consigliere of the Gambino family and Gotti's number two button and trusted friend, faced with the prospect of spending the rest of his life locked up in a very small room, had done the unthinkable: he decided to save his own skin and rat on his friends. It's not that betrayal is unheard of in this world. But nobody rats on his friends. True, former friends have a way of becoming enemies and one can rat on an enemy with impunity. But Sammy Gravano's impending betrayal was of Shakespearean dimension: in cooperating with the feds he had not only betrayed John Gotti and his co-defendant, Frank Locascio (“Frankie Loc”); he had turned his back on the entire world in which he had grown up in and was giving the Feds information about the entire Gambino crime family and the other four families in New York. His own wife had denounced him in public, and, together with their their son and daughter, had refused to accompany him into the federal witness protection program.

In my old neighborhood of Sout' Brooklyn (now called "Carroll Gardens"), a scrappy place where the families of italian-american longshoremen were trying to hang on to their culture long after most of the dockyard jobs had moved across the river to the Jersey piers, a Xeroxed drawing of a rat with Gravano’s head superimposed upon it had appeared overnight taped to streetlights on the corners on Court Street soon after it was announced that Sammy was cooperating with the Feds. It is Gravano’s presence as a cooperating witness that has given the government its first real hope of bringing down "the Teflon Don" after failing to convict him in two prior trials. In the earlier cases the government had suspected that their witnesses or jurors had been reached and compromised, and in one case they were able to prove it.

In this case the Feds, apparently, were taking no chances. Stepping into the lobby I encounter a phalanx of federal Marshalls at the security station. Two Marshalls are running each of two step-through metal detectors and X-ray machines and are doing manual searches with portable detectors when the alarm on the step-through goes off. Three other Marshalls are outfitted like Secret Service agents with headsets, observe the comings and goings of people entering and leaving the building. Past the security station, near the entrance to the elevators, they have placed an information counter manned by yet another Marshall. Behind him, fifteen people are already on line. This doesn't seem like a big crowd to me, but then I remember that the courtrooms in the Brooklyn federal courthouse are quite a bit smaller than their state counterparts and have limited seating.

After making my way through security without incident, I approach the Marshall at the desk and ask him what my chances are of getting into the trial. My head has that floating balloon feeling that signals that I need a shot of coffee and my empty stomach is growling audibly and what I really want to ask him is if he will save my place while I run across the street to the diner. The Marshall, a taciturn man whose bad luck it apparently had been to have drawn public relations duty on this day, barely looks up from his morning Post to tell me that I shouldn’t have any problem getting in.

Behind me, at the security station near the entrance, an alarm goes off. The Marshall looks up sharply at the noise and I follow his gaze to a large, beefy guy dressed in an Armani sportcoat and sporting a Miami Beach tan who is standing next to the metal detector, surrounded by three very interested Feds. The guy has already emptied his pockets of a silver cigarette case and lighter, a set of keys and some loose change. He shrugs and pulls his pants pockets inside-out to show that they are empty. One of the feds asks him if he's carrying and the guy sort of snorts and says 'Yeah, right' but apparently he knows the drill, for he lifts his arms up a bit while another fed pats him down. The guy comes up clean. The first Marshall gives him the once over with the wand and it turns out that the offending piece of metal is simply the guy's belt. Those Gucci buckles do make quite an impression. They let the guy past and wave someone else through the machine. The alarm goes off again. Christ, I think, they must have that thing set to pick up paper clips.

The sounds emanating from my gut cause me to turn my attention back to the Marshall behind the desk. He is still taking in the mini-drama of the security station, with what seems to me to be a look of envy. I get the distinct impression that he regards his present assignment as somehow beneath his training as a federal law enforcement officer. I look up at the clock. Eight thirty-seven. My stomach rumbles again. I finally ask the Marshall whether he thinks I have time to run across the street for something to eat.

