NORFOLK -- Salvatore Cottone, who masterminded the most extensive organized crime syndicate yet uncovered in the Washington area, was convicted by a federal jury here yesterday of racketeering, conspiracy, retaliation against an informant and 11 other felonies.
"This is a real situation; this is not Hollywood," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael R. Smythers, who prosecuted the case with government attorneys Justin W. Williams and Robert J. Seidel. ". . . Mr. Cottone is a shrewd member of organized crime. He survived on manipulating everyone, even his own family.
"Why?" asked the prosecutor in court last week. "Because the number one goal is money."
The conviction brought to a close Operation Infamita -- meaning a violation of the Sicilian code of silence -- a six-year FBI investigation that put 28 people behind bars, almost all of them in the District and Northern Virginia.
The 11-day trial pitted Cottone, a swaggering Sicilian native turned Virginia Beach resident who portrayed himself as a grateful immigrant swelling with red, white and blue patriotism, against James L. Glass Jr., a soft-spoken G-man who asked to be taken off the desk and put back in the field. His mission: to decapitate the Cottone organization.
Called "The Pizza Connection" when the case became public three years ago, the investigation exposed a ring of Sicilian natives trying to push cocaine through local pizza parlors, torching restaurants that competed with friends' businesses, contracting "hits" on enemies of the Cottone family, and financially devasting loyal friends who trusted their life savings to Sal Cottone.
The local crime wave began in 1978. Bassin's, a fashionable downtown Washington eatery on 14th Street NW, was competing too sucessfully with a Cattone restaurant in late 1978. The solution: Alfredo "The Butcher" Toriello was hired by Cottone to burn Bassin's to the ground. Toriello, now in a federal witness protection program, described during the trial how he and a co-conspirator used soda pop cannisters filled with gasoline to feed the blaze.
Less than a year later, Cottone once again went to Toriello, hiring him to torch Bachelors II, a restaurant on Lee Highway in Fairfax County. That time Cottone was trying to help the owner cash in on an insurance scam, according to testimony.
After moving from Wasington to Virginia Beach in the early 1980s, Cottone financed a series of multi-kilogram cocaine deals. The sales, in the latter half of 1986, were planned and consummated in or near such places as the Holiday Inn in Crystal City, a Denny's restaurant in Fairfax, and the Commonwealth Doctors' Hospital on Route 123 in Fairfax.
Interviews, court papers and testimony in the trial revealed that the Cottone case was driven in part by a personal game of cat and mouse between Cottone and the FBI.
Special agent Glass was "my shadow," said Cottone, 43, who claimed during the trial that he alternately toyed with Glass and feared him.
Cottone told the court how Glass confronted him in 1987 at his brother Giuseppe Cottone's sentencing on drug charges. According to Cottone, Glass glared at him and said, "You'll be next."
Cottone said Glass was so desperate to arrest him that the agent fabricated a case. As for himself, Cottone shrugged, "I'm a gentleman of business" who worked 20 hours a day to put his restaurants on solid footing.
Glass, a 16-year veteran of the FBI, testified that Cottone came to him several times, offering information in an effort to cut a deal and free Giuseppe Cottone. "I was surprised that someone who claimed to be so innocent had so much access to criminal information," Glass said.
The agent said in court that Cottone boasted that he could deliver to the FBI a man who was marketing a cache of stolen American arms, a Greek who handled a sizable share of the District's drug trade, and a former Manassas plumber who had a boat on the Potomac, a home in Florida and a penchant for huge drug deals.
At the top of Cottone's curriculum vitae, Glass said, was the friendship he claimed with Paolo Gambino, at one time No. 2 in the powerful Gambino Mafia family.
What Salvatore Cottone evolved into over the past decade and a half was much debated during the trial, but there was little disagreement over how his tale began.
Cottone, as a 19-year-old member of the Sicilian merchant marine, jumped ship in New York in 1966 to get into the United States. Cottone said he had little more than $60 in his pocket and "the American dream" in his heart.
"My first job was as a dishwasher" in New Jersey, he told the court. "I'm not ashamed to say that's how I started."
When Cottone came to Washington in the mid-1970s, he found a town hungry for pizza and virtually free of competitive crime families.
Before long he established a small string of pizza parlors -- one on 14th Street in Northwest Washington, one in the Springfield Mall and another in Winchester. Anthony Caggiano was a partner with Cottone in the Springfield Mall shop, but testimony showed that the relationship soured when Cottone failed to pay his debts to Caggiano.
In 1982, Cottone went to his friend Toriello and offered him $40,000 in a failed effort to kill Caggiano, according to testimony during the trial. That was just one of what prosecutors said would be many betrayals and foolish business deals that kept Cottone from becoming a bigger player.
In the early 1980s, Cottone moved to Virginia Beach, expanding his family's crime network to a few businesses in the Tidewater area and expanding into the cocaine distribution business.
The cocaine sales were the beginning of Cottone's undoing. The drugs were sold to John W. Brown III, a special agent planted in the midst of the Cottones by Jim Glass.
In January 1987, 25 people were arrested in the Washington area; all pleaded guilty, but Cottone remained free.
Glass persevered. He sent in Cottone's old ally, Toriello, who wore a wire and offered Cottone a phony FBI memo as proof that he knew a disenchanted FBI clerk who would sell Cottone information he wanted: the whereabouts of Lanfranco Casali, the man who helped set up brother Giuseppe Cottone and who had identified Salvatore Cottone as the organization's boss. Cottone refused to buy it, saying later he knew Glass was somewhere in the background.
Glass then recruited Vincenzo Hakanjin, a friend of a friend who told Cottone he could find Casali. In September 1988 a deal was struck. Hakanjin would arrange a hit on Casali in exchange for $5,000 and a drug connection that Cottone would provide.
In October 1988, Hakanjin showed Cottone pictures of a bloodied body and handed over Casali's favorite medallion as proof of the slaying. "God bless America," Cottone said, according to Hakanjin. The photo was a product of Glass's ingenuity, the victim having been doused with nothing more lethal than tomato paste.
Ten months later, after a federal grand jury digested the various scams, Glass entered Cottone's Virginia Beach home and arrested him.
Cottone denied that he knew many of the Infamita defendants and maintained that he never financed drug deals, contracted hits or ordered restaurants torched.
He said that after his brother Giuseppe was arrested, he fabricated crimes and connections just to keep the FBI interested in him -- his hope being that he could craft a deal to free his little brother. "The game was: if the fire goes up, I put a little water on it," Cottone testified. "If it goes down, I put a little wood on it."
Near the end of Cottone's testimony last week, Sterling Weaver, one of Cottone's court-appointed attorneys, asked him if he now knew he shouldn't play games with the FBI.
Cottone smiled: "Why not? It's a free country."
Cottone faces possible life imprisonment. U.S. District Judge Robert A. MacKenzie set sentencing for March 26.