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A few days before Christmas, one of New York's legendary tough guys, the jailed-for-life mob boss of the Colombo crime family, sat down in his cell and composed a very un-tough-guy letter to a federal judge in Brooklyn. "My name is Carmine Persico," the inmate wrote. "I am the father of Larry Persico who is a defendant before you." Writing in cramped longhand on a yellow legal pad, he explained that his son wasn't "mentally capable" of committing the crimes attributed to him.
"Please do not allow Larry to pay for his father's sins!" wrote the gangster. "Don't allow this injustice to harm a sick boy's life."
Lawrence Persico, 48, is indeed a defendant before Federal District Judge Sterling Johnson. He is one of 45 men charged with using the muscle of the Colombo and Genovese crime families to turn two powerful locals of the International Union of Operating Engineers into a racketeering enterprise.
It's a case so vast that the U.S. attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn decided to split the defendants between them. It utilized the organized crime squads of the NYPD, the state attorney general, and the federal Office of Labor Racketeering. Indictments, brought last February and updated in June and again in early December, allege that the gangsters, working in league with corrupt union officials, exerted full-scale control of Locals 14 and 15. They represent more than 6,000 heavy-machine operatorsthe cranes, derricks, and hoists crucial to every big construction job. The mobsters extorted no-show jobs, prosecutors allege, on many of the city's most prominent projects, including the new Museum of Modern Art addition and minor-league stadiums in Brooklyn and Staten Island. On the receiving end of the scams, it is alleged, were dozens of workers with wiseguy connectionsincluding Lawrence Persico.
Prosecutors say Persico claimed to be laboring on the renovation of Brooklyn's General Post Office, just down the street from the courthouse where he was later indicted, while at the same time working for a separate company elsewhere. Persico is charged with fraud, racketeering, and extortion for receiving $220,000 in fraudulent payments to Local 14's benefit plans. A superseding indictment filed on December 3 noted his mob pedigree: Persico is "the son of incarcerated Colombo family boss Carmine J. Persico" as well as "the brother of Colombo family soldier and one-time acting boss Alphonse T. Persico," the indictment stated. Lawrence Persico's own status, officials asserted, is an "associate" of the Colombo mob.
His father, wife, and brother maintain he is nothing of the kind. They describe a hardworking guy plagued by mental problems, a kind of Fredo Corleone without a taste for nightlife.
"He's my brother, and it breaks my heart," Michael Persico, Lawrence's younger sibling, told the Voice. "He is a manic-depressive. Sometimes the illness plays games with his mind. He's being persecuted because he is Carmine Persico's son."
The name Carmine Persico still makes people quake in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods. A mob civil war, waged in his name by his soldiers in the early 1990s, killed 12 people, including two innocent bystanders. At his racketeering trial in 1986, a federal prosecutor named Aaron Marcu gave the jury a short biography: "Carmine Persico was born in August 1933 and he killed his first human being in 1951, before his 18th birthday." Convicted and sentenced to life in prison, a bitter Persico plotted to have Marcu and another prosecutor killed, a scheme that was derailed by a brave fellow inmate of Persico's named Michael Lloyd, who secretly tipped then U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani [Voice, "The Con and the Mayor," August 1, 2000].
Last year, law enforcement officials learned how deadly capable the imprisoned mobster was. Three mob turncoats have described how he ordered the 1987 assassination of another ex-prosecutor, William Aronwald, who Persico felt had been "disrespectful" in pressing mob cases. The inept gunmen sent to carry out the hit, however, mistakenly shot to death the prosecutor's father, an elderly Queens lawyer, on his way into a laundromat near his home.
But that was someone else's son, and someone else's father. In his letter to Judge Johnson, Persico pleaded movingly for his own child.
"I am sure you are aware of Larry's mental condition," he wrote. "This condition dates back to 1972 when I received 14 years in prison. Larry took it very hard and his troubles began. My wife, Larry's mother, has been taken [sic] care of him ever since. Larry [has been] hospitalized many times but he has never at any time . . . harmed anyone or been a danger to the community. He is a good, hardworking family man who only wants to work to be able to take [care of] his family and his home. . . . He does not go out to bars at night. He is in bed by 9 o'clock. Some times his wife gets angry with him because he never leaves the house and has no friends."
This particular son is so far from the wiseguy life, his father insisted, that he "spends no money on himself. He had to be forced to fix his teeth. My son thought it was a waste of time and money. In the end, his mother gave him the money for his dental work. He also doesn't buy clothes for himself; he owns one suit and his work clothes only.
"My son Larry could never be part of a RICO case," continued the father. "He does not associate or is an associate with any person or persons and is not mentally capable to conspire with anyone. He would resent anyone to suggest to him in any way to commit a crime. . . . This is a good, hardworking decent man, your honor. Don't allow the Persico name and an overzealous prosecutor the ability to ruin what my son worked for all his life."
Since his arrest, Lawrence Persico has had a hard time of it. In February, he suffered what his lawyer called "a psychotic episode" which landed him in Manhattan's Lenox Hill Hospital for three weeks. Ordered in early August by the judge to meet with a psychologist, he failed to show up for the appointment. He later apologized for the lapse. But Johnson questioned how he had managed to make a court-approved trip to visit his father in California's Lompoc Penitentiary but hadn't made it to a doctor's office on Brooklyn's Court Street. Persico was remanded to the Metropolitan Detention Center. A psychiatrist there described his behavior as "childlike," according to his lawyer.
Released in early October, he missed another scheduled meeting, this time on the day before Thanksgiving with the court's pre-trial investigator. Again he apologized, saying that he forgot the date because he was off from work that week. Again, he was sent to jail, where he remains.
Dale L. Smith, Lawrence Persico's new lawyer, said it was too soon to tell whether his client's mental health will be an issue at trial. That's if the case goes to trial. Ten co-defendants have already pled guilty.
"My client is a legitimate union man. He went to work and got paid," said Smith. "If you speak to the dispatchers and everyone else involved, they will tell you he worked for his wages."
Lawrence is the middle of Carmine Persico's three sons. The eldest, Alphonse, 49, is currently serving a 13-year sentence for racketeering. Michael, 47, is a businessman, owner of a limousine company and the family's 50-acre complex in Ulster County. There, Lawrence, despite his father's claims, appears to indulge at least one passion: He owns four big Harley-Davidsons and a 2003 Range Rover.
At age 70, the elder Persico spends his days raising roses in the prison garden, playing cards with other forcibly retired wiseguys, and keeping track of the fortunes of both his families. "I gave careful consideration before writing this letter," he told Judge Johnson. "In no way do I want to offend the court." He signed the letter, "With respect, Carmine Persico."