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Two Views of Mobster Linked to Silberman : Is Petti a Major Underworld Figure or a Crook Who Lives Up to His Name?

Times Staff Writer

There are two views of Chris George Petti, the underworld figure indicted with Richard T. Silberman in an alleged money-laundering scheme.

One can be found in a thick stack of federal affidavits, transcripts, crime reports, media clippings and testimony before the U. S. Senate on file with the Nevada Gaming Commission. They say the 62-year-old Petti has been at the helm of organized crime in San Diego, the majordomo protecting the interests of the Chicago and Las Vegas mob.

Jimmy (the Weasel) Fratianno, perhaps the most notorious mobster ever to turn government informant, once described Petti as a “strong-arm thug in San Diego” associated with the top leadership of the Chicago and Las Vegas syndicates.

Yet to some law enforcement officials, Petti is merely a wanna-be, a bit player, a man of Greek extraction trying to rub shoulders in a criminal organization traditionally ruled by Italian-Americans.

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“He was a cheap little hood that showed up in town,” said A. David Stutz, a San Diego County deputy district attorney.

“He isn’t very bright. He’s not a mover and shaker. He’s no big deal. He’s just a cheap, no-good little hood who never really amounted to anything.”

But one thing is clear: The federal government has spent a lot of time, money and manpower tracking his movements for the past 2 1/2 years, deploying one of the first ever roving wiretaps enabling the FBI to monitor Petti’s conversations on any telephone he used.

The investigation ended April 7 with the arrest of Petti, San Diego businessman Silberman and two other men for their alleged role in the complicated drug money-laundering scheme. A federal affidavit describing the investigation alleged that Petti had a powerful friend in Silberman, who confided to an undercover FBI agent about Petti: “I love the guy.”

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Silberman is free on bail. But Petti remains in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown San Diego after a federal magistrate denied bail, concluding that Petti is a danger to the community.

Oscar Goodman, a flamboyant attorney from Las Vegas who is representing Petti and has represented a number of organized crime figures, acknowledged in an interview that Petti and Silberman have long been friends. But, he added, “I can assure you it was a very legitimate relationship, going back a long, long time.”

Silberman and Petti came from two different worlds.

While Silberman has been a longtime Democratic Party power broker and successful financier, Petti came from Cicero, Ill., and is reputed to have made his early mark as a Chicago area loan shark. Later, he would be named by Fortune magazine as among the top 50 “Biggest Mafia Bosses,” and the Nevada Gaming Commission would find him worthy of inclusion in its Black Book of notorious hoodlums barred from the state’s casinos.

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Yet he has only two prior criminal convictions.

At the time of his arrest in the money-laundering case, he was living in a ground-floor condominium in the Hillside Colony near Lindbergh Field, with a man identified as Victor Garcia, described as a longtime confidante and chauffeur, according to federal agents.

Also known as Chris Poulos and Christopher Polous, Petti is the father of two children, from a marriage that began in 1967 and ended in divorce 18 years later.

Distinctive Features

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Petti’s features are distinctive, with silver gray hair, and a long, chiseled nose. He has been seen often around the downtown county courthouse wearing V-neck sweaters and sometimes a sweat suit. He often hung around the Stardust Hotel & Country Club in Mission Valley.

“With me he’s always been a very honorable fella,” Goodman said. “He’s a very quiet person, actually. I don’t know what all the fuss is about.”

A 1984 probation report paints a different picture.

“He has been seen in the company of organized crime figures in Las Vegas, Northern California and Chicago,” the report says.

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It adds that Petti “has a propensity for violence (and) has a violent temper, particularly when he is drinking.”

Goodman denied that characterization.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with him, both during the day and in the evening,” he said. “He laughs a lot harder when he’s drinking.”

Petti first surfaced in San Diego in the early 1970s as the bodyguard and chauffeur for Frank Bompensiero.

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Known as the “Bomp,” Bompensiero had a reputation as an elder statesman in organized crime, a top mob boss in California with good contacts to the Chicago outfit.

