Bartolomeo “Bobby Glasses” Vernace, once a high-ranking capo in the Gambino Crime Family, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole for engaging in a RICO conspiracy that included the infamous Shamrock Murders. Yesterday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld his conviction and sentence. Here’s the opinion in United States v. Vernace.
In April 1981, Vernace and two other Gambino associates (not-yet made guys) shot and killed John D’Agnese and Richard Godkin, the owners of the Shamrock Bar in Queens. Frank Riccardi was a Gambino associate, in Anthony “Fat Andy” Ruggiano’s crew. Someone spilled a drink on the dress of Riccardi’s girlfriend. After a confrontation in which D’Agnese and Godkin tried to calm him, Riccardi went to a local social club (which was really a gambling operation run by Joseph “JoJo” Corozzo) and enlisted the help of Vernace and Ronald Barlin. The three men returned to the Shamrock Bar, where they confronted, shot, and killed D’Agnese and Godkin. Ruggiano became an informant for the Government and testified that Riccardi had confessed to committing the double murder with Vernace and Barlin.
Vernace went into hiding and evaded conviction for 30 years (including being acquitted on state murder charges in 2002 – eyewitnesses refused to name Vernace as a perpretrator, fearing retribution). In 2011, he was finally arrested at a cafe that he owned, which also contained video gambling machines. He was tried and convicted in 2013 on charges of RICO conspiracy; using and possessing a firearm in relation to a violent crime; and operating an illegal gambling business.
RICO requires proof of a pattern of racketeering activity, meaning the commission of at least two racketeering acts committed within 10 years of one another. The pattern also requires a relationship between the relevant acts. In the Second Circuit’s case law, this means horizontal relatedness (the acts relate to each other) and vertical relatedness (the acts relate to the racketeering enterprise, here, the Gambino Crime Family).
Vernace argued that the Government could not prove relatedness, saying that the Shamrock Murders were simply a personal dispute over the spilled drink but not connected to the activities of the Gambino Crime Family. The Court rejected this, saying a reasonable jury could have believed that the Shamrock Murders were committed out of a desire to preserve the Gambino Family’s, and Vernace’s, reputation for using violence to command respect and territorial control. Vernace says it is relevant that he, Riccardi, and Barlin were merely associates but not soldiers; that the enterprise did not sanction the murders. But that cuts the other way, too. Even though Vernace was not yet a formally inducted member of the enterprise, the jury could reasonably conclude that he committed the murder for the purpose of ensuring his entrance into, or rise in the ranks of, the Gambino Family. That, in fact, is ultimately what happened.
The court also rejected Vernace’s argument that his heroin distribution (another of the alleged racketeering acts) was unrelated to the criminal enterprise. Vernace said that the Gambino Family did not sanction, and had rules against, drug trafficking. So, he argued, his own drug dealing was personal and not part of the racketeering pattern. The court disagreed, saying that the mere fact that the enterprise had rules against it did not mean that the enterprise did not still engage in the activity. In fact, the court said, the evidence showed that other members of the enterprise engaged in drug trafficking to earn money, or did not enforce a rule against it. This included both high-ranking and low-ranking members.
Vernace’s two other legal claims also failed. But in light of the Second Circuit’s previous decision in United States v. Bruno, 383 F.3d 65 (2nd Cir. 2004), Vernace raises an interesting question: when is an act merely a personal beef, and when is it connected to a racketeering enterprise? The court was able to distinguish Bruno from Vernace, but the line sometimes seems thin, especially after Bruno. A question for the Supreme Court, maybe?
Interesting trivia. One of the victims, D’Agnese, was dating Linda Gotti. Her father was Peter Gotti, and her uncle was John Gotti, each of whom would later become the head of the Gambino Crime Family. Linda was one of the eyewitnesses who recanted during the state trial but later agreed to testify in the federal trial.
Other interesting trivia. The United States Attorney whose office prosecuted Vernace? Loretta Lynch.