By Brian Lockhart
Walking by the stacks of wrecked Chevys, Fords, Pontiacs and other cars in the Willets Point scrap metal yards near Shea Stadium, the last thing one would expect to stumble upon would be city Police Commissioner Howard Safir promoting four policemen.
That, however, was the scene Tuesday as reporters gathered at Stadium Scrap, a mock business at 126-49 35th Ave. whose four employees – all undercover city cops – were hailed for pulling off a months-long sting leading to the arrest of an alleged Gambino family member and the dismantling of his auto salvage ring.
“They worked in the hot and the cold and operated this business as if it was real,” said Safir as he promoted Detectives Michael Dorto and James Halley to detective 2nd grade and police officers Joseph Wedge and Nicholas Ferraro to detective.
“It also required them to place their lives at great risk,” Safir said.
It was the combined efforts of the four undercover cops that led to the arrests of Carmine Agnello of Old Westbury, L.I. – the son-in-law of mob boss John Gotti, Mark Lomonaco and Joseph Burger of Woodhaven and Steven Scala of Maspeth on a variety of charges. Their indictments were announced by Queens District Attorney Richard Brown at a news conference just prior to Tuesday's promotion ceremony.
Individually the four defendants face up to 25 years in prison.
Brown said Agnello in particular was “one of the most elusive figures in organized crime” who had a long record of arrests for auto crimes and police assaults but had served no time.
Brown said the sting began last April when his office and the NYPD, with funding from the state and All-State Insurance, established Stadium Scrap as a business for crushing salvaged cars and reselling them to a nearby legitimate scrap metal processor. The business was open Monday through Friday and also dealt with several legitimate clients, but video and audio surveillance equipment was set up throughout the site for the sting.
The two officers and two detectives working there had come from the NYPD's Auto Crimes Department, where they said they had acquired their knowledge about their new jobs in scrap metal.
A month after Stadium opened for business, Agnello, who owns a majority interest in the Bronx-based New York Shredding Corp and the Willets Point-based New York Scrap Inc., allegedly approached the undercover cops along with the other three defendants, Brown said.
The DA alleged that New York Scrap Inc. handles 80 percent of the Willets Point crushing business and that the defendants told Stadium's staff they did not want competition.
Brown alleged the four defendants told the undercover cops to sell them their crushed vehicles for shredding or risk being “run out of business.”
When the undercover cops refused, Brown said the defendants allegedly broke into Stadium's property and firebombed its office trailer and flatbed truck on more than one occasion in June.
Brown said Stadium finally agreed to do business with Agnello and the four cops continued gathering evidence on his operation until just a few weeks ago.
“The purpose of this thuggery and violence,” said Brown, “was to control both the price paid to salvage yards for vehicles and the price paid by New York Shredding for the crushed scrap so that the defendants' profits would be inflated.”
Brown said Agnello of 6 Birch Court in Old Westbury, Lomonaco of 78-02 95th Ave. in Woodhaven, Burger of 94-10 134th Ave. in Woodhaven, and Scala of 77-02 79th Place in Maspeth were charged with enterprise corruption under the state's Organized Crime Control Act.
The DA said the four are also charged with restraint of trade, first- degree coercion, fourth-degree conspiracy, second-degree grand larceny and third-degree arson and attempted arson.
Brown's Civil Enforcement Bureau has also begun civil forfeiture proceedings in State Supreme Court to seize almost $9 million of the defendants' assets, including the New York Shredding Corporation.
In addition to the four major arrests, Brown said the sting operation led to 47 separate arrests of individuals for auto-related crimes including insurance fraud, criminal possession of stolen property and illegal possession of vehicle identification numbers.
Each of those defendants faces up to four years in prison, he said.
Safir called the Stadium operation a “massive and devastating blow” to organized crime and Brown said its success was “yet another nail in the coffin of the auto parts theft and stolen parts industry in New York.”
Asked how the sting might directly affect the Gambino family, Brown said: “I think this is certainly going to impact on a stream of revenue they've been capitalizing on.”
During Tuesday's news conference, the four undercover officers said they would miss the scrap yard work and the excitement of the sting.
Asked if they ever had any doubts that they could pull it off, Detective Wedge said no.
“It was a good scam,” he said. “We made it work.”