Backpack full of cash and questions

William Coyman. An allegation in court papers is that the cash was part of drug deal.
William Coyman. An allegation in court papers is that the cash was part of drug deal.
Posted: May 28, 2012

The cash was bundled in rubber bands and stuffed in two plastic bags found in the backpack of a 75-year-old man who dropped dead after stepping off a train in Manhattan's busy Pennsylvania Station one day last summer.

Ten months later, authorities are still trying to unravel the mystery of the money - $179,980 - and the hapless courier, one William "Billy" Coyman, a retired Teamster with a checkered criminal past that included ties to the mob and the drug underworld.

Federal authorities, who have seized the cash, are not saying much about the case.

But the sketchy details and the cast of characters sound like a story line from The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a classic movie about low-level wiseguys in the Boston underworld, or the sequel to The Town, the Ben Affleck movie based on a group of Charlestown bank robbers.

A six-page forfeiture complaint filed in federal court in New York in February includes the allegation that the money was part of a drug deal and the assertion that Coyman was working for 180 Entertainment Inc., a Philadelphia-based company whose business address is a house in the Northeast.

Records indicate that the house, in the 200 block of Parkview Drive, is owned by Anthony S. Fedele Jr., described by law enforcement sources as an associate of mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino. That connection has provided an added twist to the case, but one that Fedele said in a phone interview last week is all media hype, smoke and mirrors without any substance.

"Somebody took two and two and came up with 6 1/2," said Fedele, 40, who said he has known Merlino for more than 10 years and has tried to put a movie deal together based on the flamboyant wiseguy's life.

The cash in the backpack, Fedele said, is not his. Nor is it Merlino's.

"I'm out of the loop on this," he said.

Steven D. DiLibero, a lawyer from Providence, R.I., who is attempting to recover the cash for 180 Entertainment, said after a status conference hearing in New York on Wednesday that the money belongs to Joseph Burke, another principal in the company. In papers filed in opposition to the government's forfeiture claim, DiLibero denied that the money was tied to a drug deal, argued that the seizure was illegal, and asked that the cash be returned to Burke.

The dispute is now part of a civil court docket in federal court in Manhattan. A trial is tentatively set for December.

In a telephone interview after last week's hearing, DiLibero said the cash was being returned to an entertainment promoter in North Carolina who was helping Burke finance a concert in Boston. When the concert deal fell through, Burke wanted to return the money. DiLibero declined to identify the North Carolina businessman but said the man would be filing an affidavit supporting Burke's claim.

Burke, like Coyman, is from Charlestown just north of Boston. Like Coyman, he also has a criminal history, having served nearly 20 years on bank-robbery and drug charges. Released from prison in 2010, he was recently sent back to jail on a parole-violation charge.

"He's a stand-up guy who was trying to return the money," the lawyer said, adding that Burke did not trust or understand the more sophisticated systems for transferring cash. Instead, he chose a courier, which is what he would have done 20 years ago.

"Guys who've been away that long don't trust anybody," he said. "This guy didn't know what a cellphone was when he came out."

To date, the story has played out this way:

Coyman boarded a train in Boston on Aug. 23. A few hours later he stepped onto the platform in New York's Pennsylvania Station, where he collapsed. Efforts to revive him failed. He had suffered a massive heart attack.

In an attempt to identify him, authorities looked in the backpack he was carrying and found "two plastic bags filled with a large amount of United States currency bundled with rubber bands," according to the government's forfeiture claim. The cash totaled $179,980.

Coyman was also carrying a black briefcase.

Later, drug-sniffing dogs "alerted" to both the backpack and the briefcase, "indicating the presence of narcotics," according to the complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan.

Court documents provide few other details, but the incident is now part of an ongoing DEA investigation.

In their court papers, federal authorities said that Coyman's son William, who lives in California, was contacted by investigators and said he had no claim to the money. The younger Coyman said a friend of his father's told him his father was working for 180 Entertainment and was on his way to Philadelphia to deliver $180,000 in cash.

Investigators point out, however, that Amtrak records indicated that Coyman had purchased a ticket from Boston to New York, not Philadelphia.

Last week when asked about the source of the cash, Fedele offered the same explanation as DiLibero; the money was originally part of a deal to set up a concert. When the concert deal fell through, Fedele said, Burke decided to send the money back. Fedele said he believes Coyman was supposed to meet with a representative of the North Carolina concert promoter in New York City.

Why cash rather than a wire transfer or check?

That, said Fedele, is just one of the quirks of the "concert and club business."

"People deal in cash," he said, comparing it to politics and street money.

Fedele said he got his start in the entertainment business through the late Stephen "Eppy" Epstein, a well-known Philadelphia music producer and longtime Merlino friend. He said he met Merlino through Epstein and stayed in contact after Merlino was jailed on racketeering charges in 1999.

The 180 Entertainment company was set up to develop movie deals, he said. From prison, Merlino suggested Burke's history as a bank robber as a possibility. Merlino and Burke were fellow inmates at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. Burke agreed to provide his life rights to the company in exchange for a deal that made him a partner, Fedele said.

The concert promotion was something that Burke undertook using 180 Entertainment, he said.

The company is also trying to secure the life rights to the story of a former member of the Junior Black Mafia in Philadelphia and of a Croatian nationalist Burke met in prison with Merlino.

Fedele said that he has not spoken with Merlino in a few months but that he sees him on occasion when he is in Florida. Merlino, who was released from prison last year, is living in a posh condo in Boca Raton and according to Fedele is now focused on developing and opening a restaurant in the area.

One of the cars Merlino is driving in Florida, a late-model Sonata, belongs to Fedele's mother.

"Joey said he needed a car, and my mother, who lives in Florida, wasn't using hers, so I told him he could drive it," Fedele said.

A movie on Merlino's life no longer seems possible, he added.

"Joey heard John Gotti Jr. was getting $3 million, which wasn't true, but Joey wanted $4 million," Fedele said. "That's not going to happen."


Contact George Anastasia

at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.

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