At first reading, it seems like a travesty of justice. But the acquittals of all three defendants in the recent criminal trial of two highly-paid ranking Longshoremen officials and an underworld associate should be placed in context. The jury in that Brooklyn, N.Y. federal courtroom, after hearing several weeks of testimony, on November 8 acquitted ILA officials Harold Daggett and Arthur Coffey, plus a reputed Genovese crime family mobster, Lawrence Ricci, whose whereabouts have been unknown for about two months. A fourth defendant, Albert Cernadas, pled guilty before the trial began. What likely turned the tide against the prosecution, despite the compelling evidence for a guilty verdict, was the testimony of Daggett, assistant general organizer and head of New Jersey’s powerful Local 1804-1, and more specifically his recollections of an encounter long ago with a star witness for the prosecution, George Barone (see photo).
Barone, 81, a former top ILA official, and like Ricci, a Genovese crime family member, has never been the kind of person you’d want to bring home to meet mother. In his youth, he was a member of a real-life gang, the “Jets,” reportedly the inspiration for the hit Broadway play and movie, West Side Story. Hey, that’s when he was on his good behavior. As an adult, he took control of a waterfront union in Manhattan and was arrested for a savage beating he gave a dissenting Longshoreman. The Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor eventually revoked Barone’s right to work in the area, so he headed down to sunny Florida, helping to start up Local 1922 in Miami. Subsequently, he was convicted on racketeering charges relating to the local’s business, and spent several years in prison. He was succeeded by Coffey.
After his release, Barone crossed swords with Andrew Gigante, son of Genovese crime boss Vincent “the Chin” Gigante, who ran his own Florida company that had dealings with the ILA. The elder Gigante, originally indicted in 1990 for labor racketeering and murder conspiracy, finally was convicted in 1997; his son pleaded guilty to extortion. In April 2003 the Chin pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for repeatedly delaying trial proceedings by feigning mental illness in public. Barone had been set to testify against Gigante. That year, he also testified for the prosecution in a mob trial that resulted in the convictions of Gambino boss Peter Gotti, his brother Richard V. Gotti, nephew Richard G. Gotti, and four close associates. In that trial Barone admitted that he committed more hits than he could count. “I didn’t keep a scorecard, y’know,” he said. His lethal m.o. was one shot to the chest to stun the victim, followed by a kill shot to the head.
Back in the early 80s Harold Daggett very nearly became one of those victims. Guided by his attorney (and cousin) George Daggett, he gave the court an account of the incident. Harold Daggett at the time had been planning to build a new headquarters for Local 1804-1 across the Hudson in northern New Jersey. A mob messenger, Tommy Cafaro, told him that Barone wanted to see him. The two entered a parked car, and the driver raced up FDR Drive to East 115th Street. Once arrived, he was escorted into a large fruit and vegetable store, through a steel door to a darkened room at the rear of the building, lit only by a single lightbulb. “It was dark, boxes all around, no windows,” recalled Daggett. With two men standing guard at the door, Barone, whose back had been turned to him, suddenly threw down the newspaper he’d been reading, turned around, and snarled at Daggett: “Who the f___ are you to take this local away from me? I’m going to kill you.” Then Barone screamed: “I built this local. I’ll kill you, your wife, and children.” At that point, Barone pulled a gun and shoved it against Daggett’s head, and deaf to the latter’s pleas, cocked back the trigger and announced he would blow his brains all over the room.
For reasons unknown, Barone didn’t shoot. After growling a few more threats, he let Daggett go. Recalling the sequence of events at his trial, Daggett testified: “I was so nervous I urinated all over myself. I couldn’t walk. I said, ‘I can’t move.’ I thought one of them was going to shoot me in the back of the head, and I opened the door, and I could hardly walk. I walked and I kept thinking, ‘They’re going to shoot me.’” Once he reached the door, Barone dismissed Daggett, instructing his emissary, “Take this guy back to his local.”
Barone’s version of the story, by contrast, had all the appearances of a “hazy” memory. In his testimony, he told the court that someone other than himself had pegged a shot in Daggett’s direction during the “confrontation.” He provided few, if any, other details. The jury sensed who was lying; Daggett’s testimony seemed far too real to have been made up or exaggerated. And since neither Daggett nor his two co-defendants had been accused of any violent crimes, the jury no doubt was especially nonplussed that the prosecution’s witness happened to be a murderous, gun-toting sociopath.
Meanwhile, police on November 30 made a dreaded discovery in the trunk of a car: the body of what could be the now-acquitted Lawrence Ricci, last seen on October 7 in Carteret, N.J., three weeks into the trial. A police source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the license plate on the vehicle in which the body was found was registered to a relative of Ricci’s. Authorities, the source said, hadn’t yet confirmed if it was Ricci inside the trunk of the silver Acura parked in back of the Huck Finn Diner in Union, N.J. The owner, after noticing the car in the same spot for five or six weeks, notified police. Ricci, a reputed captain of the Genovese crime family, already had given testimony. He was being tried for mail and wire fraud conspiracy. Was Barone in some way involved? It wouldn’t be a bad hunch, that’s for sure.
ILA International President John Bowers and the rest of his top brass, now facing civil charges and possible removal from office, have announced they’ve gone the extra mile to clean up their union. They made permanent their code of ethics that bars union officials from associating with organized crime figures; appointed an outside investigator to look into corruption allegations; and named a former federal judge, George C. Pratt, to serve as a final arbiter on all ethical matters. Keeping George Barone and his friends out of their union may require a whole separate office. (Village Voice, 11/22; Associated Press, 11/30).