Michael Anthony Rizzitello, a reputed under-boss in the Milano organized crime family in Los Angeles, was sentenced to 33 years in prison Friday for shooting and blinding a Santa Ana topless-bar financier.
C. William Carroll, shot three times in the back of the head while in a Costa Mesa parking garage three years ago, told Superior Court Judge John L. Flynn Jr. before the sentencing: "I can't see justice done, but I can hear it. I would like to hear it today."
Prosecutors contended that Rizzitello, 62, tried to kill Carroll, 58, because he saw him as a roadblock in the racketeer's attempt to take over the now-defunct Mustang Club on Harbor Boulevard.
Just after midnight on May 1, 1987, Carroll rode in a car to the parking garage with Rizzitello and Joseph Angelo Grosso, who is already serving a 26-year prison term for his part in the shooting. Rizzitello, seated in the back, grabbed Carroll from behind and fired as Grosso held Carroll down to prevent his escape.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher J. Evans told the judge that it was "a miracle that this was not a completed execution. There's no doubt that when the Legislature set up this kind of sentence for this crime, it was with someone like (Rizzitello) in mind."
Flynn sentenced Rizzitello to 25 years to life in prison for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. He then added three years for great bodily injury to Carroll, two years for use of a firearm, and three more because Rizzitello was a convicted felon with a firearm.
Rizzitello, who did not testify during trial, made no comment at the sentencing. His attorney, Anthony P. Brooklier, said he would immediately file an appeal.
"This case is not over," the defense lawyer said. "I truly believe that Mr. Rizzitello is innocent."
Rizzitello has a long history of racketeering-related arrests and convictions. In 1980, he was one of five people convicted in a major federal organized crime case in Los Angeles for which he served five years behind bars. But he also had been acquitted in three major cases since--two involving fraud charges and one involving a possible attempt to kill a government witness.
Law enforcement officials applauded Rizzitello's conviction and sentencing as a major strike against organized crime in Southern California.
"The (Milano) crime family in many ways has proven to be small and ineffective; but within that family, Rizzitello was the one who was clearly capable of carrying out violent threats," said Loren W. DuChesne, chief of investigation for the Orange County district attorney's office. "This is very significant for law enforcement; we're very pleased."
On the night of the shooting, Carroll was found in a pool of blood in the parking garage near the Orange County Performing Arts Center. One of three bullets from a .38-caliber handgun severed an optic nerve, destroying his eyesight. Another bullet remains in his head.
For 18 months, Carroll refused to tell police who shot him. He agreed to cooperate only after a bank fraud case pending against him was reduced by prosecutors to a misdemeanor so he could avoid jail.
During Rizzitello's trial, Carroll testified that he had refused to name his assailants while the fraud case was pending for fear that Rizzitello would have him killed if he ended up serving any time in Orange County Jail.
With Carroll out of the way, Rizzitello received $5,000 a week from the Mustang Club's profits after threatening manager Gene Lesher that he would be next if he didn't cooperate, according to Lesher's testimony. Lesher said he made the payments through George (Big George) Yudzevich, the club's bouncer, who worked for Rizzitello.
Yudzevich was later found shot to death in an Irvine industrial park. His murder is still under investigation. Also pending is an investigation into the murder of the original manager at the Mustang, Jimmy Lee Casino, who was gunned down at his Buena Park home on Jan. 1, 1987.
When Grosso, 46, testified at Rizzitello's trial, he admitted he was in the car when Carroll was shot and that Rizzitello was the gunman. But he denied any involvement.
Attorneys for both Rizzitello and Grosso argued to jurors that Carroll was responsible for both the Casino and Yudzevich murders.
Carroll said at Grosso's sentencing hearing in December that having his character maligned in public was a heavy price to pay for justice.
On Friday, Carroll told Judge Flynn that he has a deep sympathy for all victims of crime.
"I agree with the right of a fair trial, but I feel for victims who have to go through this kind of thing," Carroll said.
Carroll denies any involvement in either the Casino or Yudzevich murders. And despite defense claims that Carroll was a primary police suspect in the Casino murder, law enforcement officials insist that has never been true.
It was Carroll who gave Casino more than $200,000 in several payments in the early 1980s to get the Mustang bar in operation. Because Casino was about to default on the loan at the time he was killed, Carroll essentially took over as the primary operator of the club.
It was soon after the Casino killing that Grosso, who hung out at the club and sometimes drove Carroll around, got him together with Rizzitello. Carroll and Rizzitello had known each other in prison at Chino nearly 18 years earlier. Rizzitello was serving an armed robbery sentence and Carroll was serving a short term for fraud.
Carroll said after Friday's sentencing that he agreed to renew the old acquaintance, but had no idea it might lead to trouble.
Rizzitello eventually got Carroll to loan him $10,000 for a lingerie business that he ran. But Carroll balked at other ventures Rizzitello suggested.
Rizzitello lawyer Brooklier argued to jurors that his client had no motive for shooting Carroll, because Carroll's own testimony showed Rizzitello did not ask him for part of the Mustang Club's profits.
But prosecutors say that Rizzitello concluded before getting to that stage that Carroll would not be cooperative.
Carroll said Friday that the shooting was a complete surprise, because he and Rizzitello had not exchanged harsh words.
"It was strictly an ambush," Carroll said.
Carroll said Rizzitello told him just before firing the gun: "This is for not letting us eat."
Lesher testified that when he met with Rizzitello later, the racketeer told him: "Bill Carroll wanted to dine alone . . . you're involved."
Carroll said he did "a lot of soul-searching" before deciding to tell authorities who shot him. Partly, he said, it was because Rizzitello made threats through others to kill him and others in his family if he talked.
Carroll said he also was offered $100,000 from someone over the telephone if he would not testify against Rizzitello. Carroll said he tape-recorded the call and turned the tape over to distict attorney investigators.
Although Rizzitello did not testify at his trial, through his attorney, Brooklier, he has denied shooting Carroll.
Brooklier contends that Carroll named Rizzitello as the gunman only because he made a deal with prosecutors that would keep him out of jail on his bank fraud charge. Prosecutor Evans has called that argument "ridiculous."