By Robert Sberna - www.robertsberna.com
By any measure, mobster Carmine Agnello has led a fascinating life. But perhaps the most curious aspect is his propensity to repeat history. As a made member of the Gambino crime family, Agnello built a $100 million scrapyard and auto recycling operation in Queens, New York. The spoils of his mobbed-up business financed a luxurious lifestyle for his wife Victoria Gotti, daughter of Mafia boss John Gotti, and their three sons.
But Agnello’s empire collapsed in 2000 after he 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.
During Agnello’s incarceration, Victoria Gotti was granted a divorce on grounds of constructive abandonment—she and Agnello had not had sexual relations for more than a year. Victoria took possession of the couple’s $4 million Long Island mansion, which would be featured heavily in the reality TV show “Growing Up Gotti.”
While in the Elkton federal correctional institute outside of Youngstown, Ohio, Agnello 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. Authorities believed that Topalian had been the mastermind behind several anti-Turkish bombings, including a car blast that injured three people outside the Turkish mission in New York.
When Agnello left prison in 2008, he married the attractive Vangar and they settled in her upscale home in Bentleyville, an affluent suburb of Cleveland. Once again, Agnello had a powerful father-in-law whom many considered dangerous and well-connected.
And once again, Agnello became a major player in the scrap business, this time on East 116th Street in Cleveland. With his wife listed as the business owner, Agnello quickly built up his company, Eagle Auto Parts, into one of Northeast Ohio’s largest auto recyclers. Relying on his well-honed intimidation and coercion tactics, Agnello boosted his revenue through a variety of scams and fraudulent practices. And, inevitably, he would find himself again in the crosshairs of an undercover police operation.
In 2013, Cleveland Police noticed a pattern of stolen cars that were never recovered, which is an uncommon occurrence. Most cars eventually turn up stripped or abandoned. Later that year, police launched “Operation Goodfella” to solve the mystery of the ghost cars. During their 18-month investigation, police officers posed as employees of a “chop shop” that obtained stolen cars to resell their parts. The members of Operation Goodfella (a code name that smacks of confirmation bias) quickly crossed paths with Agnello. During conversations with Agnello, they 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, sand, concrete and motor oil 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 the longtime mobster suspected that one of the chop shop employees was an undercover agent. In a recording, he can be heard telling a New York Mafia associate of his concerns:
“'I wanna, I wanna tell you something like a brother. I don't know him from Adam, I already met him twice. When I see him here, it was the second time I met him. When I seen that guy, in my heart, in my heart, I feel like he's, uh, the law. I don't know him. I never see him. That's my feeling with him. I don’t know, and ah, you might say, ‘Carmine, you’re crazy.’ Maybe I am, that’s my feeling. He reminds me of a fuckin’ undercover fed dude.”
Despite knowing that Agnello suspected him, the undercover police officer continued the operation knowing that his life was potentially in danger.
Operation Goodfella eventually revealed that Agnello had spoken to employees of the shredding company about payoffs to accept cars filled with dirt so that Agnello could defraud the company. For example, 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?”
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.”
In a later recording, the officers overheard a man telling Agnello that he was going to put dirt in the tires of the cars at Eagle Auto Parts. Agnello told the man, “Two on each load.” Agnello then spoke again to the shredding company employee and said that he was going to be sending some loads of cars to him: “Should I send a little dirt with them, or no?” The employee replied, “Uh, I would maybe do a little on a couple, but don’t fill ‘em up, because they’re gonna…you know what I mean? If they’re filled up, he’s gonna send ‘em back to you.” Agnello stated, “No, I’m gonna put a little bit in one or two alone, that’s it.” Immediately after this conversation, Agnello spoke to one of his own employees at Eagle Auto and stated, “I just spoke to [redacted]. He’s gonna send me five trucks tomorrow. I told him about weight. He says two of them is fine. He said don’t load ‘em up too much. Put ‘em in the car like you doing, and then squash ‘em down. Because they’ll send ‘em back. We don’t want to send ‘em back.” Agnello then told the employee, “You gotta get ten cars like that ready. It’s gotta be inside the car.” The employee responded, “Inside the car with tires, I got you, I got you. Relax.”
