"How's your health?" asked the prosecutor.
"So-so," Burton Kaplan replied. It was the most boastful thing he'd say in three days on the witness stand, where he blithely recounted his many crimes as a 40-year associate of the Lucchese family.
Kaplan, a wholesaler of garments and marijuana, is the star witness at the trial of Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa—aka the Mafia Cops—and in elaborating upon his medical condition, he mentioned a bout of prostate cancer, temporal arteritis (a disease that threatens vision), Raynaud's disease, high blood pressure, a detached retina, and two minor strokes. Such genius for understatement and discretion allowed Kaplan to survive on the fringes of the mafia. Kaplan also got along by cultivating, he says, the cooperation of the two highly decorated NYPD detectives who are now on trial for murder, kidnapping, conspiracy, and other charges.
The story of Eppolito and Caracappa—detectives turned hit men for the mob—has inspired multiple book and movie deals. But Kaplan, in a supporting role, stole the show in court this week. While the charges against the two detectives have swirled for a decade, it took the gaunt, sunken-cheeked, 72-year-old Kaplan to bring them to trial. Finally, in a Brooklyn federal court, this mole of moles emerged to expose La Cosa Nostra's alleged sources, deep inside federal-state anti-mafia task forces and the NYPD.
Kaplan testified that he was the intermediary between the two detectives and Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso, a Lucchese under-boss. Mostly the detectives sold Kaplan information on bugs, wiretaps, ongoing investigations, informants, and impending arrests. Kaplan passed that information along to Casso, taking care to hide his source's identity. Casso—known even among his fellow gangsters as "a homicidal maniac," Kaplan testified—took care of the rest. He wiped out impending threats from within the mob and, on one occasion, an innocent who shared the name of a man who'd tried to kill him. But at least three times, according to Kaplan, these detectives actively participated in murders, once shooting a Gambino family soldier on the shoulder of a busy highway in Brooklyn.
How did Kaplan become involved in the life of the mob? Mostly by chance.
Kaplan first went to prison when he was in his late 20s for selling stolen property. When he got out, he went to work as an appliance installer. As fortune would have it, he was hired to install air conditioners in a social club owned by James "Jimmy the Clam" Eppolito, the uncle of Louie Eppolito. By the mid-1970s, he was involved in a stolen-car ring and, a few years later, started smuggling marijuana. (As to whether he himself ever used drugs, Kaplan testified that he took two puffs on a joint in prison once and never touched it again.)
In 1975, Kaplan got involved in the garment business. "I got into it by accident," he testified. A friend from prison had returned to the streets, and Kaplan took him to buy leisure suits. The suits were so cheap, they seemed stolen but were not. The price was good enough that Kaplan took some of the suits to a store he knew in Connecticut and sold them as swag. One thing led to another, and Kaplan wound up renting a storefront where he built some racks and sold 3,000 leisure suits in a single weekend.
"My clothing business was 100 percent legitimate," Kaplan said. And it was, except for the counterfeiting he did on the side. His business prospered, moved from Brooklyn to warehouses on Staten Island, and eventually supplied Macy's and Kmart, among others.
Kaplan, who displayed near total recall on the stand, as well as a vast knowledge of gangsters and their affiliations, got into other deals as well. He bought diamonds from Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and had a plan to sell hair products in Africa. The hair products turned out to be defective, but the chemist Kaplan hired to produce them assured him they could manufacture quaaludes in the same facility. That plan failed, too, and Kaplan was arrested and tried. The chemist testified against him, and he was convicted.
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