He tells me that I shouldn’t have any problem, answering in the same matter-of-fact, distracted tone as before, the subtext of which is clearly translates as “I could give a fuck.” I decide to chance it and go for the coffee and food. I'm no good in this condition anyway, with only five hours of sleep the night before. I leave the courthouse and head out across the park at Cadman Plaza.

Six months before I had quit my job as a prosecutor with the Brooklyn DA's office and had taken a part-time job with an attorney in Manhattan so that I could spend more time on my writing. The money that the civil attorney was paying me was decent enough but I worried that it might not be steady. A couple of my colleagues had told me that I could apply to get certified by the Bar to do assigned counsel work for indigent defendants. The money wasn't great but I didn't know how long the job with the civil attorney would last. Besides, I missed Brooklyn and the drama and grit of doing criminal law work. So I had scheduled an interview with the assigned counsel panel for later that afternoon on Remsen Street, was dressed respectably enough for the occasion and was carrying my briefcase. For all the world I looked like any other Brooklyn criminal defense lawyer. Now if I could just wake up, I might be able to start thinking like one as well.

At a diner across Cadman Plaza from the courthouse I order a coffee and an egg-and-ham-on-roll to go. The crowd at this hour is what you'd expect, mostly: lawyers and judges from the various courts nearby, post office workers from the old Brooklyn Central Post Office, a few neighborhood people. But at a table near the back of the diner are seated six men who are quite a different crowd from the coffee klatch of civil service regulars and Court Street lawyers. I realize that most of their faces are familiar to me from the surveillance photos and mug shots that hung on the wall of the DI Squad Room in the Rackets Bureau of my old office. Seated around this table are Jack D'Amico (“Jackie Nose”), John's brother Peter (Pete) Gotti, John Gotti fils (“Junior”), Dominick Burgese (“Fat Dom”), John Giordano (“Good Looking Jackie”) and a couple of other goombas whom I don't recognize.

These are the big guns of the Gambino organized crime family, Gotti's trusted adjutants, minus one. Up close and in person they look even more idiosyncratic than in their photos, like characters from a different time, a forties gangster movie maybe. While I wait for my order to be filled I observe the crew. The big men sit at their table quietly, hardly talking, munching their coffee and danish with melancholy looks on their faces. It occurs to me that these guys are like the dinosaurs at time the world's climate changed. Something equally fundamental in their world had changed and I wondered if they knew it. Gravano will ultimately end up burying Gotti and Locasio, will rend apart the intimate dysfunctional family whose members are breakfasting here, will, in fact, change forever their way of life. But that final act of betrayal, Gravano’s testimony before the federal jury across the street, was, on this morning, still only a threat the implications of which were far from clear.

I leave the diner and walk back across Cadman Plaza Park to the courthouse. By now a couple of TV news trucks have arrived and are setting up, their antennae extended and the on-air talent practicing their stand-ups, hoping for a good sound bite from Albert Kreiger or Tony Cardinale, the defense lawyers that Gotti and Locascio had retained after Bruce Cutler had been cut from the case, or from Cutler himself, who was expected to make an appearance on the public side of the bar to show his support for his erstwhile client.

Cutler, a well-respected former prosecutor at my old office could, like a lot of men who had grown up with the Godfather movies, recite entire paragraphs of dialogue from them by heart. After leaving the District Attorney’s Office he had gone to work for a small firm in lower Manhattan specializing in criminal law. It was there that he had first started to work for John Gotti. Client and attorney had taken to each other, and soon Gotti had dropped the law firm and retained only the young associate. Cutler’s defense of Gotti, both in court and in the media, was both zealous and effective. Perhaps too effective for his own good, for the feds had successfully charged that Cutler had “crossed the line” and become “house counsel” to the Gambino family, resulting in his being dismissed from representing Gotti in the case. At the time I wondered whether Cutler hadn’t fancied himself to be Gotti’s consigliere, rather like Robert Duvall’s character had been for Brando’s Don Corleone in The Godfather, except that Cutler was a Jewish outsider rather than an Irish one, and except that rather than a behind-the-scenes fixer for a fictional mob boss who preferred to work quietly, Cutler was an in-your-face bulldog for a real mob boss who craved publicity.

