A Mob Case, and a Scene Straight Out of Hollywood
Steven Seagal, the action film star cited as a Mafia extortion target, has told investigators that after he stopped working with his longtime producer he was ordered into a car in Brooklyn last year and shuttled to a landmark restaurant where he was threatened by mobsters, according to officials and lawyers involved in the case.
He was so intimidated, he recounted, that he agreed to turn over $700,000, although investigators are still trying to trace the money.
If the incident seems like something out of Hollywood, a pair accused of doing the threatening seemed to agree, according to those close to the case who pointed to wiretap information. They say that bugs planted by federal and state agents later recorded a reputed Gambino family captain and soldier laughingly comparing the scene to the movies and joking about how they had shaken up the 6-foot-4 Mr. Seagal, a martial arts expert who is a practicing Buddhist.
New details of the case, which was made public last month as part of a federal waterfront racketeering indictment of Peter Gotti and 16 others, emerged in interviews with central figures who for the most part spoke on the condition of anonymity. By various opposing accounts, the peculiar tale may shape up as a battle for control over the actor between a Mafia extortion crew, which threatened his life, and Buddhist advisers who voiced concern for his afterlife.
Court filings and other government accounts painted a picture of Mr. Seagal's producer, Julius R. Nasso — named in the indictment as a Gambino family associate — turning to fearsome higher-ups in the mob to compel Mr. Seagal to abide by abandoned movie commitments or turn over millions for the missed profit opportunities.
Mr. Nasso, in interviews, dismissed these assertions, saying they were offered as a smokescreen to obscure Mr. Seagal's broken obligations and an unpaid $500,000 debt the actor owed him. He attributed their bitter break to Mr. Seagal's Buddhist advisers, including a woman named Mukara, who he said, in a quest for the actor's largess, drew Mr. Seagal a chart warning him that his violent movies and even his family members stood in the way of felicitous reincarnation.
Mr. Segal's lawyer, Martin R. Pollner, said Buddhism had nothing to do with it. "Steven is a believer in Buddhism and has made contributions as he has to other charities voluntarily and wholeheartedly and never under any threat," he said. "Buddhism has not gotten in the way of Steven's career — he's still making motion pictures."
Either way, it has been an odd denouement for a 15-year relationship that produced 10 films grossing many millions of dollars and found the partners living in adjoining houses on Staten Island and sharing many family moments. Mr. Nasso says he even helped raise one of Mr. Seagal's sons.
But for reasons never fully explained, the two parted ways in the last few years, setting off a plot that might have been lifted from the Elmore Leonard best-selling book and movie "Get Shorty."
In one of the more cinematic moments, people familiar with the case said, Mr. Seagal told investigators that in February 2001 he was visiting Mr. Nasso and his brother Vincent Nasso, also a reputed Gambino associate, in Brooklyn when he was ordered into a car to accompany both brothers and another reputed Gambino associate later charged in the case, Richard Bondi. After a switching of cars to throw off any pursuers, the journey ended at the Gage & Tollner restaurant in Downtown Brooklyn, where Anthony Ciccone, a reputed Gambino captain known as Sonny, and Primo Cassarino, a reputed family soldier, were waiting in a back room. It was here, people familiar with the case say, that the threat was made.
Not long afterward, people close to the investigation said, a tape recorder in one of the prime bugged locations, Brioso, a restaurant in Staten Island, picked up Mr. Ciccone and Mr. Cassarino chortling over scaring Mr. Seagal. "They were laughing about it, saying it was right out of the movies and `if we only had guns in our belts, it would be really good,' " said a lawyer who heard the tape.
A month later, Mr. Seagal told investigators, he was visited unexpectedly at his home in Los Angeles by Julius Nasso, Mr. Ciccone and Mr. Cassarino, and that he subsequently paid Mr. Ciccone $700,000 through Mr. Nasso.
People familiar with the case said investigators were still trying to trace the money and learn more about the circumstances under which Mr. Ciccone would be demanding money from Mr. Seagal. But in a court argument last month, prosecutors said the two men and the Nasso brothers were seeking to use Mr. Ciccone's position in organized crime to force the extortion victim — who has not been named in court but has been identified by all sides as the actor — "to either pay money or include J. Nasso in the individual's film projects."
