NEW YORK — When a hooded gunman pumped close to a dozen bullets into Frank Cali, a reputed leader of the Gambino crime family, outside his Staten Island home Wednesday night, detectives naturally examined the possibility that the killing may have stemmed from his role atop one of New York’s five Mafia families.
But after the arrest Saturday of a 24-year-old man who lives with his parents, it appears the old-school crime figure may have been the victim of an angry young man with a gun and a grudge, but apparently no mob ties.
Some law enforcement officials have said they are looking at the possibility that the accused killer, Anthony A. Comello, had a romantic interest in one of Cali’s female relatives, and that the crime boss had told him to stay away. But the Police Department’s chief of detectives, Dermot F. Shea, said the motive was still unclear, and detectives were examining “multiple angles.”
Comello’s arrest was in some ways a sign of the times in an era when the city’s mob clans have become accustomed to a smaller, less powerful role in the criminal and economic culture. Weakened over several decades by a campaign of prosecutions, the Mafia has become less likely to resort to violence — even as gun violence and mass shootings have become a common occurrence in the United States.
Comello was arrested at a home owned by his family in Brick, New Jersey, on Saturday and is being held in the Ocean County jail. He is expected to be returned to Staten Island, where prosecutors have prepared murder charges, according to a computerized court database. On Sunday afternoon, the police had blocked off all foot and car traffic on the roadway near the New Jersey home.
Efforts to reach a lawyer for Comello were unsuccessful, and a family member declined to comment.
Detectives have a recording of the killing from a security camera outside Cali’s home, and Comello’s fingerprints matched those that were lifted from a license plate the gunman picked up and handed to Cali before opening fire, according to police.
I would never imagine he could have done this. I was shocked
Comello, a 2012 graduate of Tottenville High School, lived with his parents in the Eltingville section of Staten Island, neighbours said.
“He would plow the snow for us,” said Victor Ujeck, a neighbor. “I’ve seen his parents numerous times — also very nice people.”
“I would never imagine he could have done this,” Ujeck added. “I was shocked.”
Didar Janid, 46, works in the Campos deli a few blocks from the suspect’s home on Staten Island and said he had known Comello for about eight years. Comello would stop by every couple weeks to buy Marlboro cigarettes, Janid said.
“He was a little bit aggressive,” Janid said, adding “a little loud.”
But he was mellowing, Janid said, and the accusations he faces stunned the shopkeeper.
“I didn’t see nothing abnormal when I saw him,” he said. “I can’t think even that he could be doing this.”
From the start, the shooting bore few of the hallmarks of a Mafia assassination, which generally involves a team of assassins and multiple cars to make a quick escape.
But the attacker is suspected of driving a pickup to Cali’s home in the Todt Hill section of Staten Island, a neighbourhood of narrow winding streets filled with police surveillance cameras and license plate readers.
The truck was then backed into Cali’s Cadillac Escalade, a collision that knocked off a license plate, police officials said Saturday.
He then rang the doorbell of Cali’s home, allowing the surveillance camera to capture an image of his face, police said.
Cali came out to the street to talk, and after a minute of conversation, the gunman pulled out a 9-millimetre pistol and fired repeatedly into Cali’s body, mortally wounding him as he apparently tried to crawl to safety beneath the pickup.
The killing of a Gambino crime family senior leader — a Sicilian-born Old World mob figure who authorities have said was respected as a force on both sides of the Atlantic — in a wealthy part of Staten Island initially sent a seismic jolt through the underworld and law enforcement.
But any fear that these were the first shots in either a bloody war between Mafia families or a bitter internecine conflict within the Gambino clan appear to be short-lived. Nonetheless, Shea emphasized that detectives were still working to determine a clear motive.
“Let me reiterate: This is far from over. We are at the beginning stages of this investigation,” he said at a news briefing.
Police and court officials said Sunday that it was unclear whether Comello would waive extradition from New Jersey, or when he would be returned to Staten Island to be arraigned.
The entry in the New York state court database that on Saturday listed the charges against him and other details of his case said his next court appearance would be before Justice Charles M. Troia, of State Supreme Court in Staten Island. But by Sunday morning, the entire entry had been removed without explanation.