"What're You Gonna Do Now, Tough Guy?"
All Bets Are Off
In Tommy Ricciardis mind all bets were off. He was facing life imprisonment for murder, so he had nothing to lose. It was time to make a deal and come clean about organized crime activity in New Jersey. Ricciardi together with Anthony Acceturo made a phone call from prison to Supervising State Investigators Ron Donahue and Paul Smith of the New Jersey Organized Crime and Racketeering Bureau. Ricciardi and Acceturo were seriously thinking about making a deal. Ricciardi was through with the mob, and he was eager to tell law enforcement everything he knew about Taccettas career in crime. If the state would agree to give Ricciardi a reduced sentence, hed start talking.
Ricciardi knew Paul Smith very well because Smith had investigated him many times over the years. Smith, whose ready smile seems incongruous on a man who has spent twenty-five years investigating organized crime in New Jersey, started his career with the Essex County Prosecutors Office where he met Ron Donahue, the seasoned investigator who became his mentor. Smith also met Bob Carroll there, who later became chief of the New Jersey Organized Crime Task Force and who prosecuted the case against Tommy Ricciardi and his fellow Luccheses. When Smith moved on to the statewide Organized Crime and Racketeering Bureau in 1986, he became part of a team that would eventually arrest and convict over 400 wiseguys and associates in the state, including members of the Genovese, Bonanno, Colombo, and Gambino families, many of them for murder. Smith was also a key member of the task force that brought infamous multiple murderer Richard the Iceman Kuklinski to justice. Kuklinski, who to all the world was a suburban family man, claims to have killed over 100 people in a variety of gruesome ways.
In the spring of 1996 when Tommy Ricciardi decided he wanted to turn states witness, Paul Smith and Investigator Dennis Masucci met with him and questioned him for hours, probing for information regarding past mob activities in New Jersey. They asked about the Lucchese family as well as other crime families that operated in the state. The investigators made it clear to Ricciardi that any consideration regarding his sentence would be predicated on the quantity and quality of the information he provided. Ricciardi started talking, and one of the best pieces of information he offered was the revelation that Michael Coppola was the shooter in the Johnny Cokes homicide. By now Coppola was basically running Genovese family operations in New Jersey. Suddenly the nineteen-year-old unsolved murder was back on the front burner with a powerful capo as the prime suspect.
Ricciardi told the state investigators that he had heard Coppola himself admit to killing Johnny Cokes Lardiere, but even though Ricciardis mob pedigree was beyond dispute, his story would have to be corroborated with known facts about the murder in order to build a case against Coppola. A task force was formed to investigate the Cokes homicide, and investigators went to the Somerset County Prosecutors office where they located the musty old police files from 1977. In the county evidence vault they found the ankle holster and the cap in separate evidence bags. They also found several hairs that had been extracted from the hat and the holster during the initial investigation. As Paul Smith held the little evidence baggie that contained the hairs, he immediately thought DNA.
Back in 1977 forensic DNA analysis was unheard of in criminal investigations, but by 1996 it was becoming almost routine. Still Smith and other members of the task force were reluctant to get their hopes up. None of the hairs had a root bulb attached, and it was their understanding that a DNA analysis couldnt be performed without the bulb. Smith called the FBIs Hair and Fiber Laboratory in Washington, D.C., to see if anything could be done with these hairs. He was told that the Bureau had just started using a new process called Mitochondrial DNA analysis, which could be performed on a hair shaft without a bulb. If the FBI could get a DNA reading from the hairs, the task force would be one big step closer to making an arrest.
Somerset County authorities drove the hairs to the FBI labs in Washington on June 20, 1996. The task force eagerly waited for the results, which they were told would take a few weeks. But fate intervened. When TWA Flight 800 went down over Long Island on July17 and dozens of bodies had to be identified as soon as possible, the FBI shifted its priorities and technicians put all their efforts into analyzing the remains recovered from that horrible disaster. The task force would have to wait a little longer to get the results on the hairs from the cap and the holster.
On August 5, 1996, the FBI lab reported back to the task force that they had successfully extracted DNA code from the hairs. If blood and saliva samples could be obtained from the suspect, the FBI would do a comparison to see if Coppolas DNA matched the DNA of the hairs found at the scene of the crime. All the task force had to do now was get some samples from Coppola.
The task force could have arrested Coppola for murder and obtained the samples under court order while he was being held. Those in favor of this option argued that any man facing a murder charge would consider flight, especially if he was financially secure. Coppola was no street thug; he had money and resources. He was also a low-key, unassuming personality by nature. He could definitely make himself disappear. But ultimately the decision was made to let Coppola come in on his own. A Notice of Application for Investigative Detention was issued, which ordered him to show up at the Somerset County Court House in Somerville to give the required blood and saliva samples. Paul Smith was chosen to serve the Notice on Coppola.
Copyright 2001, Anthony Bruno. All Rights Reserved