August 5, 2020

Case building against Ranieri

By Gary Craig

(Dec. 29, 2001) -- Federal authorities are trying to build a case that Albert M. Ranieri, who was arrested a year ago on drug charges along with prominent defense lawyer Anthony Leonardo Jr., violated federal anti-racketeering laws.

Ranieri currently is charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine. But his attorney, Michael Tallon, expects another federal indictment against his client in the coming months.

Federal authorities are considering Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, or RICO, charges against Ranieri, according to assistant U.S. attorneys Bradley Tyler and Charles Wydysh. With a RICO case, authorities would have to show that Ranieri was part of a "criminal enterprise" or conspired to be part of one.

Anti-racketeering laws would allow authorities to try to connect Ranieri to crimes they suspect he committed, including a 1990 armored car robbery of nearly $11 million.

A year ago today, Ranieri and Leonardo were charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine in an arrest that shocked the local legal community because of Leonardo’s professional stature. Leonardo has pleaded guilty to federal money-laundering and drug charges, as well as to a state charge of conspiracy to commit the murder of a business partner, who was slain in May 2000.

Two other men, brothers from Buffalo, also have pleaded guilty to charges connected to the allegations of cocaine peddling.

Tallon said he expects a superseding indictment against Ranieri in the spring, if not before.

"We’re prepared to defend this case fully and vigorously at a trial," Tallon said.

The RICO Act was created by Congress in 1970 in large part to crack organized crime.

"Its use has been expanded," said former U.S. Attorney Denise O’Donnell. "It really allows the government to pursue a criminal enterprise and to essentially address a kind of a wide variety of criminal activity that takes place over a long period of time."

Prosecutors would have to establish a pattern of criminal activity to prove a RICO case against Ranieri. A pattern can consist of only two criminal acts.

A RICO violation carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. There can be a penalty of life in prison, however, if that is the penalty for one of the crimes considered part of the pattern.

Prosecutors would likely consider several allegations to see whether they have proof to build a RICO case against Ranieri, who is imprisoned awaiting trial. Among those could be:

The cocaine trafficking allegations. Ranieri and Leonardo were caught on undercover videotapes with a government informant discussing what prosecutors say was a plan to distribute cocaine across western New York. The 1990 armored car heist. Ranieri, the driver of the Armored Motor Services of America vehicle, has been a leading suspect in the case. He and his father, Albert B. Ranieri Jr., were arrested once in 1992 on charges connected to the robbery, but authorities dropped the charges hours after the arrest when it became apparent they had built their case on allegations from an unreliable informant. Separate allegations connected to the robbery, such as possession of stolen cash or tax evasion charges, also could be part of a RICO indictment. The May 2000 slaying of Anthony Vaccaro, who was shot execution-style in Greece. Vaccaro, a business partner of Leonardo in a Charlotte nightclub, was a target of a multistate gambling probe when he was killed. Leonardo claimed in his plea deal that he and Ranieri plotted to kill Vaccaro in the weeks before the homicide. Money laundering. In one undercover videotape, prosecutors say, Leonardo maintains that he laundered money from an $11 million robbery in 1990. On the tape, according to authorities, Leonardo says that he received hundreds of thousands of dollars from "the kid" to launder.

Prosecutors suspect Leonardo is speaking of the AMSA robbery and that "the kid" is Ranieri. Leonardo represented Ranieri’s father when he was accused of involvement in the AMSA robbery.

Tallon said he also expects a RICO indictment built on allegations from "people whose credibility is at question."

The indictment will probably include claims of Ranieri’s involvement in the Vaccaro homicide, Tallon said. "We deny involvement in that unequivocally," he said.

If prosecutors pursue anti-racketeering charges against Ranieri, they would have to show that the criminal enterprise extended beyond him. In his plea deal, Leonardo said he plotted with Ranieri and one or more others to kill Vaccaro. Authorities have not identified other possible conspirators.

In the early 1990s, Ranieri was under intense scrutiny as a suspect in the AMSA robbery. The FBI once tailed him so closely they rear-ended his car.

"Clearly his being a leading suspect in AMSA has been a thorn in the paw of the FBI, and I think that’s part of the motivation here (with the ongoing investigation of Ranieri)," Tallon said. "I think there is an institutional bias . . . that colors the judgment (of authorities)."

Though the statute of limitations on the AMSA robbery itself has expired, it could be identified by prosecutors as the genesis of any alleged criminal enterprise. Court papers show that authorities suspect Ranieri has been involved in illegal money-laundering to get rid of cash from the robbery.

Prosecutors have tremendous leeway in establishing a pattern of criminal activity, said Jeffrey Grell, a Minneapolis lawyer who specializes in RICO legal work.

"In a criminal prosecution, there’s no limit as to how far back you can go to show part of a pattern," Grell said.

At the same time, he said, an extensive gap of time between alleged criminal acts gives the defense ammunition to claim there is no pattern.

What’s crucial for conviction, Grell said, is that prosecutors show solid evidence of the individual criminal acts and convince a jury that the criminal enterprise would have continued to thrive without a suspect’s arrest. "RICO is like proving a crime within a crime," Grell said.