Even for a case in which the bizarre has become somewhat commonplace, the legal drama about to be played out in Judge Lance A. Ito's courtroom stands out: O.J. Simpson's defense lawyers are hoping that the testimony of a former Mafia muscleman turned government informant will help them win their case.
Sources close to the defense say that Simpson's attorneys want to offer testimony from C. Anthony Fiato--also known as "The Animal" and "Tony Rome"--that would contradict statements made by LAPD Detective Philip L. Vannatter about the search of Simpson's home hours after the June 12, 1994, murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman.
Both the U.S. government and the district attorney's office have used Fiato as a witness in several cases that led to convictions, including a 1995 murder trial. Consequently, if Fiato testifies in the Simpson case the district attorney's office would be in the awkward position of attempting to discredit a witness whose testimony it has endorsed in the past. Sources say that Vannatter told Fiato and his younger brother, Lawrence, that Simpson already was a suspect when officers went to the ex-football star's home early on the morning of June 13, 1994, and found a trail of blood and a bloody glove on the premises.
That would clash with Vannatter's testimony that he and other officers went to Simpson's estate to notify him that his former wife had been murdered and because they were concerned about the safety of the former Heisman Trophy winner and others at his home.
Vannatter's credibility already has been questioned by Judge Ito. The judge said in a ruling early in the trial that Vannatter had acted in "reckless disregard" of the truth when obtaining a warrant to conduct a second search of Simpson's home after the murders.
The sources state that Vannatter made his comments to the Fiato brothers while Anthony Fiato was in Los Angeles assisting the district attorney's office in another homicide case. Sources say that Vannatter first raised the issue when talking to the Fiatos at a Los Angeles hotel and, subsequently, with Lawrence Fiato at a Downtown meeting.
Veteran FBI Agent Michael F. Wachs, who had known the Fiatos for years through his work on organized crime, reportedly heard part of the second conversation, told FBI lawyers about it, and they brought it to the attention of the district attorney's office, sources said.
The Simpson prosecution team then informed Judge Ito, and last Friday documents about the matter were turned over to the defense. That set the stage for Simpson's lead lawyer, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., to announce in court Monday that he wanted to call Wachs and both Fiatos to the witness stand. Ito has not ruled yet on whether any of them will be allowed to take the stand.
Los Angeles defense lawyer Gerald L. Chaleff said that if Vannatter were impeached by these witnesses it could be significant.
"If in fact there's credible evidence to support the contention that Detective Vannatter, before or after he testified, stated that Simpson was a suspect when they originally went to his house before dawn, then it supports the defense theory that the police believed he was the killer immediately, and they were only looking for evidence to support that contention--in other words, the defense's 'rush to judgment' theory," Chaleff said.
"The defense could attempt to revisit the search and seizure motion, and they could argue that everything that was found at Simpson's home as a result of the warrantless search and the follow-up search--including the bloody glove, the socks and the blood in his foyer--should be excluded," Chaleff said.
It remains to be seen how eager the Fiatos will be to offer testimony that could put them at odds with law enforcement.
Anthony Fiato has been described by several Los Angeles lawyers as a Damon Runyon character replete with tough-guy talk, alligator-skin shoes and gold jewelry. He first came to public attention in Los Angeles in the 1980s when he and his brother, Lawrence, aided the FBI in two high-profile organized crime prosecutions.
In one of the cases, seven men, including Peter J. Milano, the reputed head of the Los Angeles Mafia family, pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges. At the time, federal law enforcement officials said that the case had sounded the death knell for organized crime in California.
One of the prosecutors, Richard A. Stavin, said the Fiatos played a key role in the case, wearing concealed body recorders. Taking heed of a letter written by Stavin, a federal judge in Los Angeles said in 1989 that the brothers "rendered an extremely valuable service to the government in breaking up the power structure of the Mafia here in Southern California." Judge Ferdinand Fernandez gave them a lenient sentence of five years' probation and a $1,000 fine, though they could have been sentenced to up to a 20-year term on illegal loan-sharking activities.
On Monday, Stavin said he considers Fiato a credible witness. "In the days when I knew him, everything he told people panned out."
Since the late 1980s, Anthony Fiato has testified in several other cases. Most recently, he was a key witness in a trial in which two men were convicted of the 1982 murder of actor Frank Christi.
During the Christi trial in January, Fiato told jurors that he had been solicited to kill Christi for $5,000 by the third defendant, Norman Freedberg, because Christi had been having an affair with his girlfriend. Fiato said he declined the offer.
"I told him you don't kill a guy over a broad," Fiato testified. "And I thought he was crazy. . . . I said, if it's a man, get a baseball bat and break his f------ legs."
Fiato testified that he had been involved with organized crime, starting in Boston at the age of 16, and ultimately joining the New England crime family of Raymond Patriarca.
"I was what's known as a Mafia enforcer. I enforced for the mob is right. I was a collector and an enforcer," he testified.
Fiato also provided a colorful explanation of his role as a Mafia loan shark. "Loan-sharking is loaning money at exorbitant rates, and you basically take a person's body as collateral. If they don't pay you, the only way to get your money back is to hurt them. That's loan-sharking."
At one point, defense lawyer Barry Levin asked Fiato if he would beat someone up for failing to make an interest payment. Fiato responded: "To a pulp."
But he said most of his marks were "scared to death and don't offer much resistance" when he came to collect. He said he didn't even carry a gun: "No, I don't need to--17-inch biceps." At the time of the Christi murder, Fiato testified, he was typically making $8,000 to $10,000 a week, but sometimes as much as $18,000 a week.
He came to Los Angeles in 1980 and four years later the FBI discovered his loan-sharking activities. Faced with the prospect of a prosecution, he decided to become an informant. According to testimony in the Christi trial, he worked undercover for about four years and received about $150,000 from the FBI for what he called "subsistence," including food, rent and other necessities.
Although two defendants were convicted in the Christi case, the jury hung on Freedberg. Fiato was scheduled to be a key witness in Freedberg's current retrial.
But last week Deputy Dist. Atty. Vivian Davidson abruptly announced that Fiato would not be called to the stand, according to Freedberg's attorney, Alex R. Kessel. That announcement came as "a real blessing" to his client, Kessel said. Davidson declined comment.
Kessel said that if the district attorney's office plans to try to discredit Fiato in the Simpson case, "they made the right, ethical decision" not to call him in the Freedberg case. But Levin, whose client was convicted partly on the strength of Fiato's testimony in the first Christi murder trial and received a life sentence, said, "The prosecution sure embraced Fiato as a witness in my trial. I would think that if the district attorney's office now finds Tony Fiato is non-credible, they will do the right thing and move for a motion for a new trial for my client."
Earlier this year, Fiato surfaced publicly when he was photographed meeting Denise Brown, Nicole Brown Simpson's older sister, at Logan Airport in Boston and then at a Boston hotel. At the time, Brown denied that she had a relationship with Fiato, but was quoted in the Boston Herald as saying that Fiato had befriended her and offered some "wise-guy humor" during a tough time. Sources said subsequently that Vannatter had introduced Fiato to Brown at the district attorney's office. On Monday, Denise Brown's attorney, Gloria Allred, would say only that Denise Brown "has no relationship with Mr. Fiato."