They have been described by the government as top associates of mob boss John Stanfa, partners in an underworld power struggle that left bodies strewn across South Philadelphia.
But yesterday, during a series of closing arguments to a U.S. District Court jury that will soon decide their fate, five of Stanfa’s co-defendants were presented in a decidedly different light by their lawyers.Out of the loop.
In over their heads.
Reluctant hit men.
Just trying to stay alive.
Those were some of the explanations offered by lawyers for Frank Martines, Salvatore “Shotsie” Sparacio, Vincent “Al Pajamas” Pagano, Raymond Esposito and Sergio Battaglia in a spirited attack on the government’s racketeering case against them.
If the defendants were all part of the same crime family, as the prosecution contends, then it was a highly dysfunctional unit, according to their lawyers.
Consider some of what they said to the jury:
Martines, alleged acting underboss, had such stature, his lawyer said sarcastically, that he once was asked to leave a meeting when mob business was being discussed.
Sparacio, alleged head of gambling in South Jersey, was such a high roller that he had to hock his wife’s jewelry to come up with $300.
Pagano went to an alleged hit without a weapon.
Esposito, supposedly a dangerous triggerman and extortionist, was blind in one eye, deaf in one ear and suffering from a heart condition.
Battaglia talked tough, but never delivered.
The five are being tried along with Stanfa, Anthony “Tony Buck” Piccolo and Herbert Keller. The case includes allegations of murder, murder conspiracy, extortion, gambling, kidnapping and obstruction of justice.
During the seven-week trial, the jury has heard testimony from four former Stanfa associates who have admitted their involvement in a series of gangland killings that they say were ordered by the mob boss. In addition to the testimony, the jury has heard more than 100 secretly recorded conversations made by the FBI and New Jersey and Pennsylvania State Police during a three- year investigation.
Jury deliberations could begin later today or tomorrow.
Yesterday, Brian McMonagle, who represents Martines, 41, blistered the government’s witnesses during an impassioned 90-minute closing that challenged both their character and their credibility.
“No matter how you dress them up, no matter how you clean them up, those four unholy men will never be able to wash the blood from their hands,” McMonagle said of mob informants John Veasey, Philip Colletti, Thomas Rebbie and Rosario Bellocchi.
McMonagle described the four government witnesses as admitted hit men and liars who would do or say anything to get out from under the murder charges they were facing.
“If you bargain with the devil, sometimes you lose your soul,” he said repeatedly of the prosecution’s decision to offer them as key witnesses.
He also pointed out that despite more than 100 taped conversations, his client’s voice is seldom heard and during one key meeting, Martines is told to leave the room.
“This is the underboss of the Philadelphia Mafia?” he asked.
Sparacio, on the other hand, is heard on dozens of tapes, a fact that his lawyer, Felipe Restrepo, pointed out without hesitation to the jury. But, Restrepo emphasized, Sparacio repeatedly counseled against violence and for mediation during the mob war that raged in 1993. He noted that Sparacio was held in less than high regard by Stanfa.
His client, Restrepo said, once found a dead fish in a box left on the hood of his car, an underworld murder warning. Restrepo also pointed to several taped conversations in which Stanfa complained about Sparacio.
“He don’t know nothing . . . He don’t belong,” Stanfa said on one.
“He’s scared,” he said on another.
Restrepo, as he did in his opening arguments, conceded that Sparacio, 73, was a lifelong gambler and bookmaker.
But, he said, Sparacio was not the major gambling operative that prosecutors have made him out to be, pointing to one tape in which Sparacio talked about hocking his wife’s jewelry and another on which he said, “The only thing I’ve done all my life is book.”
Pagano, 66, was described as a “boaster and BSer” by his lawyer, Jeremy Gelb, who argued that there was little evidence linking his client to the mob violence at the heart of the case.
Robert Madden, who represented Esposito, 55, pointed to his client’s lengthy medical history and asked “Is this the kind of guy you’re gonna send out on a hit?”
Battaglia, who celebrated his 29th birthday yesterday, was described by his lawyer, Robert Welsh Jr., as someone who even the government’s key witnesses said never got involved in the violence. Colletti and Veasey testified that Battaglia always found excuses not to carry out mob-ordered hits.
“He talked big,” Welsh conceded. “He goes along. He does his best to stay alive. But whenever Sergio Battaglia’s around, people don’t get killed.”