“How’s your health?” asked the prosecutor.
“So-so,” Burton Kaplan replied. It was the most boastful thing he’d say in three days on the witness stand, where he blithely recounted his many crimes as a 40-year associate of the Lucchese family.
Kaplan, a wholesaler of garments and marijuana, is the star witness at the trial of Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa—aka the Mafia Cops—and in elaborating upon his medical condition, he mentioned a bout of prostate cancer, temporal arteritis (a disease that threatens vision), Raynaud’s disease, high blood pressure, a detached retina, and two minor strokes. Such genius for understatement and discretion allowed Kaplan to survive on the fringes of the mafia. Kaplan also got along by cultivating, he says, the cooperation of the two highly decorated NYPD detectives who are now on trial for murder, kidnapping, conspiracy, and other charges.
The story of Eppolito and Caracappa—detectives turned hit men for the mob—has inspired multiple book and movie deals. But Kaplan, in a supporting role, stole the show in court this week. While the charges against the two detectives have swirled for a decade, it took the gaunt, sunken-cheeked, 72-year-old Kaplan to bring them to trial. Finally, in a Brooklyn federal court, this mole of moles emerged to expose La Cosa Nostra’s alleged sources, deep inside federal-state anti-mafia task forces and the NYPD.
Kaplan testified that he was the intermediary between the two detectives and Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso, a Lucchese under-boss. Mostly the detectives sold Kaplan information on bugs, wiretaps, ongoing investigations, informants, and impending arrests. Kaplan passed that information along to Casso, taking care to hide his source’s identity. Casso—known even among his fellow gangsters as “a homicidal maniac,” Kaplan testified—took care of the rest. He wiped out impending threats from within the mob and, on one occasion, an innocent who shared the name of a man who’d tried to kill him. But at least three times, according to Kaplan, these detectives actively participated in murders, once shooting a Gambino family soldier on the shoulder of a busy highway in Brooklyn.
How did Kaplan become involved in the life of the mob? Mostly by chance.
Kaplan first went to prison when he was in his late 20s for selling stolen property. When he got out, he went to work as an appliance installer. As fortune would have it, he was hired to install air conditioners in a social club owned by James “Jimmy the Clam” Eppolito, the uncle of Louie Eppolito. By the mid-1970s, he was involved in a stolen-car ring and, a few years later, started smuggling marijuana. (As to whether he himself ever used drugs, Kaplan testified that he took two puffs on a joint in prison once and never touched it again.)
In 1975, Kaplan got involved in the garment business. “I got into it by accident,” he testified. A friend from prison had returned to the streets, and Kaplan took him to buy leisure suits. The suits were so cheap, they seemed stolen but were not. The price was good enough that Kaplan took some of the suits to a store he knew in Connecticut and sold them as swag. One thing led to another, and Kaplan wound up renting a storefront where he built some racks and sold 3,000 leisure suits in a single weekend.
“My clothing business was 100 percent legitimate,” Kaplan said. And it was, except for the counterfeiting he did on the side. His business prospered, moved from Brooklyn to warehouses on Staten Island, and eventually supplied Macy’s and Kmart, among others.
Kaplan, who displayed near total recall on the stand, as well as a vast knowledge of gangsters and their affiliations, got into other deals as well. He bought diamonds from Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and had a plan to sell hair products in Africa. The hair products turned out to be defective, but the chemist Kaplan hired to produce them assured him they could manufacture quaaludes in the same facility. That plan failed, too, and Kaplan was arrested and tried. The chemist testified against him, and he was convicted.
Kaplan wound up in Allenwood Camp, a minimum-security federal jail. There he met a raft of gangsters, including Anthony Dilapi, a made member of the Lucchese family, whose murder he would eventually facilitate, and Frank “Frankie Junior” Santora Jr., who was “loosely associated” with the Gambino family. Santora became Kaplan’s best friend in jail and, as it happened, he had a cousin in the NYPD named Louis Eppolito.
Two years out of prison, in 1985, his garment and marijuana businesses flourishing, Kaplan threw a wedding for his daughter, then a recent law school graduate. The wedding party bridged his two worlds. Christopher “Christy Tick” Furnari, consigliere of the Lucchese gang attended, and his presence was, as Kaplan testified, “an honor”; Anthony Casso and Victor “Little Vic” Amuso, who later became the Lucchese boss, were also on hand. Several friends from Allenwood were there, as well as a lot of lawyers and garment executives. Kaplan had the photos to prove it, shown in court and the next day in the Daily News.
Asked on cross-examination whether a soon-to-be-minted attorney might be embarrassed by elements of that guest list, Kaplan denied it: “She might have become a criminal-defense lawyer,” he said testily.
In fact, Deborah Kaplan did become a criminal-defense lawyer, leaving a high-paying law firm job to join Legal Aid in 1986. In 2002, and while her father was serving a 27-year sentence for drug smuggling, Deborah Kaplan was elected a criminal-court judge in Manhattan.
