Mike Rizzitello was doing time for kidnaping and robbery, and Bill Carroll was in for grand theft when they met in 1970 on the tennis courts of Chino State Prison.
Their association would end 17 years later in a deserted Costa Mesa parking garage, where prosecutors allege Rizzitello, a reputed Los Angeles mob captain, pumped three bullets into Carroll’s head while Carroll’s driver, Joey Grosso, held down his legs.
Carroll had been resisting Rizzitello’s efforts to gain control of a topless nightclub he partly owned, authorities said, and paid the price for it.
“This is for not letting us eat,” Rizzitello allegedly hissed as he pulled the trigger three times, leaving Carroll to die.
But Carroll lived to face the men he says tried to kill him. In the coming weeks Rizzitello and Grosso will go on trial in Santa Ana Superior Court for attempted first-degree murder.
Reference to the mob, the notorious Mustang topless bar and a gaudy Italian restaurant should lend a theatrical quality to the proceedings, scheduled to begin April 10.
Heavy courtroom security will add drama. Authorities say Carroll, who was permanently blinded in the attack shortly after midnight May 1, 1987, was repeatedly threatened after the shooting with phone messages like, “This is it. It’s live or die.”
Consequently, armed guards will be brought in and everyone entering the courtroom will be searched with a metal detector. As the prosecution’s star witness, Carroll’s past testimony is on videotape in the event of a Mafia hit, the district attorney’s office said.
Like a ghost rising from the dead, the scandal-wracked Mustang will provide a backdrop for the trial. Law enforcement sources say the Santa Ana tavern was the den of much of the county’s organized crime activity. The club was torched and destroyed 14 months ago, and a Bellflower man was convicted of arson.
Three months later, Mustang bouncer George Yudzevich, who allegedly bragged that he had disposed of the attackers’ bloodied clothing, their gun and the silencer, was killed. Rizzitello is a suspect in Yudzevich’s gangland-style slaying, said Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher J. Evans.
Yudzevich, a suspected accomplice in the Carroll attack, was killed in a shooting that bore a striking resemblance to Carroll’s 10 days after Rizzitello’s release from prison, prosecutors said in court records. Rizzitello denied any wrongdoing through his attorney.
Despite the fact that Grosso has insisted he will not testify against Rizzitello and has nothing to fear, the 4th District Court of Appeal on March 2 denied his latest request for bail. Both remain at Orange County Jail. Evans successfully argued that Rizzitello would pose a public threat and Grosso would be killed by the mob if either was released on bail.
As he awaits trial and another appeal for bail, Grosso has busied himself in jail reading a good book. He says it has several passages about Rizzitello and other alleged gangsters. It’s called “The Last Mafioso.”
Although he admits to a fascination with organized crime figures, Grosso has no felony convictions himself and denies any mob ties, Evans said. Grosso acknowledges, however, that some of his best friends operate on the fringes of the underworld.
Rizzitello’s criminal record spans 4 decades and at least two states, and the Orange County charges he now faces carry the potential for his longest stint yet behind bars. If convicted, he and Grosso would face life imprisonment for the attempted murder charge plus additional prison time for other charges related to the shooting.
Prosecutors believe this trial will provide the best opportunity yet to permanently imprison a reputed mob captain that some organized crime experts consider the heir-apparent to the Milano crime family in Los Angeles.
The trial is expected to last less than 2 weeks.
Although Rizzitello, 61, of Los Angeles and Grosso, 45, of Las Vegas and Costa Mesa have yet to offer a defense in court, both have pleaded innocent to the charges. They are expected to try and prove--or at least suggest--that someone else shot Carroll that night nearly 2 years ago near the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
Grosso admits that his defense could be daunting, although he is indignant about the charges.
In numerous jail interviews with The Times, Grosso has gone so far as to say he had dinner with Carroll and Yudzevich the night of the shooting and was with them immediately afterward. When he stopped to use a pay phone, Grosso said, Yudzevich shot Carroll. But in trying to cast suspicion away from Yudzevich, a buddy of 2 decades, Grosso concedes that he later told Mustang club manager Gene Lesher that Rizzitello shot Carroll.
“I admit it does not look good,” Grosso said. “I wish I had not done that.”
Carroll, 56, whose whereabouts are being kept secret, is expected to offer the same story that he did last fall during preliminary hearings for Rizzitello and Grosso.
Grosso hopes to tell jurors about the first time he says Carroll approached him with a deal: to sell counterfeits of the signed and numbered belt buckles Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates doles out to big-bucks campaign contributors.
