'Assassin's van' suggests organized crime elements

The two dining room chairs, sawed off at the legs and mounted inside the cargo area of the van, might have passed for mere oddity at first glance. But a far more sinister picture emerged as Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies scoured the 1998 Ford E-250 after a traffic stop one night in early May in Old Metairie.

Inside the vehicle, authorities found a loaded .22-caliber rifle with a scope stashed under a carpet. An unregistered silencer had been stowed in a side compartment, and deputies discovered an 8-foot cannon fuse — a wire capable of detonating an explosive device — tucked under a sandbag behind the driver’s seat.

The van, which bore a stolen license plate, had even been retrofitted with custom sliding windows in the rear and side panels, offering concealed vantage points for a possible gunman.

Authorities were left with an inescapable conclusion: This vehicle had been outfitted to kill.

“It’s a concern for us that there was a target just because of the nature and the setup of the vehicle,” said Kevin Moran, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He said Jefferson Parish officials “definitely stopped something potentially horrific from occurring.”

Federal authorities are investigating whether the van and the rifle found in it can be linked to any shootings.

But their probe also has raised troubling questions about the two men seated in the front of the vehicle when officials pulled it over: Dominick Gullo, 72, and Joseph F. Gagliano, 55, who were both indicted last month on federal weapons charges.

The two suspects, who are being held without bail, have disavowed knowledge of the van’s contents. But at least one has ties to the Marcello organized crime family that was active in the city for decades before ostensibly fizzling out in the mid-1990s.

Gagliano, who served time in federal prison for racketeering, is the son of Frank Gagliano Sr., who was the reputed “underboss” of the organization before his 2006 death.

Gullo is not a convicted felon, however, and in fact this was his first known run-in with law enforcement.

It’s not clear whether the sniper van bears the fingerprints of old-fashioned organized crime or was simply the freelance creation of men with unknown motives. And while law enforcement officials say there are still vestiges of the Mafia, they say its influence in New Orleans has been reduced through attrition and tectonic shifts in the criminal landscape.

“To say that Italian organized crime is making a comeback here in New Orleans is a quantum leap,” said Jim Bernazzani, a former FBI agent who was head of the bureau’s New Orleans field office for three years, until 2008. “I think we have a couple of guys who may have been affiliated — associates, not ‘made members.’ ”

“The whole van thing, if in fact it was organized crime and not individual retaliation, is an anomaly,” Bernazzani added. “It’s something we haven’t seen in a long, long time.”

Mafia ties

New Orleans has a colorful history of reputed mob activity, dating back to 1890 and the assassination of the city’s police chief, David C. Hennessy. But those enterprises have diminished greatly in recent decades, giving way to drug-peddling street gangs and the likes of Central City crime lord Telly Hankton, perhaps the most notorious criminal of his generation.

“It’s no longer the overriding, omnipresent, powerful, tightly organized criminal operation that it was 50 years ago,” Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, said of local crime families. “But there are some remnants of it, and this (van) may be a manifestation of the remnants.”

John Selleck, a local FBI agent, said the bureau still receives “allegations about La Cosa Nostra here in the Greater New Orleans area” from time to time, referring to the American Mafia organization. “We don’t dismiss that information,” he said, “and we look at it thoroughly against what our other threat priorities are.”

Moran said he believes the Mafia still has a local presence. “It may have gone underground a little bit,” he said, “and I think, in today’s culture, there are a lot more different criminal elements out there.”

Joseph Gagliano’s ties to organized crime are well documented. In 1995, Joseph Gagliano, his father, who was known as “Fat Frank,” and several others — including Anthony Carollo, considered the boss of the organization at the time — pleaded guilty to racketeering in a conspiracy that defrauded Bally Gaming, a supplier of video poker machines, using companies federal prosecutors said were Mafia fronts.

Joseph Gagliano, who was 36 at the time, was sentenced to 3½ years in federal prison for his role in the scheme, which involved a partnership among the Gambino and Genovese crime families of New York and the Marcello family of New Orleans to infiltrate Louisiana’s then-nascent video poker industry.

That sentence ran concurrently with a 2½-year prison term Joseph Gagliano received for his role in a card-marking scandal that swindled more than half a million dollars from a casino in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Joseph Gagliano and his associates had been on the radar of federal prosecutors even before they were charged in the video poker case, having been the targets of an federal inquiry into illegal gambling in 1989. In the sprawling video poker prosecution, more than two dozen people were convicted in a scheme to distribute poker machines and skim profits from Bally Gaming, the supplier.

Operation Hardcrust

In building their case, federal agents bugged Frank’s Restaurant in the French Quarter — a deli owned at the time by Joseph Gagliano’s father and now run by his brother, Frank Gagliano Jr. — in a probe that came to be known as Operation Hardcrust after investigators complained about the staleness of the French bread at the eatery. Through hidden cameras and tapped phones, authorities enjoyed what then-federal prosecutor Jim Letten described as a “window into the internal resurgence of a previously dormant organized-crime family.”

The video poker racket marked a renaissance of sorts for the Marcello family, whose influence had increasingly come into question in the years after Carlos Marcello, the reputed New Orleans mob boss, went to prison in an earlier racketeering case. Marcello, who was eventually released after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out his conviction, died in 1993 at the age of 83.

