NEW YORK » They were in jail on charges of murder, robbery, extortion and, of course, racketeering, but the inmates, accused of being members of La Cosa Nostra, wanted out. At least for a little while.
These mob suspects have pleaded with judges in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn for furloughs from jail to attend weddings, funerals and all manner of family activities.
The requests, which have been coming for years now, underscore what Marlon Brando’s character in "The Godfather" said of the importance of family: "A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man."
But a family affair is seldom just a family affair when it comes to the Mafia, so judges and federal marshals tend to meet the requests with skepticism, if not swift denials.
"I always tell them no," said Judge Sterling Johnson Jr., who has presided over cases involving all five New York crime families and has heard a few pleas.
In one recent example, Joseph Sclafani, an alleged member of the Gambino crime family who is facing 15 years in prison for cocaine trafficking, asked a judge last month for emergency leave from jail to visit his ailing father, who he said was suffering from incurable liver cancer.
Prosecutors objected, writing in a letter to the judge, John Gleeson, that Sclafani’s furlough was really directed toward more romantic pursuits, and he had hardly worked to hide his true motives.
"The government notes that the defendant’s temporary release from custody has been a prominent story line on the TV show ‘Mob Wives,’" prosecutors wrote, adding that Sclafani had become engaged to one of the show’s cast members, Ramona Rizzo, while he was in jail. "Recent episodes center around whether the defendant will be released from custody for a short period of time so that he can attend his wedding."
Gleeson, who helped convict Gambino boss John J. Gotti when he was a prosecutor, responded in an order, "the court has no interest in the extent to which ‘Mob Wives’ bears on this case." He denied Sclafani leave, but ruled that he could have longer visits in jail or at the courthouse to spend time with his father.
Other cases are no less colorful. During the 2011 murder and racketeering trial of Thomas Gioeli, the former street boss of the Colombo crime family, Gioeli asked a judge for leave to attend his father’s wake and funeral on Long Island. But the U.S. Marshals Service, which transports inmates, deemed that too risky.
So they cleared a plan for Gioeli to have a private viewing of his father’s body on the loading dock of the federal courthouse in Central Islip (the site of previous makeshift wakes for mobsters).
Gioeli turned down the offer.
"He didn’t want his last memory of his father to be under those circumstances," said Gioeli’s lawyer, Adam D. Perlmutter.
Gioeli requested a second furlough a few months later, this time to walk his daughter down the aisle. He offered to provide the government a complete copy of the guest list, pay for private security of the government’s choice, and put up the family home as collateral.
Prosecutors argued that weddings have long been viewed by members of organized crime as opportunities to gather crews, discuss criminal activity, pass messages and make tribute payments. The judge, Brian M. Cogan, denied the request. Gioeli was convicted in 2012 of racketeering charges, including conspiracy to commit murder.
Federal regulations allow pretrial inmates to petition judges for special releases. Acceptable justifications include visiting a relative who is dying, going to a funeral and "establishing or re-establishing family or community ties," a catch-all that could cover just about anything. The final decision rests with the judge, but prosecutors always weigh in.
Joseph Petillo, an associate of the Colombo crime family who was convicted of making illegal loans, was given a special release two years ago so that he could care for his sick mother. Dennis DeLucia, a Colombo captain who was sentenced this year to 34 months for extortion, received one to attend his daughter’s wedding last year.
Charles Dunne, the chief marshal of the Eastern District of New York, said that furloughs are rare and that the defendants must often cover the costs of their release.
"We don’t want to have to pay to transport you to this wedding and guard you," Dunne said. "You’re going to have to pay for that."
Anyone can make a request, not just mobsters.
Ephraim Savitt, a lawyer with an active practice in Brooklyn federal court, recalled requesting furloughs so that his clients could observe Rosh Hashana and attend a son’s bar mitzvah. But most examples from the past several years involve suspects believed to be wiseguys.
"Nobody except well-off, successful mobsters can do it," said Peter Kirchheimer, who represents indigent clients as the lawyer in charge of federal public defenders in Brooklyn.
Patrick Romanello, alleged to be an associate of the Bonanno crime family, was perhaps the luckiest. In 2004, Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis released Romanello, who was later convicted of joining a murder conspiracy, for 48 hours to attend his daughter’s wedding and celebrate with his family. Romanello footed the bill for security.
A year later, when it was time for another of Romanello’s daughters to get married, Garaufis again agreed to a furlough, but he cut the duration to 17 hours, allowing Romanello to rent a tuxedo and go to the barber but not visit the tanning salon.
Garaufis asked Romanello if he had more daughters. The answer was yes, he had one more, but she was only 7.