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March 27, 2001
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Bugging The Bull: Did Ariz. police go too far in Gravano wiretaps?

By Dennis Wagner
The Arizona Republic
March 25, 2001

Investigators continued taping hours of highly personal phone calls involving Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano and an Ecstasy ring despite wiretap laws that prohibit the recording of conversations unrelated to criminal cases, according to documents obtained by The Arizona Republic.

Court records show that police monitored 17,000 conversations involving Gravano, his family members and others. The court-approved wiretaps were conducted over two months as authorities investigated a nationwide syndicate trafficking in Ecstasy pills.

Wiretap summaries obtained by The Republic indicate that Gravano was not overheard blatantly doing drug transactions by phone, but took part in at least one related conversation and was implicated repeatedly by associates. The former Mafia hit man, who moved to Phoenix after testifying against Gambino crime family boss John Gotti, was indicted last year and identified by police as a leader of the ring.

Judge Susan Bolton of Maricopa County Superior Court authorized and scrutinized the wiretap operation, which was known as CWT-211. Bolton, now a U.S. District Court judge, declined to comment on the case.

The Arizona Attorney General's Office, which is prosecuting Gravano, also refused to discuss wiretap records in the Ecstasy probe, as did Phoenix police.

One of Gravano's attorneys, Larry Hammond, has argued in court that police exceeded their authority with the bugs and that the evidence they provided should be suppressed.

A hearing on that issue is scheduled May 11 before Judge Steven Sheldon. Prosecutors already have secured plea agreements from at least 25 defendants, some of whom signed statements implicating "Sammy the Bull" as an accomplice. But Gravano, his wife and his two children, all of whom were indicted, are awaiting trial.

Grand jury indictments list 47 defendants and more than 200 criminal counts, including conspiracy, narcotics dealing, money-laundering and weapons violations. They are based largely on the intercepted conversations among Gravano family members and a stable of young men.

Dangling conversations

The wiretap summaries tell of nightclub binges, drug-induced dazes, unprovoked beatings and Ecstasy deals conducted in fast-food parking lots.

They also contain personal information about innocent third parties and some conversations with lawyers.

Among the calls that officers recorded were family squabbles involving:

Gravano's wife, Debra, who joined her husband in Arizona after his prison release seven years ago, acquired an Italian restaurant in Scottsdale and worked alongside him in the family construction business; Gravano's son, Gerard; Gravano's daughter, Karen, and her live-in boyfriend, David Seabrook. For months, the Gravanos and other key figures were followed and photographed by police, who recorded the endless melodrama of their conversations.

Through it all, Gravano was omnipresent: telling stories, smoking cigars, singing, throwing tantrums, laughing at his own jokes, cursing and having private conversations with a little dog named Duke.

During court hearings on the case, defense attorney Hammond has stressed that there was no crime in those antics. He ripped police and prosecutors for falsely portraying Sammy the Bull as a drug kingpin when surveillance records do not support such a label. He scoffed at allegations that Gravano used the Devil Dogs White-power gang as "muscle" for drug operations.

The only direct evidence, Hammond said, was a phone call wherein Gravano authorized his son to get $70,000 from the family safe, ostensibly for the purchase of 13,500 Ecstasy pills. That buy never took place, and Hammond disputes that the money was intended for drugs.

"That's all there is," he told Judge Sheldon during a bail hearing last year. "Not numerous occasions (of drug dealing). No substantiated actions. ... You will not find the case that has been described in the press."

Papa Duke's cut

The summaries do contain, however, countless drug-dealing conversations among other defendants and statements from them identifying Jimmy Moran (Gravano's acknowledged alias) as their boss and mentor.

One wiretap record tells of Michael Papa, Gravano's business partner, arguing with a California supplier about a $10,000 payment shortage on a $100,000 shipment of Ecstasy. According to police records, Papa emphasized that the money was carefully counted by five people and "the big man (believed to be Salvatore Gravano) himself counted and put the hundred ($100,000) in the box."

Later, the supplier, according to the summary, suggested that they squeeze Gravano out of their operation, causing Papa to panic. Wiretap summaries quote him saying: "Watch the movies. ... He's (expletive) nuts. You don't even know what would happen. Family or not, it doesn't matter. ... You double-cross him and you are (expletive)."

