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Former Gambino family mobster shows his soft side

By Robert Sberna

As a former member of the Gambino crime family and the son-in-law of John Gotti, Carmine “The Bull” Agnello often found himself the target of news reporters. While Agnello’s past media coverage was focused on his criminal activities—whether alleged or actual—he recently generated some feel-good news.

The ex-mobster, who relocated to Northeast Ohio in 2008, offered to pay the funeral expenses for a 9-year-old Cleveland girl who was killed June 20 in the crossfire of a gang shootout.

Agnello, 57, and his wife Danielle, met with the mother of Saniyah Nicholson last week to formally make their offer. Saniyah’s mother, Marshanette Daniels, accepted the offer, said Agnello’s attorney.

Saniyah was killed as she and her older sister sat in Daniels’ car. Daniels had left her daughters in the car briefly while she ran errands on Cleveland’s East Side. Suddenly, gunfire erupted outside on the sidewalk between two groups of gang members. A bullet tore through the car’s windshield and struck Saniyah in the head. She died instantly.

Agnello has previously paid for the funerals of children who have lost their lives to gun violence, noted his attorney, Ian Friedman,

“He just wants to be an example for people to step up and do the right thing,” Friedman told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Saniyah’s funeral is scheduled for June 29.

Just last year, Agnello pleaded guilty to charges related to the operation of his Cleveland scrap business, Eagle Auto Parts. Agnello had been arrested two years earlier during an early-morning raid. He was accused of running an illegal car-scrapping scheme and hit with a dozen charges, including racketeering, money laundering and conspiracy.

Agnello’s arrest was the culmination of an 18-month investigation, nicknamed “Operation Goodfella,” which was launched after Cleveland Police noticed a spike in stolen automobiles around the city, many of which were never found.

During their investigation, which began in 2013, police officers posed as employees of a “chop shop” that obtained stolen cars to resell their parts. The undercover cops quickly crossed paths with Agnello and learned that he was paying neighborhood teenagers to steal cars, usually $20 or $25 per car. Agnello would then crush the cars and fill them with dirt and debris to make them heavier, and thus more valuable as scrap metal sold by the pound. He would then haul the cars to an auto shredder facility, where he bribed employees to ignore the artificial weighting of the vehicles or adjust the scale readings in his favor.

According to a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court document, recordings of Agnello’s phone calls revealed that he had spoken to employees of the shredding company about payoffs. In one conversation, Agnello shouted at an employee of the shredding company because other employees had reduced the weight of some of Agnello’s cars after finding them loaded with dirt:

AGNELLO: “[Redacted] These jackoffs, they knocked 1,200 pounds for dirt, first box. 2,200 second box.  Those cocksuckers, man. What do you want me to do?”

[REDACTED]: “How much did they knock off?”

AGNELLO: “1,200 first box, 2,200 second box. Dirt. Come on, [redacted], what do you want to do? Why don’t you take my business and I’ll sign it over to your company? What the fuck? I mean, what happened over there? What happened? They want to be assholes?”

[REDACTED]: “Yeah.”

AGNELLO: “What the fuck? [Redacted]?” [REDACTED]: “Yeah, I’m here.”

AGNELLO: “There isn’t fucking dirt in there, man! What the fuck you talking about? Go look at it.”

[REDACTED]: “I’m…I’ll…I’ll fix it. Sorry.”

AGNELLO: “Do something fucking with your life.”

On another occasion, Agnello complained to the same employee that his company had reduced the weight of his cars by 1,530 pounds because they were again loaded down with dirt and motor oil. Agnello ordered the employee to “Straighten that out. Motor oil, I can’t believe it. I can’t deal with this.  I can’t believe it goes on there. I can’t. Only in Ohio.”

The scam allegedly netted Agnello up to $4.2 million. He and his wife were also charged with environmental crimes related to his scrapyard operations, including open dumping, contamination of waterways, and opening a tire storage facility without applying for a permit.

After his arrest, prosecutors asked for a $1 million bond, citing Agnello’s previous criminal past and his mob connections. During Agnello’s bond hearing, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty scoffed at the defense’s portrayal of Agnello as a “hard-working family man.”

“He's a family man, all right—a Gambino family man,” countered McGinty.

Although there is no evidence that Agnello was collaborating with organized crime associates in New York, members of the New York Police Department assisted Cleveland Police during Operation Goodfella.

McGinty said the NYPD mainly helped with background information on Agnello, adding, “I commend the courage, bravery, and tenacity of the undercover police officers who risked their lives to expose ongoing Mafia activity in Cleveland and New York. We will vigorously pursue criminal prosecutions against any Mafia activity in Cleveland and will indict any offense they commit until they get the message that Cleveland is closed for Mafia business."   

Cleveland Police Deputy Chief Ed Tomba added, “Cleveland has been free of traditional organized crime for awhile. We don’t want [Agnello] or any of his minions to get a foothold here."

In 2017, prosecutors agreed to drop most of the charges against Agnello. After pleading guilty to polluting the environment, being a felon in possession of a weapon and defrauding a towing company, he was sentenced to a year’s probation. He was also ordered to repay the prosecutor's office $180,000 for the cost of the investigation.

It wasn’t the first time that Agnello had been accused of scrapyard shenanigans. As a Gambino member, Agnello built a $100 million scrapyard and auto recycling operation in Queens, New York. That enterprise financed a glamorous lifestyle for his wife, Victoria Gotti, daughter of the late mob boss John Gotti, and their three sons.

In 2000, Agnello was indicted for using threats of extortion and arson to put a rival scrapyard company out of business. That scrapyard turned out to be an undercover police operation. Agnello pleaded guilty to racketeering and income tax fraud and was sentenced to nine years in federal prison. As part of his plea, Agnello agreed to forfeit $10 million to the United States. He was also ordered to pay $950,000 in restitution to his victims, and he was permanently banned from participating in the scrap metal industry. (Evidently, Agnello’s wife owned the Cleveland scrapyard and he was listed as an employee).

While Agnello was incarcerated in the Elkton federal correctional institute outside of Youngstown, Ohio,  he was divorced by Victoria Gotti. He then met Danielle Vangar when she visited her father, Mourad “Moose” Topalian, the alleged leader of an Armenian terror organization. Topalian had been serving time in Elkton after pleading guilty to possession of explosives and firearms.

After leaving prison in 2008, Agnello married Vangar and moved into her upscale home in Bentleyville, an upscale suburb of Cleveland.

Neighbors and friends of Agnello describe him as a hard worker who spends long days at the scrapyard. At night, they say, he enjoys staying at home playing with the three children he has with Danielle.

Robert Sberna is a Cleveland-based journalist who contributes to several national publications. His first book, House of Horrors: The Shocking True Story of Anthony Sowell, was named 2012 True Crime “Book of the Year” by Foreword Reviews. His most recent book, Badge 387: The Jim Simone Story, was released in August 2016. For more information, visit www.robertsberna.com.

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