"What're You Gonna Do Now, Tough Guy?"
In the Wind
Smith knew from months of undercover task force surveillance that Coppola observed a strict exercise regimen, which included a daily bike ride and a jog on the boardwalk near his home in Spring Lake. On Thursday morning, August 8, 1996, Coppola, dressed in shorts, a running jacket and sneakers, was just returning home from his workout. Smith and Investigator Mike Keane followed him up the driveway.
Michael, Smith called out to Coppola as he approached.
Coppola was just getting off his bike. He glanced up and was startled by the sudden approach of two strangers. From the alarmed look on his face, it was obvious to Smith that Coppola was concerned that they were possibly there to harm him. Both investigators quickly showed their badges and identified themselves, then Smith served the notice.
Coppola took the papers. He asked what this was all about.
Smith explained that he was being summoned to court in Somerville.
Coppola was courteous, almost congenial. Smith was equally courteous but got right to the point. Johnny Cokes, he said.
Coppolas face fell. After twenty-five years he was suddenly the focus of a long forgotten murder.
Both investigators made sure Coppola understood that he was required to show up in court the next Monday.
Through his lawyer, Coppola arranged to have the hearing in Somerville postponed until Tuesday, August 13 at 9:00 AM. The reason for the request was a previously scheduled doctors appointment that Coppolas wife had with a specialist in Cleveland, Ohio. Coppola wanted to accompany his wife. On the day of the hearing, Investigator Smith was in Judge Wilfred P. Dianas courtroom early, waiting for Coppola to arrive. But when Coppolas attorney, James C. Haggarty, Jr., showed up, his client wasnt with him. Haggarty told the court that Coppola was on his way, but that he might be a little late due to heavy traffic conditions. The hearing was put off until the afternoon, but as some had predicted, Coppola did not show his face that day. As a result Judge Diana issued an Order for Coppolas appearance in his courtroom.
State investigators began a concerted search for Coppola. Surveillance around his home was stepped up. They looked for his blue Cadillac, but it had not been seen at his residence for days. Investigators knocked on his door and spoke to the cleaning lady. She said she had no idea where Mr. Coppola was. In subsequent days, investigators spoke with Coppolas wife, who said that she hadnt seen her husband since theyd returned from Cleveland the previous Sunday. After two weeks of searching, investigators could not locate Michael Coppola.
On August 27, 1996, a murder warrant was issued for Michael Coppolas arrest, but years later hes still at large. The Organized Crime and Racketeering Bureau continues to search for him.
Task force members cant help but wonder what might have happened if they had arrested Coppola back in 1996 to get the blood and saliva samples. Who knows? Paul Smith said. A DNA test might have proven him innocent.
Smith is concerned, however, for the safety of the law enforcement officer who eventually does make the arrest. I just hope nobody gets hurt, he said. Michael Coppola does have a deceptively friendly manner.
But the fact remains that the task force investigators who had pushed for that arrest were right on the money. With a possible murder rap hanging over his head, Michael Coppola fled for his life. In mob parlance, hes now in the wind.
Copyright 2001, Anthony Bruno. All Rights Reserved