I arrive back to the courthouse to find that the line of people standing behind the Marshall's desk has completely disappeared. In its place now stands revealed a line of folding chairs along the wall, all of which are empty except for the first two. I walk up to the Marshall's desk, incredulous, and ask him what happened to the line. He tells me that they've let in as many people as they have room for during the morning session. He invites me to take a seat. I am annoyed at the Marshall for his insincere bureaucratic assurances but am even more annoyed at myself for believing him, rather than having asked someone to save my place while I went for coffee. I take the first empty seat, however, and pull out my coffee and my fast cooling egg-and-ham-on-roll.

Next to me are seated two guys in their mid-twenties. They've come well prepared for a wait, with copies of today's News and Post. The first guy has dark hair and is wearing a three-quarter-length black leather coat over a white shirt and silk pants. The second guy has light hair and wears a windbreaker over a T-shirt and light slacks. Both wear what look to be expensive italian shoes and both are clearly Brooklyn boys, from the sound of their accents. Far from being annoyed or impatient, these guys are cutting each other up telling stories and commenting on the news in the paper. More to the point, they're making everybody who walks in the door. A guy comes in the front door accompanied by two other guys, clearly cops of some sort, who each have one hand on each of the guy's arms. The guy in the middle is carrying his sportcoat folded over his hands, which are clasped together in front of him.

“Uh-oh, looks like that guy’s luck ran out,” says the dark-haired guy.
“City cops?” asks Blondie.
“Nah, feds. DEA, I think,” the dark-haired guy says. “Yeah, see that little pin in their coats?” Blondie cranes his neck to look. I do likewise.
“Yeah”, answers Blondie. I see it, too.
“That’s Drug Enforcement. Oh, yeah”, says the dark-haired guy, clearly the more street-wise of the two.
A few minutes later a short, balding man dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase walks up to them. The dark-haired guy gets up and greets him deferentially with a long handshake, and the two of them walk a few feet away and converse out of earshot.
"Who was that?" asks Blondie when the dark-haired guy sits back down again.
"That guy? He's a smart Jew lawyer that Jackie Nose set me up with. Got a robbery dismissed against me in State Court. Didn't even go to trial."
"Oh, yeah?" asks Blondie.
"Yeah. He's a friend of ours" replies the dark-haired guy.

Now I am entirely focused on these guys, wondering what's going to come next. Who are these guys? But they return to reading their papers, and after a few minutes of nothing happening, I decide that its time for me to break the conversational ice.

"Man, I hope we get in," I venture, to both of them.
"We should", replies Blondie, who is sitting next to me. "The Marshall told us that they'd let us in as soon as somebody leaves the courtroom."
"Yeah, he told me that, too," I reply, and I find my vowels lengthening, my dialect sliding into deep Brooklyn. It's that thing that always happens to me when I want to blend in. There is something of the chameleon in me, the writer-actor who wants to see what it’s like to live in another person's shoes.
"I was here at 8:30, but then I went across the street to get some coffee, and when I got back..."
"Same thing happened to us", Blondie says, "We woulda been here earlier but we stopped for some breakfast along the way. What are you gonna do? You need the coffee, right?"
"You got that right," I say. "I just hope we get in soon. I don't want to be here all day."
"Yeah, me neither," Blondie says, and then leans over to and confides to me -
"We were supposed to get a pass, but I don't think the guy showed up."
A few moments later Blondie asks me if I’m “here for anybody.” I tell him that, no, I'm just here because I wanted to see this for myself.
"You?", I ask him.
"We're here for John," Blondie replies. I just nod.
"What do you think is going to happen? You think he's going to walk?" he asks.
"It all depends on what Gravano does. If he keeps cool on cross, I think he's gonna bury Gotti."
"Ah, Sammy's a rat. Who's gonna believe a rat? The jury ain't gonna believe him when they hear all he's done. What, you a lawyer?"
"Yeah," I answer.
"You a criminal lawyer?"
"Yeah," I answer, after a brief pause. "I used to be a prosecutor, but now I'm doing defense work." What the hell, I figure. It's true enough.
"Hey, Tony," Blondie says to the dark-haired guy, "this guy's a lawyer".
"Oh yeah?" The dark-haired guy answers. We all introduce ourselves and shake hands. The blond guy I've been talking to is named Louie, his dark-haired friend is Tony.

