David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Crisci 'so sorry' for role in drugs case

Antonio Crisci. Photo / NZ Herald
Antonio Crisci. Photo / NZ Herald

The alleged heroin deal that led to a society restaurateur being arrested in the United States involved figures from a Mafia drug-trafficking ring.

The original court papers from 1988 set out the United States Government case against Antonio Crisci, alleging he was in a swanky hotel room with 500g of heroin while a Mafia-linked hood waited outside with $103,500.

The court record has also revealed how Crisci spent six weeks in jail after being arrested at Los Angeles Airport last June and is now banned from the United States.

Crisci, known in the US as Mario Starace, was convicted on a charge of structuring a banking transaction to avoid official scrutiny - money alleged in court to be linked to a heroin deal. Charges alleging a conspiracy to import and distribute heroin were dropped after the sentencing.

He told the judge: "I'm so sorry for what I've done to the court, to the Government but most importantly ... family. I'm sorry for the trouble I create to my family, to Vivian, my girls."

The transcript was among additional information sourced on the case from US courts, which detailed the alleged September 1987 heroin deal.

No arrest warrant was issued until 1988.

By that time, Crisci had left the United States. In 1991, he moved to New Zealand, where he has built an award-winning restaurant business. He developed Toto's and owns Non Solo Pizza in Parnell and Waiheke vineyard and restaurant Poderi Crisci.

Crisci returned to the US almost 25 years later when his travel plans were diverted by a volcanic ash cloud. A fingerprint scanner in LA revealed the outstanding arrest warrant. He was jailed, then bailed with financial help from restaurant customers All Black Andy Haden and $90 million rich-lister Kevin Harvey.

At Crisci's sentencing on the financial charge in January, his lawyer David Willingham told the US District Court for the Southern District of New York his client "truly embodies the concept of redemption".

"He truly redeemed himself from the man he was in the late 1980s."

Willingham said Crisci had lost his way after losing his life savings in a new business shortly after arriving in New York. "He was young, no one anchored him and he just completely lost his way for a moment in time of his life."

He said Crisci had never "shied away" from the financial charge stemming from a "narcotics transaction".

Willingham described Crisci as a "middleman" with a "minor role" which he turned his back on after one transaction.

Willingham said Crisci's behaviour was isolated and he "stopped himself before anyone else did".

"He left. He decided to do something different with his life. He left before charges were brought, and he sought help and ... built a wildly successful life for himself and created his own family."

He said Crisci "created a new identity for himself. There is no evidence that he flew from the country ... He simply changed his life on his own."

He said someone who lived "an honourable life" in which he sought to "atone" should be forgiven and allowed to "go home with your family".

He said Crisci had missed Christmas, his daughter's birthday and Epiphany, the day of gift-giving in Italian homes.

Willingham asked the court to "give the Starace [Crisci] girls the gift of the return of their father".

The original indictment from 1988 described the case the Department of Justice believed it had against Crisci and eight others.

The FBI-led operation was aimed at the Sicilian Mafia's grip on the world drug trade and pulled in members of the Gambino crime family.

The FBI infiltrated the operation using a "confidential informant" and an undercover FBI agent who were trusted by Mob-linked Sergio Maranghi.

The indictment from the 1980s alleged Crisci, Maranghi, Mauritian diplomat's son Nigel Soobiah and retired cop Joseph Cook, who acted as a lookout, were involved in a deal.

The indictment alleged Maranghi met the informant and agent on September 2, 1987, in Buffalo. The pair were given a sample of heroin and told half a kilogram would be available in New York City the following day.

It alleged the three flew together and were met by two co-accused at Newark Airport then made their way to Vista Hotel, the World Trade Centre's 800-room luxury accommodation.

Maranghi met Starace and one other man there and "counted approximately $103,500 for the proposed [500g] heroin transaction", the indictment alleged.

It then claimed Starace, with Joseph Cook, went to the Gramercy Park Hotel, where Maranghi waited with the undercover agent.

The money was outside the hotel in a car with the informant and one of Maranghi's men, it alleged.

The indictment claimed Maranghi, Soobiah and Starace met the undercover agent in room 606 in the boutique hotel, famous for hosting Humphrey Bogart, a young John F. Kennedy and David Bowie.

Cook stood watch outside the door, it claimed, while the agent was given "501g of approximately 74 per cent pure heroin".

Crisci pleaded guilty to a financial charge when he appeared in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York in January.

He was released to return to New Zealand after being sentenced to "time served" and ordered to pay $10,000 as the proceeds of the transaction.

Crisci told the court he was "not a drug dealer - far from it".

The FBI raid in December 1988 led to charges being filed against almost 200 people in the US and Italy.

- NZ Herald

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