Public enemy No. 1?
Feds befriend rogues gallery to try Steve Kaplan
Just in time for summer, Atlanta's very own Bigtime Show Trial cranked up in earnest last week, and it couldn't have been more perfectly suited for the Hype Capitol of the South if Don King himself had organized it.
Not only do we get to take a poor man's tour of the city's premier titty bar, but we also get genuine marble-mouthed East Coast mugs; snide, hard-boiled feds; gold-dripping sports hotshots; leggy dancers apparently eager for a few rounds of pitch-and-putt with aforementioned luminaries and, dancing merrily in the midst of it all, a half-dozen of Atlanta's top criminal lawyers.
And that's just the headliners.
For the federal prosecutors who laid out their racketeering case against Gold Club owner Steve Kaplan and six other defendants in opening arguments last week, it has already become apparent that the sheer complexity of the trial — coupled with the necessity to school a jury in Mobspeak 101 — is going to require some fancy maneuvering.
Despite a hefty indictment tracking Kaplan's activities back to the '80s (including allegations that he tried to help cover up for a murder committed in one of his clubs) and the presence of another 20 defendants awaiting trial, the state's case rests on — or against — some very hard facts. First is the basis of the criminal investigation brought against the club and its staff: While allegations of sexual activity in nude clubs are titillating, they're certainly nothing new (within the past two weeks, for instance, local cops rounded up several strippers from two Marietta clubs on charges of masturbation for hire).
Thus, while witnesses may be able to convince a jury that sex happened, and maybe even that money changed hands, they've still got to link it to Kaplan — and distinguish why such occasions are, in fact, worthy of federal prosecution.
Similarly, defense counsel will cite the allegations of credit-card fraud — even the purported $70,000 run up in one week by one customer — in the larger context of a club with hundreds of employees billing thousands of cards each week. Further, some of the "victims" have already, according to the defense, denied any wrongdoing on behalf of the club and expressed resentment at having their names dragged into court.
But the most daunting challenge may be convincing the jury that prosecuting so many people on such charges is worth springing career criminals — serious, dangerous criminals — from prison to testify in order to shut down this club.
Assuming, of course, that the jury is prepared to believe a bunch of jailhouse snitches, anyway.
After promising to "expose the Gambino crime family for what they are," Assistant U.S. Attorney Arthur Leach began the step-by-step task of educating onlookers in the intricacies of New York's crime families. Prosecutors have built their case on proving that Kaplan has long been a lower-level associate of the Gambino crime family. Through the Gold Club (as well as other clubs in New York and Florida), Kaplan is alleged to have been an "earner" who siphoned off cash from his club's earnings and "kicked it up" to higher-ups in the organization. Along the way, Kaplan is said to have over-charged customers' credit cards by exorbitant amounts, calculating that their fear of being discovered would stifle any complaints.
Further, say the feds, Kaplan began paying some of his dancers to provide sexual favors to celebrity guests; the reasoning, says the feds, was that packing the club with stars would draw in even more patrons. (It apparently worked. According to defense attorney Don Samuel, the club averages 3,000 visitors a week.)
On trial with Kaplan are Reginald Burney, an Atlanta police officer; the dancer, Jacklyn "Diva" Bush; Norbert Calder and Roy Cicola, Gold Club managers; Michael "Mikey Scars" DiLeonardo, a reputed "captain" in the Gambino crime family; and Larry Gleit, Kaplan's accountant.
Among the prospective witnesses set to testify against the defendants are some of the sports figures who allegedly rode their stardom to greater glory in the club's private Gold Rooms. Among the witnesses the government plans to call are Atlanta Falcon Jamal Anderson and former New York Knick Patrick Ewing. They are, Leach said, victims: "These men have been used," he said, as the defense table smirked.
While no one argues that Kaplan has long associated with known mob figures, attorney Steve Sadow made clear his intention of portraying his client as yet another victim of LCN machinations. The defense team, each representing a single client, has formed a solid phalanx of opposition — aided, perhaps, by the fact that Kaplan is underwriting the entire defense effort, and that the team of attorneys was hand-picked by Sadow.
And their strategy became apparent early on. The jury got a preview of what's in store over the upcoming weeks — perhaps months — when lawyers took their turns pot-shotting at the government case. There was dogged, aggressive Sadow charging about the courtroom, waving documents and claiming that his client had made enemies as a successful "New York Jew" who came down and made a lot of money here in a dog-eat-dog business. In addition to rankling some locals, he said, Kaplan had been targeted because authorities want to seize his club and its assets.