"So, what do you think is gonna happen?" Tony asks me.
"Like I was telling Louie", I say, "I think that it all depends on Gravano, and what Kreiger and Cardinale can do to him on cross, whether they can get him to lose his temper."
"Sammy's a hot-head", Tony says, "he ain't gonna be able to take it."
"I'd agree with you if Cutler was doing the cross. But these other two guys, I don't know. "
"Yeah. Cutler would have Bruce-ified Sammy", Tony says.
"You got a card?" Tony asks, and, with some trepidation, I pull one of my business cards out of its holder and hand it to him. Tony looks at it, pockets it, then turns to Louie and says "You gotta have a good lawyer."
"What time did you guys get here?" I ask.
"Eight forty-five", Tony answers. "Jackie Nose was supposed to get us a pass, but we must have missed him."
"Maybe he ain't even here", Louie says.
"I just saw him a half hour ago", I say, "across the street in the diner."
"What, you saw Jackie Nose? Tony asks.
"Jack D'Amico, yeah, Jackie Nose", I answer. "He was sitting with Pete Gotti, Jackie Giordano, Dom Burgese and some other guys having breakfast. Not forty minutes ago."
"See, I told you he was here," Tony says to Louie, who just shrugs. "I'm gonna go see if I can talk to him, Jackie Nose."
Tony gets up and approaches the Marshall at the desk, who, to my surprise, nods and lets him past.
Louie, who has caught my look, tells me "They'll let him upstairs. They just won't let him in the courtroom. They wanta keep the line down here."
"So how can he talk to Jackie Nose?" I ask.
"Oh, once you're in the courtroom they let you go in and out if you gotta use the can or stretch your legs or something. But you can't get into the courtroom until somebody leaves for good", he says. "We was here all afternoon yesterday and we couldn't get inside", he adds, "but we got here too late. I figure we'll get in today."

I look at the clock. It is now 9:45. It has been almost an hour since the first twenty people were let into the courtroom and no one has come down. Whatever is going on upstairs, it must be pretty interesting. My attention is diverted by the approach of an attractive woman who has walked up to the Marshall's desk. She's in her early twenties, has auburn hair and is well put together in a Fifth Avenue sort of way. The Marshall gestures at our line and she comes over and stands in front of the chair next to mine. She has clearly not anticipated having to wait, and she is trying to decide whether to stay or not. She turns to me and asks me if I've been here a long time. Moderating my dialect back into something approaching my normal manner of speaking, I tell her that I just missed the morning session by five minutes and two people, gesturing at Tony and Louie. Louie, overhearing us, repeats what the Marshall told us and hastens to assure her that, in his opinion, we will be all in the courtroom very soon.

She sits down. We introduce ourselves. Her name is Kimberly and she says she teaches classical piano at a private school in Manhattan. I ask her why she is here and she tells me that she is a friend with one of the witnesses at the trial. At first, this makes no sense to me at all since most of the people testifying at this trial are either wiseguys, or bystanders who saw somebody get whacked by a wiseguy, and since most of these whackings took place in neighborhoods in deep Brooklyn, neighborhoods where Kimberly would stand out like a slice of wonder bread in a loaf of semolina.

It all becomes clear, however, when Kimberly tells me that her friend, Jeffrey, is a writer who was working as a temp at an office near East 46th Street when, one night after he had just left work and was walking down the block in front of Spark's Steakhouse, he saw a car pull up and "some guys on the street" shoot "those guys in a car." "Those guys in the car" were Paul Castellano, the head of the Gambino crime family at the time, and his driver Tony Bilotti, and those "guys on the street" were members of Gotti's crew. Kimberly's friend just happened to witness John Gotti's outrageous power play to seize control of the Gambino family. Evidently Jeffrey was on the stand today, even as we spoke, describing the circumstances of the Castellano killing. Small wonder no one had left the courtroom.

