Stiffer Terms Raise The Bar For Hit Men's Sentences They May Have Informed On John Stanfa, The Judge Said, But They Killed Before Doing It.

Posted: October 05, 1997

Sometimes the simplest explanations are the best.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Buckwalter made that point last week when, ignoring precedent and, in one case, the pleas of federal authorities, he sentenced two notorious mob informants to substantial prison terms even though their testimony had been crucial to the prosecution and conviction of mob boss John Stanfa and nearly a dozen of his top associates.

``Murder is murder,'' Buckwalter said.

For a long time, at least where mob informants were concerned, that did not appear to be the case. For 10 years, in mob trials here and across the country, Mafia hit men have walked away from lengthy prison terms by cutting deals with the government and becoming informants.

In most cases they received sentences of about five years. In fact, some spent less than a year behind bars before being relocated with a new, government-furnished identity and a taxpayer-financed stipend to get them started.

They were part of the shoot-and-tell set, a new breed of gangsters who literally got away with murder by taking the witness stand and implicating higher-ranking mob figures in racketeering-murder conspiracies in which they participated.

Now, with a series of sentences that began two weeks ago, Buckwalter has struck a new - and many believe more equitable - balance between the reward for cooperation and the punishment for taking a life.

He said he recognized the value and the need for cooperating witnesses, particularly in organized-crime conspiracy cases. But he said also that he was troubled by the idea that, by offering sweetheart deals, the government seemed to be saying, ``Go ahead and kill because you're going to get a break down the line.''

On Wednesday, he sentenced John Veasey, the government's star witness in the Stanfa case, to 10 years in prison. Veasey had admitted his involvement in two murders and a series of murder plots and extortions. Two days earlier, Philip Colletti, another Stanfa hit man-turned-informant, received a 12 1/2-year sentence. And at separate hearings on Sept. 22 and Sept. 24, Buckwalter sentenced mob soldier Sergio Battaglia to a 10-year term and Rosario Bellocchi, another admitted hit man, to 15 years.

With no parole in the federal system, prisoners now serve at least 85 percent of their prison time before the possibility of release. All four of the informants have been in prison since early in 1994.

Compared with the sentences that had come in the 1980s, the terms meted out by Buckwalter appeared harsh to some observers.

Veasey's defense lawyer, Peter Scuderi, predicted that federal prosecutors would have a more difficult time getting mobsters to cooperate in the future because the promise of a reduced sentence has diminished. ``And prosecutors need cooperators to make these kinds of cases,'' Scuderi said.

But others thought Buckwalter had struck the right note.

Norris Gelman, who represents jailed mob boss Nicodemo ``Little Nicky'' Scarfo, said the government has been coddling cooperators in organized-crime cases for far too long.

``These are terrible crimes,'' he said. ``And these people have been able to just hit and walk away. I think the day is over . . . when our government takes wicked men, men without a shred of virtue or honor, and makes them an offer they can't refuse.''

Gelman, who defended Scarfo last year in a murder retrial in which the mob boss and six co-defendants were acquitted, said the Common Pleas Court jury in that case clearly had been put off by the deals star government witnesses Thomas DelGiorno and Eugene Milano, both confessed hit men, had received.

Prosecutors concede as much, noting that the credibility of cooperating witnesses is more easily challenged when they have been given or face the prospect of receiving lenient sentences.

* Federal authorities in the Stanfa case, while asking Buckwalter to depart from the strict sentencing guidelines that Veasey and the others were subject to, made it clear they thought the witnesses should receive ``substantial prison sentences.'' That, in itself, was a departure from sentencing memos filed for witnesses in earlier cases.

Veasey appeared to receive the most support from the prosecutors, who requested ``less than 10 years.'' But Buckwalter, who may have been considering an even harsher sentence for the South Philadelphia hit man, would not come down below double figures.

The impact this will have on future cases is not clear. With federal investigations continuing into underworld racketeering and drug trafficking, it is only a matter to time, most law enforcement officials say, before another organized crime indictment grabs the spotlight.

But will potential witnesses - informants to the government, ``rats'' to the potential defendants - come forward in exchange for a 10- to 15-year prison term?

``We do not think this will have any long-term negative impact,'' Deputy U.S. Attorney Robert Courtney 3d said last week.

Courtney, who is chief of the Organized Crime Division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia and who was one of the prosecutors in the Stanfa case, said Buckwalter clearly had ``shifted the equilibrium to take into consideration'' the crimes committed by the cooperators. And he acknowledged the need for that.

Federal authorities, he said, have long been aware of and concerned about the perception that cooperation was viewed as a ``get-out-of-jail-free card.''

``These sentences show that is not the case.''

* But the prosecutor also said that the government recognized the value of cooperating witnesses and the need to reward them.

Both Courtney and Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Gross, another prosecutor in the case, pointed out that Veasey, Colletti and Bellocchi were operating on the orders of higher-ranking mob figures like Stanfa and his underboss, Frank Martines.

``It's not only the people who pull the triggers who are responsible,'' Gross said at Bellocchi's sentencing, ``but also the people who direct those individuals, who try to insulate themselves.''

Courtney said that Stanfa and Martines used their hit men as ``tools'' and that they are in prison today because the government was able to ``turn those tools against them.''

Stanfa and Martines, convicted in a 1995 racketeering trial in which Veasey, Colletti and Bellocchi testified, are serving life sentences without parole. Four other defendants received sentences ranging from 30 to 80 years.

It's in that light, Courtney said, that the 10- to 15-year sentences meted out by Buckwalter should be judged.

He said those debating the impact on future informants should ask any defendant convicted in the Stanfa case, particularly those who are going to spend the rest of their lives in prison, whether they would trade their sentence for what Veasey, Colletti, Bellocchi or Battaglia received.

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