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Big Mike Forde, leader of the city's 25,000 union carpenters, twisted and squirmed, a prisoner in his courtroom chair. Every few seconds, he shifted position. He rolled his huge bulldog head around on his shoulders and blew out his cheeks. He stretched back. He scrunched forward. Mostly, he looked straight ahead in the direction of Supreme Court Judge Bruce Allen. Occasionally, he risked sidelong glances at the dangerous jurors across the room. Then he'd shudder. He'd plant his elbows on the defense table, bury his flushed face in his hands, and shake his mighty head back and forth. "How did I wind up here?" he seemed to be saying.
That was last week in Part 45 of Manhattan Supreme Court on Centre Street, where Forde was sitting through his second trial in four years for the alleged crime of bribery of a union official, a class D felony calling for a maximum sentence of seven years. The first time around, in 2004, Forde and Martin Devereaux, his friend and union business agent, who sat beside him still as a stone, were convicted. The two union men avoided a trip to Sing Sing only because a couple of jurors couldn't resist reading a fascinating article about the case in The Village Voice. The conviction was ordered overturned.
The second trial was delayed until last month, when the rematch was set between Assistant District Attorney Michael Scotto, a studious and even-tempered man, against the fiery Michael Dowd of Queens, who represented Devereaux at both trials, and Andrew Lankler, a former prosecutor who sent a prior carpenters-union president to prison for corruption, who represented Forde this time.
As it had at the first trial, the issue of guilt or innocence rested largely on the credibility of the government's chief witness, a former coked-up apprentice mobster and contractor named Sean Richard, who said he had bribed the officials to "look the other way" as he cheated on union work rules. A former car-wash attendant, Richard hit Mafia Lotto when he married the daughter of John Riggi, head of New Jersey's DeCavalcante crime family. Although he didn't know sheet rock from sheet lightning, Richard and his wife, Sara, formed S&S Contracting and quickly won a rigged bid to renovate the cavernous Park Central Hotel on Seventh Avenue and West 56th Street. Richard was there counting his lucky stars in March 1998 when Forde and Devereaux strolled in from the street to see what was up.
If Mike Forde wondered a thousand times later how he had ended up in this fix, the answer was right there: A block wide and 31 stories tall, the massive Park Central has carried a mob curse since 1928.
The then-palatial hotel was only a year old when, on November 4, 1928, in Room 339, someone fatally gut-shot Arnold "the Brain" Rothstein, allegedly for failure to pay gambling debts. Whatever his motive, the gunman snuffed out the most brilliant mind in the American underworld. Rothstein schooled everyone from Legs Diamond to Frank Costello. He was so mesmerizing a character that F. Scott Fitzgerald put him in The Great Gatsby. Today, Rothstein is best remembered for having fixed the 1919 World Series. But his real contribution was educating the mob on the ways and means of paying off politicians. At his death, Rothstein's records showed he was bankrolling Mayor Jimmy Walker's campaign. His slayers were never convicted, a failure that reformers, including future mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, attributed to a failure of will on the part of Walker and his police.
The curse struck again almost 30 years later when, at 10:20 a.m. on October 25, 1957, Albert Anastasia settled into chair number four in the hotel barber shop for a shave. Anastasia was Rothstein's polar opposite, a mobster who chose bullets over brains every time. He ran Murder Inc., the Brooklyn outfit that farmed out contract hits as casually as car rentals. His blood thirst was so great that, out of his hearing, his men called him "The Mad Hatter." As soon as the barber placed hot towels across Anastasia's jowls, two white men wearing black masks entered via the hotel lobby, plugged him with four to five shots, and fled.
The hotel was then calling itself the Park Sheraton, but the name change had no apparent effect on the curse. Again, the killers were never caught, although several of the mob's most colorful members, including Crazy Joey Gallo and Carmine "the Snake" Persico, claimed to have been in on the hit.
Fast-forward another 40 years, when a swaggering developer named Bruce Eichner got it in his head that he would renovate the now-fading tourist hotel, while converting half of the building into a long-stay corporate residence. He gave the hotel its original name back, and soon Richard's S&S Contracting was at work.
Richard's testimony was that it was sometime after St. Patrick's Day when Forde and Devereaux showed up at the Park Central. He said the men chatted about methods for bringing Richard's own workers from New Jersey into Forde's jurisdiction and parted amicably. Forde somehow didn't get around to sending a shop steward—a union requirement—to the site for another two months, a failing that defense attorneys chalked up to the fact that the job was just starting out. (The steward who finally arrived was so intimidated by Richard's thugs that he never even got the names of other workers on the job.)
In the meantime, Richard said he had his bagman and driver, Tony Rucereto, sound out the union reps to see if they'd appreciate $50,000 in exchange for what he called "labor peace." Rucereto, who also testified for the prosecution, said that Forde never said a word when the bribe was offered, only staring back at him "stone cold." Later, Forde added, cryptically: "No non-union men."
Still, Richard was so convinced they had a deal that he set up another meeting for the payoff, at the Hooters restaurant across the street from the hotel. He said Rucereto brought $10,000 cash and that, while he never saw the money change hands, it was gone when they left the restaurant. Rucereto added to the mystery by saying he must have missed the payoff while he was in the bathroom. Richard's clearest recollection—one he has stuck to for eight years—was that as the men sat and drank, Forde made a small joke: "Mr. Forde said he shouldn't be having a beer; they were cracking down at the union."
In their summations, defense attorneys Dowd and Lankler said that Richard, who once bragged about buying champagne at the Oak Room and trinkets for a stripper named Lola, was a "pathological liar," even reading about the malady from medical dictionaries.
"If he was a pathological liar," responded assistant D.A. Scotto when his turn came, "you'd think he would've come up with a better lie."
Whatever the truth of the matter, this time the jury wasn't buying. It deliberated all of 90 minutes on the evening of June 10 before voting to acquit both defendants. "The circumstantial evidence was compelling," said one juror a few days later. "Still, the defense piled on the nagging doubts, and I wasn't convinced enough to send the guys to jail."
After the verdict, Mike Forde, who is trying to quit, lit up a victory cigarette. He deserved it. It is not every day you beat a mob curse.