It’s a definite no-no. If you are part of the Mafia, you do not go after, and certainly do not kill, police officers. In America at least. In Sicily. That’s a different story altogether.
So how and why the events of the night of Tuesday, January 21st, 1987, unfolded on a street in the borough of Queens, New York is almost as big a mystery now as it was twenty-six years ago.
A little after 8:20PM that evening, NYPD undercover detective Anthony Venditti lay dead outside the entrance to the Castillo Restaurant at 54-55 Myrtle Avenue, in Ridgewood. He had been shot four times. His partner, Detective Kathleen Burke, shot and wounded, was left sprawled on the sidewalk leading up to the restaurant. The single bullet had entered her left chest area, breaking ribs and puncturing her lung before smashing her scapula and exiting the body. She had managed to call in a 911 from a pizza parlor nearby, before staggering back to the body of her partner.
Three suspects allegedly involved in the shootings fled the scene. One of them, Federico Giovanelli (right), was caught soon after and the other two, Carmine Gualtiere and Steve Maltese, were in custody within two days.
The men were part of the Genovese Mafia crime family, one of the oldest and most successful mob clans in New York, with a historical pedigree dating back to the turn of the 20th Century. The three worked out of a building, known to law enforcement as The Bushwick Democratic Club, located at 343 St. Nicholas Avenue, a few hundred yards from the scene of the shooting.
Giovanelli and his crew were heavily involved in loan sharking, illegal gambling and bookmaking across the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens and had been the target of a sustained organized crime task force investigation for some time.
Not only was Burke a bystander to the murder, there was an independent witness -Frank Simone- who had flagged down a responding patrol car which chased after and apprehended Giovanelli a few blocks from the scene of the killing. And, at least four other people, who gave the police statements regarding what they had seen that night.
It should have been cut and dried. Men ambush and shoot a cop dead on a public street. His partner and passing citizens see the killing. The alleged killers are all under lock and key within forty-eight hours. Detectives investigating the case track down a witness, within a few days of the shootings, who confesses to having collected the killing guns, wiping them down and throwing them into a city sewer.
Almost nine years and four trials later, no one has ever been sent to prison for the murder of Anthony Venditti. The case remains officially unsolved to this day. It’s a cold case that must irritate the NYPD like no other. A burr under the saddle of their discontent.
A seemingly straightforward indictment of the executioners of a police officer became, in the months and years that followed, one of the most complex, lurid and convoluted examples of justice denied, evidence overwhelmed by procedural incompetence, character assassination, immoral investigative practices, bankrupt and corrupt procedures, with more twists and turns that any thriller out of the stable of Agatha Christie.
Detective Burke was the main prosecution witness at four trials arising from the killing. Each time she identified the three men linked to the Mafia as the killers of her partner. Her version, however, was only partly corroborated by other witnesses.
The first two trials ended with deadlocked juries and the acquittal of one defendant. Then, all three were convicted on Federal racketeering charges. Finally, in the third state trial, the two remaining defendants were acquitted of murder and attempted murder charges in October 1994. The case was officially closed.
Kathleen Burke, would in the years following the shooting, offer testimony at trial after trial that was so unconvincing she was demolished on the witness stand. Frank Simone, the state’s chief independent witness, testified for the prosecution during the first trial, recanted after having his leg broken in the second, switched sides and testified for the defense during the third trial and was dead by the time of the fourth.
Kathy Burke was the state‘s star witness. She should have nailed it for the prosecution. Instead, the case collapsed over and over again. An ineffable litany of chances lost, opportunities squandered, and truth desecrated.
However, according to Selwyn Raab, in the New York Times:
“But the finger pointing goes beyond the actions of Detective Burke. Family members, despairing that they may never learn the truth, have filed complaints with police officials about the thoroughness and competence of the investigation, and question whether police corruption or other investigations of Mafia figures had compromised the inquiry.
Ms. Burke has raised similar concerns. But she says she was the target of a whispering campaign in the department that vilified her courage and conduct in the gunfight because she is a woman.”