One of the 2,200 tapes recorded, the government said, captured Mr. Ciccone instructing Julius Nasso to demand $150,000 a film from Mr. Seagal. Another obscenity-laced tape excerpted in court, it said, depicted Mr. Ciccone ripping into Julius Nasso for supposedly using Mr. Ciccone's name to help collect money to pay film investors — but without sharing the proceeds with Mr. Ciccone.
Another tape, people in the case said, recorded Mr. Nasso asking, and getting, Mr. Ciccone's permission to file suit against Mr. Seagal.
In a court hearing this week, Judge Fredric Block in Federal District Court in Brooklyn called the taped evidence against Mr. Cassarino so compelling that it was likely to result in his conviction.
In a June 11 court appearance for Mr. Ciccone, his lawyer, George L. Santangelo, sought to construe some of his client's taped words on another occasion as denials of any interest in extortion. But Magistrate Judge A. Simon Chrein called them double-edged and ruled that Mr. Ciccone — whom prosecutors called Anthony Scotto's successor as mob boss of the docks — was too dangerous to be released on bail.
Jack T. Litman, Mr. Nasso's criminal lawyer, denied his client's involvement in extortion. "Mr. Nasso is completely innocent," he said. "He never extorted Seagal. We deny he ever threatened him, period. If anyone was threatened it was Jules, by Mr. Seagal and his friends." At one point last year, people close to the case said, Mr. Seagal, seeking support, visited a reputed Genovese captain, Angelo Prisco, in the Eastern Jersey State Prison in Rahway. State officials confirmed Mr. Prisco was there but said his visitors were not a matter of public record. Mr. Pollner said he had no comment.
Mr. Nasso, 49, operator of a worldwide marine pharmaceutical supply business and a producer of a dozen films including some of Mr. Seagal's breakout hits, said he would not address the particulars of the criminal case. He is out on $1.5 million bail after being charged with conspiring to obstruct commerce by extortion and seeking to obtain property "by wrongful use of actual and threatened force."
Mr. Nasso filed suit against the actor last March charging that he reneged on joint film commitments worth $60 million because his Buddhist advisers opposed their violent nature as encumbering his afterlife.
Mr. Seagal's lawyers respond that there was no binding contract between them, a contention Mr. Nasso ridicules by citing records documenting their many joint projects. He said that he and Mr. Seagal were still in settlement talks as recently as last September, long after the supposed extortion.
"If Jules was extorting Steven for $700,000, why had Jules loaned him over a million and a half dollars and invested almost two million more in their company?" asked Robert J. Hantman, one of Mr. Nasso's lawyers.
Accounts pieced together from interviews with lawyers and people close to a multi-agency federal and state task force trace the case back to a gambling investigation that started several years ago and came to include the United States Department of Labor, the New York City Waterfront Commission, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the New York State Organized Crime Task Force and the Staten Island district attorney.
The trail led to the waterfront, a traditional area of Mafia operations, where prosecutors said the Gambino and Genovese families were trying to control the International Longshoremen's Association.
In December 2000 some of those under surveillance, Mr. Ciccone, Mr. Cassarino and the Nassos, were trailed to Toronto, where Mr. Seagal was making "Exit Wounds." The intimidation began there, Mr. Seagal later told investigators when he was called in — he did not come forward on his own, people close to the case said.
Mr. Nasso, who said he met Mr. Seagal in Hollywood in 1986, argued in an interview that he had helped make Mr. Seagal millions while reaping only $850,000 in producers' fees. He said that Mr. Seagal still owed him $500,000 that he had borrowed to pay taxes and that the dispute could be traced to that debt.
He also displayed copies of thousands of dollars of canceled checks from Mr. Seagal to Buddhist causes and individuals, suggesting that they were the ones relentlessly tapping the actor's coffers, not he. Some of the checks were made out for jewels, healers, psychics and "Buddhist stuff."