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Stranger Than Scorsese: Feds Bust Massive Trans-Atlantic Mob Ring

<p>Court papers read like the screenplay of a Martin Scorcese mob movie, with details of a plot to smuggle cocaine in shipments of frozen fish.</p>
Image: Franco Lupoi, is escorted by FBI agents from their Manhattan offices in New York
Gambino family associate Franco Lupoi is escorted by FBI agents after Tuesday's takedown.BRENDAN MCDERMID / Reuters

A two-year probe that stretched from the streets of Brooklyn to an Italian peninsula has uncovered an alliance between a Gambino family man and the vicious 'Ndrangheta organization to shuttle massive amounts of heroin, cocaine and weapons across the Atlantic, officials said.

Twenty-four people in the United States and Italy were arrested in coordinated sweeps after a risky operation that used wiretaps and undercover agents to penetrate the heart of the network, authorities said.

The court papers read like the screenplay of a Martin Scorsese mob movie, with details of a plot to smuggle cocaine in shipments of frozen fish, a sitdown at a Manhattan donut shop, and the sale of a handgun and silencer at a Brooklyn bakery.

In a particularly cinematic passage, one defendant caught on tape talks about his devotion to Saint Michael the Archangel and exhorts a confederate to wear a special ring as a sign of his allegiance.

The "linchpin" of the New York City end of the operation — which aimed to sell cocaine to Italy and heroin to the U.S. — was Franco Lupoi, 44, according to Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch.

"He is the bridge that connects this operation," she said.

Part-owner of the Royal Crown Bakery in Bensonhurst, Lupoi allegedly has close ties to Frank Cali, the reputed underboss of the Gambino crime family, the underworld syndicate once run by "Dapper Don" John Gotti.

FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge George Venizelos said it was unclear if Lupoi's activities were sanctioned by the Gambino hierarchy but noted, "historically, it's a big risk to go on your own like that."

Lupoi is also connected by blood and marriage to two key members of the Ursino clan of 'Ndrangheta, the ruthless Mafia organization based in the Calabria region of southern Italy, prosecutors said.

His father-in-law, Nicola Simonetta, bragged that he had a contact at the port of Gioia Tauro in Calabria who would guarantee safe passage to the illegal shipments, court papers said.

At a Sept. 12, 2012, meeting, Lupoi outlined an ambitious plan to an undercover agent who infiltrated the crew: He had contacts in Guyana who would ship cocaine to Italy, and then possibly onto Canada, by hiding it in frozen food.

"They put a hundred grams, two hundred grams in each fish," Lupoi said, according to prosecutors. "It takes a day to defrost and then it takes a day to take out."

Asked whether he was worried that he would not get paid if he was using middlemen, Lupoi expressed confidence. "We're dealing with the Italian mob," he allegedly replied.

His Italian connections took control of a fish wholesaler to accept the coke-stuffed fish, but the plan hit a snag when the Guyanese shipping firm had some of its drug-filled containers seized in an unrelated bust, prosecutors alleged.

Image: Bonanno family associate Charles Centaro   is escorted by FBI agents from their Manhattan offices in New York
Bonanno family associate Charles "Charlie Pepsi" Centaro is escorted by FBI agents from their Manhattan offices in New York.BRENDAN MCDERMID / Reuters

Meanwhile, Lupoi was cutting a deal to sell heroin for U.S. distribution, and the undercover agent ultimately bought more than 2 kilos of the drug from Lupoi's contacts, court papers say. The agent also bought six pounds of marijuana that Lupoi allegedly said came from a Canadian connection.

'Ndrangheta's man in New York was Raffaele Valente who said on wiretaps that he had a well-armed crew at the ready.

"It's like Fort Knox!" he said of their base, prosecutors wrote. "There are things over the windows ... like, if you pull the cords, the shots come!"

He was the fan of the archangel, telling a defendant back in Italy, "Do you know how lovely the statues of Saint Michael are? With the devil under his feet ... so nice."

Just three weeks ago, Valente allegedly sold the FBI agent a handgun and silencer at a meeting brokered by Lupoi at his bakery, the feds said in a letter to the court asking for the suspects to be detained.

Italian police rounded up 17 accused conspirators. Seven people — including reputed Bonnano crime family associate Charles "Charlie Pepsi" Centaro — were arrested in the United States on charges that include money laundering.

Authorities said the takedown exposed the efforts of the 'Ndrangheta — recently implicated in the shocking murder of a 3-year-old in Italy — to gain a foothold in the United States.

"What we see in organized crime ... is an increased forcus on spanning the contintent," Lynch said. "Transactions as well as influence that crosses oceans."

Image: The New Bridge
Prosecutor William Nardini (second from the right) is flanked by Italian and U.S. authorities during a press conference on an anti-Mafia operation.FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP - Getty Images