In new court documents, the lawyer for Anthony Comello says he became obsessed by far-right QAnon conspiracy theories.
As his pickup truck roared toward the Todt Hill section of Staten Island, Anthony Comello had no intention of killing a mob boss.
He wanted only to arrest him, his lawyer said in new court documents.
The details of what happened next are well known. Comello, 24, arrived at the home of Francesco "Franky Boy" Cali, a leader in the Gambino crime family, and lured him outside. The men spoke briefly. Then prosecutors say Comello pulled a gun from his car and shot Cali, leaving him to die in the street.
Comello, an aimless young man who lived with his parents on Staten Island, was arrested three days later and charged with murder.
But court documents filed Friday offered a glimpse into the deeply troubled mind of Comello, who his defence lawyer says was so deluded by internet conspiracy theories that he was determined to conduct a citizen's arrest of Cali and turn the Mafia leader over to the military.
"He ardently believed that Francesco Cali, a boss in the Gambino crime family, was a prominent member of the deep state, and, accordingly, an appropriate target for a citizen's arrest," wrote Comello's lawyer, Robert C. Gottlieb.
At times, the circumstances of Cali's demise have seemed so outlandish that they appeared specially designed for these viral times. But a clearer picture is emerging of how the tale's incongruous pieces — a mob boss, a drifter from Staten Island and a far-right conspiracy theory — may fit together.
Cali's murder was the highest-profile mob killing in decades, an event so significant that in the days between Cali's death and Comello's arrest, speculation surged that a new war was brewing among New York's five Mafia families.
The reality, according to his lawyer, appears to be even more bizarre: Comello had become convinced that Cali was part of the deep state, a cabal of criminals that conspiracy theorists claim controls the U.S. government. Comello also believed he was a chosen vigilante of President Donald Trump.
"Mr. Comello became certain that he was enjoying the protection of President Trump himself, and that he had the president's full support," Gottlieb wrote.
That delusion will be part of a package of evidence that Gottlieb says he plans to submit to the court that prove Comello is not guilty by reason of mental defect. Gottlieb is seeking to have the court place Comello in psychiatric treatment, rather than prosecute him on murder charges. Comello is being held in protective custody as he awaits trial.
Prosecutors in the Staten Island district attorney's office declined to comment.
Comello took handcuffs with him to Todt Hill on March 13, Gottlieb said, but his plan was foiled when Cali refused to submit to a citizen's arrest. Instead, Gottlieb said, the Gambino leader reached toward his waistband. Fearing for his life, Comello shot Cali 10 times and fled, Gottlieb said.
QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory that originated on internet message boards, played a key role in Comello's descent into mental instability, his lawyer said. It claims, among other things, that America is controlled by a "deep state," that prominent Democratic politicians are paedophiles and that John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in a 1999 plane crash, is secretly alive and will run for president in 2020.
At Comello's first court appearance in March, he displayed symbols and phrases associated with QAnon scrawled on his hand in pen. He first discovered the conspiracy theory, Gottlieb said, in the weeks after Trump's 2016 election.
"Mr. Comello's support for 'QAnon' went beyond mere participation in a radical political organization," Gottlieb wrote. "It evolved into a delusional obsession."
Driven by that obsession, Gottlieb said, Comello began early this year to attempt citizen's arrests of people he believed to be associated with the deep state. In February, Comello twice tried to conduct his own arrest of Mayor Bill de Blasio, including one instance in which he showed up at Gracie Mansion, the mayoral home in Manhattan.
Not long after that incident, Comello sought the help of U.S. marshals at U.S. District Court in Manhattan, and asked that they help him to arrest two California Democrats, Reps. Maxine Waters and Adam Schiff, both of whom he believed were in the vicinity. He was rebuffed.
Both incidents were confirmed by law enforcement officials.
He was also posting and sharing conspiracy theories online that are associated with the far-right, and was engaging with other QAnon believers on the internet, according to social media accounts linked to Comello from around the same time.
Gottlieb identified one of Comello's accounts, RealAmericasVoice_ on Instagram, in his filing. The page has dozens of memes and written screeds, some that are difficult to decipher, including several posted days before Cali's death.
One post accuses Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., of being a fascist. "Patriot sleeper cells are awake," he wrote in another. Yet another refers to Bill and Hillary Clinton as "The Clinton Crime Family."
How Comello came to associate Cali or the Gambino crime family with such theories remains unclear. Typically, the conspiracy group targets Democratic political figures, not the Mafia.
But Gottlieb said he believed Comello had encountered posts online that suggested Mafia figures like Cali were also connected to the deep state.
Gottlieb said Saturday that he was sifting through "thousands and thousands" of messages, posts and forums that he said Comello might have engaged with.
The defense lawyer is also asking a judge to order prosecutors to provide details about anything found in Cali's home or car when they were searched after the shooting, including whether any weapons were found on or near Cali's body.
Written by: Ali Watkins
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES