Sick or slick - mobsters under arrest claim illness
By LARRY McSHANE
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK- And the Oscar goes to ... Gregory DePalma?
In 1999, the Gambino family captain showed up in court unshaven with an oxygen mask, claimed to be desperately ill and convinced a judge to reduce his prison sentence from 13 years to six. Later, though, the FBI secretly recorded him boasting of his acting ability: "Oh, I got the global award, the Academy. I got the Emmy."
DePalma, now 74, is on trial again in another mob case, reasserting his claim of ill health as he spends his days in a courtroom with an oxygen tube up his nose and his feet resting on a stool.
Trying to dodge prosecution through illness _ or coming down with the "Sicilian flu," as federal agents once derisively called it _ is a long-standing Mafia defense, so familiar it has inspired plotlines on "The Sopranos" and "Law & Order."
The most famous case of all involved Vincent Gigante, the "Oddfather" who avoided conviction for nearly three decades with his well-documented crazy act.
Gigante shambled through his Greenwich Village neighborhood in bathrobe and slippers, whether it was time for breakfast, lunch or dinner. FBI agents serving him with a subpoena once found him standing naked in a running shower, clutching an open umbrella.
Gigante was found guilty in 1997 of racketeering and murder conspiracy, and finally admitted his ruse six years later. He died in prison last year at 77.
"Gigante got a lot of exercise walking around the Village," said mob expert Howard Abadinsky.
The majority of cases run to heart problems rather than head cases.
Joe Bonanno, one of the founding fathers of New York City's mob, was summoned to testify in 1985 at a federal prosecution of the Mafia's ruling commission. He was 80, retired and living in Arizona at the time, and his lawyer, William Kunstler, argued that the mobster was so ill that the stress of testifying would be too much for him.
Bonanno served 14 months for contempt, coming out of prison in 1986.
He died ... 16 years later, at the ripe old age of 97. Kunstler had died seven years earlier at 76.
Another mobster, Buffalo boss Stefano Maggodino, once claimed after an arrest that he was too sick to get fingerprinted. At a bedside arraignment, he told the assembled authorities, "Take the gun and shoot me. That's what you want!" He survived for another five years.
Not everyone lived as long as they did. Aniello "Neill" Dellacroce was arraigned by telephone in April 1985 from his Staten Island home, where he was laid up with heart disease and cancer. Dellacroce was dead before the end of the year.
"When you start to think of the lifestyles these guys live, there's a good chance it's not going to be so healthy," Abadinsky said. "One of the things that always fascinated me is that these guys didn't die earlier."
At his current trial, DePalma's attorney described him as a "broken-down man" who is missing a lung and suffers from an assortment of serious illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease.
But federal prosecutor Scott Marrah said surveillance photos will show DePalma "on the move, an energetic, active man."