The Cherry Hill Gambinos – Part 5 – Rosario Steps Into the Ring

By MS | Febrary 5, 2020

The Set-Up

We’ve been framed. This is all a set up.

Rosario Gambino after his 1980 arrest for drug trafficking

Back in March 1981, Rosario was to have gone on trial with his brother, Joe, but because of medical issues (he had polyps on his throat), his case was severed and set for a later date. He had presented the court with medical proof of his condition.

However, when the issue came up, U.S. District Attorney Mark Summers was suspicious and told the press that he believed Rosario was trying “to alter his appearance before trial.”

Did the “mastermind” of the 1979 drug smuggling ring receive a dead fish in the mail?

In January of that year, law enforcement had also begun circulating a rumor (around the same time of the S.S. Poet debacle) that Rosario had received a dead fish in the mail.

Supposedly, he had moved out of Cherry Hill, and sources told the press that the dead fish was mailed to his home in Cherry Hill and forwarded to his new address in Brooklyn.

When asked why Rosario would have received such a thing in the mail, the anonymous sources related a story about dead fish and mafia lore and speculated that he had received his special gift because of the upcoming trial.

The story certainly made for good newspaper fodder while Rosario was waiting for his day in court.

The Highest Authority

Rosario stepped into the courtroom in August 1981. Like his brother, he was facing charges of distributing heroin and conspiracy to distribute heroin.

Also like his brother before him, Rosario had to face testimony from the prosecution’s main witness – Francesco Rolli.

Only this time, Rolli told the court that Rosario was the “mastermind” of the drug trafficking scheme.

He said Rosario was “the main guy…the highest authority,” even though back in March, he had claimed that Joe was the man in charge.

Rolli added that Rosario was the one who had almost killed Paul Zinerco, taking him to a house in Brooklyn, hanging him in the rafters with a telephone cord, and shoving a gun in his mouth,and demanding to know where the missing heroin was.

This time, the jurors believed at least part of Rolli’s story.

Rosario was acquitted on the distribution charge but the jury was hung on the conspiracy charge. He would have to return to court in February 1982 to face that charge.

After the trial, Rosario’s lawyer, Jacob Evseroff told reporters, ” If his name wasn’t Gambino, he would never have been prosecuted.”

When Rosario returned to court in February 1982, the case was over in a week, Rosario was acquitted of the conspiracy charge as well.

Despite their acquittals, law enforcement was applying as much pressure as they could, in every way they could, on the Gambino brothers.

Under Pressure

In November 1981, Joe was found guilty of liquor license violations at Valentino’s (now New York, New York) by the New Jersey State Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). He was accused of failing to keep proper books and had apparently employed people with arrest records.

Joe Gambino

The ABC had a strict rule regarding people with arrest records working in establishments with a liquor license. These “criminally disqualified” persons weren’t allowed to work at restaurants serving liquor.

Through his lawyer, Joe claimed he didn’t know about the arrest records because the employees had lied on their applications.

Valentino’s liquor license was suspended for 60 days. Joe tried to reinstate his license but was unsuccessful after numerous attempts.

Even in 1984, Joe was making an attempt to get the license back but was repeatedly blocked by the Cherry Hill town council.

The council was reluctant to reissue a license to someone “with his reputation” referring to Joe’s 1980 drug smugglng charge for which he was acquitted.

The town solicitor Ralph Kmiec said that despite Joe’s acquittal, he believed the 1983 tax evasion charge was another consideration as to why Joe shouldn’t receive a new liquor license.

“If I remember the statutes,” Kmiec said, “tax evasion is an offense of moral turpitude.”

Eventually, Joe gave up the idea of reopening his beloved restaurant and much later apparently built a condo complex on the property.

The following year, John faced his own legal challenges, but, surprisingly, got a little unexpected help from Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam Takes Sides

The famous Italian Judge Giovanni Falcone had had his eye on John Gambino since even before the 1979 Sindona affair. And on January 25, 1982, he finally got his man.

Or so he thought.

Judge Giovanni Falcone

In a 1000-page indictment, John was charged, along with 75 others, for being involved in a heroin smuggling ring which Falcone claimed was a $560-million-a-year business with money laundered and then reinvested in real estate in Italy.

As closely as Italy and the U.S. had been working together to put a stop to heroin smuggling allegedly perpetrated by the Gambino brothers, the indictment took the FBI by surprise.

They claimed they “had no idea it was coming.”

Still, while the two countries had a common goal, U.S. authorities refused to extradite John, who had become a legal U.S. citizen in 1964.

John was convicted “in absentia” at a later date and sentenced to seven years in prison.

As long as he stayed out of Italy, he wouldn’t be arrested, but this conviction would come back later to haunt him.

Meanwhile, there was a restaurant war brewing in Cherry Hill.