Kimberly also tells me that she knew Jeffrey from college out in Washington State, where she's from, but that she'd lost touch with him since graduating. She didn't know that he was in New York until she had read his name in the paper, and then she had tried to reach him through his parents and that's how she found out that he was in protective police custody. She was worried for him.

Louie has overheard this last bit, for he leans over and asks "Your friend Jeffrey saw that happen, the whacking?" Kimberly replies that he did.
Louie then nudges Tony and repeats this interesting development to him.
"Your friend didn't see that happen" Tony announces, in a tone more dismissive than threatening. But Kimberly is stubborn, if nothing else. "Yes, he did", she maintains.
"Your friend couldna seen that happen," Tony adds. There is a brief pause, and then he asks "Your friend saw that happen? What did he see?"
"I don't know. He saw the guy who shot him, I think."
"He musta seen Sammy do it," Louie says, "cause John wasn't there."
"Nah, John wasn't there," Tony repeats.
"I don't know who he saw. Whoever was there." Kimberly interjects.
"Wow, he saw it, huh?" Tony says, without a trace of belligerence, impressed. "What da ya know?"

The conversation is interrupted by the entrance of a well-dressed couple in their early twenties who, despite having been directed by the Marshall to our seated line, instead take their place, standing, about six feet behind the desk which also happens to be a couple of feet in front of Tony. Tony reaches over and taps the guy's leg.

"Hey, pal," Tony says. The guy turns around and looks down his nose at Tony like he was a bug. "Ya gotta get on line," Tony adds.
"We are on line", the guy replies a voice dripping with condescension.
Tony, who is clearly much smaller than this jerk, doesn't even get up out of his chair. He does it all with his voice. "No. You see these chairs? This is the line. That," he says, pointing to the empty chairs behind Kimberly, "is the end of it."

The yuppie glares at Tony ineffectually. "Come on," the woman says, and pulls the guy over to the line of empty chairs, where they do not sit, but stand at some distance behind Kimberly.

"That guy", Tony says, shaking his head, a bit flustered.
"We been here for over an hour. Where does that guy get off trying to jump the line?" I say, genuinely pissed off.
"Yes, good for you. The nerve of some people," Kimberly pipes in.
"That was very rude" Louie adds.
"I wasn't gonna start anything, but..." Tony says, still shaking his head.
"No, you handled it like a gentleman," Kimberly assures him, and Tony straightens up and brightens as though he had just been paid the greatest complement in the world, which, in his world, he probably has. Then Tony and Louie introduce themselves to Kimberly, all four of us practically best of friends now, after which Tony stands up, shoots his cuffs, says with great dignity "I gotta go take care of my business" and saunters off in the direction of the payphones with coins jangling in his pocket.

Another half-hour goes by in relative quiet. Tony has returned from his errand and is reading Louie's paper. We are all getting restless. Finally, Kimberly gets up. "I don't think I can wait any longer", she says.

Tony, ever the gentleman, stands up and offers to take Kimberly up to the courtroom. "You could write your friend a note, maybe, give it to the Marshall" he suggests. Kimberly takes Tony up on his offer and the two of them leave.

After they are gone I turn to Louie and ask "Tony isn't made or anything, right?" Louie glances around him before replying.
"Nah," he says, making a face which indicates that, in his opinion, this isn't likely to happen, either. "He wants to be. He says they got their eye on him, but..."
His voice trails off, then Louie adds, without a trace of irony, "between you and me, I don't think that there's much of a future in it".

