A violent Genovese gangster who doubled as an FBI informer for 18 years and a well-to-do businessman pal, begin trial today for an alleged million dollar insurance-murder plot that's got more intrigue and hard-to-believe plot twists and turns than any screen writer for "The Sopranos" or "Law & Order" would ever attempt.
To begin with, the gangster, Joseph Barone, has publicly disclosed his longtime status as a secret snitch in an effort to pose an unusual "public authority defense." The argument is that while Barone may have committed criminal acts, he only did so based on his reasonable belief that a government official gave him permission to do so. Therefore, the defense reasoning goes, he is not guilty of the charged crime.
We'll get to the overall logic of Barone's tenuous legal strategy later, as well as whether winning an acquittal is now the gangster-informer's biggest worry.
The story starts in January of last year, when Barone was tape-recorded telling another FBI stool pigeon that he would pay him $100,000 to whack a former partner of his codefendant, accused businessman Anthony Piliero. During the discussion, Barone stressed that the killing had to be staged to look like a push-in-robbery and had to be done soon. And if he couldn't get the job done, Barone would get someone else to do it.
Fearing that Barone, the son of a deceased wiseguy with several violent attacks on his rap sheet, would find a willing triggerman, a team of FBI agents and NYPD detectives moved quickly and arrested him in his driveway as he arrived home. They seized two handguns and ammunition from his home. Barone, without too much ado, agreed to wear a wire against Piliero.
Once he did that, Barone, who had been jailed as a dangerous thug when he was arrested, was released from his federal lockup and allowed back home. The feds, meanwhile, zeroed in on Piliero for plotting to murder his former business partner, Douglas Agnessanto.
The defendants, who are both 49, were allegedly looking to kill Agnessanto so that Piliero could cash in on a $1 million life insurance policy he had taken out 10 years earlier on Agnessanto, and so Barone could earn a nice payday for himself. The dastardly deed had to be done quickly, by February, according to court papers, for the understandable reason that the cost of the insurance policy which Piliero first took out on his partner back in 1999 was about to increase more than 300%, from $116 a month to $626 a month.
During Barone's discussions with authorities, he gave the FBI and federal prosecutors one more twist in the plot: He said that Piliero never really asked him to kill his former business partner, and that he never intended to whack the guy either.
As a result, 10 days after Barone was released on bail, he found himself back behind bars, where he has been ever since. Most of the time he's been held against his will in segregated housing by prison officials who fear he needs protection from possible retaliation by wiseguys who may have become aware that he was a longtime FBI informer, according to court records.
The feds didn't get around to arresting Piliero until two months later, in April of 2009. Piliero, a multi-millionaire businessmen who currently owns and operates retail outlets that sell Sprint cell phones and related equipment in New Rochelle and Riverside, Connecticut, was charged with hiring Barone to murder Agnessanto. Piliero, who has real estate holdings in three states, was released on a $1 million bond.
Piliero's attorney, Edward McDonald, seems prepared to argue that whatever discussions Barone and his client had about whacking his former business partner were idle chatter. McDonald, a former chief federal mob prosecutor, declined to discuss the case. But in court papers he states that not only did Barone tell FBI agents and prosecutors that his client had not plotted to kill anyone, but that the tape-recorded conversation backs up the notion that Piliero's talks with Barone were not about murder.
In his papers, McDonald quotes Barone saying on the tape that he can "punch myself in the fuckin head" because sometimes "we fuck around and we talk, you know what I mean, and we, we say some, we don't, we don't...." Barone also says: "We don't mean it."
One of the reasons the FBI didn't buy the "just kidding" claim is that agents found a "Post-It" note that Piliero allegedly wrote that contains the name, address and phone number of his former business partner in Barone's late-model Caddy when they searched it on the day they arrested him. At trial, McDonald will be hard-pressed to explain that away.
In another plot twist, Manhattan federal prosecutors Steve Kwok and John Zach won't be able to use the same post-it against Barone.
Trial Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled the note, along with all the evidence that was recovered from Barone's home - including two handguns, a bullet proof vest and printouts of Gang Land columns - was illegally seized and cannot be used against Barone. In a lengthy ruling last month, Buchwald agreed with defense lawyer Jose Muniz that a "protective sweep" of Barone's home for an unknown co-conspirator - after his client was arrested outside his home - was a pretext designed to search his home for possible contraband for which the agents knew they did not have "probable cause" to obtain a search warrant.
With Barone "arrested and handcuffed in the driveway," the agents were "not justified" in bringing him into the house and searching for weapons, wrote Buchwald.
"For 18 years, my client served the FBI faithfully, providing invaluable service that has led to the arrests of hundreds of criminals" said Muniz, who conceded to Gang Land that Barone's decision to testify publicly about his informer role "will make him a marked man for the rest of his life."
"He never violated the strict FBI rules for acting at their behest," said Muniz. "The FBI has authorized him to engage in criminal conversations, including but not limited to, murder, extortion, racketeering, etc., and that is what he was doing here, establishing his credibility on the street with a flunky" who had been arrested on drug charges and was looking to curry favor with authorities.
"He often took credit for things that he didn't do. That's what he was doing here," said Muniz, adding what he believes is the main reason why his client is gambling with his life in a very risky effort to win an acquittal: "He feels betrayed by the FBI," the lawyer said.