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Monday, September 2, 2013

Investigation into boxer's murder stalled after death of turncoat Hartford mobster

Detectives working a stubborn Hartford mob murder lost one of their best leads two weeks ago when John F. "Sonny" Castagna, one of the city's most notorious gangsters, died in Florida, where he was living under a phony name in a comfortable Presbyterian retirement home a mile from Sarasota Bay.
An FBI informant once called Castagna "one of the most treacherous persons in the city of Hartford." He was a swindler and a killer. When the Mafia was a force in Hartford, Castagna and his son, John "Jackie" Johns, were two of its most visible faces, fixtures in the backroom gambling clubs that the mob ran along Franklin Avenue.
The two disappeared into the federal witness protection program in the 1990s, saving themselves by becoming government witnesses in a racketeering case that annihilated their associates in the Patriarca crime family, then New England's dominant criminal outfit. But even after having joined the government team, their names resurfaced as investigators took a fresh look at the extraordinary murder of a scrappy Hartford boxer named Eric Miller.
Castagna and Johns' connection to Miller has long been of interest to law enforcement and was the subject of testimony at the 1991 trial against members of the Patriarca family. They have not been charged in the case.
Miller was living on borrowed time when he was shot in the head and left on Ledyard Street late on December 27, 1988. His life effectively ended three months earlier when he slugged mob boss William "The Wild Guy" Grasso in the head during a wild confrontation outside Franco's, the tony Italian restaurant that Grasso owned at Franklin Avenue and Brown Street.
"I remember this like it was yesterday," a former Grasso associate said. "Any guy that's associated with the Mafia, they know that it is an unwritten law that anybody that hits a made member of La Cosa Nostra — they signed their own death warrant. That's official. You can take that to the bank. And Billy Grasso was all about La Cosa Nostra and nothing else. And we all knew as soon as we heard: 'He's gone. That Miller is gone.'"
Knocked Out Cold
Grasso, who later was killed himself, was the Patriarca family's despotic underboss. Miller knocked him cold in front of a knot of gawkers at one of the busiest corners in the South End. From inside Franco's, the hangers-on spilled out to investigate, witnesses said.
Castagna and Johns were on the sidewalk when the fight started. They worked for Grasso and were friendly with Miller. Investigators learned later from Miller's girlfriend that Johns was the last person with whom Miller spoke. Miller took a telephone call from Johns the night he died, police said the girlfriend told them, and left their apartment, for good.
Johns was grilled about Miller and the phone call 2 1/2 years later, during his first appearance in court as a star witness in the government's New England-wide attack on what then was its top criminal priority, the Patriarca family. During the trial, both Castagna and Johns testified extensively about their roles in the mob, their relationship with Grasso and Miller, and crimes they committed. But Johns and his father had denied killing Miller when federal prosecutors were considering them for witness relocation. In court, mob defense lawyers hoped, through aggressive questioning, to tie them to the murder and shatter their credibility.
Johns testified that he probably made the call.
"I talked to him every day," he said.
He was less certain when pressed on whether Grasso ordered him to kill Miller.
"I don't know if he asked me to kill him," Johns testified. "But he made mention of it."
Later in his testimony, Johns' recollection changed.
"He didn't ask me to kill him," Johns said. "But I knew he was gonna kill him. He wanted me to find out where he went at night."
Miller's death has been investigated by the Hartford Police Department, the FBI and a federal grand jury. Several months ago, Hartford detectives began a new effort, and the Chief State's Attorney's office agreed to take another look at the case, if possible with a grand jury to compel testimony.
'I Wasn't An angel'
As had been the case previously, the trail led to Castagna and Johns. Castagna said he had talked to Hartford detectives. Authorities had expressed an interest in interviewing Johns and Luis "Tito" Morales, a former Johns partner in the drug business, law enforcement sources said. Morales was sentenced to life in prison in Florida earlier this year after being convicted of raping children.
After his visit from the police, Castagna telephoned a Courant reporter, complaining about being wrongly accused.
"They're dragging my son and me into this," Castagna said. "Forget about it. I don't need this kind of headache."
In several conversations before he died on Aug. 19, Castagna said that Grasso probably killed Miller. He said he and Johns had nothing to do with Miller's death. But he acknowledged that he was a suspect, with his son. He wanted a meeting to argue his innocence, but died before he could arrange it.
Castagna had been convicted of more than a dozen crimes since 1963, including one murder. He admitted participating in two murder conspiracies. In the first, the victim escaped across a farm field after being shot five times. The second succeeded.
"I wasn't an angel," he said.