Evans describes Grosso’s version of the shooting as fiction. “And it’s not even good fiction. . . . I like that bit about the buckles though.”
After their paroles in the early 1970s, there were no more daily tennis matches. Carroll claims that more than 17 years passed without a word from Rizzitello. Prosecutors will argue in court that Rizzitello’s desire for easy money and Carroll’s reluctance to offend the mob brought them together again in 1987, and that this time there was no love lost.
Prosecutors gave this account of the case in court testimony:
Rizzitello contacted Carroll because he wanted financial control of the Mustang, which was earning $150,000 a month and was repeatedly under police investigation for prostitution and drug activities.
When Carroll resisted being muscled by the mob, the cost was his vision.
In the months before Carroll was shot, he accepted several invitations to meet Rizzitello for dinner. Initial meetings were cordial, but soon Rizzitello, a clothing wholesaler, began pressing Carroll to buy Levis.
Because he feared for his safety, Carroll agreed to make a purchase but wanted instead to buy $10,000 worth of lingerie Rizzitello also sold. Carroll told authorities he thought he could at least secure a return on his money by selling the undergarments to the club’s 70 dancers, who in turn sold them to customers.
Carroll told investigators that Grosso sold the undergarments to the dancers for him, but Carroll never received the proceeds. Confronted about this, Grosso claimed that his girlfriend, Connie--now his wife--would bring in the money, Carroll said. When she did not, Carroll complained to Rizzitello. He also allegedly told Rizzitello that he fired Yudzevich and kicked Grosso out of the Mustang because they were selling drugs to customers and the dancers. That was early in March, 1987.
Two weeks later, someone shot at Carroll outside the bar on Harbor Boulevard, apparently grazing him but causing no injuries. He later told authorities he did not report it to police because he believed they would be of no help. The next month, on the night of April 30, Grosso called Carroll to say Rizzitello “could help” him with the near-miss shooting.
Carroll met the pair at an Italian restaurant in Santa Ana, authorities said. Rizzitello and Grosso were waiting for him out in front, where a mint green plaster statue greets diners. After dinner, Carroll agreed to drive them back to their car in Costa Mesa. When they arrived and the parking garage was empty, Carroll said, he turned to ask about their car and found Rizzitello pointing a gun at him with a silencer on it.
Security guards later found Carroll bleeding near his car.
From his hospital bed and later from his Buena Park home, Carroll steadfastly refused to tell numerous law enforcement investigators who had shot him and why.
Eighteen months later, he finally told investigators Rizzitello and Grosso were his attackers. It was the day after prosecutors decided to dismiss 10 felony counts against him in connection with an alleged bank fraud. He pleaded no contest to a single misdemeanor charge of using a false business address in the case. Evans said the case file was sealed by court order at the request of Carroll, who did not want his address made public record.
Defense attorneys last year tried to tarnish Carroll’s credibility by suggesting that his testimony came in return for the dismissal of the charges--an accusation Evans has vehemently denied. Carroll testified that he received numerous death threats by phone after he was shot and decided to talk to authorities only after his court matter had been resolved. He said he feared being killed in jail if he blamed Rizzitello.
“I absolutely did not make a deal with the D.A.'s office,” Carroll told the court last fall. “I have never been promised anything--not even a cup of coffee--by law enforcement to testify here today.”
Story Called ‘Preposterous’
Rizzitello won’t be interviewed about the case against him. His attorney, Anthony Brooklier, concedes that though his client is no Boy Scout, Rizzitello “had no motive . . . to hurt Mr. Carroll, and Carroll’s story is preposterous.”
Brooklier disputed that Rizzitello was battling for control of the Mustang. “It’s not true.” As to Rizzitello being an alleged suspect in Yudzevich’s murder, Brooklier points out that he has not been arrested or charged. Quite simply, Brooklier said, Orange County prosecutors should either put up or shut up with their “wild speculations.”
Although Rizzitello has said nothing, his co-defendant has talked plenty about the charges, all of which he denies. In addition to attempted murder, both men have been charged with one count each of mayhem and conspiracy to commit murder. Rizzitello is also being tried on charges of unlawful use of a firearm and being a convicted felon in possession of a gun.
Grosso, married to a statuesque model, is the owner of Diplomat Limousine Service in Newport Beach. He was a member of the exclusive Balboa Bay Club until his membership was suspended pending this trial. He says he has campaigned for New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and led a citizens’ drive to make the office of Newport Beach mayor an elective rather than appointive office.
“I am an upstanding citizen,” he said. “I was a captain for the Democratic Party!”