Bernazzani, who said much of the New Orleans Mafia had been eliminated before his tenure, noted the lasting impact of sweeping racketeering cases, which he said served to decimate the ranks of Italian crime families around the country.

“Through attrition, we kept picking off the upper echelon, and everybody who came in to take their place had lesser and lesser sophistication and made more and more mistakes,” he said. “A lot of these offspring saw their uncles and fathers and grandfathers die in prison, and they decided to open restaurants.”

Even as its power has faded, the legacy of the Marcello crime family has endured. As recently as 2012, the Louisiana Gaming Control Board denied an application for a video gaming license for Frank’s Restaurant, calling the business “the site of illegal gaming activity” and referring to co-owner Frank Gagliano Jr.’s 1997 conviction in an illegal bookmaking scheme. “Mr. Gagliano’s brother and father, Frank Gagliano Sr., were reportedly members of New Orleans organized crime,” the board’s order said.

Outstanding debt

When Joseph Gagliano left federal prison in 1999, he did so with substantial debt. As part of his plea agreement, he had been ordered to pay $250,000 in restitution to Bally Gaming, the company he and his co-conspirators defrauded.

It’s unclear what type of work he’s been engaged in since his release. Neither his wife, Hetty Gagliano, nor his brother, Frank Gagliano Jr., responded to requests for comment.

Public records list Joseph Gagliano as the director or registered agent of several companies, most of which appear to be related to grocery distribution and gaming. He has paid back $4,000 of his debt, and in 2013, prosecutors attempted to garnish the wages of his wife from her job as an instructor at Delgado Community College.

According to court records, Hetty Gagliano was being paid slightly less than $1,300 on a biweekly basis, after the deduction of taxes.

Hetty Gagliano owns the house where the couple live in the 1000 block of Sena Drive in Metairie, according to the Jefferson Parish Assessor’s Office. The imposing, multistory brick residence has a neatly trimmed yard, a two-car garage and an assessed value of $495,000.

A neighbor described the couple as quiet but said news of Joseph Gagliano’s recent arrest, first reported this month by WVUE-TV, had rippled through the block. “They pretty much stuck to themselves,” said the neighbor, who declined to give his name. “I guess maybe they had a reason.”

About 1½ miles away, in the 200 block of East William David Parkway, a man who lived near Gullo said he’d seen him only a handful of times. “He always seemed like a nice guy,” said the man, who also would not give his name. “At least until we heard that he was trying to kill people.”

It’s unclear exactly how long Gullo, who previously lived in Las Vegas and Chicago, had lived at the home, though the neighbor estimated about two years. Patricia Guggenheimer, who owns the house but apparently lives in St. Tammany Parish, declined to answer questions about how she knew Gullo. “I’m not going to talk about that,” she said before hanging up.

Arousing suspicion

Authorities were alerted to the retrofitted van’s stolen license plate on May 7 by an automatic license-plate reader. A Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputy followed the vehicle down East William David Parkway and turned on his flashing lights about 11 p.m. Gullo, who was driving the vehicle, pulled into his driveway.

After running a search of the van’s vehicle identification number, Deputy Lamar Hooks learned it was registered to South Coast Gas Co., a business based in Raceland. Michael St. Romain, the company’s vice president, said the van had been traded in to Terrebonne Ford about two years ago, adding that the company previously used the van as a service vehicle.

The license plate affixed to the van had been swiped Feb. 4 from a woman’s car in the parking lot of an unidentified hospital, according to a Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office report.

It wasn’t until the deputy prepared the vehicle to be towed from Gullo’s home, however, that he discovered its startling contents, including the rifle, silencer and cannon fuse.

Gullo claimed he had purchased the van earlier in the day at CC’s Coffee Shop in the 800 block of Metairie Road, according to the report. He said a woman had entered the business inquiring whether anyone wanted to buy the vehicle for $300. Gullo told Hooks he took the woman up on the deal, adding that the woman promised to meet him the next day to provide more documents.

Gullo and Gagliano denied having any knowledge of the van’s contents, according to the report, but investigators remain skeptical.

“The sophistication and the preparation that goes into preparing a vehicle like this would lead a logical person to the conclusion that there’s maybe more to this than they just happened to be driving around in a van,” said Selleck, the FBI agent, alluding to the custom windows and mounted dining room chairs.

Deputies arrested Gullo on one count of possession of stolen property and booked him into the Jefferson Parish Correctional Facility, where he later posted bail. Gagliano was not detained at that time.

A month later, a federal grand jury indicted both men. Gagliano was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and also with possession of the unregistered silencer. Under federal firearm regulations, silencers are “treated the same as a fully automatic machine gun, a sawed-off shotgun, a short-barreled rifle and other destructive devices,” said Moran, the ATF spokesman.

Gullo was charged only with possession of the silencer, though law enforcement officials said their investigation continues.

“This isn’t just a trip back from buying some ammunition or running to the grocery store,” said Goyeneche, of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. “This is something very, very ominous and sinister.”

Follow Dan Lawton on Twitter, @Dlawton and Jim Mustian @JimMustian.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Aug. 8 to correct the length of the cannon fuse authorities found inside the van.