To ensure that the shredding company would continue overpaying him, Agnello bribed employees to look the other way, readjusting or refusing to adjust any payments to Agnello once they saw the loads of dirt in his cars. This continued for more than three years, during which the shredder paid Agnello more than $4.2 million.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty charged Agnello with theft, money laundering, and conspiracy. He is also considering a charge of corrupting sports, which stems from allegations that Agnello injected race horses with banned substances. While searching Agnello’s house, police found vials of suspected performance-enhancing drugs for horses owned by Danielle Vangar. She had been among the leaders at Thistledown race track near Cleveland in recent years, ranking second while winning 30 of 129 starts in 2013, and 15 of 121 in 2014.
An associate of Danielle Vangar’s vehemently denies that she was part of a horse doping scheme. He characterized her as an “animal lover” who is a member of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). However, a spokesperson for PETA said there is no record of Danielle ever “donating to PETA or being a member of the organization.”
Agnello and his 43-year-old wife are also charged with environmental crimes stemming from his scrapyard operations, including open dumping, contamination of waterways, and opening a tire storage facility without applying for a permit. Prosecutors called Eagle Auto Parts a “disgraceful blight on the city of Cleveland.” In court documents, they noted, “Despite stealing $4.2 million [from the tire shredding company], Agnello forces his employees to work in disgusting and inhuman conditions, in an ‘office’ with a dirt floor crawling with insects and filled with the thick smell of urine, and a scrapyard filled with sludge ponds of waste oil and other toxic chemicals. Agnello also uses the scrapyard as an unlicensed, illegal tire dumping ground, and disposes of toxic oil in Ohio’s public waterways.”
An employee who works for Agnello is also charged with theft, money laundering, and receiving stolen property after he accepted bribes from an undercover officer to process stolen cars.
At Agnello’s arraignment, the bull-necked 55-year-old glowered as prosecutors pleaded for a $1 million bond, citing Agnello’s long involvement with organized crime, his history of witness intimidation, and his “continuing penchant for violence.” As evidence, they provided a transcript of a conversation with his ex-wife Victoria Gotti, in which she complained to Agnello that she was having trouble collecting rent from tenants. Agnello threatened violence to one of the men who was giving Victoria trouble, stating, “He’s lucky I wasn’t there today…I’ll beat that motherfucker. I told him that I’d be down there, that fat motherfucker.” On another occasion, Agnello told one of his associates, “You should send Anthony and Joey down there and split his fucking’ head open!”
Prosecutors also referenced Agnello’s attempt in 2000 to track down the arsonist he had hired to torch a rival scrapyard in Queens. The arsonist had become a confidential informant and was a key government witness against Agnello. While Agnello was out on bail and awaiting trial in that case, he was overheard asking a capo in the Genovese crime family, “Tony Parkside,” to locate the “snitch” who had caused “all of these problems.” Parkside, whose real name is Tony Federici, promised to assist Agnello in finding the snitch, stating that he would “get the word out to his people.”
Despite the prosecutor’s urgings for a high bond, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Brendan Sheehan set a $100,000 personal bond for Agnello plus a GPS ankle monitoring bracelet. During Agnello’s bond hearing, Prosecutor McGinty bristled 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 July 2015, Agnello was released from jail and allowed to return to work. A judge also ordered that several pieces of heavy equipment seized by police be returned to Agnello so that operations at the scrap yard could continue while his case is pending. The equipment included forklifts, a car crusher, and a front-end loader.
Agnello, who is reportedly estranged from the three sons he had with Victoria, spends his days working at his scrapyard while he awaits trial. At night, according to a friend of his, he comes home and plays with the three children he has with Danielle.
A trial date for Agnello and his wife has not been set.
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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