08/30/2010 10:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Denis Dillon, A Pioneer in the Fight Against Organized Crime

You'd hardly know it from his obituaries, but Denis Dillon, the longtime Nassau County District Attorney who died two weeks ago after a long battle with lymphoma, was more than just the guy who prosecuted the Amy Fisher-Long Island Lolita case, and who once ran for governor as the Right to Life candidate. He was also the soft-spoken prosecutor who made his bones as a law enforcement tough guy 40 years ago when he took on the John Gotti of his day.

And while Dillon was not a clear-cut winner over the brash and outspoken Joe Colombo - who wore $1,000 suits he changed three times a day so he would always look sharp - he gave as good as he got during a two-year-long conflict that took place both in and out of court.

Those were heady Mafia days when the swashbuckling mob boss became a folk hero to many hard-working Italian Americans as he led daily demonstrations against the FBI, alleging that agents had arrested his son Joseph Jr. on half-baked charges because they were unable to make a case against him.

"If I do something, then I deserve to pay the penalty," the budding civil rights leader declared during a boisterous rally at the FBI's then-headquarters on East 69th Street. "But the FBI shouldn't harass my children and relatives because of what I do."

The arrest spurred protest marches and Colombo's formation of the Italian American Civil Rights League. Noisy demonstrations continued through two trials of his son and led to two intriguing face-to-face confrontations between Dillon and the larger than life Mafia boss.

Back then, Dillon, a former New York City cop who had earned a law degree at night while walking a beat in the Bronx by day, was the federal prosecutor whose job it was to bring a decidedly weak case against the 23-year-old son of the powerful mob boss to trial.

A year earlier, in 1969, Dillon was appointed to head the Brooklyn Organized Crime Strike Force - which would years later be heralded as an elite band of mob-busting prosecutors who brought down Mafia bosses as well as corrupt politicians.

Dillon's appointment, however, came before the powerful racketeering statutes had been signed into law and was a full decade before the federal government formulated any semblance of a cohesive strategy against the Mafia.

"Denis was an effective, professional leader, a pioneer in the fight against organized crime," said Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, who oversaw the federal government's organized crime section from 1969 to 1990 and is currently the highest ranking career attorney in the Justice Department.

In fiscal year 1971, the only year for which Gang Land could obtain data, Dillon's team of seven lawyers and 13 investigators convicted 116 mob-connected defendants of various crimes, more than any of the other 17 strike forces around the country back then.

Dillon had a baptism of fire shortly after he was named to head the newly formed Brooklyn strike force. On April 30, 1970, FBI agents arrested Colombo Jr. and charged him with violating a Treasury Department regulation against melting silver coins a month before the ban expired.

The FBI had been unable to make a case against the elder Colombo, an up-and-coming gangster who attended a Queens mini-conclave of mob chieftains in 1966 with Carlo Gambino and the bosses of New Orleans and Tampa. Instead, agents brought charges against Colombo's namesake son. The case was based on information they obtained from a mob soldier who would be a vocal demonstrator outside the FBI's Manhattan headquarters with Colombo, but who secretly had begun talking to agents even before Joe Valachi became the first mobster to publicly break his vow of omerta in 1963.

That was legendary mobster Greg Scarpa, the mob stool pigeon who was so valuable that the FBI took him to Mississippi to find the bodies of three civil rights workers slain in 1964, and who would serve as a top-echelon informer until he died from the AIDS virus in 1994. Using Scarpa's tips, the FBI charged Colombo Jr. and three others with conspiring to melt coins and convert them for resale as silver ingots.

The elder Colombo was a daily spectator at two trials of his son. His first confrontation with Dillon, who was the lead prosecutor both times, took place two weeks after his son's first case ended in a mistrial, while the elder Colombo was himself on trial in Manhattan on unrelated perjury charges, on December 16, 1970.

It was triggered by the FBI's arrest of Colombo's bodyguard-chauffeur Rocco Miraglia for lying before a federal grand jury that Dillon had empanelled. When agents nabbed Miraglia, they seized a black attaché case that he was holding as he sat in a car with Colombo outside Manhattan Supreme Court during a break in his case.

A few hours later, an enraged Colombo stormed into Dillon's strike force offices and demanded that the briefcase be returned to him.

"It's not Rocky's, it's mine," he bellowed. "It's records of the Italian American Civil Rights League. You have no right to keep them."

But Dillon calmly told Colombo to forget about it, unless he wanted to testify before a grand jury about the lists of first names, nicknames and dollar amounts that agents had found in the briefcase.

Surprisingly, Colombo agreed. So, to get his records back, he appeared before the grand jury and explained, among other things, that the "Carl" and $30,000 listed alongside his name indicated that Carlo Gambino had raised $30,000 for the League. That did not sit too well with Gambino, who had backed Colombo's first Unity Day rally six months earlier, but who pulled back his support for the second Unity Day rally on June 30, 1971, the fateful day when Colombo was gunned down at Columbus Circle.

Their second face-to-face came on February 26, 1971 after Dillon told the Judge during his son's second trial - that ended in an acquittal that same day - that an associate of the mob boss had confronted him in a courthouse elevator and threatened him with a sneer: "How do you want to get it? With a knife or fists?"

During a break, Colombo sought out the prosecutor and apologized, stating, "I have all the respect in the world for you, Mr. Dillon."

Outside the courthouse, the Mafia boss made it a point to go over to the cohort who had leveled the threat, and slap him across the face.

Dillon rarely spoke "on the record" about his face-offs with the Colombos but there's no doubt that they helped shape his future. In 1972, he told The New York Times that initially he had planned to stay with the Strike Force only a short time before moving into private practice.

"But the work was too damn interesting to leave and it's been that way ever since," he said, adding that he intended to remain in public service "all the way."