And when one of the most intriguing aspects of the whole affair emerged during the investigation - a mobster trying to get an NYPD detective who was related by marriage, to check on the plate number of Venditti’s undercover car some weeks before the killing - no one in the team investigating the shooting seemed the slightest bit interested.
This might have been one of the biggest clues as to what really happened that night in Ridgewood, and for reasons known only to them, the men investigating the murder of one of their own, let it slip, silently away.
This slip-shod approach to the investigation was one of a number of strange.
How did this Kafkaesque nightmare evolve?
How did the killing of a New York police officer go unpunished?
How did it all go so wrong?
The day Anthony Venditti died, he and his partner, Kathleen Burke, began their shift at 26 Federal Plaza on the south-east corner of Worth Street and Broadway, in Manhattan, at the offices of the FBI. They met up at 2:00PM. Burke had been working with him for only three weeks as a temporary partner. Brian Ford, his usual partner for the last three years, was out of town on a skiing vacation.
Venditti and Burke were part of an NYPD organized crime task force working in conjunction with an FBI operation to bring down members of the Genovese and Gambino crime families controlling a vast, multi-million illegal gambling, sports betting and policy business that spanned Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, with ties as far away as Florida.
Ironically, Venditti’s last shift, began in a building, also known as the Jacob K. Javits Center which for many years was controlled by the Genovese crime family through their lock on the Carpenters Local 257.
Anthony Venditti, who was thirty-four years old, had joined the force in 1972 and been promoted to detective, Shield #679, in 1984. On April 4th 1985, he was appointed to The Organized Crime Task Force.
During his career with the NYPD he had received a commendation, a Meritorious Police Duty Award and fifteen Excellent Policy Duty Awards for outstanding police service.
He was born and raised in The Bronx and worked first the 50th and then the 48th Precinct where he catalogued hundreds of arrests before moving into the task force job. His fluency in Italian and street smarts made him a ’natural’ for work on Mafia investigations. He was married to Patti, with four daughters and it must have seemed that afternoon that his life was as perfect as anyone could hope for. Everyone he worked with confirmed that he was a loyal, determined and courageous police officer. He loved his family and he loved his job.
Kathleen Burke enrolled in the NYPD in June 1968; one of ten females in an intake of nine hundred and fifty. She was also, at that time, the shortest woman ever accepted into the force, standing barely five-two and weighing in at just ninety-two pounds.
She claimed to have slept on a hardwood floor for a year to help straighten out her spine to reach the minim height requirements for a female police officer. In her twenty-three year career, she would rise to be the most highly decorated female detective in the history of the force.
Within three years of joining, she was promoted to detective, third grade, Sheild#341, and married a cop, the future First Deputy Inspector Robert F. Burke -who would run three precincts and by 1991 be an Assistant Chief- from whom she would be divorced in 1992.
By the time she moved to the JOCTF (Joint Organized Crime Task Force: a combined NYPD and FBI unit) in July 1985, she had worked undercover as a narcotics officer and had been a part of the Major Case Squad, an elite unit which investigates serious crimes, excluding homicides. She had also been involved in a number of sex discrimination charges against personnel in the NYPD, in 1977, and again in 1984, and later claimed that she struggled against sexism almost every day of her career.
They were an unusual pair, one tall, full of energy and passion. One short loud, pushy, controversial. Teamed to carry out on this day what seemed to be routine police work, checking on, and perhaps tailing, men who worked for an organization with tenets as diametrically opposite to the NYPD as religious fundamentalism is to secularism:
New York, like other major cities in America, had been plagued for generations by Italian-American organized crime, and being the biggest city, had the most problems, with not just one, but five separate clans generating criminal activity across all the boroughs.
Trying to bring Burke up to speed, the two detectives spent some time that afternoon checking out mug shots that Venditti had assembled in a book, of the people they would be following.