He awaits trial on fraud charges in another Orange County criminal case, this one involving investments and weekend junkets to Las Vegas in which he said gamblers lost money and blamed him. Police who arrested him in 1986 said otherwise: Investors were told they could make huge profits by helping Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos launder organized crime money and skim casino profits.
The trial hurt his limo business, Grosso said. To make ends meet, he became Carroll’s driver in January, 1987. That month, the first of three men linked to the Mustang club was shot. On New Year’s Day, Mustang owner Jimmy Casino was shot to death in his Buena Park home. Carroll was shot May 1. On March 3, 1988, Yudzevich, 6-foot-7 and known as Big George, was shot three times in the head and killed in Irvine.
Police have never solved the murders of Casino and Yudzevich.
Although he denied being involved with Carroll’s shooting, Grosso admits to being present immediately before and afterward. His version of that night differs from the prosecution’s--right down to the weapon.
Carroll was angry and concerned about Yudzevich’s impending testimony about the mob before a New York grand jury and decided to fire him, Grosso said in interviews. “I want him out of the club,” Grosso quoted Carroll as saying.
In Carroll’s rented Honda, the three drove to dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant in Costa Mesa, Grosso said. He said Carroll’s own car--which he obsessively had checked for bugging devices--was being repaired. Carroll and Yudzevich argued heatedly during the meal. As they left the restaurant, Grosso claims his pager went off and he went to use a pay phone. Carroll and Yudzevich preceded him to the car. When he got to it, Grosso says, Yudzevich stood holding a gun--without the silencer Rizzitello is accused of using--and Carroll lay bleeding in the car.
Grosso claims that he tried to take Carroll to a hospital but that Carroll insisted nobody be told of the shooting. Grosso, breaking into sobs as he recounted this story, said Carroll assured him he could handle Yudzevich, who then drove the Honda to the parking garage where guards later found the wounded Carroll.
Meeting With Agents
Despite at least one meeting at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Santa Ana with FBI agents and investigators from the district attorney’s office, Grosso said he refused to discuss Carroll’s shooting because he had promised “on my kid’s life” not to.
He admits, however, that his loyalty only stretched so far; he said he told detectives about a variety of robberies and loan-sharking activities for which he alleges Carroll was responsible.
Grosso believes that Carroll has now turned on him after learning of Grosso’s cooperation with investigators and that the district attorney’s office continues to have him jailed without bail in the hopes that his resolve not to testify against Rizzitello will crumble.
“They said they wanted something on Carroll to get him to talk about who shot him,” Grosso said. “And I gave it to them. Me. I put myself in here. . . . I was double-crossed by the D.A., but I would never--I will never--testify against a man who didn’t do anything wrong, and Mike Rizzitello didn’t shoot nobody.”
Evans said he does not want to try this case in the newspaper.
“But let’s just say that Joey Grosso’s story is like that big trash barge that couldn’t find a port to take it.”
Key Figures in Trial Michael Anthony Rizzitello, 61, of Los Angeles owns a wholesale clothing business. He has served time in state and federal prison for a variety of crimes since 1947, most recently racketeering. He is featured prominently in the book “The Last Mafioso” by Jimmy (The Weasel) Fratianno. Rizzitello is considered by some organized crime experts to be the heir-apparent to Los Angeles’ organized crime family. Rizzitello is charged with shooting William Carroll in the head three times shortly after midnight on May 1, 1987, because Carroll wouldn’t relinquish controlof the now-defunct Mustange bar in Santa Ana. Joseph Angelo Grosso, 45, of Costa Mesa owns Diplomat Lilmousine Service in Newport Beach and New York. Grosso is awaiting trial on charges that he and George Yudzevich bilked investors and Las Vegas and Atlantic City gamblers in a casino money-laundering scheme. That case hurt the limousine business and Grosso became William Carroll’s driver. He is charged with attempting to murder Carroll by preventing Carroll from squirming as he was shot by Rizzitello. William C. Carroll, 56, formerly of Buena Park, is a protected witness and his whereabouts are unknown. Carroll held a substantial financial interest in the Mustang bar, where some considred him the “controller”. Carroll is said by prosecutors to support himself off high-interest loans he grants. Carroll was sentenced in 1070 to Chino State Prison for fraud involving rental equipment. He was charged in 1984 with 10 felony counts for allegedly conspiring with the then-branch manager to bilk $500,000 in fraudulent loans from American State Bank in Orange. The major charges against him were dismissed the day before he blamed Rizzitello and Grosso for shooting him. He remains blinded by that attack.