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Businessman Prefers Jail to Testifying : Woodland Hills Resident Refuses to Talk in Organized Crime Case

Times Staff Writer

Saying he fears for his life, a Woodland Hills man has served more than four months in jail for refusing to testify before federal grand juries in New Jersey and New York about his purported involvement with East Coast mobsters.

Michael R. Esposito, 40, has been in a New York City federal holding facility since April 23 for refusing to testify about the New Jersey-based Luchese crime organization. Alleged members of the organization are under indictment for activities that include loan sharking, racketeering, drug trafficking and use of counterfeit credit cards.

In a telephone interview Wednesday from the Metropolitan Correctional Center, Esposito acknowledged his business involvement with two of those under indictment, but said he didn’t know of their alleged mob connections.

“I don’t know anything about the Lucchese organization. The government is trying to make me out as someone who knows the inner workings of the group, but I don’t know anything the government doesn’t know,” Esposito said.

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“I just happened to get involved with the wrong people.”

Witnesses normally cannot be forced to testify before a grand jury because they can exercise their Fifth Amendment right to be silent to avoid self-incrimination. They can be forced to testify, however, if given immunity from prosecution, which takes away that grounds for silence.

Esposito was granted immunity from prosecution by the U.S. Department of Justice.

But his attorney, Stephen Dratch, said his client is “afraid to testify for fear of what might happen. He is afraid of reprisals directed at him and his family.”

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Esposito was beaten in the spring of 1984 by two men who gained a controlling interest in Esposito’s Canoga Park videotape distribution business, said Justice Department Special Attorney Grady O’Malley, a member of the federal Organized Crime Strike Task Force in Newark.

“He was beaten about the face and body during a video convention held in Chicago,” O’Malley said.

The two men who allegedly attacked Esposito--Martin Taccetta, 34, and Robert (Bucky) Caravaggio, 45, both of New Jersey--were among 26 alleged members of the Luchese organized crime family indicted by a federal grand jury in Newark on Aug. 21. Another federal grand jury, in New York City, is also looking into allegations of Luchese-connected mob activities but has not handed down any indictments.

The organized crime group gets its name from Thomas Luchese, a Mafia leader who died in 1963.

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In the telephone interview, Esposito said he met Taccetta and Caravaggio through a mutual friend and formed the California corporation in early 1984.

O’Malley said Taccetta and Caravaggio had “done a favor for Esposito and as a result became partners with Esposito” in his business, called Night Flight Video, which sold videotapes nationwide to distributors, who then retailed the tapes to consumers.

At some point, O’Malley said, the two men took control of the company, forcing out Esposito. The company ceased to operate in late 1984, he said.

Esposito refused to say what prompted the takeover. O’Malley and Dratch also declined to elaborate on Esposito’s possible involvement with the Luchese organization.

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The 81-page federal indictment is believed to be the most comprehensive and far-reaching ever handed down against a New Jersey-based organized-crime group, U.S. Atty. Thomas W. Greelish said.

It culminated a four-year FBI probe, said Special Agent Robert Wright, in charge of the Newark division of the agency.

The indictment detailed the Luchese organization’s alleged activities, including a loan-sharking operation at interest rates of 156%. The indictment said borrowers who fell behind in payments were subject to threats and beatings.

It also alleged that the group, which authorities called the Taccetta Group Enterprise, was involved in a wide range of gambling activities involving numbers, horse betting and video gaming machines.

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Twenty members of the organization were arrested by law-enforcement officers in raids on Aug. 21, the same day the indictment was returned, O’Malley said. Five others since have surrendered or have been arrested, and one remains at large, he said.

Taccetta was released on $50,000 bond and Caravaggio was released on $150,000 bond by U.S. Magistrate G. Donald Haneke last week, said O’Malley.

Esposito was subpoenaed to appear on April 23 before the federal grand jury in Newark investigating the Luchese organization. When he refused to testify, he was was held in contempt and jailed.

But, on July 31, Esposito, after spending more than three months in confinement, was ordered freed by District Court Judge Harold Ackerman.

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After being free for 12 hours, Esposito was served with another subpoena, ordering him to appear before another federal grand jury, this time in the Southern District of New York.

When Esposito refused to testify before that grand jury, District Judge Peter Leisure jailed him. He is ineligible to be released on bond.

“He is a man who isn’t talking because he is in fear of his life. He just ain’t talking, and no matter how much time he spends in jail he will not speak,” Dratch said.

Formerly a New York Life Insurance Co. agent, Esposito came to Los Angeles in 1977, when he entered the videotape distribution business.

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Esposito, father of a 14-year-old boy, has been married 1 1/2 years to Connie Esposito, 31. Connie Esposito said she now arms herself with a .38-caliber revolver and fears for her life, as well as the lives of her husband and stepson.

If he testified, “absolutely, I think he would be killed,” she said. “Maybe not tomorrow or next year, but sooner or later, they would get to him, me or his son.

“He has shown he will not testify under any circumstances, so why doesn’t the government release him?”

Connie Esposito said from the couple’s Woodland Hills home that she was unaware of any involvement by her husband with Taccetta and Caravaggio.

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“He told me that, when he was in Chicago, he went out to buy a paper, and these two guys mugged him,” she said.

Esposito said he is willing to continue his jail term, based not only on fear of reprisals, but also on principle. “The government has put me here, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to cooperate with them at all,” he said.

The maximum time Esposito can be confined for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury is 18 months, O’Malley said.


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