Ten minutes later Tony and Kimberly reappear, their mission having been evidently successfully completed. Kimberly tells me that she gave her note to the Marshall, who told her that he would give it to one of the prosecutors and that she should wait downstairs until the lunch break and maybe she could see Jeffrey then. Tony says that he thinks we'll get in just after lunch, because not everybody will come back. He suggests that maybe we can all four go out to lunch. Kimberly, apparently reassured that she's going to get to see Jeffrey soon, says "Fine". I, however, am not so sure it's such a good idea.

Louie gets up and announces that he's got to go call his boss and tell him that he's not going to be in for work today. This reminds Kimberly that she needs to check her phone machine and the two of them go off together to the payphones.

As soon as they've left, Tony leans over Louie's seat to me and says "Pete, I gotta ask you something."
"Sure. Fire away", I reply.
"Okay. Kimberly and I go upstairs and I bring her over to the Marshall so that she can give him the note, right? And while the Marshall goes to check with somebody Jackie Nose comes up to me and asks me 'Who's the skirt?'"
"Who's the skirt?" I repeat, trying to keep a straight face, beginning to wonder if I haven't fallen into a Cagney-Bogart movie after all.
"Yeah. 'Who's the skirt?" and I told him that she was a friend of Jeffrey's. And he said, 'What, the guy who's testifying today?' and I said 'Yeah, the guy who saw the hit' and he asked me what I knew about her. But before I could say anything more, a buncha Marshalls came over to where Kimberly was standing a few feet away and I couldn't talk to Jackie no more," he tells me.

"Okay", I say, now holding my breath.
"So, Pete, what I want to know is this. Just between you and me, attorney-client privilege, what could happen if I were to find out stuff about Kimberly for Jackie? Could I get in trouble or anything?"

I had started to smile at Tony's naïveté in believing that, simply by my handing him my business card and his muttering the words "attorney-client privilege" he was somehow protected from my disclosing his confidences without first having become my client. My smile, however, faded as I realized what was at stake here. I turned to Tony and told him that under no circumstances should he tell anything more to Jackie Nose, that he could get into very big trouble with the feds if he did so, that he could be charged with tampering with a trial and get sent to federal prison.

Tony looked thoughtful, but uneasy. I had no way of knowing whether he took what I said to heart. So when Kimberly returned a few minutes later I pulled her aside to talk to her.

"Do me a favor," I said, "don't talk to these guys anymore. It's not a good idea."
"Why not? They seem like nice-enough guys."
"Well, maybe they are nice guys, and maybe they aren't. But one thing for sure is they're friends with Gotti's friends, right? And you're friends with Jeffrey, right? And Jeffrey's testifying against Gotti, right? And Gotti and his friends would just as soon that Jeffrey kept his mouth shut, see? And maybe Gotti's friends think if Jeffrey knew that you were in danger then perhaps he would have second thoughts about opening his mouth?"
A slow dawn of understanding breaks over Kimberly's face.
"I thought this only happened in the movies" she says.

Louie, in the meantime, has returned from his errand and, as Kimberly and I turn around, I see that he and Tony are conferring. I'm wondering how much danger Kimberly is really in, who I should contact and how, and whether she'll keep her mouth shut long enough if I were to leave to go find someone who will listen to this strange story. I look over at Tony and he looks back at me, poker faced. As Kimberly and I take our seats again on the line I'm wondering whether my admonition to him has had any effect.

I don't have long to wait to find out. "So, Kimberly, where you from?" Tony starts in with. She looks up at me, worried now.
"The Northwest", she replies.
"What is that, like Nebraska or something?"
"Something like that."
"I thought this only happened in the movies," Kimberly says, more to herself than to anyone else, "I feel like I'm in a movie."
"Huh?" asks Louie.
"I feel like I'm in a movie", she repeats.
"This ain't no movie, Kimberly" Louie says and I feel like shouting at her “LISTEN TO HIM! HE KNOWS WHAT HE'S TALKING ABOUT!” but, of course, I don’t.
Tony picks up where he left off. "So, Kimberly, what do you say? We're having lunch, right? I know this place nearby, they got great pizza. You like pizza?"
"Uhm, I'm not hungry."
"Actually", I butt in, "we already made plans earlier. You guys know how it is."

