Crooked Brooklyn by Michael Vecchione and Jerry Schmetterer is a harrowing, true tale of the chief of Brooklyn's Rackets Division who helped clean up the storied New York City borough (Available November 17, 2015).
Read this exclusive excerpt of Crooked Brooklyn by Michael Vecchione and Jerry Schmetterer, and then make sure you're signed in and comment for a chance to win a copy of this tale about cleaning up this NYC borough!
From 2001 to 2013, Mike Vecchione was chief of the Rackets Division in the Brooklyn District Attorney's office, which was the largest urban prosecution agency in the country. Vecchione grappled with organized crime and dirty politicians, during which he supervised, investigated, and prosecuted major felony cases.
Crooked Brooklyn is a gritty story of corruption, greed and law enforcement. Vecchione navigated a political minefield and expertly rose to the judicial challenges of directing investigations into a wide variety of crimes, from bribe-taking judges to cold-blooded killers.
Crooked Brooklyn is filled with characters and stories ripped straight from the tabloids, great for fans who enjoy Law & Order, readers of true crime and those hungry for details about the system that keeps us safe.
Someone Wants Me Dead
You really need to work on your threats. I can’t tell if you are threatening me or inviting me for tea.
“SOMEONE WANTS YOU DEAD,” George barked into the phone. “Get up here right away.”
I laughed into the phone. “You’re full of it!”
I was sitting comfortably at my desk about halfway through a trial transcript, reluctant to put it down, but when George called, people listened.
“No, it’s no joke, it can’t wait! Someone wants to kill you! Get up here,” George insisted.
Supervising Detective Investigator George Terra was a serious guy, and by up here I understood he wanted me to come to his conference room on the eighteenth floor, one above me, in a well-secured part of the building. Many of the biggest cases in the office of the Kings County district attorney had their roots in that small conference room.
It’s not every day that you hear that someone wants to kill you, even for a homicide prosecutor who sometimes sends killers to the chair. On the way to the elevator I ran over some of the possible suspects. I thought of Benny Geritano’s mother. I sent him away for ten years. Previously, I had convicted his brother, her younger son. She had the right to hate me. She had stood in the courtroom and cursed me out. I never took it seriously. DAs hear that all time. But her family had the connections to make it happen. Her late husband was a Mafia enforcer who was killed when he went to collect money owed to mob kingpin John Gotti and the mark got the jump on him.
I walked into George’s conference room, and sitting in a chair against the wall was an inmate. He was desperate looking and shifty with a pale complexion like he never spent a minute in the sun. The guy had put me in jail written all over him.
George started things off: “Mike, this guy asked to come here from Rikers to talk about a different case. Now he says he knows someone who wants you dead … putting out a contract. He wants to inform in exchange for a get-out-of-jail-free card.” George, his ever-present toothpick swirling around his lips, never minced words.
George had seen it all. He was an accomplished undercover operative specializing in posing as a hit man. He looked Brooklyn, spoke Brooklyn, and dressed Brooklyn. His signature look was an untied tie around his neck knotted only when he appeared in court. If he was taking this guy seriously, then I needed to concentrate. A stranger was about to tell me who was willing to pay to see me dead.
“Tell him what you know,” George said to the man, whose identity he had promised to protect. He would forever be known, in all paperwork pertaining to this case, as C.I., “confidential informant.”
“Listen, I’m not bullshitting. I wouldn’t fuck with you guys,” C.I. began. “It’s a guy named Demicco, he’s a wiseguy, he’s sitting in Rikers waiting for his ride upstate to do a stretch for manslaughter. Killed his sister’s scumbag boyfriend seven years ago. He wants Vecchione hit. He thinks I’m getting out soon, offered me the contract, ten large. I told him I would think about it.”
So I had my answer. Mike Demicco. A wiseguy, not someone I would have guessed would pay to have me killed. Wiseguys know how the game is played. They do their thing, we do our thing. They have their rules and we have ours. I was not sure exactly how to deal with this, but George was.
George already had a plan. First of all, he would assign detectives to guard me twenty-four hours a day. Then he would wire up C.I. and send him back to Rikers with the intention of getting Demicco to incriminate himself.
I heard George out but I was in kind of a fog. I was stunned. I certainly knew Demicco. He was a Colombo family associate, a tough character who knew the ropes. We gave him a pretty good plea, six to eighteen years. After a trial, he would have gotten twenty-five to life if convicted.
Karen Turner, a rookie assistant DA, and I had a good case against him for killing his sister’s boyfriend, whose name was Carlos Beltram. We had strong forensic evidence and a codefendant who was eager to testify against Demicco. His story was fitting for an episode of The Sopranos. It began in 1995, about seven years prior to this meeting with C.I.
“Angelo,” a Demicco henchman, had told us what had happened.
Demicco did not like the boyfriend. The kid was Puerto Rican, which right away was a strike against him with a connected family, and he was rough with the sister. And he was on parole following a drug bust. But, as these things go, she would not break up with him. True love, I guess.