“He would be like a driver or a kind of a courier, a messenger-type carrier,” said Nick Lore, a former organized crime specialist with the FBI.

But Bompensiero was also a government informant. And, according to a former Justice Department organized crime prosecutor familiar with Petti, he told investigators that Petti was heavily involved in illegal gambling and loan sharking.

Gangland Slaying

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Bompensiero was gunned down in 1977 while walking in an alley near his home in Pacific Beach, shot four times in the head when a car slowed down alongside him.

One of the first people his wife called after the murder was Petti, and federal agents quickly began to theorize that Petti would assume control for the San Diego rackets, highlighted primarily by bookmaking, loan sharking and some drug smuggling, officials said.

Petti became closely linked by federal investigators with Anthony “Tony the Ant” Spilotro, a notorious Chicago mobster who moved to Las Vegas to run operations in the desert. Like Bompensiero, Spilotro eventually was murdered, his body dumped along with his brother’s in an Indiana farm field.

As Petti was gaining in prominence, so too was the government watching his moves.

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A 1978 federal affidavit filed in Las Vegas places Petti and Spilotro together in a Las Vegas restaurant, discussing what to do about a loan shark victim under pressure to cooperate with federal investigators.

The next day, Petti called Spilotro and told him the loan shark victim hadn’t talked to the FBI, the affidavit says. Later, the loan shark victim met with Petti and Spilotro at the same restaurant, the affidavit says, and Spilotro suggested that the man be less than truthful in his upcoming grand jury testimony.

The document has Petti and Spilotro meeting again, this time to discuss upcoming grand jury testimony in San Francisco from Fratianno.

Jack Armstrong, a former FBI agent and San Diego County criminal investigator, told a U. S. Senate investigating committee about surveillance of two out-of-town union organizers with mob ties. The organizers came to San Diego in 1978, ostensibly to help local hotel and restaurant employees.

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Assault With Baseball Bat

“I watched their organizing efforts in San Diego,” Armstrong said. “It was an easy job. They would spend half the day playing golf at the Stardust, then attend the races at Del Mar and then confer with Joe LiMandri (a reputed mob associate) at the card room in the Stardust.

“I watched them meeting with people like Chris Petti.”

In 1979, Petti assaulted two men with a baseball bat during an altercation at a La Jolla condominium complex. One of the men suffered a concussion and, in a complex legal case, Petti eventually was convicted and in 1984 fined $1,000.

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His second conviction involved a federal bookmaking case that covered the 1980-81 football season. He was released from prison in 1984, after serving just under nine months of his year-and-a-day sentence.

Both court cases came at a time when the California attorney general’s office issued reports about organized crime activities in the state, noting Petti’s new prominence in underworld circles.

A 1982-83 report asserts that Petti had been given “carte blanche” by Spilotro to handle gambling action in Southern California.

And a 1984 report discussed the P&T; Construction Co., a home repair contracting firm “long alleged to be a front for organized crime in San Diego.” The report notes that two of the company’s principals eventually pleaded guilty to felony grand theft involving the diversion of construction funds.

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It adds: “Chris Petti, a reported organized crime figure, worked for P&T; at various times and was a principal . . . in Say-It-All, an entity to which P&T; diverted construction funds.”

Based on the convictions and other evidence, the Nevada Gaming Commission voted in May, 1987, to include Petti in its “List of Excluded Persons,” a roster created to protect the gambling industry from unsavory elements.

Nick De Pento, Petti’s attorney before the gaming commission, told the commission that any description of Petti as a member of organized crime is in error, because “there was no illegal association.”

‘A Las Vegas Connection’

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“It is a mystical fright that is being presented to you that in reality does not exist,” De Pento said.

James Chamberlain, a Nevada deputy attorney general, disagreed.

“We don’t need to prove whether there is a Mafia,” he told the commission. “We don’t need to prove whether there is a Cosa Nostra or Black Hand or anything given that way. When we talk about organized crime, we talk about people getting together to make crime.

“He did that. He has done that. And he has done it with a Las Vegas connection.”

