'Tis the season to be jolly. Deck those halls with boughs of holly, or whatever else is handy. New Yorkers have been doing it all month long, eating, drinking and making merry. Except at the Banner Social Club in Brooklyn, where some spoil sport feds took the fa-la-la-la-la right out of Christmas for some 55 oldsters holding their annual holiday get-together.
Just as the crowd - it included three Bonanno wiseguys - began to unwind, a gaggle of shotgun-toting party poopers armed also with search warrants arrived at the Bensonhurst storefront. The Grinches didn't even bother to wear red for the occasion; They had on dark blue jackets with big white letters "DEA" across their backs.
Announcing a raid, the federal drug agents announced a raid, and herded the partygoers out into the cold night for two hours. The suspects - for the most part, elderly men with no prior arrests - were lined up and searched. Their cell phones were taken and later returned. No drugs were seized.
Inside the club at 2009 72d Street, at the corner of 20th Avenue, the food grew cold and soggy. The ice melted in the drinks. The beer got warm. The holiday spirit fizzled and faded out.
Say what you will about mob social clubs, they are not usually where high-level drug deals go down, which makes this Christmas raid by 25 heavily armed federal narcs pretty unusual. Gang Land, through the use of its own reindeer radar, has learned that the swat team wasn't looking for any dangerous fugitives, uncovered no illegal contraband, and made no arrests.
The circumstances surrounding the 7:30 p.m., December 15 raid at the three-room club are shrouded in mystery and intrigue. The three federal agencies that were involved in the caper that went down in the same social club where a 75-year-old caretaker died in a raid a few days before Easter, refuse to discuss any aspect of it.
"What is it about the holidays?" said one exasperated oldtimer whose description of the events were backed up by an attorney who was called to the club by a client after the raid began, by law enforcement sources, and by court documents obtained by Gang Land.
"During the last search," said attorney Vincent Romano, "an elderly man went into cardiac arrest and suffered the indignity of dying in the street. No one from law enforcement had the compassion or common sense to call an ambulance in time to save him. Fortunately, no one died in the Christmas party raid."
A joint FBI-NYPD task force conducted the pre-Easter raid, last April 7. The club's caretaker, Sam Nastasa, collapsed and died when cops, who had spotted a Joker Poker machine in the place, told him he was being charged with illegal gambling and cuffed him. Friends who were present that day say that cops ignored Nastasa's requests for help, and that he died in the club. Police say they called an ambulance immediately, and Nastasa was pronounced dead at nearby Lutheran Medical Center. Nastasa, a retiree who had a bit role in The Sopranos and played a gang member in A Bronx Tale, had taken over as club caretaker earlier in the year.
A spokesman for the Medical Examiner told Gang Land last week that Nastasa died from natural causes, specifically "hyperactive and arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease."
During the Christmas party raid, said the Bensonhurst oldtimer, he and the others had their pictures taken, were forced to show identification, and searched: "They come to our Christmas party, make us stand out in the cold, and then they tell us, 'Good night, have a nice evening.' This is nothing more than harassment. A waste of my tax money."
As Gang Land reported in April, the club - incorporated in the 1950s as a non-profit group called the Banner Civic Association - had long been the headquarters of Bonanno soldier John (Johnny Green) Faraci, but had recently become the province of mobster Vincent (Vinny TV) Badalamenti.
No surprise that Faraci, still spry at 87, and the up-and-coming Badalamenti, 53, were at the party, along with another reputed Bonanno family rising star, Staten Island-based capo Anthony Calabrese, 42. None has any restrictions on his movements. And like most people, they enjoy breaking bread during the holiday season.
But Vinny TV and Calabrese - and a third wiseguy whose name Gang Land could not learn - were treated pretty rudely by the DEA agents.
Agents told them there "was a problem with their licenses," said another ear-and-eye witness who asked that his name not be used. "They cuffed them, put them in separate cars and said they were taking them to the MDC (Metropolitan Detention Center.)"
As it turned out, the men were instead driven to DEA headquarters in Manhattan, where they were photographed and fingerprinted as though they were being arrested, and then told they could go home, according to Ronald Fischetti, an attorney for Badalamenti.
Fischetti says he has gotten no explanation from federal prosecutors or the DEA about the seemingly improper actions. "I haven't been able to determine why he was held in custody without an arrest warrant, or know of any probable cause to have him arrested. We still don't know why he was held in custody."
According to search warrants signed by a U.S. Magistrate Judge, DEA agents, whose usual mandate is drug trafficking, were looking into "racketeering and racketeering conspiracy" by mobsters. Based on a secret submission, Brooklyn Judge Marilyn Go gave the drug agents permission to search "cellular telephones, blackberries, pagers ...and other electronic devices carried by persons attending a meeting of the Bonanno family" at the club.
The DEA declined to say why the federal drug agency was spearheading the probe, and referred Gang Land inquiries to the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney's office. A spokesman for that office declined to respond to that question, or why two organized crime prosecutors - including unit chief John Buretta - supervised the raiders, also an unusual occurrence.
Sources say Buretta, and prosecutor Nicole Argentieri, who filed the sealed affidavits that convinced Judge Go to authorize the search warrants, gave instruction to agents, who pulled down ceiling tiles during the search of the club.
The FBI, which had a high-level supervisor standing alongside the prosecutors during the raid, declined to explain his presence, or why no agents from the Bonanno squad were involved in the search. Maybe they were planning a raid on Santa's workshop.