U.S. News

03.12.14

'Mob Wives’ Courtroom Drama Exposes Rat, But Protects Jury

While the murder trial in Brooklyn Federal court possessed a storyline with all the dramatic trappings of a must-watch reality TV program, the most captivating part was that it wouldn't be publicized.

The mob trial in Brooklyn Federal court channel-hopped from ABC's New York Med to VH1's Mob Wives as two figures from two different reality shows took the stand in as many days.

On Monday, there was Dr. Tara Margarella a trauma resident turned plastic surgeon who was once featured on the show New York Med. She testified about her desperate efforts to save the victim in this murder and robbery conspiracy case.

On Tuesday, it was Hector Pagan, ex-husband of Mob Wives star Renee Graziano. He appeared as the government’s star witness against two alleged accomplices in a killing where he himself had been the triggerman.

The fury and shame that the other people he had ratted out in unrelated cases, included his father-in-law—reputed Mafia capo Anthony Graziano—had actually been a major story line on Mob Wives.

As a result, this is the first trial in history where the government sought to keep the jurors anonymous not only to ensure their physical safety, but also to protect the jury from (God forbid) ending up on a reality TV show.

“Members of the press or the producers of Mob Wives may attempt to contact jurors, if their identities are known, to generate additional stories surrounding the trial and [Pagan’s] testimony,” prosecutors said in court papers.

Prosecutors further worried, “The expected media attention may put significant pressure on jurors to reach a verdict based on considerations other than the evidence presented at trial, for example to either avoid the notoriety associated with the show or to seek it out.”

The situation is all the more unique because the judge, John Gleeson, is a former prosecutor who back in 1987 joined fellow Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane Gicalone in being the first to prosecute flamboyant mob boss John Gotti. The two put on a valiant effort in this very same courthouse with Giacalone, in particular, suffering terrific abuse from the defense, only to lose the case after one of the jurors was bribed.

Gleeson now ruled that the jury in the present case against the two accomplices, Richard Riccardi and Luigi “Ronnie” Grasso, would be granted partial anonymity. Their names would be known to the prosecution and to the defense, but not to the media—including reality TV shows.

The jurors were thus dually protected when the government called a former figure from New York Med to the stand on Monday. Dr. Tara Margarella is now a plastic surgeon in Florida, but she was still a trauma resident at Lutheran Medical Center back on July 2, 2010. She had been near the end of her shift when James Donovan was brought in with a gunshot wound he had suffered during a robbery.

“He was bleeding profusely,” Margarella said. “I wasn’t able to bring him back.”

During Margarella’s testimony, and while the bloody crime scene photos were flashed onto the courtroom screen, the reality of the mob was personified by the murdered man’s sobbing daughter. She had a small box of tissues when she returned on Tuesday and she sat in the front row holding it along with a holy card bearing her father’s picture.

In the late morning, 47-year-old Pagan took the stand in tan, prison-issued short-sleeved shirt and pants. More sobs from the victim’s daughter seemed certain as the testimony commenced with the starkest of questions and answers.

“What’s the most serious crime you have committed in your life?” the prosecutor began by asking.

“Murder,” Pagan replied.

“Who did you murder?” the prosecutor asked.

“James Donovan,” Pagan said.

Not a sound came from Donovan’s daughter, as if she had exhausted all her sobs and tears the day before. Pagan proceeded to testify that he had begun committing crimes when he was just 13. He said he had met the defendant Grasso some months before the murder.

“I told him I did scores, sold some pot, gambling stuff like that,” Pagan testified. “He said he had a couple of scores lined up.”

“Can you explain to the members of the jury what a score is?” the prosecutor asked.

“Robbery,” Pagan said.

He reported that he and Grasso subsequently kept in touch via cell phone. Pagan said he had two.

“One for street activity, one for family,” he said. “One was under my name, one was under nobody’s name.”

