At about 8 p.m. on the night of Jan. 21, 1986, two undercover detectives assigned to the NYPD Organized Crime Control Bureau were hot on the trail of a reputed mobster operating an illegal gaming parlor in Ridgewood.
Detectives Anthony J. Venditti and Karen Burke were staking out Federico (aka Fritzy) Giovanelli as part of an ongoing investigation into mob activities in the area. It was part of the NYPD’s ongoing war on organized crime, a routine operation that the bureau’s detectives use to gather important information on mafia operations.
What happened that night, however, was anything but routine — and ended with a murder that shocked the entire city.
The two detectives trailed Giovanelli to a location in the area of Myrtle and St. Nicholas avenues. Venditti then walked into what was then Castillo’s Diner and back out moments later.
Upon exiting the restaurant, he was confronted by Giovanelli and two associates, who shoved him against a wall. Burke saw this, exited her vehicle and went to his aid while letting out a warning.
But seconds later, the suspects pulled out guns and opened fire at the two detectives. Venditti was hit four times — twice in the head, and twice in the back — while Burke was shot in the chest. The crew then fled the scene.
Burke was critically injured but managed to recover, but Venditti could not be saved.
It was a tragic end to what former Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly described in 2011 was “a stellar career in the Police Department.” Venditti earned 17 departmental commendations in just 14 years on duty. In death, Venditti would earn another distinction: the NYPD Medal of Honor, the highest award given to an officer, which was presented posthumously.
The people of Ridgewood wouldn’t forget Venditti. They would rename the intersection of Myrtle and St. Nicholas avenues as Detective Anthony J. Venditti Square, which would become one of the neighborhood’s most notable points of interest. The plaza was first opened in 1989, and then rededicated in 2011, 25 years after the detective’s death. Many of Venditti’s family members joined Police Commissioner Kelly, numerous high-ranking NYPD officials local elected officials and other dignitaries in attending the rededication ceremony.
As for Giovanelli and the suspects who allegedly gunned down the detective that fateful evening in 1986, police would catch up to them quickly. Giovanelli, along with Steven Maltese and Carmine Gualtiere, were arrested shortly after the shooting — but bringing justice to them would not be easy.
The first trial against the three men ended with a hung jury; in fact, one of the jurors was later charged with and convicted of perjury for lying when questioned under oath that a member of his family hadn’t been arrested or participated in a criminal proceeding.
The second trial also ended in controversy and fury, as the front page story on the April 28, 1988, cover of the Ridgewood Times detailed.
Gualtiere was acquitted of the charges against him on April 20, but two days later jurors considering the charges against Giovanelli and Maltese told presiding Judge John Gallagher that they were “hopelessly deadlocked.”
After Gallagher declared a mistrial, “the courtroom exploded,” according to the Ridgewood Times report.
“Ann Venditti, the dead officer’s mother, leaped to her feet, screaming in Italian at Giovanelli, ‘Son of a whore!’ Giovanelli, turning red, shouted back as attorneys tried to calm him.
“The detective’s widow, Patricia Venditti, stood and asked Maltese, ‘Why did you kill him?’ but Maltese remained seated and refused to speak.
“The jury was reportedly deadlocked 8 to 4 for acquittal of both defendants on murder and gun charges, and 7 to 5 for acquittal of Giovanelli on an aggravated assault count.”
The Times report went on to note that a key turning point in the trial occurred when a witness to the shooting recanted statements he had made to police that he witnessed Gualtiere shoot Venditti in the head. The witness further claimed that police pressured him into picking Gualtiere from a lineup; prosecutors charged that the witness had been intimidated into changing his testimony.
Two weeks later, the Ridgewood Times reported that then-Queens District Attorney John Santucci announced his intention to re-try Giovanelli and Maltese for Venditti’s murder. His decision came after meeting with the slain detective’s family.
As it happened, Giovanelli and Maltese would ultimately be acquitted of the charges in the third Venditti trial. But both men would wind up in prison anyway, as they were later convicted of federal racketeering charges.
Even though justice was never fully served to the detective’s killers, the people of Ridgewood keep his memory alive at the plaza named in his honor. It stands as a tribute to a good cop who died doing the job that he loved, in dedication to the safety and security of every New Yorker.
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