Murder on the Day the Pope Came to Town

Oct 14, 2009 - by Allan May - 0 Comments

James Eppolito

James Eppolito

Few writers get to tell about mob hits made on members of their own family. One writer who had the opportunity was Detective Louie Eppolito of the New York City Police Department. On the evening of October 1, 1979, the day Pope John Paul II visited the Big Apple, James Eppolito and his son were killed in Coney Island by members of the Gambino Crime Family.

by Allan May

Organized crime murders are often treated like sports statistics. Mark McGwire hit two home runs last night. Karl Malone dropped in 30 points. Terrell Davis scored three touchdowns. Two Gambino Crime Family members shot dead. Sometimes that’s all the information you get. Maybe it’s all you want.

Few writers get to tell about mob hits made on members of their own family. One writer who had the opportunity was Detective Louie Eppolito of the New York City Police Department. On the evening of October 1, 1979, the day Pope John Paul II visited the Big Apple, James Eppolito and his son were killed in Coney Island by members of the Gambino Crime Family.

Jerry Capeci, in Murder Machine, detailed the double murder. Jimmy Eppolito was a bookmaker in Nino Gaggi’s Bath Beach/Bensonhurst crew. Eppolito, a former capo, had been personally "made" by Carlo Gambino into the crime family that bears his name. Eppolito was once an influential mobster, but under boss Paul Castellano, in the late 1970s, Eppolito’s "word and life were not worth as much."

Eppolito’s son, Jimmy, Jr., known as Jim-Jim, had recently lost several thousand dollars in a cocaine deal with members of the Roy DeMeo crew. DeMeo, and later Gaggi, accused the younger Eppolito of lying and being a police informant. To save his son, the elder Eppolito went to Castellano to reveal that DeMeo and Gaggi were involved in drug dealing, and sought permission to kill them.

Eppolito’s timing was poor. His son had created an awkward situation for the family with his involvement in a children’s charity scam that had been supported by, among others, First Lady Rosalynn Carter and Senator Edward Kennedy. When the scam was exposed on "60 Minutes," one of the photographs showed Jimmy Jr. and the wife of the president posing together. Castellano was concerned that President Carter’s embarrassment might cause him to seek retaliation on the Gambino Crime Family.

Eppolito had underestimated Gaggi’s relationship with Castellano, who sided with Gaggi and told him to resolve the matter in any manner he chose.

Gaggi and DeMeo conned another old-timer, Peter Piacenti, into approaching Eppolito and his son about having a sit down to resolve the problem. Piacenti was one of Eppolito’s oldest and closest friends. Eppolito had brought Piacenti into his crew and sponsored him for membership into the Gambino Family. Piacente arranged to accompany the Eppolitos to DeMeo’s Gemini Lounge so they would feel at ease. It was Gaggi’s plan that, once the Eppolitos were in the lounge, the father and son would be killed and dismembered.

On the evening of October 1, the five men headed toward the lounge in Jim-Jim’s 1978 Thunderbird. Gaggi sat in front with Jimmy, Jr. Piacenti sat between DeMeo and the senior Eppolito in back. During the ride, the elder Eppolito must have had a foreboding of what was to come. He told his son to stop the car so he could relieve himself. When Jim Jim urged him to wait until they reached a gas station, Eppolito screamed at his son to pull over.

The younger Eppolito pulled the automobile to a halt on the Shore Parkway near Brighton Sixth Street by a deserted high school playground in Coney Island. As the car came to a stop, Gaggi and DeMeo both pulled guns. Gaggi shot Jim Jim several times in the head. DeMeo leaned forward, reached across Piacenti, and fired into the head of Eppolito, Sr. Both died instantly.

At 4:15 the following morning, Detective Louie Eppolito received a telephone call from his wife. She had just spoken to Louie’s aunt who had been notified by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Organized Crime Squad that her husband and son had been murdered. She was trying to find Louie to confirm the news.

Louie Eppolito at the time was the New York City Police Department’s eleventh-most-decorated officer. He was twice accepted into the department’s Medal of Honor Society. In addition to the numerous awards, commendations, and plaques he had earned, were two Presidential Citations.

Louie Eppolito had been born into a mob family. His grandfather was a friend of Lucky Luciano. His father Ralph a made member of the Gambino Crime Family. Together, Ralph and Jimmy Eppolito had murdered mob turncoat John Robilotto. Louie Eppolito was well aware that at any time he could get a telephone call about his uncle or cousin. He philosophized, "that was the life they chose."

When Detective Eppolito tried to get information about the murders, he hit a brick wall. He went to James Sullivan, Brooklyn’s Chief of Detectives. Sullivan called the homicide detectives assigned to the case and they gave Sullivan and Eppolito a rundown of the murders.

Not satisfied with what he heard, Eppolito stormed out of the meeting. Sullivan stopped him and suggested he take some time off. Louie thought about it but decided, "It might be important to see the Pope on such a rotten day." Before joining the rest of the special squad, Louie went to the morgue.

In his book, "Mafia Cop," Detective Eppolito shared his thoughts and feelings about that very real part of a mob murder that seldom gets revealed:

"It was difficult, but I went over to the sheets they had spread over two bodies. I read the two toe tags. The first read ‘James Eppolito, Jr.’ When I pulled back the sheet, Jim-Jim’s head was a mess. It was nothing I hadn’t seen before in twelve years on the job. But all that blood, and Jim-Jim’s brain blasted away, it really upset me.

"Then I went to the old man. I don’t know how I managed to pull his sheet away, but I did. Uncle Jimmy’s face was just absolutely destroyed. His jaw and bottom lip were totally gone, torn off, giving him this long, buck-toothed look.

"And he had tattoos – the gunpowder marks that are left when you’re shot at close range – all over what was left of his head. I cleaned him as best I could, combing his hair and washing the blood off his face. But water kept pouring out of his eyes, like he was crying."

Detective Eppolito worked the rest of his tour of duty that day, protecting the Pope by running along side his car. You’d hardly expect less of the 11th-most-decorated police officer in New York City.

Copyright 1999 Allan May

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