One of the leading suspects was Federico ’Fritzy’ Giovanelli a soldier in the Genovese family. He worked in a crew of made men under the control of Dominic ’Baldy’ Canterino, one of many ’skippers’ who managed the small army of soldiers and associates that made up the family which was led by Vincent Gigante whose base of operations was a mob social club in Sullivan Street, in Lower Manhattan. The FBI considers the Genovese to be the largest and most powerful LCN family in New York and the most secretive and criminally diverse LCN family in the United States.
Giovanelli had never strayed far from the neighbourhood. In 1949, he lived at 54-04 Myrtle Avenue, a mere hundred feet or so from the Castillo Restaurant. That was the year of his first arrest, at the age of eighteen, for a fracas in Ridgewood. In July 1952 he was again in trouble with the law in connection with a robbery of fifty-eight thousand dollars’ worth of radio and television tubes from Olympic Television and Radio in Long island City. Records show he claimed he saw cartons fall off the back of a truck, and he simply picked them up. In December 1953, he was arrested, this time for his part in an armed hold-up in Yonkers, and then in 1954 he was arrested yet again, and received his first conviction, for simple assault. Three years later, he was listed, in a Congressional Hearing on Improper Activities in the Labour Field, as the secretary-treasurer of Local 531 of the United Industrial Union, a mob-connected confederation involved with the installation and maintenance of juke-boxes. Just what his qualifications were, as a twenty-six year old habitual criminal, for the job, was never disclosed.
He headed up a gambling and loan sharking operation that was based out of 41 Highland Park, in Brooklyn, and used Maltese and Gualtiere as his aides in running the operation. Another place ‘Fritzy’ used as an operating address was a social club called The Bushwick Democratic Club at 343 St. Nicholas Avenue in Queens, near the L & M overhead subway line. It was located a few hundred yards from the corner of Myrtle Avenue where the Castillo stood on a triangle block of land formed by Myrtle, Woodbine Street and St Nicholas.
Around 6:30 PM on an unusually warm day, the two detectives left Manhattan and drove across the East River in their undercover patrol vehicle, a 1977 two-tone brown Lincoln Town Car, to carry out surveillance at the Democratic Club (photo below). As they sat, watching across the street, the detectives saw Giovanelli, a short, dumpy looking man with the look of a chipmunk, and greying, straggly hair, leave the club, and drive away in his BMW. He was married to Carrol his wife of many years, and they had three children. Their modest family home was on 75th Street in Middle Village, about four miles to the north-east.
Perhaps the detectives thought he was going there. For whatever reason, instead of tailing him, they drove back into Manhattan to the Triangle Social Club, on Sullivan Street, the lair of Vincent Gigante. When they reached the area, they noticed two men talking on the sidewalk outside the clubhouse, one of them pointing out their vehicle to his companion. Giving the eye to ‘Johnnie Law’ as the crooks referred to the police.
For some weeks, Venditti had been trying to persuade his superiors on the task force to change his car, as he was sure he had been ’made’ by the mobsters he had under surveillance. Again and again, he had been denied the request. The two detectives then drove back into Queens and into St. Nicholas Avenue where they saw Giovanelli sitting in his car outside the social club. They decided to call it a day and head back to their own base in Manhattan.
Venditti’s concerns over his patrol car were well founded. A month before his killing, Steve Maltese had reached out to his cousin’s husband, NYPD Detective Frank Cammarata, to check a number plate for him on the police computer system. It was the registration of the Lincoln Town Car used by Venditti.
In evidence at one of the trials, Cammarata admitted he’d been asked for the information, but had never acted on it. It was later implied that when Cammarata told a detective from the 104th Precinct investigating the Venditti case about the license-plate request, the detective was simply not interested in the matter.
The mob’s curiosity about this car may well lie at the heart of the whole affair.
The testimony of one Keeran ‘Butch’ Sullivan opened a new can of worms and just possibly pointed to an explanation as to why an undercover detective and a group of dangerous and violent criminals met on that night in January 1986.
Sullivan testified that he had worked with ‘Fritzy’ from 1970 until 1986, and that Giovanelli was the boss of the gambling operation under investigation by the Task Force. Steve Maltese he claimed, was the second in command, and supervised the ring and Carmine Gualtiere acted as the accountant and head controller who managed all the gambling orders that were handed into the office each day by customers.