But his key attack was one prosecutors will face constantly throughout this trial. Pointing to the slate of convicted mobsters, Sadow bluntly accused prosecutors of letting hardened criminals out of prison (frequently accompanied by a taxpayer-supplied bankroll) in order to justify a criminal prosecution over a handful of erroneous credit-card receipts and some bad judgment by a couple of club staffers.
From his customary slouch, silver-bearded attorney Samuel, Gleit's attorney, rose to tell jurors that, of some 1 million credit card receipts, prosecutors had found only 18 that contained over-charges.
The presentation of fellow defender Bruce Harvey — tall and angular, hair in a tight gray braid — lightened the mood. Making good on his reputation as a courtroom showman, Harvey briefly assumed the persona of his client, stripper "Diva" Bush, leaping atop a table and shedding his jacket before being gaveled down by cool-headed Judge Willis Hunt.
But it was only when Kaplan's cousin, David Alwais, took the stand that a picture of mob-connected life began to emerge. Alwais described Kaplan as a man who traded on his association with "made" members of the Gambino family for money, protection and "pretty much anything else."
With his reticent manner, thinning black hair and glasses, Alwais seemed more like a bemused accountant than someone who ran his own loan-sharking and credit-card fraud operations out of Florida, and who received $48,000 and had several years cut off his own prison sentences in exchange for his testimony.
"So you went from being a three-time loser looking at 64 months to nothing, right?" demanded Sadow. "Yes," replied Alwais. "With expenses?" "Yes."
After sending the jury out while counsel fought, Sadow also managed to admit into evidence a tape surreptitiously recorded by Alwais' sister, in which she repeatedly asked how Alwais had gotten out of jail.
"So you squealed on Steve, right?" she asks. "What did you say?"
"I bluffed everything," he replied.
The next witness was Dino Basciano — confessed murderer, attempted murderer, highjacker, armed robber, racketeer, drug and gun dealer, enforcer and would-be soldier in the Gambino crime family. The man who once weighed in at 500 pounds wheezed and smacked his way through two days of frequently spine-chilling testimony.
Hair bristling, huge gold pinky ring waving as he leaned conspiratorially toward the jury box, Basciano casually related his one successful murder of a "guy named Charlie Cadillac," as well as a couple of botched efforts to kill family members of mob figures.
"I got an order to kill Fat Pete's sister," he recalled in a thick Brooklyn accent, detailing his stalking of the woman's children in order to catch her outdoors, where she could be killed to "send a message" to a man thought to be cooperating with police. "It went down, but the gun broke in my hand," he said calmly. "The silencer came off. I was trying to hold it together in my hand, but the bullets were going all over the car," he said, waving his hands around. Although "I shot her once in the neck and once in the back, she survived."
Initially, the courtroom seemed almost amused by Bosciano's over-the-top testimony and "how the hell should I know" replies to defense questions. But when attorney Craig Gillen quietly began grilling him, the awful truth of the witness' history was painted in stark black-and-white, with a wash of bloody red.
"Fat Pete's sister, she wasn't in organized crime, she was just an innocent person who was born in Fat Pete's family, right? ... You wanted to track her down, and murder her in cold blood, right? And I assume she still suffers from the wounds inflicted by you, right?"
"The fact that other people were going to die didn't matter, but you were afraid for your life, is that it?" asked Gillen quietly. "Yes."
"Because you, you're No. 1, right?"
"Right," replied Basciano. "Of course."
It's early in the trial, and the scowls on jurors' faces may mean little. But it's plain that prosecutors are going to have to overcome a wealth of liability as they place even more loathsome characters on the stand and try to fend off defense contentions that — even if some their allegations are true — they've made deals with genuine mobsters in order to pursue what Harvey termed a "moral prosecution."
Leach's challenge is in proving that "this is an organized crime case." If he can successfully connect all the dots in such a way that the jury can see the pattern, he may well make good on his vow to unmask "greed and desire for power and the fear of a national crime family."
For their part, defenders are intent on proving that, big-time crime bosses, big-name stars and big stacks of cash notwithstanding, there's nothing more to this case than human frailty and bought-off testimony.
Or, as Burney's attorney Dwight Thomas says, "An empty cart makes a lot of noise."