Category Archives: Crime

The Job Nobody Wants

Nobody joins a volunteer fire department to be the bookkeeper.

To fight fires? Of course. Drive the fire trucks? Absolutely. Help people in trouble? You bet. Keep track of the finances? No, no thanks.

So, when you have somebody who’s good with numbers and willing to be in charge of the money, that’s a big win. The problem is that some people see this as an opportunity to steal.

Several times a year, you read about treasurers at volunteer fire departments being arrested or convicted on charges of looting cash from their organizations. Just last week, the treasurer of a downstate volunteer fire department pleaded guilty to pilfering more than $300,000 from his organization.

That sounds like a lot of money, but a few years ago the treasurer of a fire department on little Charlton, NY went to prison for stealing half a million dollars. Charlton Fire District’s pretty small, yet nobody noticed that hundreds of thousands of dollars went missing.

But like I said, you don’t join up to balance the checkbook, you join up to do the cool stuff. Let somebody else worry about paying the bills.

My old fire department had strict internal controls and an independent audit conducted every year by an outside firm. We couldn’t get reimbursed for a can of kidney beans without a receipt. Some of these fire departments are not so stringent — and when only one person is handling the books, anything can happen.

Fortunately, a lot of people who do this get caught, but you have to wonder how many get away with it.

Ziti and Meatballs

The corruption trial of Cuomo confidant Joe Percoco grinds along this week. It’s hard not to feel bad for this guy, who seems to have gotten in over his head in every way possible — but you’ve got to admit, the “ziti” business is funny.

The feds claim that Percoco would refer to payments by the code word “ziti,” and they say they have emails with Percoco writing, “Keep the ziti flowing … Don’t tip over the ziti wagon.” And where did he come up with that? According to the prosecutor, from watching the Sopranos. In other news, Mario Cuomo is rolling over in his grave.

Meanwhile, in a federal courtroom in Allentown, something entirely different is on the menu. Prosecutors there claim that the word “meatballs” was used as code for illicit payments in the bribery case of mayor Ed Pawlowski.

This from the Allentown Morning Call is priceless:

“So, this is not code for a bribe? Did you actually go to Mike Fleck’s to pick up meatballs?” Morgan asked.

Strathearn replied yes.

“Did you actually get meatballs?” the prosecutor asked.

Strathearn replied that he had, but not as many as he was expecting.
“How many did you get?” Morgan asked.

“Four,” he replied.

On cross-examination, McMahon played several more recordings containing references to the meaty Italian cuisine and suggested “meatballs” was, in fact, code for a bribe.

“You want these people to believe it’s really meatballs?” McMahon yelled. “It’s a payoff, Mr. Strathearn. You know, I know and everybody knows.”

Yes, everybody knows meatballs mean money. And meatballs and ziti? Fuggetaboutit.

Bronx 1934

I binged four seasons of Boardwalk Empire recently. It has all the usual gangster stuff I enjoy, but there’s also a profound sadness to the show. Tragedy lurks around every corner, and as you get involved with the characters, you feel their pain.

I liked it a lot, but as the body count mounted from season to season, a nagging thought began to gnaw at me: these crime dramas  rarely show the devastating effect that death can have on a family, sometimes lasting for generations.

I know this because murder touched my own family many years ago.

I never met my grandfather, because in 1934 he was shot in a Bronx pool hall. The two men accused in his murder, described by the NY Times as a “minor politician” and a “former pugilist” were acquitted at trial.

In the movies, that would be the end of the end of the story, but in real life, he left behind my grandmother and six children. My father was seven-years-old.

Those were tough years and losing the head of the household couldn’t have helped. It changed the trajectory of the family in ways we’ll never know.

The next time you watch a scene of carnage in some gangster shoot-em-up think how each minor figure is connected to so many other lives. It moves the plot in one direction, but shifts the world in another.

True Crime

It’s been ten years since Christopher Porco attacked his parents with an ax, leaving his father dead and mother horribly maimed. It doesn’t surprise me that the Times Union would commemorate the brutal murder with a slide show of the “Unforgettable Crimes of the Capital Region,” but this Facebook post seemed strange.