The business was essentially bookmaking, policy and sports betting, the staple money earner of any Mafia crime family, earning Giovanelli thousands of dollars each week. Sullivan claimed he handled interstate bets by telephone from Chicago, New Jersey, Palm Springs and Florida. He also acted as a receiver for shylock payments made to the group through Maltese and had also was available from time to time, to act as an enforcer in collecting these payments.
Analysis of seized records indicated that in a six-month period of numbers betting only, the proceeds were $5.5 million of which net profit amounted to almost $1 million.
Sullivan also claimed that in May 1982, Anthony Martinelli at the request of Anthony Maltese, the brother of Steve, had purchased three handguns in Florida and passed these onto the group.
In addition, he testified that the group believed they were under threat of robbery by a rival faction-at one stage perceived to be members of the Gambino crime family, another Mafia clan operating in New York, after an attack on one of their gambling spots in December 1985. Maltese had given the plate number of the brown Lincoln Town Car to Sullivan, telling him to be aware of the possible danger. Maltese, a short, sad-eyed middle-aged man, nervous about further attacks, had begun to carry a gun.
Although prosecutors in the four trials never offered up a motive for the shooting of Detective Venditti, it seems highly likely his killing may well have been a case of mistaken identity; that Giovanelli and the other men who confronted Venditti and Burke that night, believed they themselves were being targeted and felt under threat.
When the two detectives called off their surveillance on Giovanelli they headed down St. Nicholas Avenue, Burke driving. Venditti asked her to stop outside the Castillo Restaurant, so he could use their restroom and grab them coffees. What happened next is not exactly clear.
Time has a habit of effecting our memory of events for memory suffers the undeniable effects of time, diluting some aspects, highlighting others. Memory is a bridge, helping us to work out the effects of trauma and pain as well as trying to confirm our recollections. So many years after the event, the event itself, is not so clear and easy to understand.
According to the testimony outlined in the 1989 Federal trial, Burke stopped the car and was then shocked to see that Giovanelli had tailed them and stopped his BMW right behind their car. They had not noticed he had followed them from the social club area.
Neither officer was wearing their bullet-proof vests. Kathy had slipped hers off, thinking the shift was finished, and Venditti’s was waiting back at his home to be washed. His children had covered it in ink drawings.
For some unknown reason, Anthony Venditti, a very careful man, ignored the presence of Giovanelli’s car, and went into the diner (pictured in the photo below).
Burke claimed he reassured her that all was okay.
‘What’s he gonna do? He’s OC. They don’t hurt cops. Quit worrying, willya,’ Venditti said to her as he exited their car.
Burke claimed she drove away, around the block in an effort to draw Giovanelli away, but instead, he moved into a space directly opposite the restaurant and she noticed another car tailing her. When she returned and parked behind a dumpster partway down the block, she saw that her partner was standing by the cash register in the diner, and that Giovanelli and two other men had gathered by the entrance.
That’s when everything turned to custard.
The restaurant has two entrances, one on each side of the building, each accessed by six stairs and joined by a central display room. Burke was approaching the entrance on the east side when she noticed Venditti was leaving by the other door.
She claimed she had moved quickly down onto the sidewalk to warn her partner of the three men gathered by the entrance, as Tony stepped out of the door. She started to draw her .38 caliber revolver from her jacket pocket and shouted out:
‘Tony. Watch out!’ and then ‘Police. Freeze.’
Six feet from the group a bullet slammed into her body. As she fell, she fired five shots into the air. She knew her partner kept his handgun snapped into an ankle holster and would never have time to reach it. Two men grabbed him by the arms at the foot of the stairs, jamming him into a small alcove formed by the restaurant’s front abutment and the staircase, and the third shot him twice in the face. The pathologists’ examination of the body confirmed bruising and scratch marks on Venditti’s upper left arm. As he crumpled to the ground, he was shot twice more, in the back.