Demicco took matters into his own hands. He told Beltram that he could get him a job with a company out in Sheepshead Bay. He offered to pick him up and drive him to the interview. Beltram agreed. Angelo stole a Cadillac limo and they picked up Beltram in Bushwick. Then they drove out along the Belt Parkway toward the supposed interview site.
Of course, along the way Angelo noticed something wrong with the car and pulled off the road and into a wooded area that is now Erskine Street, but back then was a few acres of scraggly woods and empty lots strewn with abandoned cars. Angelo popped the hood and asked Beltram to take a look with him to see what might be the trouble.
Beltram said, “Thank God. I thought this might be a hit,” and that’s when Demicco pulled a gun and ordered the boyfriend to walk into the woods. Angelo said he kept his head under the hood and pretended to be repairing something in case a Highway Patrol cop decided to check them out.
As Angelo told the story, after about two minutes of looking under the hood, he heard two shots. He figured the deed was done so he put the hood back in place and got behind the wheel. But five, then ten minutes, passed and Demicco did not return. Angelo decided to go looking for him.
As he got a few feet into the dense woods, Angelo was suddenly attacked by Beltram, who began to wrestle with him and beg for help. He promised he wouldn’t go to the cops. While he struggled to get Beltram off him, Angelo noticed two bleeding holes in Beltram’s chest. He had obviously been shot and was out of his mind with fear and rage. Just then Demicco appeared, carrying a small piece of lumber, which he quickly brought into contact with Beltram’s skull.
It was a vicious beating. The younger man’s fingers were torn off his hands in a vain effort to protect himself, and down he went. A few more smacks in the head from Demicco and the hapless Beltram was dead.
Next the two hoods had to bury the body. They had neglected to bring a shovel. Looking around for an alternative to a shallow grave, they spotted a sort of burial ground for discarded car tires. They dragged the boyfriend’s body to the pile, and then, too exhausted to do much more, they merely covered it up with a few tires near the bottom of the stack.
About one week later, they returned to the scene of the crime with shovels, determined to give the boyfriend a proper burial. But what they found disgusted them so much they were paralyzed with fear and panic. Even seven years later when Angelo told the story, he broke into a sweat. He said when they removed the tires, all they found was rotting flesh and maggots crawling all over him, in his eyes, his mouth. “We almost puked,” Angelo recounted, “so Mike said, ‘Fuck this,’ and threw the tires back on him and we split.”
Then they learned that the tire burial ground was to be excavated to make way for a shopping-center complex. Demicco got Angelo, and once again with shovels they made their third visit to the fateful site.
This time all they found was a skeleton that had been picked clean by the maggots and other slimy things that live off dead bodies. So Demicco figured they could avoid the work of digging a grave. He shocked Angelo by grabbing the skeleton’s head and snapping it off at the neck. Holding the skull in one hand, he punched out the front and most of the other teeth with his other fist. Only a few teeth in the rear of the skull remained. Then he took the skull and put it in a plastic bag he’d brought with him. He tied the bag and heaved it into the woods. Eventually it landed in a nearby creek. Then he and Angelo packed the remaining bones into five plastic bags, put them in the trunk, and took them to Bensonhurst, where they distributed the bags into Dumpsters throughout their neighborhood.
Four years later in 1999, the shopping center was built and the boyfriend’s disappearance was an unsolved case that no one was trying too hard to crack, when an innocent fisherman working the stream across from Erskine Street hooked a plastic bag. When he opened, it he found a skull. He examined the find, then threw it away into the sickly stand of woods. Another fisherman saw this and called the police.
The medical examiner’s office took possession of the skull and called in a forensic dentist and a forensic anthropologist. They made some notes, noticing that the skull had been hit with a large object. With no one to connect the skull to, the report got filed away and the skull was buried in potter’s field. No body, just the battered skull.
About two years after that I got a call from a friend in the NYPD Intelligence Unit. Angelo, now working off a federal gun-running charge, told him a story about his friend Mike Demicco, who had killed his sister’s boyfriend. He said he knew this because he drove him to the crime scene. The detective learned that the case might involve a skull known to the medical examiner’s office.
My friend asked if I wanted to pursue the case against Demicco. The old case had never been reported as a homicide, but if we could prove the skull belonged to the boyfriend, I thought we would have something to bring to a jury.
So, we retrieved the medical examiner’s report, which mentioned the bashed-in skull—a testament to the great work those guys do—which matched Angelo’s story of Demicco’s beating the boyfriend to death with a piece of wood after his bullets failed to do the trick. But that would not be enough to convince anyone that it belonged to the boyfriend. We needed to match those remaining teeth. On a hunch I suggested we find out if the boyfriend ever did any time. Maybe he had dental work done in prison.
Sure enough, he did do time in state prison and visited the dentist while he was there. We found his prison dental records, and a forensic dentist—these guys are geniuses—using X-rays the medical examiner had on file, matched the boyfriend’s teeth to those remaining in the skull.
In addition, we had the victim’s brother testifying that Beltram was meeting Demicco to go on a job interview that day and was never seen again. Also, significantly, we had a tape of a telephone call Beltram’s brother had the foresight to record when he first became concerned about his brother. On the tape, Demicco admitted he took Beltram to the job interview, then back to Bushwick, but didn’t know what happened to him after that.
