George Aronwald was picking up clothes at a Queens neighborhood laundry on March 20, 1987, when a man entered and, with five shots, killed the 78-year-old judge.
Detectives originally thought robbery might have been the motive.
But Wednesday, nearly 16 years later, government lawyers laid out a far more bizarre scenario, announcing the indictment of Joel Cacace, acting boss of the Colombo organized crime family, and charging him with murder.
Prosecutors said Cacace ordered the mob hit that resulted in the death of the elder Aronwald, but that the intended target was his son William I. Aronwald, who had been an aggressive federal crime fighter.
Prosecutors also said that an escalating cycle of punishment and revenge had left four hit men dead: two who participated in the Aronwald slaying and two who later killed those gunmen.
Cacace, 61, of Deer Park, N.Y., was charged with four murders. A dozen other alleged mobsters were charged with a variety other crimes, including extortion.
"Murders are never forgotten," said U.S. Atty. Roslynn R. Mauskopf, who announced the charges at a news conference in Brooklyn.
"My family and I are delighted someone has been charged with this crime," said Aronwald, who had entered private practice before his father's slaying. According to the indictment, Carmine Persico -- the boss of the Colombo family, who is currently in prison -- ordered Cacace to kill Aronwald.
Aronwald had supervised the federal Organized Crime Strike Force in the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office, and also served as chief of the criminal division in the Brooklyn office.
Court papers contended that Persico believed Aronwald had "disrespected" organized crime and that, as part of the murder plot, Cacace and another alleged mobster conducted surveillance of Aronwald's office.
But they mistakenly watched the office of Aronwald's father, who was an administrative law judge for New York City's Parking Violations Bureau.
The indictment charged that brothers Vincent and Eddie Carini were hit men working with Cacace.
Angered by the wrong rubout, organized crime leaders allegedly ordered two mobsters to shoot the Carini brothers. Their bodies were discovered in the rear seats of separate cars parked in Brooklyn in June 1987.
Prosecutors said Wednesday that Cacace vowed revenge after attending the funeral for the brothers. He allegedly arranged for a mob associate to shoot the Carinis' killers.
These hit men were slain outside a Brooklyn social club in September 1987.
The intertwined plots began to unravel, government lawyers said, when the mob associate Cacace recruited -- and who took part in the killings -- eventually decided to cooperate with prosecutors.
The indictment made public Wednesday also charged Cacace with killing Carlo Antonino, a former New York City police officer. Prosecutors said he supplied confidential information to Cacace.
Court papers said that Cacace's co-conspirators invited Antonino to join them in a robbery. The invitation was a trap, and the former policeman's body was discovered in an abandoned van in Brooklyn in January 1987. Antonino was shot twice in the head.
In addition to Cacace's indictment for the tangled gangland killings, several co-defendants were charged with extorting legitimate businesses during the last two years.
If convicted, Cacace could face a maximum sentence of more than 100 years in prison and more than $1 million in fines.