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The exact nature of Petti’s relationship with organized crime has been debated in law enforcement circles for years.

Some officials discount Petti’s role, such as one former Justice Department organized crime prosecutor who said that “the guy is a classic LCN (La Cosa Nostra) hanger-on.”

Stutz, the San Diego County deputy district attorney, said Petti was never able to stand shoulder-height with such notorious mob figures as Bompensiero or Spilotro. “I never viewed him sitting down with the heavyweights at all,” Stutz said.

Others, like Lore, the former FBI organized crime expert, think otherwise.

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“This guy right now has the stature of a major hoodlum in the United States,” Lore said.

“This is a righteous mob guy. Without being a soldier or a member of La Cosa Nostra, he’s got all the moves of a made guy. He’s involved in extortion. He’s involved in bookmaking and gambling. Now you can add money laundering.”

More Important Mobsters

But Lore also said there are hundreds of other mob associates in both Chicago and New York with far more importance that Petti, primarily because there is so much more “action” in those cities than San Diego. He said the Chicago and East Coast outfits consider San Diego something of a “branch office,” out of the mainstream of mob racketeering.

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“He comports himself the way you’d expect a mob guy to,” Lore said. “He wears all the nice clothes. He likes to drive around in nice cars. He is very well manicured. He’s well coiffed. He’s your typical well-groomed mob guy.”

Armstrong, testifying before the Senate subcommittee, said Petti was “the top organized crime figure in San Diego.”

And Bob Morehouse, supervisor of the organized crime unit for the California Department of Justice, echoed that sentiment. “He’s a major figure in San Diego,” Morehouse said. “Maybe the major figure.”

One person who gravitated to Petti was Robert Benjamin, a 20-year associate with an extensive arrest record dating to 1951.

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According to the federal affidavit filed in connection with the money-laundering arrests this month, Benjamin was a confidential government informant and told investigators how he had “been involved with Petti in bookmaking, loan sharking, extortion and other illegal activities.” Benjamin played a key role in introducing Petti to an undercover FBI agent posing as the representative of drug traffickers.

Goodman, the Las Vegas attorney representing Petti in the money-laundering case, said he was eager to confront Benjamin in a trial as one of the key government witnesses.

“He’s got a squeaky voice,” Goodman said. “I’m going to eat him up for lunch and maybe even spit him out. That’s how I feel about him.”

The government, in its affidavit and request to hold Petti without bail in the money-laundering case, alleged he has been active in trying to extort money from individuals reportedly in debt to the late Spilotro.

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Robbery Plan Claimed

The government also contends that Petti had been planning the armed robbery of an elaborate illegal bookmaking operation in Las Vegas run by an individual known only as “Marty the Jew,” and that Petti had helped enlist the efforts of alleged strongman Carmen DiNunzio to help him.

The affidavit alleges there was repeated discussion about Petti being paid for his involvement in setting up the meetings between the undercover agent, who said he had money to launder, and Silberman, who allegedly came to Petti seeking some business.

The relationship between Petti and Silberman, and their string of alleged telephone conversations and meetings at a Denny’s restaurant downtown, is at the heart of the government’s case.

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According to the money-laundering affidavit, Silberman at one time told the undercover FBI agent that his reason for wanting to move money surreptitiously was because “I just wanted a little diversification and that’s why I went to Chris.”

Boasted of Friendship

Petti allegedly boasted about his friendship with Silberman, according to the affidavit. The document describes a meeting between Petti and the undercover agent.

“Petti explained that he had a wealthy associate who was a founder of the Jack in the Box restaurants and who was a prominent member of the Democratic Party having served in the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown,” the affidavit says.

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“Petti said that this individual had a way to get money out of the country which involved purchasing private stock which is held in trust accounts in Switzerland.”

The affidavit says the undercover agent asked Petti if he trusted Silberman.

“Petti said that he trusted this individual and personally vouched for his trustworthiness,” the affidavit says.

Times staff writer Doug Frantz contributed to this report.

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