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A Detective Story Alleging Hit Men in Blue

Times Staff Writer

As misting rain fell in the late afternoon, Anthony Dilapi strolled into the darkened, underground garage of his Hollywood apartment. Suddenly a masked gunman rushed toward him and fired.

Five bullets to the face. Four to the body. The killer jumped into a waiting car and raced away. His victim died instantly. The Feb. 4, 1990, shooting never made headlines. Dilapi, 53, was listed on his death certificate as a used-car salesman.

In fact, he was a New York mobster, a member of the Lucchese crime family. He had fallen out of favor with his bosses and fled to the West Coast.

Dilapi had covered his tracks well. How did the New York Mafia find him?

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Prosecutors were mystified. Their investigation hit dead ends. Then, this year, they uncovered startling evidence: The trail led to two of New York’s most respected detectives.

*

In 1969, drug dealing, burglary, robbery and rape were soaring in New York. Muggers on the subways and in the parks terrified many; there was a widespread feeling that the city was out of control.

Nervous officials relaxed background checks and began hiring more police. Stephen Caracappa and Louis Eppolito joined the NYPD during this time.

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Born in 1942, Caracappa grew up in Brooklyn. He dropped out of school at 16 and spent five years as a laborer in New Jersey. He joined the Army in 1966 and saw a year of duty in Vietnam, where he was promoted to sergeant.

During his years on the force, he rose from street patrolman to detective, and eventually helped create the department’s Organized Crime Homicide Unit.

Thin and quiet, Caracappa liked expensive Italian suits, which his wife brought home from her job in the garment district. He rarely drank and was unfailingly polite.

Friends called him “The Stick”; others joked that the long hair and beard he wore on the job made him look like Frank Serpico, the New York officer who blew the whistle on police corruption in the early 1970s.

At the end of a workday, Caracappa would hurry back to his Staten Island home, where he doted on his only child, a daughter. He developed heart trouble and retired on a disability pension in 1992.

Eppolito, born in Brooklyn in 1948, was the son, grandson and nephew of mobsters. He relished his roots.

His grandfather, “Diamond” Louie; his father, Ralph “Fat the Gangster”; and his uncle, Jimmy “The Clam,” were members of the Gambino crime family. They engaged in loan sharking, numbers running, money laundering and extortion.

Ralph frequently beat his boy to teach him the importance of respect, according to “Mafia Cop: The Story of an Honest Cop Whose Family Was the Mob,” Louis’ 1992 autobiography. There were other lessons learned from his father -- including a lifelong regard for “honor and loyalty.”

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Mobsters might kill and maim other mobsters, Louie Eppolito explained, but they observed a code of behavior: They didn’t kill innocent civilians. They respected women and children. They never ratted out other Mafia members.

“My father hated cops with a passion, had no respect whatever for them,” Eppolito wrote. “I guess that stemmed from the days when he was buying them off for nickels and dimes.”

Ralph Eppolito also despised the FBI, suggesting to his son that the agency’s initials stood for “Forever Bother the Italians.”

Louis’ respect for the mob cooled after several family members were killed by rival gangsters. In August 1968, several weeks after his father died of a heart attack and stroke, Eppolito made a decision that stunned his family: He applied for a job with the NYPD; he joined the force the next year.

As much as the 20-year-old hated police regimentation, he found similarities in the life of a street cop and a street soldier. Both had strong value systems. Both could take the law into their own hands.

Once, during a lecture at the police academy, Eppolito’s class examined a chart with black-and-white photographs of New York organized crime figures, according to his autobiography.

“Hey, Louie,” said a classmate, “there’s a guy here with your last name.”

It was a snapshot of his father.

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Over the next 16 years, Eppolito became one of the city’s toughest cops. A burly onetime bodybuilder, he was a loud and garrulous man. He loved to crack off-color jokes and carouse in bars.

“We were the Mantle and Maris of nightsticks,” Eppolito bragged, describing his crime-fighting activities in the 1970s with an Irish-American partner.

He felt even greater camaraderie with Caracappa when they began working together in a Brooklyn precinct in 1979. The two confided in each other. Their families grew close.

When they dined, “you’d think there were two Godfathers sitting at our kitchen table,” recalled Fran Eppolito, Louis Eppolito’s wife, in “Mafia Cop.”

“The talking with the hands. The drinking of double espressos. Salud-ing each other to death after every sip. Louis was starting to kiss everybody on the cheek.”

Eppolito became the 11th most decorated cop in New York history. The department was his life. But he still felt the tug of a different family.

He had remained close to friends in the mob. He dined in their restaurants, drank in their nightclubs. He even met secretly with Gambino crime boss Paul Castellano.

The police brass disapproved.

It was only a matter of time before questions grew over Eppolito’s true loyalties. In late 1984, police officials accused the detective of copying an NYPD file on the mob and giving it to a crime family member.

Eppolito was cleared. The experience left him disillusioned.

“As frightening as it may sound, I found more loyalty, more honor in the wise guy neighborhoods and hangouts than I did in police headquarters,” he wrote, explaining his decision to retire five years later, with full honors.

The former detective moved to Las Vegas in 1995 with his wife and three children. He had always loved the spotlight, and it seemed natural for him to pursue a movie career. He landed a bit part in “Goodfellas.” Soon, he was shopping screenplays.

Caracappa moved to Las Vegas in 1997, working as a private investigator and security consultant. The two families lived across the street from each other in a gated community, and neighbors thought the ex-cops were model citizens.

*

But back in New York, several years earlier, both officers had come under suspicion.