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Seriously? Maybe “some crimes remain in our psyche” because you celebrate their anniversary with a slide show. I’m sure it got lots of clicks.

Observations from the Jury Box

I’ve been summoned for jury duty before, but never even had to appear at the courthouse. This time my number came up — and I was seated on the jury for the trial of a man accused of  criminal sale of a controlled substance in the 3rd degree, a Class B felony. He was arrested for selling $20 worth of heroin.

Here are a few impressions:

If you get called for jury duty, you probably will not serve. 150 people were summoned in my group and 14 were chosen. Everybody else was dismissed. We were told upfront, before selection even began, that our trial would last just two or three days.

Albany County Court gives jurors the VIP treatment. We were handled extremely well by court personel who went out of their way to make sure it was a positive experience. After the trial, the judge, Hon. Thomas A. Breslin, visited with us to thank us for our service and answer our questions about the trial. He would not address sentencing, which will not take place until August.

Court can be a lonely place. Our courtroom could accomodate nearly 300 spectators — and every single seat was empty. The defendant stood alone without friends or family. The charges that will send him to prison were not even interesting enough for a reporter to show up.

The whole case hinged on whether we believed the tesimony of an informant who conducted the drug buy. Initially, several jurors harbored doubts about her testimony — but as it turned out, theirs were not reasonable doubts. One would need to believe that she concocted an elaborate scheme to fake her drug buy and frame the defendant, all right under the nose of the police who had her under strict control. Could there have been some sort of conspiracy against the defendant? Yes. Was that a likely scenario? Absolutely not.

Overall, it was a fascinating experience.

Everyone should see what happens during a real trial first hand, if not as a juror then from the gallery. The prosecutor primed us in his openning statement by telling us this would not be like on Law & Order. He was right, it was not. And nothing you’ve ever seen can prepare you for being part of the real deal.

Predator

Gary Mercure used his position as a Catholic priest to gain the trust of young boys. And then he raped them. Now he’s going to prison, where he belongs.

What makes this worse is the shadowy involvement of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany who, it may be argued, did not do enough when they first heard allegations of Mercure’s crimes. Don’t know about you, but I’m not satisfied with their explanation.

So to prison he goes. Some will say he’s getting off easy.

In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty is an unconstitutional punishment for child rapists. Me? I tend to agree with President Obama, as cited in this 2008 NY Times story:

Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, said, “I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime, and if a state makes a decision under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances, that the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that does not violate our Constitution.” He added that the Supreme Court should have set conditions for imposing the death penalty for the crime, “but it basically had a blanket prohibition, and I disagree with the decision.”

It’s tempting to compare Gary Mercure to an animal, a dangerous creature who deserves to be treated like a rabid dog. That would be wrong. A rabid dog does not understand the consequences of its actions.

Snow, French Toast, and the Mob

“Hey. You ever go in the supermarket and see all those people buying crap because there’s snow coming?”

This was my same friend who explained how organized crime is behind New York’s construction of all those roundabouts. “You mean the bread and milk and eggs thing?”

“Yeah. You know who makes that happen?”

Uh-oh… here it comes.

“The mob. Everybody knows they control mozzarella cheese. What you don’t know is they’re all over eggs, milk… and bakeries.”

Wait a second. “But those sound like legitimate businesses…”

“They are! But here’s the thing: they get the weather guy on TV to say its going to snow like nuts, and all these people run out and buy things they don’t need. Look at this week. Weatherman says it’s gonna snow and everybody freaks out.”

“But how…”

“Payoffs. Extortion. Threats. Turn the screws on those guys and they’ll say anything. The mob’s got long arms. Forecast calls for two feet of snow, everybody runs to the store, and cha-ching.”

“Cha-ching?”

“Cha-freakin-ching, my friend. Cha-freakin-ching.”

It sounded plausible, but that was after a few drinks. Certainly something to think about the next time you make French toast on a snowy day.