Just then a cop and a Fed, both in plainclothes, walk up to the line, led by a Marshall. The Marshall points out Kimberly. The Fed and the cop come over, address Kimberly by her last name and ask her if she'll come with them. Kimberly, who by now is more than a little frightened and isn't sure of who to trust, asks them if I can come with her. They nod, assuming that I'm her boyfriend.

The four of us move only a few feet away and the Fed, who turns out to be an FBI agent, tells her that they intercepted her note to Jeffrey and that they would like to arrange to have her meet Jeffrey after the trial. Kimberly says nothing, just looks at me.

"It's OK", I tell her, "they're really cops."
"Who are you, her boyfriend?" asks the FBI agent.
"No. He's a lawyer", says Kimberly.
"He's your lawyer?" asks the City cop, misunderstanding, in a tone that conveys that now he's seen everything. The friends of cooperating witnesses now bring their lawyers to court, for krissakes, to act as go-betweens with the government!

"Uh, it's not like that", I tell them. "Can we go somewhere and talk?" As we are walking away towards the stairs to the offices upstairs, I tell them that I'm a former city prosecutor and throw out the names of a couple of federal prosecutors who I know from my old job, that I don’t have my shield with me right now, but… As with Tony and Louie before, the cops appear to take me on faith. It’s amazing how far the right mannerisms and knowing a few names will take you in this world. As they are leading us out of the lobby I glance over at Tony and Louie, who make a good show of not looking at us.

A few minutes later Kimberly is safely ensconced in a conference room on the second floor of the U.S. Attorney's Office and I am talking outside in the hall to the FBI agent and the detective. The FBI guy, named Greg, is in his thirties. He wears polished wingtips, a conservative gray suit and unstylishly short hair. But for the shoulder holster visible beneath his suit coat when he reaches into his pocket he could pass for a young associate at one of Manhattan’s premier white shoe law firms. The detective, on the other hand, is pure New York cop: in his early fifties, about twenty pounds overweight, in a dark suit that badly needs pressing and shoes which could use a shine. His name is Jimmy Turnbull and he works for the Manhattan South Task Force. I find out later that he caught the case the night of the Castellano-Bilotti hit at Spark's Steakhouse and is one of the few NYPD cops to have ridden the case all the way through to the end. I relate to the two of them the story of Tony and Louie and Jackie Nose's interest in the Skirt.

"Thanks", Turnbull says, smiling, "we'll take care of it." Before they leave they promise to get me into the trial at any time that afternoon, and Turnbull gives me his card and tells me to flash it if anybody at the courthouse gives me any problems. They tell Kimberly that they will bring Jeffrey down to visit her just as soon as he is finished with cross-examination, which they expect will be soon after the afternoon session resumes. This suits Kimberly just fine. She has had her fill of excitement for the day and she's more than happy to stay in the conference room.

I go out to get lunch some lunch for both of us. I have to cross the lobby to get out, and as I do so I see Louie at the head of the line. He waves to me and I walk over.

"Pete," he asks, "you want we should save your place?" I look him in the eyes, but can't detect any guile there.
"Nah", I tell him, looking away, "they're taking care of me".
Louie just nods. I ask him where Tony is and he tells me that he went to get the two of them some lunch.
"See you later", I tell Louie.
"Yeah. See ya upstairs."

By the time I get back from the deli it is past one p.m. and the line in the lobby behind the Marshall's desk has disappeared. I am waived through security as though I worked there and I pass each security checkpoint by flashing Turnbull's card. I go back to the conference room and deliver Kimberly's part of the order and we eat together, talking about music and art and life in Manhattan and how it is so different from the way she thought that it would be from the movies, but how Brooklyn is like something out of a movie after all. After I finish my sandwich I say goodbye to her, tell her that maybe we'll bump into each other in the City, knowing full well that we won't. It is well past 1:30 in the afternoon when I leave her, but I'm not in any hurry because, like Jackie Nose at breakfast this morning, I know that my seat upstairs has been reserved.

