Peter Franzone, a sixth-grade dropout who never learned to read, had done pretty well for himself regardless. He parlayed a job as a tow-truck driver into his own business, Valiant Towing, and added an auto-body shop and a 75-spot parking lot to his portfolio. Then one day, a friend came by and asked him a favor.
"Did there come a time when someone was brought to that lot and killed and buried there?" the prosecutor asked Franzone this week, in the trial of Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa—the infamous Mafia cops.
"Yes," testified Franzone.
It's an odd story, but odder still that his life didn't change at all because of it. On the day in question, Franzone and his buddy Frank Santora Jr. dug the grave well into the night, and Franzone missed his dinner. But the next day he went back to work and didn't tell his secret for another 20 years.
He did so this week at the trial of the two former NYPD detectives accused of selling secrets to—and committing murders for—Lucchese family underboss, Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso.
Franzone, now 56, had met Santora, a Mafia hanger-on, back in the early '70s, when Franzone was towing cars for a gas station in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. They saw each other off and on and became friendlier in the mid '80s when Santora, recently out of prison, would hang around Franzone's body shop in the Bensonhurst section and even join him on towing jobs. Santora told his pal he was a salesman. "I would say, 'What do you sell?' " Franzone recalls. "And every time I said that, he would evade the question." The two would go out to lunch, and Franzone would always pay, Franzone told the jury in a Brooklyn federal court.
But Santora did invite Franzone and his wife for Christmas dinner, and Santora introduced him to his cousin Louis, then a detective at the local precinct. And then one afternoon in 1985 or 1986, as Franzone recalled it, Eppolito drove onto his lot on Nostrand Avenue. Santora and two other men, one with a beard and yarmulke, another with a trench coat hiding his pockmarked face, arrived on foot minutes after. The three men walked into a closed parking garage at the edge of the lot and closed the door. Twenty or 30 minutes later, Santora and the man in the trench coat came out. A few minutes later, Santora came by the shed where Franzone kept his office and said he wanted to show him something.
Inside the shed they found the man with the yarmulke, now dead. "Frank Santora told me I gotta help bury the body. And if I go and tell anybody, he's gonna kill me and my F-ing family," Franzone recalled.
So, Franzone, 5-foot-4 with a muscular build, grabbed a shovel and helped Santora dig a 5-foot grave beneath the thin layer of cement on the garage floor. "It was daylight when I went in and when I came out it was dark," he testified.
Some months later, Santora arrived again at Franzone's place of business and asked him to open the collision shop. Santora pulled his brown Cadillac inside, while Eppolito again sat outside in his car—a Dodge or Chrysler, according to Franzone. Two other men, one tall, one heavy, joined Santora in the shop. A few minutes later, Santora called Franzone and asked him to help turn the heat down. When Franzone got inside, Santora's friends were wrapping a dead body in a tarp. The heavy guy told Franzone to give him a hand lifting the body into the trunk of the Cadillac. Franzone did.
Santora never paid or offered a reward for his efforts, Franzone testified. He did come around with a gift when Franzone's son was born in February 1987, a garbage bag full of baby clothes—new, with the tags on. Franzone accepted the gift but later threw it out because he didn't want anything to do with Santora, or he feared they were stolen, or both.
The dead man buried under his garage never piqued his interest, it seems. Franzone never found out who the man was, or asked why he was murdered. He never went to the cops or the FBI, he said, because he was scared and figured "no one would believe me if I said a cop was involved in this."
Franzone stayed scared, even after Santora himself died by gunshot in September 1987. He was scared at Santora's wake. He attended to let them know "I would keep the secret that I knew; whatever I knew I wasn't gonna tell nobody." Franzone attended the sweet 16 party of Santora's daughter, Tammy, for the same reason, he says. He stayed scared even after he sold his businesses and took a city job. He stayed silent even after Eppolito retired from the police force in 1990 and moved to Las Vegas. He stayed the same way when allegations against Eppolito, now 57, and Caracappa, 64, made the newspapers in 1994.
The man in the grave under the garage was Israel Greenwald, 34 on the day he died. Greenwald, a jeweler, had been involved in a scheme to sell stolen Treasury bonds along with Burton Kaplan. But Kaplan feared the jeweler would "go bad" and asked Santora—whom he knew from prison—to ensure that he would not, Kaplan testified earlier.
Eppolito and Caracappa were arrested in Las Vegas on March 9, 2005. Soon after, the FBI was calling Franzone. Franzone lied to the agents at least twice; he denied knowing Eppolito. But a week later, after hiring a lawyer from the Yellow Pages named Alan Abramson, he says, "I told the truth about what was buried in the garage."
Whether it was the whole truth and nothing but the truth remains in some doubt. Franzone says the man now known to be Greenwald walked into the garage on his own power. He says he heard no gunshots and saw no blood. He says Greenwald's hands were not tied; that there he saw no bag around his head and that he was laid flat in the grave. But when the body was unearthed it was curled in a fetal position, its hand tied together. And it took Franzone three tries to remember which part of the garage (there were separate spaces) contained the body.
The gravedigger's 19-year silence may mean nothing. Or it may not. There's no point denying that Franzone was there when Greenwald was buried: He knows too much about the gravesite. But did he remain silent because he did more than he admits, or was he simply scared, as he says now?
Franzone's testimony does fit a pattern. Witnesses—Burton Kaplan, the star witness, included—pin crimes on the defendants. But when asked to recall details about their co-conspirators, they tend to remember names of dead people—like Frank Santora—but not the living (or at least possibly living). The nameless fat man and the tall man in the collision shop are cases in point.
Then the government helps the witnesses themselves disappear into the witness relocation program. "You get a new name. … No more Pete Franzone, gravedigger and liar," is how Bruce Cutler, Eppolito's lawyer, put it during cross examination.
This pattern, though, was thrown for a loop yesterday on what looked to be the last day of this trial. Defense lawyers were allowed a conference call with Gaspipe Casso, now languishing in a federal prison in Colorado. Casso pointed to two letters he wrote to prosecutors claiming to absolve Eppolito and Caracappa. The Luccheses did have cops on the payroll, Casso wrote, but they were federal, not NYPD. As one of the killers of Eddie Lino (a Gambino family soldier), Casso could safely say that the detectives had nothing to do with it. Nor were they involved in the kidnapping of James Hydell, a man who took a shot at Casso and was killed in return.
Casso was the central figure in the detectives' alleged conspiracy. The government considers him unreliable—not because of his admitted role in 37 murders—but because he lied to them after he turned. But now that he says he'll testify for the defense, the question is, will the prosecutors take the bait?
It could be that Casso is striving for relevance, or that he is bucking for a trip back to Brooklyn, even if the only sight he sees is a federal courthouse. But Judge Jack Weinstein isn't likely to grant that. "If you want Casso, say how he would testify," Weinstein told the lawyers. It could be by video-conference or it could be by telephone. "I'm not inclined to bring him here," he said.