30 Sep 1985 – 2 Mar 1987
United States of America
The Pizza Connection Trial stands as the longest criminal jury trial in the federal courts in U.S. history. The trial began on September 30, 1985 and ended with convictions of all but one of the 22 defendants on March 2, 1987.
Scope of the trial
The trial centered on a Mafia-run enterprise that distributed vast quantities of heroin and cocaine in the United States, and then laundered the cash before sending it back to the suppliers in Sicily. The U.S. defendants utilized a number of independently owned pizza parlors as fronts for narcotics sales and collections – hence the name “Pizza Connection”. Evidence at the trial proved that the enterprise shipped no less than $1.6 billion of heroin to the U.S. between 1975 and April 1984. Arrests of scores of conspirators were coordinated in the U.S., Italy, Switzerland and Spain on April 9, 1984, following the capture of Gaetano Badalamenti and several family members the previous day in Madrid, Spain. Badalamenti was the former boss of the Sicilian Mafia, and a key supplier of heroin and cocaine to the U.S. Mafia distributors.
The arrests were carried out by U.S. authorities, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Customs Service and the New York City Police Department, who worked in extremely close cooperation with the Italian National Police and prosecutors, as well as the Swiss authorities. The arrests followed a two-year investigation carried out by U.S. and Italian authorities who shared highly sensitive information and agreed to coordinate their efforts to strike the U.S./Italian mafia-narcotics business.
Thirty-eight mafia members and associates were originally indicted in the case, and 35 were named in the charges presented to the jury. Of those 35, 4 were convicted in Italy, 4 in Switzerland and 4 were fugitives. Approximately 27 of the defendants were residing in the U.S. at the time of the arrests. Out of those, only 22 defendants ‒ believed to be just a fraction of the number of Mafiosi involved in the scheme ‒ eventually stood trial. Prior to the start of the trial, one defendant was murdered, one died of natural causes and another was murdered during the trial. All were Sicilian born, and many could not speak English. Each defendant had his own attorney for the historic trial, which made the courtroom especially crowded.
Sicilian Mafia cooperator Tommaso Buscetta testified at the trial against his former criminal associates; he had not been part of the Pizza Connection scheme himself, but he helped explain the rules and control of the Mafia, and established the Sicilians’ dominance over the U.S. drug trade in the early 1970s. Buscetta had fled from Italy in the early ‘80s when the faction of the mafia with which he was associated lost the battle for control of heroin trafficking, and many of his family members were killed. A close associate of many of the defendants, Buscetta was captured in Brazil shortly after the April 1984 arrests, and then ordered extradited to Italy. On the trip to Italy following his extradition, Buscetta attempted to commit suicide in an effort to protect his family from more killings. The Italian authorities saved him, and Buscetta decided to cooperate. Italian and U.S. authorities coordinated Buscetta’s debriefing and protection, and he was transferred to the U.S., placed in the Witness Protection Program and granted immunity from prosecution for his testimony at the Pizza Connection trial.
Buscetta later appeared as a pivotal witness in the Maxi Trial in Palermo, Sicily, after the Italian court recognized and applied the U.S. grant of immunity for his testimony there. Italian prosecutor Giovanni Falcone and Italian National Police leader Giovanni De Gennaro presented Buscetta and other witnesses at the trial, which led to the conviction of more than 300 Sicilian Mafia members. Falcone and De Gennaro worked closely with Assistant United States Attorney Richard A. Martin to arrange for Buscetta’s protection and testimony. Martin was one of the lead prosecutors of the Pizza Connection trial, and later became the Special Representative of the U.S. Attorney General in Rome, Italy.
Another key witness was Salvatore Contorno, a Sicilian mafioso who became a state witness following the example of Buscetta. He agreed to testify in return for entry in the United States’ Witness Protection Program after having been the target of an attempted murder by the Corleonesi and losing family members in the battle for control of the Sicilian mafia. He gave evidence that directly linked the defendants to heroin trafficking. On the witness stand, he told how in the spring of 1980 he was present at a meeting in a farmhouse in Bagheria, Sicily, in the territory of the Mafia boss Leonardo Greco. Among those present were five of the defendants at the trial: Salvatore Greco, Giuseppe Ganci, Gaetano "Tommy" Mazzara, Salvatore Catalano, and Francesco Castronovo. Contorno watched as the men "took out two plastic garbage bags and extracted packages of white powder in clear plastic envelopes, each bearing different tiny scissor cuts or pen or pencil marks to identify the individual owner. They poured samples of the powder into a bottle heating on a hot plate." These same marked samples were intercepted by the Drug Enforcement Administration is a seizure of 40 kilograms of 85 percent pure heroin two weeks later in Milan, Italy. The heroin was worth "$8 million at Mafia importer’s prices and at least $80 million worth at street prices." Until the heroin was removed from storage in 1984 after Contorno cooperated, no one had noticed the small cuts in the tops of the plastic bags, which were described by Contorno.
FBI Special Agent Joseph Pistone, better known by his undercover alias "Donnie Brasco" was the initial source for information regarding the "Pizza Connection" (leaked to him in casual conversations by Bonanno family mafiosi Anthony Mirra and Benjamin Ruggiero). Pistone testified at trial as to the command and control structure of the U.S. Mafia, establishing that the U.S. bosses were criminally liable for the actions of their underlings.
