03/13/2006

Crooked cops, high-profile lawyers mingle at NY trial

By LARRY McSHANE
Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK- It's a crime story that begs for a best seller: A pair of oft-decorated NYPD detectives are accused of leading double lives, joining the mob's payroll. They allegedly go on a crime spree, leave a trail of dead bodies, and retire to a life as Las Vegas high rollers.

But who could write such a bizarre tale?

There's plenty of talent right at the defense table. Ex-detective turned defendant Louis Eppolito wrote an autobiography titled "Mafia Cop" and even appeared in a mob movie. His attorney, Bruce Cutler, wrote "Closing Argument," covering a career that includes defending mob boss John Gotti. Cutler's co-counsel, Edward Hayes, has a memoir titled "Mouthpiece" that just hit stores, and he was a model for a character in a Tom Wolfe novel.

All this media know-how will assemble in court Monday when the so-called "Mafia Cops" _ Eppolito and former partner Stephen Caracappa _ arrive for opening statements in their racketeering and murder trial.

Expect a few plot twists.

"I think there will be some surprises," Hayes predicted. "And I certainly have a few."

According to prosecutors, the two ex-detectives engaged in a cornucopia of criminal activity between 1979 and last year. Their indictment lists eight murders, allegedly at the bidding of Luchese family underboss Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso.

Authorities said Casso paid $75,000 for one of the hits, regularly paid the pair $4,000 a month, and referred to them as his "crystal ball."

In one case, however, thinking they were turning a mobster named Jimmy Hydell over to Casso for execution, the pair allegedly supplied an inaccurate tip that led to an innocent man with the same name, who died in a hail of gunfire on Christmas Day 1986.

There are charges of racketeering, kidnapping, murder, obstruction of justice, and money laundering, and after the pair retired to Nevada they were distributing methamphetamine, according to the indictment. The list could have been longer; in January, prosecutors opted to drop two additional murder counts.

Eppolito, 57, and Caracappa, 64, are both insistent about their innocence. Caracappa went on "60 Minutes" in January to express his indignation.

"Totally ridiculous," he said of the charges. "It's ludicrous. Anybody that knows me knows I love the police department."

Caracappa spent 23 years with the NYPD, working his way up to detective first grade and helping to establish the department's nerve center for Mafia murder investigations before retiring in 1992.

Eppolito actually grew up in a mob family: His father, grandfather and an uncle were all members of the Gambino family. The contrast between his police work and his family life was detailed in his autobiography, "Mafia Cop: The Story of An Honest Cop Whose Family Was the Mob."

He joined the department in 1969, and also made detective first-grade. Before his 1990 retirement, Eppolito was known among fellow cops as a tough guy with plenty of street smarts.

The partners settled in Las Vegas to enjoy their golden years. They were arrested on March 9, 2005, at a Las Vegas restaurant, and released on $5 million bail each.

Their trial promises to be one of the year's great legal spectacles.

The bombastic Cutler is best known for his work with Gotti. In one memorable opening statement, he dramatically spiked the indictment against Gotti in a courtroom trash can.

"Garbage!" he thundered.

Hayes, a former prosecutor, brings his impeccable attire and a glittering client list that includes Robert De Niro and Sean "Diddy" Combs. He was the model for take-no-prisoners defense attorney Tommy Killian in Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

Hayes said he's willing to let somebody else write about this case: "I already wrote a book."

If someone else takes up the challenge, there's always the chance of a movie _ and Eppolito could play himself. He had a bit part in the Martin Scorsese mob classic "GoodFellas."

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