The Burning Bridge

Apparently, the alleged pizza wars of the late 1970s had crossed over to the restaurant business as well by the early 1980s.

In October 1982, Valentino’s/New York, New York was heavily damaged in a fire.

Franco Longo overseeing the reconstruction of his restaurant after a fire.

Local police suspected arson. They also believed the fire was part of a “war” between Joe Gambino and Franco Longo, a Sicilian immigrant who owned a nearby disco called Franchin’s.

Franchin’s had been damaged by a fire the day before the fire at Valentino’s.

Longo dismissed the rumors, telling a local newspaper, “”That’s garbage. I tell you. That’s not true.”

He said that he and Joe Gambino were friendly, that Joe had eaten at his restaurant many times, and that he never felt threatened by his competitor.

Law enforcement didn’t believe that Longo was mob connected.

However, Longo had gone to the police the previous year claiming he was “roughed up” by a few alleged Gambino associates. He also claimed, at the time, that he had been receiving calls at all hours telling him to “Get the fuck out of Cherry Hill.”

Longo decided not to press charges and the matter was dropped. The arsons at both restaurants were never solved.

Things in Cherry Hill remained quite for a time until that 1980 drug trafficking case finally came around in Italy.

Italy’s Hit Parade

Even though both Joe and Rosario had been acquitted in the U.S. for the 1980 drug trafficking charges, they still faced trial in Italy.

In June 1983, the brothers were convicted “in absentia and sentenced to 20 years each. Others who were charged in the case were convicted in Italy as well.

Emanuele Adamita received 20 years, Domenico Adamita received 18 years, and Antonio Admatia received 15 years. Rosario Spatola, who was also involved, received 13 years and Tommaso Inzerillo received 20 years.

A month after the Italian convictions, U.S. District Attorney Mark Summers, who tried 14 defendants in Brooklyn, reflected on the case in an interview with the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper in Rochester, New York.

Out of the 14 defendants he tried, only two were convicted: Zinerco and Silvestrini. It was a reality for which Summers was not proud.

He told the newspaper it happened because the trials were held separately.

“The judges wouldn’t let us put all the evidence before the juries, ” Summers said. “so that none of the juries heard the whole scheme.”

But at least he was able to keep his promise to Francesco Rolli and John Eggito. Both of the Alitalia cargo handlers had pled guilty, but because of their assistance with the case, they had only been sentenced to one day’s probation. And neither were charged in Italy.

The drug trafficking case was finally and completely over, but that didn’t mean things were going to stay quiet in Cherry Hill for long.

Big Surprises

Matteo and Salvatore Sollena were brothers who were “soldiers” in John’s crew and owned several pizza parlors in the New Jersey and Philadelphia areas. Salvatore had been one of the men convicted “in absentia” in Italy for the 1980 drug trafficking case.

Police investigate the car in which Salvatore Sollena’s body was found.

Within days of each other in November 1983, both had been found shot in the head multiple times, their bodies wrapped in green trash bags and stuffed in the trunk of a car.

Philadelphia mobster-turned-informant Yogi Merlino later claimed Joe Gambino was behind one of the murders and that the Sollena brothers were killed because they had been stealing money.

When a local newspaper contacted law enforcement for more details after the murders, one source said, “It may come as a surprise to you, but these guys really don’t file an operational plan with us telling who they are going to kill and why. Matter of fact, I don’t remember them holding any press conference, either.”

“It would make things a lot easier, but it would take a lot of the fun out of it. They’d rather kill someone and make it a big surprise for us, the press, and – most importantly – the target. Then, they dare us to figure out who did it and why, and hope we can prove it.”

Although law enforcement tried to tie the Gambino brothers to the killings, nothing ever came of it, and the murders were never solved.

While law enforcement displayed a rare sense of humor, the same couldn’t be said about the IRS.

Beware the Tax Man

On December 29, 1983, Joe and Rosario were indicted by a federal grand jury on tax evasion charges. The charges were brought one month before the statute of limitations were set to expire.

The IRS claimed the Gambino brothers had defrauded them of $17,700 in taxes by falsyfying a corporate federal income tax return. They were also accused of misleading First People’s Bank of Haddon Township.

A shakedown for the average Joe, courtesy of the IRS.

These charges stemmed from Joe and Rosario’s failed attempt to open the Don Giovanni restaurant in Cherry Hill back in 1978.

When they couldn’t open the restaurant, the brothers had sold the property to the Victoria Station restaurant chain for $500,000.

The IRS said Joe and Rosario listed a $90,000 check as an expense, which reduced their net profit to just a little over $350 on the sale.

The IRS further claimed that the check was written to a fake person by the name of Gianni Palazzo and that Palazzo was in actuality Rosario Gambino, who then cashed the check and pocketed the cash.

If convicted, the two would face 10 years in jail and a $120,000 fine each. The case wouldn’t go before a jury until February 1985.