Frank Santora was at the wedding, too. Like Kaplan, Santora was from the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. When he came home from Allenwood, he made Kaplan an offer. Santora, Kaplan testified, said he had a cousin who was an NYPD detective. His cousin and his cousin’s partner could give Kaplan a heads up if he was under investigation or surveillance. If necessary, testified Kaplan, Santora said his cousin was capable of murder, too.
At first, Kaplan told him no because he didn’t want to be in business with cops. But Casso had obtained some stolen Treasury bills and needed a fence. Kaplan coordinated the sale with the help of Joe Banda, a Hasidic Jewish diamond dealer with connections to bankers overseas. After some initial success, there was a hiccup, and Kaplan suspected that a jeweler brought in by Banda might turn on Banda, who would implicate Kaplan. He called on Santora: “I asked him if he had the ability to take a murder contract,” Kaplan testified. “Without a doubt,” Santora replied, and he said he would enlist his cousin and his cousin’s partner to help carry it out. The two cops “arrested” the jeweler, put him in a car and delivered him to Santora, who shot him, said Santora, according to Kaplan. The payment was $30,000.
Soon after, in 1986, someone shot, but failed to kill, Casso. Naturally, he wanted revenge. As luck would have it, Casso was shot in the 63rd Precinct, where Eppolito worked. Eppolito gave Santora the investigation file on the attempted murder. Santora gave it to Kaplan, who shared it with Casso. The file pointed to a young wannabe gangster named Jimmy Hydell, and a man named Nick Guido.
Now Casso knew Hydell. Hydell had once permitted his Doberman pinscher to growl at a friend of Casso’s just outside a social club Casso frequented. In response, Casso went into the club, got a gun, came out, and shot the dog.
When he saw the police file, Casso, working through Kaplan and Santora, had the crooked cops find Hydell and deliver him for execution. “He took great pleasure in telling me he did it himself,” Kaplan testified. Casso paid Santora and the cops $35,000, plus a $5,000 bonus.
Nick Guido was harder to track down. Casso sent word, again via Kaplan, that he wanted more information on him. The cops asked for an additional $4,000, but Casso thought they were being greedy. After all, he had just paid them the extra $5,000. He located Nick Guido on his own. Unfortunately Casso found—and killed—the wrong Nick Guido. To this Santora allegedly observed, “Maybe Gas [Casso] should have paid the $4,000 and got the right Nick Guido.”
In 1987, Santora was murdered. (He was in the wrong place when another mobster was gunned down.) At this point, Kaplan was introduced to Eppolito directly. He had seen the two detectives previously but had never met them or been told their names. When Kaplan found himself sitting across from Eppolito in Frank Santora’s widow’s dining room, businessman that he was, he formalized the relationship. Eppolito suggested a $4,000 monthly retainer. Special work, like murders, would be extra. Kaplan went to Casso, who agreed.
While the once burly, now fat Eppolito remained a precinct detective, the thin, mustachioed Caracappa was assigned to a joint NYPD-FBI task force, where he was privy to much better information. Informants within the mob like John “Otto” Heidel were unmasked and rubbed out. Others, like Anthony Dilapi, who’d evaded Casso’s dictates, were found and murdered as well.
It all went fairly smoothly until the feds came looking for Casso and Amuso in 1990. Kaplan got advance word, tipped them off about their impending arrests, and they both ran. Casso was on the lam for two and a half years. In 1993, the FBI found Casso living in New Jersey. That was inevitable. But the shocker came a year later, when Kaplan got a call that Casso had fired his lawyer and “gone bad.”
“How did that make you feel?” asked Robert Henoch, the assistant U.S. attorney. “Sick,” Kaplan testified. “If anyone in the world was a stand-up guy I thought it would be him.” He also testified: “I knew how many bodies that he had,” and he felt that the government wouldn’t “take a guy like Casso who had so much baggage unless he could give them something spectacular back,” meaning the crooked detectives.
Kaplan hid out in Vegas for a few years, but by 1996 he felt safe enough to return to Brooklyn. He was, however, arrested soon after and convicted for marijuana smuggling. Throughout all his arrests and his whole life, Kaplan testified that he had refused many offers to turn. And when in 1998 he was sentenced to 27 years, it was the same deal.
But in 2004, with the investigation of the detectives heating up again, he changed his mind. Kaplan wanted to get out of jail and spend some time with his grandson, since Judge Kaplan had adopted a baby in Russia. But the big reason he finally flipped, he insists, was something else: “I felt that once nine years had passed, plus three that I was on the lam and I seen a lot of things happening in New York with guys rolling,” he testified. “I felt that Steve and Louie were going to be indicted [on state charges] and if they were indicted in the state I felt that one or both of them would make a deal and I would be the defendant.”
With one card left to play—and most of his old friends dead, missing, or in jail—Kaplan finally took his fate into his own hands and became a witness instead. “It was a very hard decision,” he said.