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.