Pagan said that he subsequently also met the defendant Riccardi, who joined him and Grasso in robbing a pot dealer.

“The plan was to go by the house and wait for the guy and when he goes in, pop his door and rob him,” Pagan testified.

A fortnight later, the three met up at a Brooklyn Dunkin’ Donuts. Pagan climbed into Grasso’s white Toyota and headed for a supermarket parking lot facing an auto body shop. Pagan said Riccardi arrived in his black Mercedes and walked over to the Toyota.

“What did he carry with him?” the prosecutor asked.

“A bag with guns in it,” Pagan said. “We took what we wanted. I had a 9-milimeter. I think the rest were .38s.”

Pagan said he briefly exited the car to buy a bottle at a liquor store.

“Just to cool things off,” he testified.

“Did you drink the liquor?” the prosecutor asked.

“A little bit,” he answered.

Pagan said they soon after saw a luxury car pull up the auto body shop across the street. Grasso was at the wheel.

“Ronnie said, ‘There he is,’” Pagan testified.

Donovan was making one of his regular stops in a business where he cashed checks for a two percent fee. He was just climbing out of his car when Pagan and the others pulled up.

Pagan said that his job was to hold Donovan at gunpoint while Ronnie grabbed the money.

“I put the gun to him and said, ‘Stay right here,’” Pagan told the jury. “He wiggled away from me and started running. I shot him.”

Pagan and the others drove off.

“There really was no getaway plan,” Pagan testified.

He said that one of the others claimed to have shot Donovan.

“I said ‘No, you didn’t, I did,” Pagan recalled.

In a Brooklyn basement, they counted their take and it came to some $200,000.

“Ronnie took the guns,” Pagan testified. “He said he was going to melt mine.”

Pagan reported that Ronnie later told him that Richie had been blabbing about the killing.

“I said, ‘You should kill Richie,”” Pagan said, explaining to the jury, “He’s going around saying things that should not be said.”

The prosecutor then led Pagan through a recounting of his decades-long life of crime. Pagan said he had been an associate of the Lucchese crime family until he became engaged to Renee Graziano. Her father was reputedly a capo in the Bonanno crime family.

“He said, ‘If you’re going to do that we have to transfer you,’” Pagan told the jury.

Pagan was henceforth associated with the Bonanno crime family as he settled into a life of robbery, extortion, beatings, kidnapping and drug dealing.

Pagan said the day then came when, by chance, he saw his wife’s car parked by the side of the road with nobody inside. She then pulled up in a vehicle with another man.

“I started shooting at him,” Pagan testified.

The man survived. Pagan and Renee subsequently separated and reunited several times, once during an episode of Mob Wives, when he told her he had been shaken on hearing she had nearly died while undergoing plastic surgery. She asked if it was because he loved her or because he was in love with her.

“Both,” he told her.

“For years I’ve be in love with you, only you,” she told him.

The final break seems to have come when she learned that he had turned informant, or what he calls “an associate of the government,” rather than face a lengthy prison term for the armed robbery of a card game. He had even worn a wire when speaking with her father, who had subsequently been indicted for extortion.

At one point, Pagan’s handlers instructed him to put on his wire and pump a hoodlum of his acquaintance for information about the Donovan murder. Pagan employed the opposite of a typical reality TV strategy by steering the conversation away from any dramatic revelations. But Pagan figured it was just a question of time before the feds heard his name in connection with the killing.

“There was already an investigation going around,” Pagan testified on Monday. “I figured if I’m in this already, I might as well go all the way.”

Pagan said that he confessed to the shooting and cut a deal. He now testified that there had been one primary requirement on his part.

“Just to, uh…” Pagan began.

Pagan choked up and paused. His voice caught as he continued.

“…just to give information.”

He had shown no emotion at all earlier, when describing how he killed Donovan. 

The reality of the mob in the person of the murdered man’s daughter sat there still holding the holy card bearing her father’s picture.

At least the jury was safe from Mob Wives.