Demicco’s defense was just that. In the face of the evidence we had, it was not an explanation any lawyer would want to take into court.
The grand jury bought the evidence and Angelo’s story and returned an indictment for murder against Demicco.
Several months later, Demicco pled guilty to manslaughter with the promise of a six-to-eighteen-year sentence. If he was found guilty at trial, he might have faced twenty-five years to life. I let the rookie Karen Turner handle the sentencing. She stood at the prosecution table and gave the judge a rundown of the case and the evidence against Demicco, who sat sulking in his chair.
She reported for the record the deal we had struck. The defendant was sentenced by the judge. That was that.
I had an interesting case under my belt, and young Turner, who went on to become a stalwart of the Rackets Division, got some valuable face time with a supreme court judge, a real mobster, and his defense attorney.
Now I was hearing Demicco wanted to pay to have me killed. I didn’t get it. He got caught fair and square. He was a mob associate, he lived by a certain code, and this did not fit in. I could understand if he wanted to kill Angelo for snitching on him, but I was doing my job.
Well, we had our C.I. to help us figure it out and perhaps trap Demicco into some new charges against him, such as conspiracy to murder a prosecutor. So George, working with the Department of Correction, the people who run the New York City jails, arranged for C.I. to go back to Rikers, where he would wear a wire when he met with Demicco and agree to take the contract for the hit.
Meanwhile I was living with the permanent shadows. District Attorney Charles J. Hynes assigned two female detectives as my primary bodyguards, and I would have protection twenty-four hours a day. I hated it. It drew attention to me everywhere I went. Not that I mind being in the spotlight, but not for those reasons.
One night after work, alone except for the two bodyguards, I headed to my favorite restaurant at the time, an Italian place on First Avenue in Manhattan. It is a famous hangout for law enforcement and media types. The rumor is that it was “silently” owned by Vincent “Chin” Gigante, the head of the Genovese crime family and the real “godfather” of New York crime.
I was at the bar nursing a scotch when the “owner” came over. He knew me as a regular and asked about the two women sitting on the bench in front of the restaurant.
He generously offered to bring them in. “On me, I’ll treat them right,” he said.
I filled him in on the situation, explaining they were doing their jobs by sitting out in front. He offered to help. “You know, Mike, I can take care of this. I know some people who can make that contract go away.”
I thanked him but told him it was all under control.
In the evenings two detectives were stationed in a car outside my father’s home in Queens where I was living while he recovered from a stroke. The office security people were taking the threat seriously.
They even flagged the license plates of the cars of my two sons, Brian and Andrew, so they would be alerted if anyone was checking them out. It was not unheard of for those with access to motor-vehicle computer records to help out criminals who might be looking to follow someone.
As scary as it sounds, the situation was under control. C.I. was back in Rikers. Before wiring him up to snag Demicco, we checked prison records to see who else was visiting this killer.
He had had two recent visitors who had convictions for witness tampering and witness intimidation. Demicco was deadly serious, and when I heard that, I thanked my lucky stars for pros like George, who insisted on taking even the slightest threat seriously.
It was summer, which created a problem wiring C.I. because inmates wore shorts in the heat and humidity of the city’s island prison, making it difficult to hide the recording equipment. But this was George’s specialty, and within days of returning to Rikers, C.I. was able to approach Demicco with the recorder strapped high on his inner thigh.
When we heard the conversation on tape, we were relieved, disappointed, and surprised! We heard Demicco tell C.I. he was no longer interested in carrying out the hit. He said he was going upstate and did not need any more trouble.
Thus, relief, my life was apparently safe for the time being. But my team was disappointed. We had responded professionally and carefully. It would have been satisfying to bring further charges against Demicco. No one should feel they could threaten a prosecutor and get away with it. I would have liked Demicco to know we were onto him, but we could not expose C.I.
But I was grateful to him because he earned his keep. Showing a real flair for the undercover life, he had the presence of mind to ask Demicco exactly why he wanted me to die.
The mobster’s answer was the surprise that still boggles my mind: “Are you kidding? That louse disrespected me. You know what he did? He had that little girl do the sentencing. I’m a made man,” he boasted, “and he had a little girl send me away. Fuck him!”
George and I looked at each other in amazement. How do you figure on something like that? I laughed a nervous laugh. It was so unpredictable. I was going to die because I let a young female assistant stand up in court against a wiseguy! Go figure that one out.
I thought I knew the rules of the street as well as the rules of the courtroom, but there’s always something to learn in the courtrooms of Brooklyn. Over the years I realized how lucky we were that Demicco did not decide to take it out on Karen.
Copyright © 2015 Michael Vecchione and Jerry Schmetterer.
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Michael F. Vecchione recently retired as Chief of the Rackets Division of the Kings County District Attorney's Office, completing a career as a prosecutor that spanned four decades. He is co-author of one previous non-fiction book. He lives in Long Island City, N.Y.
Jerry Schmetterer is an award winning print and broadcast journalist. He served for 12 years as the spokesman for the Kings County District Attorney's Office.