Kathy Burke blacked out and when she recovered consciousness, the three men had disappeared.
A woman called Mercedes Pagan who was in the diner, looked out of the window and claimed she saw Maltese firing a gun. Thomas Kosior, also inside, confirmed this. Minutes later, three hundred feet to the west of The Castillo, Myra Rivera, looked out of her apartment and saw a man kneeling near a parked car on Palmetto Street dropping something onto the road. The police later recovered a handgun that was confirmed as one of the three purchased by Anthony Maltese in Florida.
‘Butch’ Sullivan later testified that about an hour after the shootings, he and Steve Maltese and a man called Vito Roselli collected three handguns that had been hidden under a car close to the scene of the attack and dumped them into a sewer in a nearby street. Ten days after the killing of Detective Venditti, Sullivan led the police to the site and the weapons were recovered. A bullet from one of them matched one taken from the dead police officer.
And then there was Frank Simone.
An unemployed chef, aged twenty-seven, who lived in the locality, at 1665 Madison Street, just around from St Nicholas Avenue, a man with drug and alcohol problems, he stated that he was passing the restaurant when the shootings broke out and he claimed to have witnessed Carmine Gualtiere fire two shots into Detective Venditti’s face.
He subsequently recanted his statement at the second trial after he was badly injured when beaten by a group of men who broke his leg. He claimed he had been pressured into giving evidence for the prosecution by the police investigators.
His dead body was found at 11:PM on the edge of Ferry Point Park at the junction of Miles and Balcom Avenue in Throgs Neck on Wednesday, October 4th 1989. The place had a reputation as a Mob dumping ground for its victims.
He had been shot in the head. Near the body, police found a pile of rotting fish. In Mafia lore this was a message to informers to ‘sleep with the fishes.’ His family allegedly had ties into organized crime and were concerned how Simone‘s testimony might impact on their lives. In a moment of absolute irony, it was reported that Simone was a sous-chef skilled in preparing fish.
In the third trial held in 1989, according to the Court of Appeals hearing 1990-1991, the defense called forty-three witnesses, including several law enforcement officials. The defendants did not seriously contest the gambling allegations that were part of the indictments, but vehemently disputed any responsibility for the murder of Venditti and the attempted murder of Burke.
Giovanelli and Maltese contended that on the night in question two unknown men attempted to rob ‘Fritzy‘, that Venditti and Burke, who had been surveilling Giovanelli, appeared on the scene and interrupted the robbery, and that shots were exchanged between the robbers and the detectives resulting in the killing of Venditti and the wounding of Burke. Gualtiere, a short, tubby, melon-shaped, bald-headed man who was a habitual gum-chewer and known to his friends as ’Buddy,’ claimed that he was not present at the scene of the shootings and therefore had no knowledge of the events at issue. He maintained, with numerous witnesses to support his statement, that he was home that night, watching ‘The Muppets’ on TV.
The defense case focused on, among other things, inconsistencies in statements and testimony provided by government witnesses. In particular, the defendants stressed that during an interview at the Wyckoff Heights Hospital, immediately following her shooting, Detective Burke had failed to identify by name, Maltese and Gualtiere. The defendants further argued that Detective Burke had rehearsed her testimony on dozens of occasions and that her pivotal testimony implicating the defendants had been modified and refined over the course of the several proceedings. The defendants also asserted that the criteria that the police used to develop a list of suspects was inconsistent with an eyewitness description of the gunmen.
One of the defense lawyers, Lawrence Hochheiser, claimed Kathy Burke ‘was damaged goods and that her testimony at each trial when she identified the shooters was different.’
After years of travail and so many attempts, it appeared that the order of the law in its fight to convict Giovanelli et al had crumbled into a state of narcoleptic lassitude. The written and spoken word had become enemies of the state.
As poet Emily Dickinson said: ‘Tell the truth, but tell it slant.’
Kathy Burke later claimed that she had been the target of a whispering campaign in the department that vilified her courage and conduct in the gunfight simply because she was a woman. She also stated that ‘there was a lot of sloppy detective work that turned this case into a paper nightmare.’
