By ALAN FEUER
Beneath the murders, the mobsters, the gamblers, the strippers, the tax cheats, diamond smugglers, thieves, hoods, cops, cons, corpses, crooks and marijuana dealers, there is — at the core — a book.
It is the 251-page memoir "Mafia Cop," and it sits at the center of the most macabre and bizarre racketeering trial to unfold in years. Its author, Louis J. Eppolito, a retired New York detective, is the chief defendant in the case, a transcontinental drama in which he stands accused, along with his former partner, Stephen Caracappa, of committing drug crimes in Las Vegas after taking part in at least eight Brooklyn murders for the mob.
Rarely since 1912, when Lt. Charles Becker was tried for the killing of a two-bit gambler named Beansie Rosenthal, have there been such shocking allegations against New York City police officers. And yet despite the grisly charges ("eight bodies," as the police would say), the current case has delved into the absurd.
Last April, a month after Mr. Eppolito, 57, and Mr. Caracappa, 64, were arrested in Las Vegas (at a restaurant where Jerry Lewis often celebrates his birthday), Variety was already reporting that three film studios were vying for the rights to "Mafia Cop." And that did not include what Variety called the "fictional drama" that Irwin Winkler (producer of "Rocky") and Nicholas Pileggi (screenwriter of "Goodfellas") were doing on their own.
Once the trial began, the chief witness in its Brooklyn phase was revealed to be an old, arthritic marijuana dealer with a talent for "diversionary driving" and subsidiary interests in African diamonds and stolen leisure suits. The chief witness in the trial's Las Vegas phase was a disgraced, pomaded C.P.A. with a taste for gambling and bruschetta. He moved through the city surreptitiously recording members of its underworld — a sort of Studs Terkel of Las Vegas crime.
Both men testified that Mr. Eppolito gave them signed copies of "Mafia Cop," which has been mentioned at the trial almost every day. It contains the germ of the government's dispute with its author — his claim that he broke with the mobsters in his past. It contains the seeds of his defense — that he is not a killer but a writer, a man who "makes things up, creates," as his lawyer said.
The book, co-written with Bob Drury, is the autobiographical account of Mr. Eppolito's journey through the Police Department as the son of a gangster aligned with Brooklyn's Gambino crime family. Rich in anecdote and salty dialogue, it seeks to portray its author as a conflicted but ultimately dedicated Kings County lawman.
As such, it reflects the comparatively minor role that has been played so far by Mr. Caracappa, who, like pepper, always gets second billing. It has even lent its title to the tabloids, which inevitably refer in headlines to the "Mafia Cops" case.
In Chapter 13, Mr. Eppolito tells of being a cadet at the Police Academy, where an instructor in his homicide class has just hung up "a chart full of mug shots signifying the Gambino crime family tree."
A classmate, he relates, says: " 'Look, Lou, this guy has the same last name as you.' His mouth dropped open when I told him that he was pointing to my old man."
It was passages like this that led Library Journal, in its review of "Mafia Cop" (Simon & Schuster, 1992), to proclaim that the book "bristled with street language," though if Mr. Eppolito's writing bears a whiff of Old World Brooklyn, his trial, on the fourth floor of the federal court in Brooklyn Heights, contains the full range of the borough's underworld sights and smells.
The events discussed at trial are exceptionally convoluted, but include murders on the grass berm of the Belt Parkway, diamond dealers buried under seven feet of concrete and kidnapped mobsters kicking in the trunks of unmarked cars.
Beneath the facts, however, lies an urban universe of glottal accents and working-class grammar that may be getting as old as the marijuana dealer, Burton Kaplan, 72, who, in testimony, said that he should have "stood" in school.
This milieu — south of Eastern Parkway — was captured by Bruce Cutler, Mr. Eppolito's lawyer, a self-described "anachronism" who engaged in a verbal smoker with a gangland boss and witness who accused him from the stand of wearing "long collars" in the old style and of never picking up the tab when he dined with his "crew" of Mafiosi.
It was captured by Pauline Pipitone, the mother of an innocent man shot to death one Christmas Day, who testified to reaching out for her dead boy's hand and finding that his "fingertips were cold."
It was captured by Betty Hydell, a white-haired housewife and mother of a mobster, who told the jury how she "made the block" in her car, Ma Barker-style, when a pair of officers, resembling the two defendants, drove past her home.
But perhaps it was captured best of all by Mr. Kaplan, who after learning that his patron in the mob had "gone bad" and decided to work with the authorities, climbed from the bath, packed a bag, kissed his wife and, at the age of 61, went "on the lam," moving from San Diego, to Mexico, to Oregon and, finally, to Las Vegas, where, like Jerry Lewis, Mr. Eppolito and Mr. Caracappa had moved when they retired.
There, they had the bad luck to befriend the disgraced accountant, Steven Corso, who was paying penance to the government — for having stolen $5.4 million from his clients — by systematically recording more than 1,200 hours with various mobsters and exotic dancers, using what he called his "device."
He recorded the defendants, too, at their homes and at lavish three-hour dinners at restaurants like Il Mulino in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. In February 2005, he said, he caught them agreeing to arrange a drug deal for some "Hollywood punks" who were coming to town and whom Mr. Eppolito — by then, writing scripts in his garage — wanted to impress.
The detective had always had a touch of the poet. Twelve years after "Mafia Cop" was consigned to the remainder bin, he was scouring the West for money to produce a script he had written, "Murder in Youngstown" — or as he referred to it, on Mr. Corso's tapes: "Youngstown."
The tapes in fact portray him as a classic Hollywood type: the unsuccessful writer who talks a good game. They are filled with semi-knowledgeable references to "second-unit directing" and monologues about why Jews are better at making movies than Italians. They have also been used by the defense to suggest that Mr. Eppolito was, in Mr. Cutler's words, "no gangster, no associate, no wannabe," but "a retired detective who turned his back on that life and knows how to write."
Beyond the struggling-writer defense, Mr. Cutler — who apparently has never met an insult, or a synonym, he didn't like — has reviled the witnesses as "reprobates," "lowlifes," "louts" and cowards who "wet their pants." Edward Hayes, Mr. Caracappa's lawyer, has also sought to impeach their credibility, though at a much less fevered pitch.
The dark horse in the trial is the statute of limitations, which Federal District Judge Jack B. Weinstein said on Thursday was "coming to a head." It is five years in a conspiracy case, which means the jury will have to decide if the two defendants were engaged in a single continuing enterprise that stretched from murder in the 1980's to a drug deal just last year.
Meanwhile, "Mafia Cop" has been reissued by Pocket Star with a cover line that reads, "The book by the ex-N.Y.P.D. detective whose recent arrest for multiple counts of murder made national headlines."
Not that Mr. Eppolito cares.
"I don't get residuals," he said on Thursday. "I don't get anything from that book."