The trial also included the presentation of hundreds of wiretap conversations, combined with surveillance evidence, undercover heroin purchases and painstakingly detailed records of money laundering and transfers of multi-millions of dollars to Switzerland. Swiss bank records and testimony taken in that country established that the enterprise purchased two metric tons of morphine base from Turkish suppliers at $6,000/kilo, which was refined into pure heroin in clandestine labs in Sicily and sold in the U.S. for between $165,000-185,000 wholesale, and up to $1,000,000 at street level, generating more than $1.6 billion for the enterprise.
Another unusual aspect of the trial was the fact that several defendants elected to testify in their own defense, most prominent among them being Gaetano Badalamenti. Badalamenti did not deny being a member of the Sicilian La Cosa Nostra but did claim that his wiretapped conversations with other defendants and his business dealings with them were not related to narcotics. He would not say what those conversations and transactions were about and refused to answer questions he said could incriminate him in Italy. His testimony was widely regarded as enormously harmful to him and the defense.
Although the case established a record as the longest federal jury trial in a criminal action, the trial judge and the appellate court found that the jury was not confused or overwhelmed by the evidence, but instead conscientiously performed a close examination of the proof. That conclusion was best evidenced when the jury sent a note during deliberations requesting to have evidence relating to one of more than a hundred “acts of racketeering” identified for them. After a review of the evidence, the prosecution and defense acknowledged that no evidence had been presented on that act. Also, the jury was permitted to take into the jury room the transcripts of the wiretapped conversations and charts prepared by the prosecution (which had been subject to objections and review by the court.)
After trial, all but one of the defendants were convicted, and, except for one low-level defendant, those verdicts were affirmed on appeal. During the course of the investigation and trial, the U.S. and Italy entered into new Treaties on Extradition and Mutual Legal Assistance that enabled law-enforcement authorities from both countries to actively cooperate and share information. Those treaties and the “Pizza” case became models that the U.S. has since used to attack organized crime and narcotics trafficking on a global basis.
The case was meant to strike a definitive blow to the drug trade in the U.S. and for this reason the costs and the sheer scale of the trial were allowed to escalate. The case ended up costing $50 million. The prosecution case alone took a year to present.
Consequences and aftermath
The prosecution in the United States was led by Louis J. Freeh and Richard A. Martin. Mr. Freeh, who later became a federal judge and Director of the FBI, was named the lead investigator during the two-year investigation that led to the arrests. At trial, Mr. Martin, who later became Special Representative of the U.S. Attorney General based in Rome, Italy, was designated lead counsel. He and Mr. Freeh shared responsibilities for the prosecution and were assisted by Robert C. Stewart of the Department of Justice, Robert B. Bucknam and Andrew C. McCarthy, both Assistant United States Attorneys in the Southern District of New York. For their efforts, each member of the prosecution team received the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service.
Rudy Giuliani, who later became Mayor of New York City, was the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York during the investigation and trial of the case, and provided critical support and assistance to the prosecution.
Giovanni Falcone was a Sicilian-born Italian prosecutor who uncovered the Italian side of the Pizza Connection. Falcone’s tireless efforts to pursue the Sicilian mafia included the use of Sicilian mafia cooperators T. Buscetta and S. Contorno and others which culminated in the conviction of more than 350 mafia members in the historic “Maxi-Trial”. After those convictions were affirmed by Italy’s highest court, Falcone was murdered on May 23, 1992 when a sophisticated mafia plan succeeded in blowing up a section of highway where Falcone and his wife were driving. Falcone’s efforts are recounted in the book Excellent Cadavers, by Alexander Stille.
Paolo Borsellino, also Sicilian-born and a colleague of Giovanni Falcone, pursued the Maxi-Trial with him. After Falcone’s murder in May 1992, Borsellino immediately began to investigate the killing, but was also murdered by mafia members on July 19, 1992, when a bomb was detonated as he approached his mother’s apartment in Palermo.
Giovanni De Gennaro, a leading investigator for the Italian National Police, De Gennaro worked closely with Falcone and Borsellino to secure evidence of heroin trafficking by the Sicilian mafia, and coordinated the cooperation of T. Buscetta, S. Contorno and many Sicilian mafia members who testified in the Maxi-Processo. It was De Gennaro who brought Buscetta back from Brazil, saved him from his suicide attempt and persuaded him to testify against his former mafia partners. De Gennaro later became Chief of the Italian National Police and is currently Undersecretary of State for National Security.
Carla Del Ponte and Paolo Bernasconi were prosecutors in the Ticino region of Switzerland, where members of the Pizza Connection used bank accounts to launder narcotics proceeds. Relying on the U.S./Swiss Treaty for Mutual Legal Assistance, Del Ponte and her colleague Paolo Bernasconi authorized the delivery of those bank records to the U.S. authorities, and later supervised the prosecution of the 4 defendants arrested in Switzerland. Paolo Bernasconi was promoted to the position of Attorney General of Switzerland, and Ms. Del Ponte succeeded him in that position when he returned to the private practice of law. In 1999 Ms. Del Ponte joined the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (“ICTY”) where she served as the chief prosecutor in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (“ICTR”). She has been Switzerland's Ambassador to Argentina since January 2008.
The United States of America vs Badalamenti et al.
The trial began on September 30, 1985. The jury reached their verdicts on March 2, 1987. Sentences were handed down on by judge Pierre Leval on June 22, 1987.
Other defendants sought during trial
(America, Italy, Switzerland and South Africa)