When she retired from the force in 1991, as a Detective First Grade, she claimed, ‘Thank God I got shot. And, thank God, I got shot in the front of my body because it proved I wasn’t running away.’
Many people, including Venditti’s family however, believed that had she been a better partner, she might have prevented his death, and that her inconsistent testimony helped significantly to undermine the case for the prosecution.
The entire affair may well have been simply human nature at its worst as people struggled with a fine cop's death and the aftermath.
Two weeks after the final trial ended, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After she retired as a Detective First Grade, Burke went on to become a counsellor with the New York City Police Department Self-Support Group - an organization for police officers who have been shot, stabbed, maimed or otherwise injured in the line of duty, and which played an important role in “debriefing” Ground Zero cops who didn’t know they even needed an outlet in order to heal.
She published her autobiography: Detective, in 2006, telling her side of the story. Towards the end of the book she contends that the Mafia had infiltrated, undermined and corrupted the criminal justice system, compromising the police investigation, sabotaging the prosecution and influencing or intimidating either the witnesses or the jurors in three out of the four trials. Reading her story as she presents it, it’s hard to disagree with her conclusions.
During Anthony Venditti’s funeral mass, held at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Mel’s in Flushing, on Saturday, January 25th. five thousand police officers turned out to pay their respects to a fellow officer who had posthumously been awarded the NYPD Medal of Honor. They packed the roads leading to the church, standing in salute, silently, for three blocks on either side of the church, as snowflakes drifted down on the ranks of blue uniforms, while seven hundred people crammed into the church to say their goodbyes.
On his prayer card it read: ‘A Cop’s Cop.’
A quarter of a century after his death, the public square where Anthony Venditti died, was rededicated in his name, after the initial ceremony in 1995 when a memorial plaque and clock tower in his honor were installed.
On October 16th, 2011, police department personnel, community leaders and family members, almost two hundred in number, joined together to celebrate the life of the detective who died in service to the city.
One of the speakers cited from the Bible, the Book of Ecclesiastes, in describing Anthony Venditti as ‘a just man, who perished in the line of duty, protecting the residents of the community from those who are wicked.’
His memorial plaque which reads a Raymond Chandler quotation: ’Down these mean streets a man must go who is himself not mean; who is neither tarnished, nor afraid’ was covered by those attending, with sixty carnations symbolizing the age Venditti would have reached that year.
His life cut dramatically short, not even in its prime, the endlessness of human suffering he left as a legacy to his wife and family was an open sea: grief and sorrow, like water, everywhere.
Carmine Gaultiere and Steve Maltese are now both dead.
Federico Giovanelli is still doing what he had always done best, being a bad-ass Mafioso.
In 1989 he served seven years as part of his racketeering conviction in connection with the Venditti case.
In May 1998 he was sentenced to nine months for parole violation.
By 1999, according the FBI he was part of a ruling panel managing the Genovese crime family when the boss, Vincent Gigante was in prison.
Old school Cosa Nostra, he was back again into the arms of the law when in January 2005, he entered the prison hospital in Butner, North Carlolina to serve a ten-year sentence for conspiracy. He was released in January 2011.
In a wonderful example of art imitating life, one of Giovanelli’s crew, according to the FBI, is Rocco Musacchia, who has worked on a number of movies, as actor and production-hand, including, Prizzi’s Honour, Brighton Beach Memoirs, one of the most famous mob movies of all times, Donnie Brasco, and recently, in the 2009 film, Under New Management.
In March 2014, Giovanelli will reach the age of eighty-two.
Who knows where he will be then, who he will be with, and what he will be doing?
Most likely it will be in Queens or Brooklyn, along with the bad guys, and none of it will be good.
My thanks to poster, HairyKnuckles at The Real Deal Forum, for his help with some of the research for this story.
Read all of Thom's articles and stories at his Mob Corner.
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Copyright © Thom L. Jones 2013 & www.gangstersinc.nl