Joseph Romano, enraged over his imprisonment in a multimillion-dollar coin fraud scheme, opted for “gruesome and deadly” revenge by plotting to have a federal judge and prosecutor killed and to keep their heads as souvenirs, a prosecutor said yesterday as Romano’s trial began.
But the defense insisted that Romano—prone to bluster and bravado to keep up appearances in jail— was entrapped by a government informant looking to “milk” and “prod” Romano to avert his own lengthy sentence. And it insisted that the government officials never were in any danger.
Eastern District Assistant U.S. Attorney Una Dean said Romano masterminded the beheading plan, talking in code and arranging $40,000 for the murders of Eastern District Judge Joseph Bianco (See Profile) and Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Treinis Gatz.
In a “sickening twist,” Dean said Romano asked for the pair’s heads in formaldehyde to keep as “souvenirs.”
Once arrested, Romano confessed, she said.
Dean told the jury Romano’s “guilt will be clear” after it heard recordings of Romano discussing the plans and saw other evidence. In one recording, Romano allegedly said, “Find out where Bianco is. Go there. Boom. Right in the f—ing head,” she said.
But Michael Bachrach of Manhattan argued that his client was set up by fellow inmate, Gerald Machacek, whom he described as a “career criminal” facing robbery, money laundering and gun possession charges. The case’s key questions, said Bachrach, was whether his client was “induced” to act by Machacek, and if he was induced, whether he was “predisposed to commit murder prior to the time Gerry Machacek got his claws” into Romano.
Bachrach said the prosecution could prove neither allegation against his client, a married man with three children who was “just talk” and had already accepted responsibility for his underlying conviction for a non-violent crime. Any confession to the murder plot was irrelevant because it was the product of entrapment, Bachrach maintained.
Romano, 50, listened and occasionally took notes during openings in United States v. Romano, 12-cr-691.
He is charged with two counts of conspiracy to murder an employee of the United States and faces up to life imprisonment if convicted.
The case has its roots in work done by various telemarketing companies Romano owned between 2001 and 2008. The companies would call elderly consumers in an effort to sell overvalued coins. Romano “conned victims out of millions” while living lavishly, said Dean. Romano and others were later arrested and charged in the scheme. With Gatz leading the prosecution and Bianco presiding over the case, Romano pleaded guilty and received a 15-year sentence in February 2012. He also agreed to give up $7 million in cash and property as forfeiture.
Dean said Romano “sat stewing in his jail cell, thinking how he was going to get revenge.” When he told Machacek of his intentions, Dean said they were “so disturbing” that Machacek had to report Romano’s plans to authorities.
She spoke of how an undercover officer posing as a hit man was sent to meet with Romano. She said Romano then “test[ed]” the hit man by ordering him to beat up a Long Island car mechanic who had done work for Romano but refused to release the car when Romano stopped paying. The beating was staged. With the assistance of Dejvid Mirkovic, a business associate and accomplice in the plot who relayed information and money to the would-be assassin, Romano communicated his plans to target the judge and prosecutor.
When Mirkovic was arrested, he was found with $18,000 and a loaded handgun after already giving the fake assassin $22,000.
Dean said Romano and Mirkovic tried concealing their plans in coded conversations at jail, referring to the would-be hit man as “Mr. Softy” and the planned murders as “the Dodge truck.”
Dean said Romano asked for Bianco’s death to be portrayed as an accident and asked for Gatz’s body to be “stuffed in a 35-gallon drum and hidden” to seem as though Gatz disappeared.
Mirkovic was sentenced to 24 years after pleading guilty to his involvement and tearfully expressing his remorse at sentencing (NYLJ, Aug. 2, 2013).
But Bachrach pointed out that Romano had been convicted of coin fraud, which does not “instill fear” from incarcerated murderers and drug dealers. “He acted like a tough guy,” Bachrach said, for instance, when Romano said he wanted Bianco’s testicles cut off, he had no real intention to do so but “said these things because he had to survive.”
Bachrach said by the time Machacek first talked to Romano, Machacek had already tried unsuccessfully to strike up a government cooperation agreement. He said Machacek viewed Romano as his “golden goose.”
In the pair’s first recorded conversation, Bachrach said Romano “vent[ed]” about his case and asked Machacek if he could assist in getting Romano information about an upcoming restitution hearing. But Bachrach said Machacek kept “ changing the subject back into murder.”
The government has said in court papers it does not plan to call Machacek, but Bachrach told the jury the defense would call Machacek if the government did not.
When the jury heard the government’s story of Romano’s alleged plotting, Bachrach told the jury “that’s what you hear after he’s been induced.”
Southern District Judge John Keenan (See Profile), who has been specially assigned the case, told the jury he expects the trial to last about three weeks.
The prosecution is also represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall Miller. George Goltzer of Manhattan also is on Romano’s defense team.
@|Andrew Keshner can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.