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

Saturday, January 15, 2011

FBI Seizes Mafia Photo From Famous Italian Eatery Rao's

There is a story behind every photograph that goes up on the walls at Rao’s, that uniquely New York restaurant where celebrities, mobsters, politicians and judges have crossed paths for generations.

Rao’s, at 455 East 114th Street in Harlem, where celebrities, mobsters, politicians and judges have crossed paths for generations. Agents from the F.B.I. paid a visit in October.
Theodore N. Persico Jr.
Joseph Urgitano.

This is the story of how a picture of one Joey Cupcakes came to be taken down.
It starts in October when the F.B.I. comes to the establishment, which has been on the same street corner in East Harlem for more than a century and where it seems as if even a court order can’t get you a reservation. They brought a search warrant and they left with the picture. They wanted it, an investigator later said, for a murder investigation.
Such visits to Rao’s can take on a life of their own, and this one seems destined to enter the lore of the storied restaurant, where some patrons are regulars in the gossip pages and can be the subjects, if not the perpetrators, of tall tales.
So perhaps it is not surprising, then, that although it has long been a coup to have one’s photograph make the wall, there is now some talk that the fate of Joey Cupcakes’ picture led a few people to see the gallery in a different light.
In the days after the visit, so the story in the neighborhood goes, they then came to remove their own likenesses. Whether they acted out of concern that they, too, might someday be of interest to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or in an effort to create the impression that they were such big shots that they might be, the story doesn’t say.
Frank J. Pellegrino Sr., one of the two owners, would discuss neither the removal of the picture of Joey Cupcakes nor the suggestion that it had led other customers to take down their own.
“I have no idea what that was all about,” he said in a brief telephone interview on Wednesday. “I have no idea where you’re getting this information from.”
There has been, it should be said, no suggestion that Rao’s or its current owners have been implicated in any wrongdoing whatsoever.
Joey Cupcakes, christened Joseph Urgitano, is by his own account more than a regular at Rao’s. The 44-year-old, who served 19 years in state prison on manslaughter and drug dealing charges, told a parole board hearing in 2005 that the restaurant was owned by a relative of his, and that he might land a job there as a waiter upon his release.
It is unclear when his photo went up on the wall at Rao’s — which one denizen called the Sistine Chapel of the mob — but it was prominently displayed to the right of the restaurant’s bar, below a drawing of Vincent Rao, one of the sons of the late patriarch, Charles Rao. But the picture, which was taken in the late 1980s when Mr. Urgitano was in state prison and shows him with a reputed Colombo crime family figure with whom he served time, came down on an October evening, according to several people familiar with the events that day.
The day had begun with F.B.I. agents executing a search warrant at Mr. Urgitano’s Bronx home, where he lives with his wife and young child. Court papers say they were seeking “photos, photo albums, correspondence with members and associates of La Cosa Nostra” and the names and telephone numbers of mob members and associates.
The agents took letters, business cards, photographs of Mr. Urgitano with mob figures, other photographs of mob figures and business cards of mob figures, the papers said. But they apparently did not find the picture they were looking for. That evening, they went to the restaurant, which opens at about 7 p.m.
There, they found the picture and did not stay long. One investigator said the photograph had some connection with a letter the agents had obtained, but would not elaborate. Two snapshots of Mr. Urgitano — one with his wife, the younger sister of an old friend, whom he met and married while in prison — remain on display at Rao’s, tucked into a breakfront at the other end of the bar.
Lawyers for the two men in the photo, who met and became friendly during state prison terms, made little of the picture, its seizure by the F.B.I. or what several officials have described as its potential value as evidence in a murder investigation.
Murray Richman, who represents Mr. Urgitano, said federal authorities told his client he was neither a subject nor a target of the investigation. Those are terms of art that mean, in the local vernacular, in trouble and in big trouble, respectively.
The man in the picture with Joey Cupcakes is Theodore N. Persico Jr. He is the nephew of Carmine Persico, the longtime Colombo crime family boss known as the Snake who is serving a 100-year sentence for his role on the Mafia’s ruling commission.
The younger Mr. Persico, who goes by Teddy and sometimes Skinny, is currently under federal indictment on racketeering and extortion charges and is being held without bail.
His lawyer, Joseph R. Corozzo, called the investigation “much ado about nothing.”
“My client was aware of his picture being on the wall of Rao’s, and he’s a customer,” Mr. Corozzo said. “He is aware that the restaurant is frequented by judicial and law enforcement officers, and he had nothing to hide.”
Joey Cupcakes went away for a 1986 killing and selling four ounces of cocaine to an undercover detective. He admitted shooting a rival drug dealer — a childhood friend — in the back of the head one night across the street from the restaurant in Thomas Jefferson Park, which runs along the Harlem River. Mr. Urgitano was 20 years old.
He was first eligible for parole in 1997, but in five appearances before the board between that year and 2005, he was denied release. The transcripts show Mr. Urgitano, who attended Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx and earned a college degree in prison, as an articulate young man who was becoming increasingly frustrated.
Around the time of the 2007 hearing that led to his release, he submitted a scathing diatribe to the parole board, angry about how previous hearings had gone and been recorded. He questioned, for instance, why one parole commissioner, Ileana Rodriguez, had asked him during the proceeding about how to get a table at Rao’s.
He was clearly offended by her suggestion that there was something nefarious about the establishment.
He wrote, in part:
“Request: Please tell Ms. Rodriguez I said if she really wants know (sic) how to get a reservation @ Rao’s, ask your boss, Governor Pataki.
“He’s eaten there a few times. Perhaps he can tell her.”



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