The Godfather, Part II

Despite the progress they had made, prosecutors were painfully aware that the investigation was dragging into its second year and it was still far from over. They were looking for new ways to rattle the suspects when Ricciardi, who was nearing the end of a 10-year sentence in federal prison, sensed an opportunity, according to law enforcement officials familiar with the case. 

By any conventional standard, a decade behind bars for a guy like Ricciardi was, to put it mildly, a lenient sentence. After all, he had been convicted in a state court in New Jersey of the 1993 murder of reputed Lucchese mobster Vincent Craparotta, a particularly brutal slaying, committed with the business end of a golf club. As part of a plea bargain, he had admitted to taking part in nine mob-related murder conspiracies.

chapter continues

But Ricciardi was also a shrewd businessman who knew how to trade information, and he traded enough of it to federal authorities in the mid-nineties to help bring down the top leadership of the Luccheses, the only homegrown New Jersey Mafia family.

By the spring of 2001, though, prison life was starting to irritate Ricciardi. He yearned to shed the dull uniform of the federal prison system and return to loud clothes and the quiet streets of North Jersey or someplace just like it, except maybe with palm trees instead if maples. "He had something he thought we'd be interested in," said one law enforcement official familiar with the deal the state struck with the mobster. The details of the deal are officially a secret, though they reportedly included, among other things, a promise to pay informants in the case up to $60,000 for their help.

Maybe it's a measure of how small the universe between Newark and Pompton Plains really is, but Ricciardi had a connection, however tentative, to the LaPore family, authorities have confirmed. It turned out that Ricciardi's 48-year-old brother Daniel, or "Bobo" as he was known on the street, himself a convicted felon and credentialed mob informant, was dating a woman who was, as authorities later described the relationship, "friendly" with Joe LaPore's mother, Marie.

According to one state official, Ricciardi approached them with an offer to help them collect enough information to obtain a warrant to tap the LaPore family phones. As a bonus, the state would also get the chance to tap Ryan's cell phone. "He was shrewd enough to say I'll help you with this, but I want a year off my sentence and I want to walk," said the law enforcement official. The state agreed. By June of that year, the authorities had their warrant and had broken into the LaPore family house, with the blessing of the court, to hide listening devices.

But they weren't done. The state wanted to use Ricciardi as more than just a shortcut to a wiretap. They also wanted to use him as a prod, and Ricciardi was more than willing. With the help of his brother, he would periodically drop hints to the family that investigators were getting closer to making an arrest, the source said.   It's a common trick among lawmen to put a wiretap or a bug in place, and then "light them up," as the cops put it "You know, we'll call up reporters and say there's going to be search warrant executed, be there and we won't comment. The reason is that it gets the bad guys talking," the source said. "It makes the wiretaps more effective. In essence that's how Ricciardi was used."

For the next 24 months, authorities listened in to the LaPore family's conversations. From those wiretaps, they collected enough information to charge LaPore's father, also named Joseph, sister Lauren and mother Marie, with obstruction of justice. According to the indictment against them, the family members discussed the case on at least nine occasions. In one conversation, recorded on June 13, 2001, authorities allege, Joseph P. LaPore toyed with the idea of leaving Florham Park before his son could be charged. In another conversation the next day, authorities allege that Marie LaPore was urging the family to lie to investigators when she told them to "stay united." In another, family members allegedly plotted with Lauren to mislead the grand jury.

But if, in all those hours of tapes, there is the smoking gun, an admission of guilt by LaPore or Ryan, authorities are keeping that to themselves. As late as Labor Day 2003, prosecutors, claiming computer problems, had still not handed over the transcripts of the tapes to defense attorneys. And in his final summation before the grand jury in June 2003, the most damning comment that assistant prosecutor Menz could extract from the recordings was a garbled comment from young Joe LaPore made to his sister which, as Menz repeated it to the jury went like this: "I didn't think I set the fire, or I set it, I set it."

There was, however, one direct and unambiguous consequence of the state's wiretap deal with the mobster. On September 6, 2001, Daniel Ricciardi, the convicted killer who had been implicated in the intentional murder of more than three times as many people as had died as a tragic consequence of the Seton Hall fire walked out of prison a free man. He is currently enrolled in the federal witness protection program. Needless to say, he could not be reached for comment.

1. The Fire

2. The Heart of the Fire

3. A Swirling Sea of Smoke

4. The Morning After

5. Where Were You When the Fire Started?

6. The Probe Begins

7. The Cops are Rattled

8. The Meeting

9. Under Questioning

10. The Fat Lady Sings

11. The Godfather, Part I

12. Hardball

13. The Godfather, Part II

14. Closure

15. Photo Gallery

16. Bibliography

17. The Author

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