When I finally exit onto the fourth floor of the Courthouse I find a wide hallway outside the courtroom half-filled with some of the "friends" and "family" of the defendants, smoking and stretching their legs under the watchful eyes of a half dozen U.S. Marshalls. Much to my surprise, I see Tony and Louie standing next to a velvet rope just the other side of the elevator bank from the direction of the courtroom.

I walk over to them and ask them how come they're not in the courtroom.
"It's full", Tony tells me.
"We gotta wait until someone leaves for good", Louie adds.
"But you guys were first on line," I say. "What happened?"
"Pete, it was like this," Louie says. "Just after Tony got back with the pizza, they told us that they were letting people up two at a time. So Tony and me get into the elevator and we press 'four', only the elevator goes down when it shoulda gone up and we got stuck in the basement for a couple of minutes."
"Yeah," Tony adds, "and by the time we got up here everybody else had already got in and the courtroom was full. So we gotta wait."
"What?" I ask, thinking that this all sounds very unlikely, but that, then again, these guys aren't rocket scientists and maybe they pushed the wrong button. "Ah, man, that's a shame," I say.
"Whataya gonna do?" Louie says, "fuckin' elevator problem."

I enter the double doors of the courtroom, a Marshall at either side, and take a seat among some journalists and spectators. A nervous young man in his mid-twenties is on the stand, undergoing cross-examination by Cardinale. The defense lawyer is trying to challenge Jeffrey's powers of observation and recall, but the kid is sticking to his story, although his voice is a little shakey and it sometimes disappears altogether. Kreiger, meanwhile, is at the defense table with Gotti and Locascio. Every once in a while Gotti leans over to whisper something in Kreiger's ear, then sits back in his chair with a smirk on his face. I look at him closely, nattily attired in an expensive suit, and think that he does dress like a mob boss from a forties gangster movie and wonder whether he didn't get his fashion sense from watching them. Locasio, by contrast, is dressed in a dull blue suit and looks like the middle manager of some automobile factory.

I look around the rest of the courtroom. The front two rows are filled with beefy cops, meant to reassure the reluctant Jeffrey and screen him from the "friends of John" wiseguy visitors. In the front two rows, behind the defense table, I recognize Jack D'Amico, Dom Burgese, Jack Giordano, Pete Gotti, the two other guys from the diner and the guy with the Armani suit and the Miami Beach tan from this morning. There are also a bunch of other guys whom I've never seen before but wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. I also take note of the number of empty spaces in the benches.

After about forty minutes I get up to leave to make my interview with the assigned counsel panel. Outside of the courtroom, I see Tony and Louie still standing by the velvet rope near the elevators, watched over by a few Marshalls. Jimmy Turnbull stands a discreet distance off. I walk over to Tony and Louie.

"What, you guys still aren't in?" I ask. Tony just shakes his head sadly. "Fuckin' elevator problem", Louie says.
Jimmy Turnbull motions to me to come over and I do. He says he wants to thank me and shakes my hand. I ask him what's the deal with Tony and Louie. Turnbull shrugs his shoulders and says "Whataya gonna do? Fuckin' elevator problem," but gives me a quick wink and a sly smile as he does so and I realize then that Tony and Louie won't be getting into that courtroom at all that day.

As I leave the courthouse I find that I have mixed emotions about my role in what had just happened, and I find that I cannot fully share in the cop's joke. I had come to the courthouse that morning to see for myself the final act in the Gotti drama and had become, in a small way, a bit player in it.

I tell myself that I did the right thing: that I protected someone who may have been in danger and prevented what may have been an attempt to reach a witness. But all the same, I genuinely liked Tony and Louie, they had trusted me and I had betrayed them. And it occurs to me, then, that I have seen far more of their world than I had bargained for when I first made their acquaintance that morning and that this, too, is part of life in Brooklyn at the end of the Gotti era of the Cosa Nostra."

Copyright, 1992 & 2009, by Peter Basta Brightbill

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