For the past six years, Castagna lived as John Serreno in Bradenton, Fla., in a retirement complex that says it is "dedicated to expressing Christian love, compassion, and concern to older adults on the West Coast of Florida by providing them an atmosphere to enjoy affordable independent living with dignity and well-being."
He died at age 72 after a fall in his apartment followed by an automobile collision. Because of the diverse array of debilitating conditions from which Castagna suffered, a medical examiner did not report a precise cause of death, but was able to conclude that "there were no concerns of intoxication or foul play."
Miller, Johns and Castagna were acquaintances from the South End. In the months before Miller's death, Johns spent time at Miller's gym, the Hartford Boxing Club on Charter Oak Avenue, which Miller managed and where he trained fighters, a source said.
People who knew Miller said he wanted to follow his father into the real estate business. They said he managed to buy a couple of apartments in the city and sometimes made them available to struggling fighters. Sources in law enforcement and elsewhere said that Miller also had become involved in cocaine sales, which exploded across New England in the1980s.
Johns testified at the Patriarca trial that he was in the business of robbing cocaine dealers, sometimes with Morales as a partner. Johns had a landscaping business as well.
'Billy Was Mad'
On the day of the altercation, Johns was laying sod near the sidewalks at Franco's, then popular among Hartford judges for lunch. Grasso was supervising the placement of the sod when Miller rolled up in his new Chevrolet Blazer.
Miller and Johns began needling one another, according to witnesses and law enforcement sources.
Miller wanted to know what a big-time gangster was doing working in the dirt. Would Johns trim Miller's shrubs when he finished at the restaurant? Johns fired back, rhetorically. The exchange escalated to cracks about national origin and religion.
It was all good fun for Miller and Johns. Grasso apparently failed to see the sport. He became enraged at what he considered disrespect to an up-and-coming gangster on the fast track to becoming a sworn soldier in the Patriarca family.
"Me and Eric were messing around, and Billy Grasso thought we were serious," Johns testified at the federal racketeering trial.
There is confusion among witnesses about precisely how the encounter degenerated. There is agreement that Grasso barked at Miller. Miller told him, in so many words, to shut up. Grasso picked up a sod knife and vowed to remove one or both of Miller's eyes.
Castagna arrived on the sidewalk, and he and Johns tried to restrain the belligerents. Grasso lunged with the knife. Miller launched the blow that clipped Grasso. Down went Grasso.
"Billy was mad when he came to," his girlfriend, Pia Ferro, testified in the same proceeding at which Johns was a witness.
In December, a passerby noticed Miller slumped in the front seat of his Blazer, parked outside Torre Tile.
The following June, Grasso was dead. As was the case with Miller, he had been shot in the head while sitting in the front seat of a car. Castagna and Johns admitted as part of their deal with the government that they were in on the Grasso murder plot.
Grasso's execution was the opening shot in a civil war within the Patriarca family. Renegade gangsters in Boston, Hartford and Springfield wanted to seize control of the family from its seat of power in Providence, where Grasso's loyalty lay.
The revolt took place during an intensive effort by law enforcement to disrupt the Patriarca family throughout New England. In Connecticut, Grasso and his crew of local gangsters were the targets. Law enforcement had tapped mob telephones in the South End and even pointed a camera at Castagna's apartment. But because of lags in court authorizations, the devices were off when Miller and Grasso were killed.
Still, the talk of Grasso's death among gangsters became a law enforcement bonanza. Twenty-five Patriarca members or associates were indicted for racketeering throughout New England, including Castagna, Johns and several others in Hartford.
Not long after his indictment, Castagna decided to cooperate with the government and persuaded Johns to join him. They were the government's key witnesses in a 1991 federal racketeering trial in Hartford. Their testimony, or the threat of it, resulted in 10 convictions in Hartford and five more in Boston.
The federal government relocated them following their testimony. Until recently, they were heard from only once, when they were arrested for swindling $11,000 from a riverboat casino in St. Louis in 1998. The result of that case could not be determined.
The Miller investigation is continuing, in spite of Castagna's death.


1 comment:

  1. I knew both "Jackie " Johns and his father. Jackie used to work the door at The Civic Pub on Asylum Street as a bouncer...using his boxing skills
    Sonny Castagna would come in usually once or twice a week always sitting at the bar unless he was sitting in a booth talking " business " He was a " friend of my ex husband's and we actually went to the movies with him to see Raging Bull.I was told weeks later that we were followed by the FBI. I witnessed A LOT of illegal activity during those years and overheard lots of business that was about to or was going down. Working in that environment was extremely stressful , I came in as a Rebecca from Sunny Brook farm and leaving VERY Street smart.
    Now that I'm older I have to live with the regrets in my life and this one is a big one as it impacted my now deceased son...