In 1987, Anthony “Tony Ducks” Corallo, the crime boss of the Lucchese family, was sent to prison. He appointed two underlings to run the organization. One of them was Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso. The young underboss got the nickname from his habit of using a metal pipe in street fights.

Soon after Casso took control, the Lucchese family was caught up in an orgy of killings and reprisals. Members of other mob families were targeted, along with some in the Lucchese family whom Casso had long suspected of disloyalty.

Many of these killings remained unsolved until Casso was arrested on murder charges in 1993. He offered to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a lighter sentence. He admitted his role in 36 killings -- and began naming names, according to court documents.

Casso ticked off a long list of victims and hired killers, a who’s who of mobsters, including Anthony “Buddy” Luongo; John “Sonny” Morrissey; Alfonse “The Professor” D’Arco.

Then he astonished prosecutors. There were two more names: Eppolito and Caracappa.

Casso told prosecutors the detectives had been on his payroll. They had carried out killings at his request or helped others commit the crimes. They had tipped him off to pending police investigations. He called them “my crystal ball.”

Prosecutors wanted to move against the officers. But they decided that Casso’s testimony would never hold up in court; he had been a violent prisoner and had lied about several matters.

Then investigators got a break.

In 1998, Burton Kaplan, a garment district merchant and Lucchese associate, was convicted of drug charges. He had information about the officers but refused to turn state’s witness. At the age of 65, he was sent to federal prison for 27 years.

After six years, Kaplan missed his wife, daughter and grandson. Prosecutors persuaded him to cooperate last year.

Kaplan began to talk: He linked Eppolito and Caracappa to eight slayings from 1986 to 1992. He would typically get orders from Casso to carry out a killing, which he would relay to the officers, he said. He would also pay off both men.

He said the cops shot one gangster in his Mercedes on a Brooklyn expressway. He said they kidnapped another, put him in the trunk of a car and delivered him to Casso, who shot him.

Kaplan also provided details about Dilapi’s slaying.

He said the detectives had played a key role -- and made the Los Angeles Police Department an unwitting accomplice.

Casso believed Dilapi was disloyal and wanted him killed. But he didn’t know where to find him. Using their organized-crime-fighting credentials, Eppolito and Caracappa called contacts within the LAPD and asked for his address.

Los Angeles police, not suspecting they were being used, gave the information to the detectives. They, in turn, gave it to Casso, prosecutors said.

The crime boss dispatched a four-man hit squad to the West Coast, according to “Five Families,” a forthcoming history of the Mafia by Selwyn Raab.

Kaplan’s testimony resurrected the case against Eppolito and Caracappa. But evidence was also unearthed by detectives who had never dropped their suspicions about the cops.

Det. Thomas Dades, for example, found that Caracappa had searched the NYPD database for the address of a New York man. Soon after, the man had been killed by Mafia henchmen.

Armed with this evidence, federal prosecutors in March released a 27-page indictment, charging the detectives with eight murders.

According to the indictment, the officers had led a double life. They had received $4,000 a month from the Lucchese family, and were paid as much as $65,000 for individual murders.

The detectives were also charged with drug dealing and money laundering that allegedly took place this year. Police arrested the men on March 9 as they dined at Piero’s, an upscale Italian restaurant in Las Vegas.

*

Eppolito, 56, and Caracappa, 63, pleaded not guilty at their arraignment in New York.

Edward Hayes, the inspiration for the gritty defense attorney in the novel “Bonfire of the Vanities,” said his client, Caracappa, had done nothing wrong.

“If you look at his life story, it makes no sense,” Hayes said. “How could two guys, so decorated for their service, possibly have taken such a turn?”

Eppolito’s attorney, Bruce Cutler, is best known for defending the late John Gotti. He called the Mafia cop allegations “absurd.”

“Why would a crime family need two New York cops to track down a guy in Los Angeles?” he asked. The government contends that mob families have thousands of made men, Cutler added, and it’s a “badge of honor” for them to carry out a hit by themselves.

Prosecutors said this month that they planned to charge the detectives with murder in a ninth slaying. But U.S. Judge Jack B. Weinstein surprised many by ordering the suspects freed next week on $5 million bail each. He said the recent charges seemed weak.

Both sides will be poring over 30,000 pages of evidence, which include hundreds of hours of wiretaps, as the case heads for trial this year. The charges mark the first time in about a century that NYPD officers have been accused of killing for the mob.

“I’ve been in a lot of corruption investigations over the years, and I’ve never heard of anything like this,” Brooklyn District Atty. Charles Hynes said when the indictments were announced. “It reaches a level of utter disbelief.”

The Dilapi slaying in particular has raised concerns among New York and Los Angeles police officials.

“It would have been normal for our officers to have cooperated if they believed these New York cops were conducting legitimate business,” said LAPD Deputy Chief Gary Brennan. “And if they [Eppolito and Caracappa] had approached someone here and said, ‘Help us find these guys,’ that wouldn’t have raised eyebrows. An address is easily found.”

The request was most likely made informally, one officer to another, Brennan said, and it was highly unusual. There is no record of the exchange.

“This is really an old story,” said Bob Leuci, a former narcotics detective whose role in exposing corruption became the basis for the 1981 movie “Prince of the City.”

“Cops who police the mob get sucked in by the mob,” Leuci said. “They cross the line, thinking that it’s romantic. But this isn’t romantic at all.”

There has been a rush to sign up book deals, magazine stories and TV and movie scripts connected to major players in the scandal.

Eppolito and Caracappa, who could face life in prison, are exploring their own movie deal. The payday could be enormous.

“This is a hot story,” Cutler said. “Louie is looking for financial backers and I don’t blame him. He wants to sell himself, and his life. He wants a good deal.”


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