In My Opinion

Two Tonys and a ‘rat’ in spotlight at Broward trial

With a Big Tony and a Little Tony on trial, a rat named Dwayne in the witness chair and a rotund stoolie called Pudgy waiting to testify, it was like the bad old days in the Broward County Courthouse last week.

Anthony “Little Tony” Ferrari, for one, was doing his best to remind Broward of its mobbed-up past, when the crime families wintered hereabouts like snowbirds, albeit snowbirds with slick suits, big caddies, nicknames and long rap sheets.

“Rat,” Little Tony Ferrari mouthed at Dwayne Nicholson during a break in the testimony last week. Nicholson, a security guard, bouncer and onetime thug debt collector (knee capper being the term of art) for Little Tony, was a key witness tying Ferrari and the other Tony, Anthony Moscatiello, to the murder conspiracy that took out Gus Boulis back in 2001.

Ferrari added an unkind scatological inference and sent defense lawyers into a tizzy. “We’re on dangerous, dangerous grounds here,” warned David Bogenschutz, demanding (futilely) a separate trial lest the larger Tony’s standing get sullied by the lesser’s deportment.

Off and on for two days, the lawyers worried over whether the word “rat” constituted a threat. As if that moment in a Fort Lauderdale courtroom might have been the first time that it occurred to Dwayne, hiding out from the mob for a dozen years now, that the two Tonys were displeased about him singing for the prosecution.

“I need Gus killed,” Nicholson testified, recalling the words of Big Tony back in 2000, when prosecutors claim the two Tonys were planning their hit. If the conversation “got out,” he said Moscatiello told him, “We’re going to deal with you.”

A few weeks later, on Feb. 6, 2001, Gus Boulis was indeed gunned down at the wheel of his BMW on a Fort Lauderdale street. It was a murder that stunned South Florida. Boulis was the founder of the Miami Subs restaurant chain, though no one thought this killing had a thing to do with sandwich shops. Boulis had been in a bitter ownership feud with a wanna-be player named Adam Kidan and Washington, D.C.,-super-sleazy super lobbyist Jack Abramoff over their attempt to buy SunCruz, his fleet of gambling boats (The two of them later plead guilty in federal court, admitting they had defrauded Boulis and deceived the U.S. Government in the $147 million deal).

Kidan, who was not charged in the Boulis killing, is another crucial witness who lays blame for the murder on the two Tonys. Then comes Little Tony’s onetime flunky, Pudgy, officially James Fiorillo, who has admitted his part in the shooting and has agreed (in return for a piddling sentence) to testify against Ferrari and Moscatiello.

But last week the show belonged to Dwayne Nicholson, who added to that certain courtroom aura with his splendid attire. On Thursday, Nicholson, pushing 275 pounds with a shaved head and no discernible neck, came to court in a black suit with a red dress shirt. For Friday, the big man wore a dazzling white suit with a matching vest.

He described his sticky dilemma back in late 2000, when the two Tonys — Moscatiello had just flown into Fort Lauderdale by Leer Jet — nominated him to “take out” Boulis, who they perceived as a threat to their lucrative deal with Kidan to provide security and other services for the SunCruz fleet. Dwayne told the jury that he didn’t mind hurting Boulis. He’d break his legs even. But he drew the line at murder.

But how to say no to the likes of Big Tony, or even Little Tony “I was f——d. If I say no, I’m a liability. So I couldn’t say no and not do it. I’m out there. I’m stuck.”

Dwayne, colorful enough to deserve his own sobriquet, said he responded by not responding at all. “I didn’t say yes. I didn’t say anything.”

So he ran a half-hearted stake-out on Boulis without ever actually locating the target. Some days, he said, he faked it and just stayed home. Or called in sick. This seemed to raise Bogenschutz’ ire; as if he wanted to signal to the jury that if you can’t trust a contract killer to put in an honest day’s surveillance, you sure as hell can’t trust him to finger the two Tonys.

Bogenschutz, one of South Florida’s pricier criminal defense lawyers, better known for defending corrupt politicians and very rich drunks (perhaps Big Tony cashed in his 401k) raised other character issues. Some of Dwayne’s previous statements didn’t quite match up. And Nicholson, with a couple felony convictions, had collected $100,000 — in cash, in a plastic bag — from Crimestoppers as his reward for tipping off cops to the Boulis conspiracy. But he admitted on the witness stand that he had neglected to report the windfall on his income taxes. The prosecution’s problem, of course, is a sad paucity of upstanding citizens in South Florida’s pool of potential hit men.

When Nicholson heard that Boulis had been killed in Fort Lauderdale, he said he turned to Crimestoppers because he didn’t trust the police. Particularly Miami Beach policemen, who he suspected were in cahoots with Ferrari. “I’ve been in Tony’s office when they come in to get their money.” Crimestoppers directed him to the Fort Lauderdale Police Department).

Prosecutors now believe that the actual shooter that night in 2001, hired after the two Tonys gave up on Dwayne, was a low-level New York mobster and ex-con named John Gurino, who was killed himself two years later as he tried to muscle a debt payment out of Boca Raton deli owner Ralph Liotta. In that shooting, Liotta was convicted and given a dozen years in prison, though his claim of self-defense looks a hell of a lot more credible since his thug “victim” was tied to the Boulis murder.

Some trial. Big Tony. Little Tony. Tony Soprano could have made it a hat trick.

But there might be something more than mobster nostalgia for state officials to ponder here, particularly as they consider opening Florida to giant destination casinos. In a state with only a fraction of the gambling cops employed by Nevada or New Jersey, the Boulis killing is a reminder that Florida’s casino regulators might need a little extra muscle of their own. Something to fend off the guys with the nicknames and hired guns.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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