In July 2015, when police in Cleveland, Ohio arrested former Gambino mobster Carmine Agnello, authorities crowed that they were sending a stern message that their city was off-limits to organized crime.
Prosecutors at the time brought a dozen charges including racketeering and conspiracy against Agnello, whose background spurred splashy headlines by local newspapers. The burly Agnello, born in Queens, New York, is the ex-husband of Victoria Gotti, who was the daughter of mob boss John Gotti Sr.
At Agnello’s arraignment, prosecutors pleaded for a $1 million bond, citing Agnello’s long involvement with organized crime, his history of witness intimidation, and his penchant for violence.
Agnello, the key target in a two-year undercover investigation called “Operation Goodfella,” was accused of running a fraudulent car-scrapping operation in Cleveland, where he had relocated in 2008 after his release from a nearby federal prison.
From 2012 to 2015, said authorities, Agnello had been weighing down junked vehicles with debris at his salvage yard and then selling them to a scrap metal company, Ferrous Processing and Trading. He had reportedly bribed employees of Ferrous to not report the artificially weighted cars. Prosecutors alleged that Agnello had earned $4.2 million through the scheme.
When Agnello was arrested, officials staged a televised news conference to trumpet the success of Operation Goodfella, which was spearheaded by Cleveland Police with the help of the New York Police Department.
Cleveland Police Deputy Chief Ed Tomba told reporters, “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.”
Tim McGinty, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor at the time, added that the NYPD provided background information on Agnello, including intelligence on any of his affiliations with New York mobsters.
“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,” stated McGinty.
To borrow from poet T.S. Eliot, Operation Goodfella ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. Agnello had faced the possibility of decades behind bars, but his heavy hitting attorneys, Ian Friedman and Roger Synenberg, wrangled a plea deal earlier this month that spared him any prison time.
On June 1, 2017, in a Cuyahoga County courtroom that was conspicuously empty of the spectators and reporters that were present for his 2015 arraignment, Agnello pleaded to three offenses: violating an environmental protection statute by leaving a fire hose in an oil puddle, being a felon in possession of a gun, and stealing between $7,500 and $150,000 from Ferrous Processing and Trading.
He will serve one years’ inactive probation and pay a $10,000 fine. He did, however, agree to cover the cost of the $170,000 sting operation. In their defense of Agnello, his attorneys argued that prosecutors’ allegations were baseless and he was targeted because of his previous criminal activities and irrational fears that he was attempting to expand the New York Mafia’s reach to Cleveland.
Charges against Agnello's wife Danielle and their business, Eagle Auto Parts, were also dropped. Early in the Agnellos’ case, one of their defense attorneys was Angelo Lonardo, who, maybe not so ironically, is the son of Angelo “Big Ange” Lonardo, a former Cleveland mob boss who turned government informant in the early 1980s.
Danielle, along with Carmine, had been charged with environmental crimes involving their scrap yard, including open dumping, contamination of waterways, and opening a tire storage facility without applying for a permit.
Prosecutors had also briefly considered a charge of corrupting sports against the couple, alleging that Carmine injected race horses with banned substances. While searching their house during the 2015 arrest, police found vials of suspected performance-enhancing drugs for horses owned by Danielle. She was a leading horse owner at Thistledown race track in suburban Cleveland, winning 30 of 129 starts in 2013, and 15 of 121 in 2014. The charges were never brought, however.
Agnello met his wife, the former Danielle Vangar, while serving time in the Elkton federal correctional institute outside of Youngstown, Ohio. Agnello had been incarcerated for racketeering and money laundering involving a scrap yard he operated while living in New York—pretty much a carbon copy of the crimes he was charged with in Cleveland. He was ordered to pay $11 million in restitution in the New York case.
Danielle traveled to Elkton, which was about an hour from Cleveland, to visit her father, Mourad “Moose” Topalian, reputedly the head of an Armenian terror organization. Topalian was imprisoned after pleading guilty to possession of explosives and firearms. Topalian had been linked to several anti-Turkish bombings, including a 1980 car blast that injured three people outside the Turkish mission to the United Nations in New York.
Agnello and Danielle married after he left prison, settling in her upscale home in Bentleyville, an affluent suburb of Cleveland. Once again, Agnello had married into a family whose patriarch was considered powerful and dangerous.
Agnello quickly built up his scrap business with his wife as co-owner. Within a couple of years, Eagle Auto Parts was one of Northeast Ohio’s largest auto recyclers. However, in 2013, Cleveland Police noticed a pattern of stolen cars that were never recovered. “They just seemed to vanish into thin air,” said one investigator.
Later that year, police launched Operation Goodfella to solve the mystery of the ghost cars. During their 18-month investigation, police posed as employees of a “chop shop” that purchased stolen cars to resell their parts. The undercover investigators quickly crossed paths with Agnello. During taped conversations, they learned that Agnello was paying neighborhood teenagers to steal cars for as little as $25 per vehicle. Agnello would then crush the cars and fill them with dirt, sand, concrete and motor oil to make them heavier. He would then haul the scrapped cars to the shredder at Ferrous Processing and Trading, where he was paid per pound.
A taped conversation of Agnello and one of his employees shed light on his business model:
Agnello: “Yeah, got to add a little dirt. Give me dirt, so get down here. They’ve got to put more dirt in there. Call me with the weight. That load is light.”
Agnello: “Call me with what the weight is.”
In another recording, Carmine expressed concern when someone at Ferrous Processing noticed the artificial load in cars:
Agnello: “What did they do with me?
Employee: “I don’t know, they haven’t called it up. But I know the one guy was saying there was a lot of snow and dirt in there.”
Agnello: “…Snow and dirt...”
At one point in the sting operation, investigators heard Agnello confiding in a phone conversation that he suspected the chop shop employees were cops. Nevertheless, Operation Goodfella continued. At Agnello’s arrest, Prosecutor McGinty praised the moxie of the investigators.
“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,” said McGinty. This, despite the fact that there was no evidence that Agnello was collaborating with organized crime figures in either city.
Despite McGinty’s urgings for a high bond at Agnello’s 2015 arraignment, a judge set a $100,000 personal bond plus a GPS ankle monitoring bracelet. Nevertheless, McGinty didn’t miss an opportunity to mock the defense’s portrayal of Agnello as a “hard-working family man.”
“He's a family man, all right—a Gambino family man,” the prosecutor retorted.
Shortly after his 2015 arrest, Agnello was released from jail and allowed to return to work at his scrap yard. A judge also ordered the return of heavy equipment seized by police so that scrap operations could continue while his case was pending. Cops also returned two shotguns they confiscated from Agnello during a search of his house.
Agnello is back in business. Some observers have questioned his seemingly light sentence, rumoring whether he bartered his way out of a prison sentence. At this point, there’s no evidence of cooperation.
A peripheral, yet interesting, aspect of Agnello’s case was the release of a wiretapped conversation with his ex-wife, Victoria. Divorced from Agnello in 2003, she starred in the reality show “Growing Up Gotti” from 2004 to 2007 with their three sons.
During the recording, which was captured during Operation Goodfella, Agnello complained to Victoria that the boys don’t “listen” to him.
Agnello: “Do you know what the problem is?”
Agnello: “They’re my sons. I’ll love the day that they’ll be like their father.”
Victoria: “Well, you can’t expect that they would.”
Agnello: “I don’t.”
Victoria” “That comes with a lifetime of…you know. Think about when you were in your 20s, you were good, you were good, no one was better. But you had a lot to learn.”
While Agnello may have had deficits as a father, he has certainly learned that an overreaching prosecutor doesn’t have a chance against a good legal team.
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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