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In court case, a view of N.J. mob

Documents suggest a hit man and boss who ran the waterfront while hiding in plain sight.

Michael Coppola, center, a reputed acting captain of the Genovese crime family, leaves court in Somerville, N.J., in this 2007 file photo. (AP)
Michael Coppola, center, a reputed acting captain of the Genovese crime family, leaves court in Somerville, N.J., in this 2007 file photo. (AP)Read more

He's the quintessential New Jersey gangster, part Sonny Corleone, part Tony Soprano.

A suspect in two gangland murders, one dating to the 1970s, he spent more than 10 years on the run before being arrested on Manhattan's Upper West Side last year.

And all the while, federal authorities now say, he oversaw a mob crew that controlled the port of Newark, N.J., generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Genovese crime family.

The case against suspected hit man Michael Coppola, laid out in documents filed this month in federal court in Brooklyn, is a snapshot of how organized crime controls the 45,000-member International Longshoremen's Association and, by extension, the ports of New Jersey and New York, authorities say.

Fleshed out with transcripts from wiretapped conversations and the testimony of mob informants, it's On the Waterfront revisited.

Coppola, 62, who for more than a decade maintained apartments in San Francisco and Manhattan while he was wanted in a New Jersey homicide investigation, is serving a 42-month sentence on fugitive and fraud charges tied to his time on the run.

Two months ago, a federal grand jury in Brooklyn indicted him on racketeering charges built around the corruption of Newark Longshoremen's Local 1235 and the long-ago murder of a mobster in a New Jersey motel parking lot.

In a related civil racketeering investigation, federal authorities have alleged that the Genovese and Gambino organizations have corrupted the International Longshoremen's Association, with "the Gambino family primarily exercising its influence . . . in Brooklyn and Staten Island, and the Genovese family primarily controlling Manhattan [and] New Jersey."

The case against Coppola is a chapter from that larger story. It is expected to include testimony from a mob informant who will detail the Genovese and Gambino crime families' agreement "to divide control of the waterfront, and the involvement of members of Coppola's crew in . . . the long-term conspiracy to extort unions and businesses," according to a prosecution motion filed on Dec. 9.

Wiretapped conversations cited in the case offer hints at that control.

In one, Coppola is heard discussing the mob's take from Longshoremen's Local 1235. He and the son of the current union president talk about monthly payments the Genovese crime family received from the union and "the Christmases" - holiday bonus payments made to the mob each year, authorities allege.

In the conversation, Coppola is told monthly payments have "almost doubled" under the current administration

Coppola also demonstrates his behind-the-scenes control of the local, authorities allege, when he nixes a request from a former president of the local who wanted a union job for his daughter.

In the conversation, Coppola refers to an unnamed truck driver's union where the daughter of another official was given a job.

"It created nothing but problems with the men," he says. "You get a kid out of left field, where's the respect going to come from and where's everything else going to come from?"

How lucrative control of a waterfront local could be was detailed in a report last year by two court-appointed administrators for Local 1588, the longshoremen's union in Bayonne, N.J.

The mob took a minimum of $1 million from the local, said Robert E. Stewart, a former Organized Crime Strike Force attorney.

Since 2003, Stewart and former New York City Police Commissioner Robert J. McGuire have overseen Local 1588. Before the court order that ousted mob-connected union officials, workers routinely kicked back wages to the mob.

"If you wanted to work, you had to pay," said Stewart, comparing the situation to the famous "shape up" scene in the 1954 Marlon Brando movie On the Waterfront.

"It was a racket-ridden local dating back to the 1970s," Stewart said in an interview last week, adding that the $1 million figure was only "what we've documented." The actual amount was probably much more, he said.

Authorities allege the same practices are at work within Local 1235 and other locals whose members work at the ports of New Jersey and New York.

In addition to labor racketeering, the indictment against Coppola charges him with the 1977 murder of John "Johnny Coca-Cola" Lardiere.

Coppola went into hiding in 1996 when New Jersey authorities sought a DNA sample that they hoped would tie him to that long-unsolved murder.

In the motion filed this month, prosecutors also said Coppola and Tino Fiumara, a leader of the New Jersey branch of the Genovese organization, were suspects in the murder of Genovese family member Lawrence Ricci.

Ricci was described as one of the Genovese family's point men on the New York waterfront. In 2005, he was on trial with two high-ranking members of the International Longshoremen's Association. All three faced conspiracy and fraud charges tied to a scheme in which hundreds of thousands of dollars in union health and welfare funds allegedly were diverted to the Genovese organization.

Believing he could beat the case, Ricci, according to law enforcement, ignored a mob order to plead guilty and avoid the exposure of a trial.

In the midst of the trial, he disappeared. His lawyer said he believed his client's absence "was not voluntary." The trial continued.

On Nov. 8, 2005, a jury returned not-guilty verdicts against all three defendants.

Ricci, 60, turned out to be right about his case. He also turned up dead.

Three weeks after the verdicts were announced, his badly decomposed body was found in the trunk of a car parked behind a diner in Union, N.J. He had been shot twice in the back.

Federal authorities allege that Coppola, while living in hiding, carried out the hit. Among other things, they point to wiretap conversations in which he and his son discuss getting rid of one of the guns used in the murder.

The pending federal racketeering case is expected to rely on dozens of secretly recorded conversations.

But informant testimony figures to play a more important part when it comes to the 1977 Lardiere murder. That charge appears to be built almost entirely on the testimony of former wiseguys who say that Coppola boasted about the hit. (The DNA sample authorities sought proved inconclusive.)

Lardiere was killed while on an Easter furlough from a New Jersey prison. He was confronted in the parking lot of the Red Bull Inn in Somerset County by a man officials believe was Coppola, then a 31-year-old up-and-comer in the Genovese organization.

When the hit man's gun jammed, Lardiere is said to have quipped, "What are you going to do now, tough guy?"

With that, according to the informants, Coppola reached for another gun he had in an ankle holster and pumped five bullets into Lardiere.

That's the story Thomas Ricciardi, a New Jersey mob informant, says that Coppola told him in the mid-1980s.

Ricciardi said he and another mobster, Michael Taccetta, were talking with Coppola about mob business and "work" - a mob euphemism for murder.

"Some you do with tears in your eyes," Coppola said, according to Ricciardi.

Taccetta smiled and said, "What are you going to do now, tough guy?" All three men laughed, Ricciardi recalled.

Coppola then said "Oh, you know that story," and recounted details of the hit, according to Ricciardi.

Ricciardi said Coppola offered an underworld epitaph for Lardiere: "He was a tough guy. He died like a man."