By the end of 1983, Joe had decided to move out of the increasingly hostile Cherry Hill area back to Brooklyn.

It’s unclear when exactly Rosario jumped ship, but no matter when he did, he couldn’t escape the penetrating eye of law enforcement.

Hammer of Injustice

On March 16, 1984, Rosario was arrested on charges of conspiracy to distribute heroin, distribution of heroin, and illegal use of the telephone. Nine others were arrested with him, including his brother-in-law Erasmo Gambino and cousins Antonio Gambino, Anthony Spatola, and Mario Gambino.

Rosario’s bail was set at $10,000,000 even though he had no prior felony convictions.

In fact, aside from his March 1980 arrest, he had only minor arrests and was only convicted twice – in 1962 as an illegal alien and in 1969 on a reduced charge of criminal trespassing after a brawl with a police officer.

To add to the drama, Antonio Gambino, according to law enforcement, tried to kill himself shortly after being arrested, by ramming his body against the bars of his jail cell. He survived.

Pizza Connection Case

Around this time, the Pizza Connection case was also kicking into high gear, so it was a headline coup for the federal government. Rosario’s father’s old friend Tommaso Buscetta had become a key witness in that case, which would last through 1987, and John’s good friend and associate Sal Catalano would later be convicted along with many others.

In September 1984, Rosario once again stepped into the ring with the U.S. justice system.

In the trial, DEA agents reported that they had purchased 8 ounces of cocaine and 2 pounds of heroin from Anthony Spatola and Antonio Gambino with a promise of future purchases of 10 pounds of heroin per month for an undetermined amount of time.

The agents had posed as Las Vegas drug dealers.

U.S. District Attorney Marianne E. Murphy said during her opening arguments that Erasmo and Rosario, “kept themselves off stage while maintaining absolute control” over the others.

She also claimed the defendants used code words such as “pizza”, “champagne”, “spare tires”, “cars”, and “marriage” during telephone conversations to talk about the drug operation.

The government alleged that prior to the sale, Anthony and Antonio had turned to their cousin Erasmo who then turned to Rosario to the procure the heroin.

However, prosectors weren’t able to provide evidence that Rosario was the man behind the scenes.

Caffe Milano which would later become Caffe Giardino

The agents hadn’t purchased the heroin directly from Rosario and in all of their surveillance footage, there was not one image of Rosario entering or leaving any of the Brooklyn cafes they claimed were heroin auction houses.

The only footage they had was of Rosario’s car parked outside the Caffe Milano.

But after the agents had purchased the heroin in an Atlantic City hotel room in exchange for $100,000 cash, they followed the cousins, who had driven immediately to Rosario’s home.

Whether they were there to discuss Rosario’s upcoming surgery as the defense claimed or to deliver proceeds from the sale as the prosecution claimed is up for debate.

The one thing that is certain, though, is that after Rosario was arrested, two $100 bills from the drug sale were found in his dresser after authorities searched his home.

The defense did everything they could to dissuade the jury that no exchange of money had been made. Rosario’s attorney, Jacob Evseroff even used the old standby that if “Rosario Gambino’s name was Schwartz, he would not be sitting at this table.”

But it was to no avail.

The Book of Lies

One can speculate that maybe one of Rosario’s cousins owed him money and that’s why he had the cash, but in the world of law, this kind of evidence is known as circumstantial evidence and can be used by juries in their deliberations.

After a six-week trial and five days of deliberations, the jury had reached their verdict. And this time it wasn’t in Rosario’s favor.

On October 23, 1984, Rosario, Erasmo, Anthony, and Antonio were found guilty of all charges. Mario Gambino had been previously acquitted.

Charged and convicted: (from l to r): Rosario Gambino, Anthony Spatola, Erasmo Gambino, and Antonio Gambino

If that wasn’t enough, the government had something even better up its sleeve. Prior to Rosario’s sentencing hearing, prosecutors delivered a 30-page memorandum to the court to assist U.S. District Judge Frederick B. Lacey with his sentencing decision.

In this mini-book, prosecutors included FBI reports that outlined their belief that Rosario was a suspected leader of the Cherry Hill faction of the Gambino Family.

The prosecution also provided detailed speculations about his involvement in the pizza and cheese war controversy of the late 1970s, suspicions that he was trying to take over competing pizzerias in South Jersey and Philadelphia, information about the files provided to him via Louis Eppolito, and Rosario’s alleged involvement in the Sindona kidnapping.

It also included information on the 1980 heroin trafficking charge for which he had been acquitted. Whether the government included the speculation about the farfetched S.S. Poet hijacking plot is unknown.

And as an added bonus, the Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) included a report that they had recommended charges be filed and prosecution sought against Rosario and Joe for arson and extortion attempts that they believed the brothers had committed against three pizza shops in South Jersey back in the late 1970s.

