Updated news on the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Lucchese and Colombo Organized Crime Families of New York City.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Herhold: The story of a mob related murder in San Jose

A month before I arrived at the Mercury News in 1977, our fair city was convulsed with a killing that shined klieg lights on what had been an open secret: the existence of the Mafia in San Jose. It went down in history as the "cheese case."
For the next decade and a half, in a fight fueled by deep pockets, the courts wrestled with what happened on the night of Oct. 11 at the California Cheese Co. offices, a 10-acre industrial plant near Highway 101 and Interstate 280.
At bottom, the tale turned on the fiery emotions of two fathers and two sons, each son more volatile than his older-line Italian father. Because of its strange sequence, the slaying never deserved the name of organized crime: It was anything but organized.

As you read accusations of errant, coldblooded killings by modern gangs -- a trial involving San Jose's El Hoyo Palmas crew has just opened in Superior Court -- it's worth recalling a time when a mob-related murder was deeply personal.
What made the cheese case so striking -- and, ultimately, so embarrassing for the mobsters -- was that the father of the dead man lived to tell the story, having survived a bullet to his head as he muttered a prayer over his slain son.
The story, drawn from court records, began with a madman's idea: Peter Catelli, 24, an unemployed wannabe-informant for the FBI, thought he could extort cheese company owner Angelo Marino, 53, a man identified by state prosecutors as a


high-level member of the Mafia in San Jose.After Marino rejected Catelli for a $10-per-hour job, the 6-foot-8 younger man angrily sent an extortion note to the cheese boss, vowing to kill him and his family unless he paid $100,000. "I must be crazy," he wrote, "but it's not everybody who takes on the Mafia.''
Seeking help
No mobster could let this pass: And so Marino called his friend, real estate salesman Joseph Piazza, for help. Piazza in turn called another man, Thomas Napolitano, to arrange a meeting with Catelli's father, Orlando, and discuss how to handle Peter. The four men met and agreed they should scare the errant young man.
Napolitano, a Contra Costa County rancher related to the Catellis by marriage, brought Peter to the cheese company's offices at 1491 Sunny Court, a three-room mobile home. Marino's son, Salvatore, 29, who had not been part of the planning, pistol-whipped Peter, forcing him to the floor.
Orlando Catelli, 49, pleaded for his son's life, saying, "I know he's stupid and everything, but don't kill him." He testified that Angelo Marino then asked for a Mafia-style vote on whether Peter should be killed.
As it happened, the killing of Peter may have stemmed from a misunderstanding. As part of a ruse, the elder Catelli was led into the next room, where Piazza allegedly fired a gun into a box of mozzarella cheese. Playing along, Orlando grunted.
Almost immediately, a gunshot sounded from the other room. According to the version pieced together by police, Salvatore Marino had killed Peter with a .38-caliber gun.
Orlando testified that someone asked Sal Marino, "What did you kill the kid for?" Sal reportedly replied, "I thought you killed the old man. I had to kill the kid." (The defense insisted later that Sal had fired only after Peter went for a gun.)
The elder Catelli, told to pick up his son's body, knelt down and started to pray. By Orlando's account, Sal Marino then fired a .38 slug into the back of his head, a shot that miraculously glanced off his skull. Orlando played dead.
Comedy of errors
From there, an already-rich comedy of errors intensified in a way that might satisfy fans of "The Sopranos." Angelo Marino returned to his home on tony University Avenue, where he got ready for a dinner with his wife at the Garden City Casino.
The two Catellis were loaded into the trunk of Orlando's 1972 Cadillac, where they had to share space with a set of golf clubs and two bowling balls. A wheelman identified as "Andy" was ordered to drive the car to the Oakland Airport.
Instead, the driver got lost and drove through a toll booth on the Bay Bridge, eventually abandoning the car on Harrison Street in San Francisco's Mission District. The elder Catelli was found alive after a young woman heard him banging on the trunk lid with a garden shovel.
Because of widespread attention to the Mafia, the trial was ordered moved to Los Angeles. The proceedings cost Santa Clara County more than $1 million. The case took 14 years and included four trials.
Marino conviction
Ultimately, in a 1991 retrial, Sal Marino was convicted of second-degree murder and the attempted murder of Orlando Catelli. With an additional four-year weapons charge stemming from guns found at his home, he served a total of nine years in prison.
Angelo Marino was convicted of second-degree murder, but the conviction was overturned. While awaiting a second trial, he died in 1983 of a heart attack at age 58. Piazza served three years in prison on a false imprisonment charge; he died in 2006.
Napolitano was acquitted, as was the alleged wheelman. Orlando Catelli, now 82, reportedly lives under an assumed name in Florida.
The cheese company -- famous for "Precious" cheese, named after Angelo's first wife -- was sold in 1986 to Sorrento, the cheese producer. The plant was closed in 2002. A housing development now occupies the site.
The Italian Mafia hasn't departed from San Jose. But the cheese case weakened the mob and helped open the door for Asian and Mexican gangs. It delivered a blow more serious than any racketeering conviction: The cheese case made our local Mafia seem, well, cheesy.



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