In another call, the summary shows Gerard Gravano told a relative that Ecstasy prices were up because his dad was getting 50 cents from every pill the organization sold. That was reiterated later when Seabrook boasted to a New York associate how he was getting rich selling drugs for Gravano.

From the wiretap summary: "Dave stated that he has never made this much money in his life. ... Dave goes on to say that they are giving him (Gravano) 50 cents (per pill) on everything given to them. ... Dave mentions that this is the first time he's been on this level."

Police reports say Seabrook told his friend that Gravano was a shrewd mentor who advised how to make money by reinvesting drug profits in more dope and by valuing people instead of flashy automobiles or fine clothes. Seabrook said Gravano had told him, "Family is what is important, kid, not cars."

Wiretap rules

With court approval, police eavesdropped on 11 phone lines and slipped two bugs into Marathon Development, Gravano's Phoenix construction office. Except for the target's celebrity status, it was a standard Arizona wiretap investigation, costly and lengthy compared with electronic surveillance operations elsewhere in the country. In 1998, for instance, wiretaps in Maricopa County cost about $500,000 each, more than double the national average, because police here use them against complex drug organizations. Defenders say modern narcotics syndicates are so sophisticated and dangerous that there is no other way of catching them. They emphasize that phone taps cannot be installed without probable cause and court approval. They stress that, under state and federal law, police are required to "minimize" electronic surveillance: to stop listening when conversations have nothing to do with criminal acts.

Defense lawyers and civil libertarians answer that those rules are often stretched or ignored. They complain that wiretap use is expanding dramatically, about 150 percent in the past two decades, and abuse is rampant. In Gravano's case, Hammond already has filed court papers complaining about "a monumental absence of serious minimization." He also warned that there are "substantial legal questions concerning how those wiretaps were obtained, and that this evidence may be totally excludable from trial."

Ratting on Sammy

If many of the conversations summarized in police records seem innocent, many others do not.

The players used a dizzying code during scores of transactions: Drugs were known as "pants" and "windows." Dollars were "hammers." Salvatore Gravano was known as "Jimmy," "Sammy" and "Papa Duke." His son was dubbed Shorty Whipwap. Authorities are expected to bolster their case by using evidence gathered during the Feb. 24, 2000 raids and by pressing underlings to "flip" on Salvatore Gravano, just as he turned on John Gotti Sr.

In 1990, the FBI was desperate to convict the Gambino family boss. So they cut a plea deal with Gravano, who admitted taking part in 19 murders, and gave him a five-year prison sentence.

There is no sign that anyone in Gravano's close circle has agreed to testify for the prosecution so far. But, according to court records, associate Philip Pascucci of Phoenix has signed on as a government witness who claims that he personally delivered 20,000 Ecstasy pills to Sammy the Bull and listened while Gravano plotted the murder of an attorney.

Pascucci made those allegations after his arrest on drug charges in Texas. Two people suspected of being accomplices are listed as prospective prosecution witnesses in the Gravano case.

But Pascucci's account has been challenged by another man, Valley union boss Ron Edwin, who claims that Pascucci actually plotted to murder Gravano for a $1 million bounty purportedly offered by the Mafia. Edwin says the FBI recorded phone calls during which Pascucci discussed that plot.

More trouble

If defense lawyers succeed in blocking wiretap evidence and tainting government witnesses, Salvatore Gravano's prospects remain bleak.

Investigators who raided his Tempe apartment found firearms, prohibited to felons, and marijuana. Unless lawyers are able to have that evidence suppressed, too, he could face substantial prison time.

Meanwhile, in December, a federal grand jury in New York issued new criminal charges against Gravano, again for Ecstasy operations. That case involves an Israeli organized-crime figure suspected of threatening to kill Gravano amid a turf battle over Arizona drug sales.

The Daily News of New York, quoting police, said one of the New York dealers was assaulted in the Valley and taken to Uncle Sam's Italian Ristorante in Scottsdale, where Gravano warned him: "I own Arizona. It's locked down. You can't sell pills here without going through me."

Finally, behind the pending criminal counts against Gravano there looms an old plea agreement from the Gotti case. That contract, filed in U.S. District Court, says if Gravano ever commits a felony again, he is subject to prosecution for the sins of his past: extortions, bookie operations and 19 murders.

Copyright 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

Full story: Bugging The Bull: Did Ariz. police go too far in Gravano wiretaps?

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