The ATF made it even more exciting by detailing a rumor that Rosario had allegedly burned one of the cars of a pizza shop owner and then called the manager, threatening, “How do you like what we’ve done to your car? What I did to your car, I’m going to do to you if you don’t do what you’re told. I’m going to take a gun in my hand and blow your face off. Get wise. Get smart. Close up. Turn your keys in.”

After presenting the voluminous memo, U.S. District Attorney Murphy, in her quest for a headline-worthy soundbite of her own, said, “The range of activities and (Rosario Gambino’s) demonstrated attitude toward the legal system offer convincing proof that he has little, if any, potential for rehabilitation.”

Rosario Gambino in 2019

The defense argued that much of the information in the memo was unsubstantiated and was information for which Rosario was never arrested, indicted, or convicted.

Even Murphy herself couldn’t explain why charges were never brought against Rosario on any of the claims if law enforcement strongly believed that Rosario had done everything they suspected he did.

Still, it was a nuclear bomb for Rosario despite Judge Lacey’s assurances that he had “only considered the evidence from the trial” in determining the sentence.

Judge Lacey handed Rosario Gambino a sentence of 45 years in prison – the maximum available.

Rosario’s lawyer was shocked. His family was shocked. And Rosario was shocked, too, turning to Evseroff afterwards and exclaiming, “Forty-five years?!”

Rosario had many more travails in his life, which we won’t detail here, but he remained and still remains a favorite target of U.S federal and Italian law enforcement – even at 78 years old.

Now that Rosario was out of the game, John, Joe, and their associates pushed forward, knowing that law enforcement was hot on their heels. And there weren’t many bright spots in the murky waters ahead, either.

Down But Not Out

In February 1985, Joe and Rosario went to trial on their tax evasion charges from 1983.

During the trial, Joe’s lawyer, Alfred Pierce, honed in on the fake person allegation. He said, “Knowing you are checked by the government at every step, can anyone be so crazy, so dumb, to put down the name of a fake person? No way could an intelligent man do what the government said he did.”

The jury agreed and aquitted the brothers of all charges.

After the trial, Pierce told reporters, “My client was called dozens of times by the IRS – because his name is Joe Gambino.”

It was a mantra that seemed to be ever present in the Gambino brothers’ lives.

Later, that same year, Joe was arrested for gambling at the baccarat table at the Tropicana Casino Hotel in Atlantic City. He had been banned the previous September because of his alleged links to organized crime.

Sometime in 1985, John suffered a stroke which ended up giving him a limp – something that would come into play in 1992.

The early to mid-1980s had been a trying time for the Gambino brothers, but it was about to get a whole lot worse.

John, Joe, and their associates were going to be inundated with a major rat infestation – thanks in part to the brazen murder of Gambino boss Paul Castellano in December 1985 by John Gotti and his faithful servant, Sammy Gravano.

NEXT: Carlo’s Cousins: The Shadowy Sicilian Connection – Part 6 – The Rat Invasion

Coming Next Week!

The Cherry Hill Gambinos Main Page and Picture Gallery

(Previous articles in this series listed after the videos.)

Rosario Gambino is the star of his own show in 2009 accompanied by a hoarde of heavily-armed Italian police and a waiting crowd of public gawkers and media.

Rosario had served 22 years of his 45-year prison sentence stemming from his 1984 drug trafficking conviction and was then immediately placed in a detention center upon his release in 2006 in Los Angeles where he had served his term. This was in regards to his 1980 “in absentia” conviction in Italy.

In 2007, a judge refused to extradite him because there was a potential for him to face harsh prison conditions in Italy on a charge for which he had already been tried and acquitted here in the U.S. He was released.

He mistakenly decided to travel back to Italy in 2009 and was arrested after arriving at the airport (seen above). Rosario appealed the case and was released, but in October 2011, Italian officials issued another arrest warrant, and he was taken into custody while in Rome at a doctor’s appointment. In 2014, Rosario Gambino was finally acquitted of all drug charges stemming from that 1980 arrest.

Rosario gets another day in the parade spotlight in 2019. (The picture on the cover is not Rosario, but Tommaso Inzerillo.)

READ: Part 1 of The Cherry Hill Gambinos
John Gambino – Genesis

READ: Part 1A of The Cherry Hill Gambinos
John Gambino’s Network of Players

READ: Part 2 of The Cherry Hill Gambinos
Cherry Hill, Here We Come!

READ: Part 2A of The Cherry Hill Gambinos
Don Giovanni and the Banker

READ: Part 3 of The Cherry Hill Gambinos
Joe and Rosario Gambino – Soap Stars

READ: Part 4 of The Cherry Hill Gambinos
I Fought the Law and…

READ: Part 5 of The Cherry Hill Gambinos
Rosario Steps into the Ring

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