Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa ()
Nearly three decades after two New York City police officers carried out murders for organized crime, families of “Mafia Cops” victims can proceed with some of their claims against the city.
Ruling on seven cases regarding New York City’s purported liability for Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa’s notorious actions, Eastern District Judge Raymond Dearie (See Profile) said the plaintiffs overcame timeliness hurdles and made arguments about deliberate indifference and causation that were sufficient to raise factual issues for a jury.
Though Dearie said the plaintiffs presented federal municipal liability claims that could withstand the city’s summary judgment motion in Pipitone v. City of New York, 06-cv-145, he dismissed their state law claims.
The murders in question occurred after the police department, in the 1980s, investigated Eppolito for allegedly leaking confidential documents to the Mob.
The documents were found in a mobster’s home containing the police officer’s fingerprints. Sign-in logs showed he had visited the intelligence division unaccompanied.
The department advocate’s office brought charges against Eppolito, but the case was presented by one junior lawyer solely on stipulated facts. The stipulation did not include evidence that the documents were copies made at Eppolito’s precinct.
“While the circumstances of the decision to try the case on stipulations remains murky, it is abundantly clear that trying disciplinary charges of such gravity on stipulations was well outside the normal course of business,” Dearie noted.
Nevertheless, a deputy trial commissioner recommended Eppolito be adjudged not guilty, and Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward—an attorney with extensive experience in the disciplinary process—approved the recommendation a day after receiving it.
Eppolito was re-assigned to a neighboring precinct and subsequently promoted. He began a relationship with the Lucchese crime family and also brought in his partner, Caracappa.
Starting in 1986 and continuing through 1991, the detectives, while working for Lucchese underboss Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso, committed murders and leaked police information. Casso was apprehended in 1993 and began cooperating with federal investigators.
Eppolito and Caracappa retired in 1990 and 1992 respectively. News coverage of the former officers suspected organized crime ties began in 1992 and 1994, but they denied the allegations.
Meanwhile, the Mollen Commission concluded in 1994 that over the previous decade, the police department “largely abandoned its responsibility to police itself.”
An investigation of the pair came to nothing until 2005, when federal authorities obtained a cooperation agreement with someone who worked for Casso.
Eppolito and Caracappa were indicted on federal charges, convicted the following year and are serving life sentences in prison.
Family members of the murder victims sued the city between 2006 and 2007 under 42 U.S.C. §1983 and various state statutes. They claimed that the city’s intentional mishandling of the disciplinary matter and the failure to supervise Eppolito led to the murders.
Dearie first ruled that the plaintiffs’ claims were timely, saying that they only accrued after the plaintiffs could have discovered with “reasonable diligence” the link between the officers’ activities and the murders.
The city said that even with the discovery rule, the plaintiffs missed their chance to sue because press coverage from the mid-1990s put them on notice, but Dearie rejected that argument.
On the subject of municipal liability, Dearie said plaintiffs were advancing arguments under two theories: one being that Ward was “deliberately indifferent to the obvious red flags” in Eppolito’s disciplinary hearing and the other being that Ward and other top police officials “encouraged (or were deliberately indifferent to) the entrenched practice of tolerating corruption to avoid bad press” as described in the Mollen report.
The plaintiffs were sufficiently persuasive on both fronts, Dearie said.
The “flawed” disciplinary proceedings and the Mollen report offered separate grounds where jurors might find deliberate indifference, he said.
The report and the proceedings “also reinforce each other. The failure to discipline Eppolito in 1985 can be viewed as evidence of the systemic failure to address corruption that was described in the Mollen Report. And in turn, the Mollen Report suggests a motive for why Ward failed to take action against Eppolito in 1985—his desire to avoid bad press—and thus might also be viewed as evidence of deliberate indifference with respect to that specific disciplinary decision.”
Plaintiffs and the city disputed whether there was a causal link between the disciplinary proceedings and the subsequent murders. But Dearie said that was a matter for the jury, noting the causation questions in some murders were “more complex” than others.
For instance, four deaths occurred after Eppolito retired and there was nothing in the record suggesting a failure to discipline or supervise Caracappa.
Still, Dearie said, the failure to discipline Eppolito could be seen as the “moving force” for Caracappa’s behavior.
“A reasonable jury might conclude that the gross failure to discipline Eppolito in 1985 emboldened” Caracappa’s own collusions.
New York City Law Department spokesman Nicholas Paolucci said the office is “reviewing the decision.”
Two of the families are represented by Emma Freudenberger and Nick Brustin, partners at Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, as well as Benjamin Brafman of Brafman & Associates.
In an interview, Freudenberger said “the families are just grateful that after all these years, they will have an opportunity for the truth to come out, And the truth, as Judge Dearie makes clear, is pretty horrifying.”
The other families are represented by Andrew Laufer of Manhattan, Michaelangelo Matera of Melville, Cody McCone of O’Dwyer & Bernstien in Manhattan, Mark Longo of Brooklyn, and Barry Schulman and Deborah Santelmo of the Law Office of Barry E. Schulman in Brooklyn.
Assistant Corporation Counsels Michael Chestnov, Barry Myrvold, Steven Silverberg and Alison Moe, appeared for the city.