‘Buster’ Ardito Hunts for Bugs
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The day of July 9, 2003, began much like many others in the life of John “Buster” Ardito, a veteran Genovese capo who had been overseeing his crime family’s rackets, which stretched from the Bronx to Connecticut, since he concluded a six-year federal prison stretch in 1991.
That day – and its aftermath – turned out to be unforgettable, however, with Ardito and his mob cronies, as well as dozens of FBI agents and NYPD detectives, scurrying around in a hunt for bugs, according to secret court documents obtained by Gang Land.
Ardito, then 83, was seated at the head of his favorite table – in the corner and across from the bar – at Agostino’s Italian Ristorante in New Rochelle, preparing to hold court with a group of his cronies. Before he could do so, he felt something under the table that didn’t belong there, hanging at the end of a strip of tape.
Fearing the worst, the usually loquacious Ardito bit his tongue. Nearby, FBI agent William Inzerillo, who was monitoring a court-authorized bug that had been taped under that table six months earlier, also feared the worst.
“I overheard Ardito and the others manipulating the tape that was wrapped around the listening device which had been installed underneath the table. This indicated to me that they had discovered the listening device and it was no longer underneath the table,” Mr. Inzerillo wrote in an affidavit describing the event.
Ardito and his cohorts hightailed it out of Agostino’s and drove to another New Rochelle eatery less than two miles away, the Marina Restaurant & Bar, where Buster also had a regular table. There, another foreign object was discovered.
As Mr. Inzerillo listened to the Marina bug, he “heard the individual who was conducting the search bump against the listening device, which was also under the table at the Marina,” he wrote, adding that Ardito and his associates “left the device underneath the table.” Then they left the restaurant.
Meanwhile, agents and detectives raced to Brunella Trattoria, also in New Rochelle, and Mario’s on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx to retrieve other bugs before the wiseguys could get to them.
During the prior six months, the bugs had picked up Ardito and several associates, including mob lawyer Peter Peluso, discussing loan-sharking, labor racketeering, fraud, extortion, and other crimes they and family leaders allegedly were involved in. Five of them – Liborio “Barney” Bellomo, Dominick “Quiet Dom” Cirillo, Ernest Muscarella, Lawrence “Little Larry” Dentico and Mario Gigante – have reputedly served as acting bosses.
The feds were still far from their goals when their devices were spotted, and they had to go back to the drawing board.
In an effort to outfox the nosy feds, Ardito changed his habits. He used “walk-talks,” a total of 16 eateries, a doctor’s office, Fiorino’s jewelry store, an auto parts store, cars, and a boat, all the while meeting with Peluso and other FBI targets, including Bellomo’s brother-in-law, Gerard Fiorino. The changes made it impractical, if not impossible, to bug his meeting places. The surveillance-conscious Ardito also refrained from discussing any criminal activity on his cell phone.
While he didn’t use his mobile phone to discuss criminal matters, he never left home without it. In fact, on July 3, 2003, only six days before Buster had begun a mad scramble for bugs, the FBI had heard him loading numbers into his cell phone so he could leave his pocket phonebook at home, Mr. Inzerillo wrote in a September 3, 2003, affidavit. As a result, the feds won court approval to place a bug on his phone, and put their derailed electronic surveillance probe back on track.
So, for the next 15 months, everywhere Buster went, he wore his own wire. The FBI’s cell phone bug picked up his conversations as he talked about murder and mayhem. The evidence ultimately enabled the feds to tag Bellomo, 49, with the 1998 murder of capo Ralph Coppola and to charge 31 others with racketeering crimes including drug dealing, weapons trafficking, and labor bribery. Fiorino, 51, is charged with extortion and money laundering; Ardito with extortion, obstruction, witness tampering, and money laundering.
Despite a recommendation by pretrial services that he be released on bail to await trial, Ardito, now 86 and suffering from heart and lung disease, was detained. An informal Gang Land survey shows that Ardito is the oldest wiseguy behind bars, although 89-year-old perennial parole violator John “Sonny” Franzese could reclaim that spot at a moment’s notice.
Prosecutors Miriam Rocah and Jonathan Kolodner successfully argued that Ardito should be detained because of his tape-recorded boasts about faithful mob service since his induction in 1958; his voiced approval for the Coppola hit, and his unequivocal remarks about killing a cooperating witness.
“The sad case,” attorney Richard Rehbock said, “is that he’s not involved in anything anymore. He used to have a piece of the Peppermint Lounge; he had a construction business. He’s just voicing his opinion about his friends and his enemies, chatting about this and that, gossiping with Pete Peluso. He shouldn’t have to go to jail for that.”
A major topic of discussion during the investigation was a long-running dispute between Ardito and several Genovese wiseguys over a table at Rao’s, the legendary East Harlem eatery where dining while rubbing elbows with wiseguys is a favored pastime of ex-cops, lawyers, politicians, and celebrities.
According to numerous convoluted conversations, the Genoveses claimed a table that had belonged to imprisoned Luchese capo Anthony “Bowat” Barratta, and Ardito steadfastly pushed Peluso to coerce and cajole Muscarella, Cirillo, and Bellomo to rule that Buster, not a slew of family pretenders, deserved use of the table every other week.
After meeting with the imprisoned Bellomo, who’s been incarcerated since 1996, Peluso reported back that Barney, who had just been hit with racketeering charges while serving a sentence for extortion, was incensed at being drawn into such a trivial matter.
“I don’t know what the hell’s going on out there. But I’ll tell you one thing, they’re all going to get pinched [if] they want to make issues and sit-downs over issues like this,” Bellomo said, according to an affidavit by Mr. Inzerillo.
Ultimately, according to the affidavits and other sources, Mario Gigante, the family’s latest acting boss – and an older brother of the late Vincent “Chin” Gigante – settled the issue by giving back the table to the Luchese family in the person of Steven Crea, who’s due out of prison in two months.
Meanwhile, Peluso, the family’s trusted mob “counselor” who delivered messages for family elders going back to Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, secretly pleaded guilty and switched sides. He is waiting to back up the government’s latest salvo from the witness stand.
This column and other news of organized crime will appear later today at www.ganglandnews.com.