Reputed San Diego mobster Chris Petti and nine other men, including a top local defense lawyer and the alleged bosses of the Chicago mob, were named Friday in a federal indictment charging that organized crime tried to infiltrate gambling operations at the Rincon Indian Reservation.
The 15-count indictment charges that Petti, San Diego lawyer Nicholas De Pento, Chicago mobsters Samuel Carlisi and John (No Nose) DiFronzo and the six other men tried to take over the Rincon tribe’s gambling activities in order to skim profits and launder money.
By Friday afternoon, all of the 10 defendants had been arrested in San Diego, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Chicago and Florida on charges of racketeering, extortion, and mail and wire fraud. If convicted, they face maximum penalties ranging from five to 20 years’ imprisonment for each count, with fines of up to $250,000.
According to the grand jury indictment unsealed Friday, Chicago mob leaders became interested in the Rincon gambling operations in the mid-1980s, viewing it both as a potential source of revenue and a means of laundering money from other illegal activities.
Petti and De Pento, aided by a Rincon tribe member, subsequently developed a plan to gain control of the northern San Diego County reservation’s bingo and card games on behalf of unnamed investors, concealing the fact that the Cosa Nostra crime family actually was behind the proposal, federal prosecutors said.
Toward that end, the tribe member, Glenn Martin Calac, allegedly provided the group with inside information about other bids for the gaming contract, giving the defendants a “competitive edge,” the 49-page indictment states.
However, after several months of negotiations, the Chicago mobsters, uneasy over the fact that a similar non-Indian gambling operation in Baltimore was losing money, withdrew their financial support for the Rincon plan.
Instead, they directed Petti to find another means of financing the Rincon operation, but to send the anticipated profits to Chicago--plans that brought Petti in contact with an undercover FBI agent posing as a money launderer for Colombian cocaine dealers, according to the indictment.
While those plans were proceeding, Petti and other members of the ring also allegedly extorted money from several people believed to owe money to late Las Vegas mobster Tony (The Ant) Spilotro, who was murdered in 1986. Spilotro’s brother, John Spilotro of Las Vegas, was among those named in Friday’s indictment.
The others named in the indictment include Donald John Angelini and Michael Clement Caracci, both of Chicago; Carmen Salvatore DiNunzio and Anthony Louis DiNunzio, both of Los Angeles; and Calac, a Palm Springs resident.
The indictment, sprinkled with tantalizing details that sound as if they were lifted from the scripts of the “Godfather” movies, stem from a lengthy investigation by the FBI and San Diego police and sheriff’s officials into alleged mob involvement in Indian gaming activities.
FBI wiretaps, for example, picked up conversations among ring members in which they proposed “skimming a little off the top . . . for ourselves.” At another point, they discuss plans to threaten an individual allegedly indebted to the mob by telling him that he should “get a one-way ticket . . . if he goes back to Chicago without the money.”
The probe produced an unanticipated prosecutorial dividend two years ago when former San Diego financier Richard Silberman unwittingly stumbled into the investigation while seeking Petti’s assistance with a money-laundering scheme aimed at salvaging his foundering gold-mining company.
Silberman, who was convicted of one count--a technical currency violation charge--and who pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy count, is serving a 46-month federal prison sentence.
De Pento posted a $25,000 bond and was released shortly after being arraigned Friday. Petti, at the request of federal prosecutors, is being held without bail here as a flight risk until a hearing, which was set for Wednesday. Petti, long linked by federal authorities to organized crime in Chicago and Las Vegas, once was considered the heir apparent to Frank (The Bomp) Bompensiero, a San Diego underworld figure who was gunned down in 1977 in a Pacific Beach alley.
The indictments are notable both for the scope of the defendants--ranging from top bosses of the Chicago mob to Calac, who, according to FBI wiretaps, was counted on to provide “muscle” on the reservation--and for the charges against attorney De Pento, who allegedly assisted the mob.
According to the wiretap accounts, Petti occasionally used De Pento’s office and telephone to hold meetings and make calls, confident that he could escape government surveillance. But San Diego FBI agents--who had already tapped Petti’s home phone and more than a dozen pay phones he used--eventually planted a bug in the lawyer’s office as well.
During one meeting, after an undercover agent infiltrated the operation posing as a New Jersey man attempting to launder drug proceeds, De Pento allegedly suggested a way to disguise the source of funding for the gambling.
The group had decided that Calac’s name would be used on the application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but worried about how to explain how the Indians had obtained enough money to open a gambling hall.
“De Pento said that Calac could say he got the money from ‘Cousin Red Cloud,’ who died,” according to the FBI reports. The mob figures allegedly got most of their information about Rincon from Calac, who prosecutors said had a “long criminal record,” and whose father and cousin were on the tribal council. But another faction opposed the gambling proposal, suspicious of Calac and his partners.
Eventually, however, the Chicago mob lost interest in Rincon, frustrated by changing demands and internal fights within the tribe, and disappointed with profits from a bingo hall outside Baltimore, in which they had a hidden interest. A group of mob figures from Chicago, New York and Florida later were indicted for the operation of that hall and a plot to burn down a competitor’s facility.
“We didn’t know they were Mafia,” 70-year-old Max Mazzetti, the Rincon tribal chairman at the time, said in an interview Friday. “But we had a lot of hot battles. They were hollering about, ‘We’re going to make you a better deal.’ ”
After Petti’s group withdrew its application, the tribal council picked another group to run the bingo hall, but it quickly failed in the spring of 1989.
Last year, the tribe began seeking new management firms to reopen the abandoned gambling hall, and it recently signed a contract with a Las Vegas partnership.
“For myself, I think we should be through with bingo,” Mazzetti said Friday.
Times staff writer Julie Tamaki contributed to this story.