SPRINGFIELD - Organized crime hitman Gaetano J. Milano, now serving a 33-year sentence for shooting a rival mob boss, hopes to be sprung from prison by the same evidence that freed 80-year Louis Pugliano, a defense lawyer said yesterday.
Milano's appeal will rely on arguments used by Springfield lawyer John M. Thompson to get Pugliano's life sentence reduced on Monday to the 16 years he has served, according to Bridgeport, Conn., defense lawyer Michael A. Fitzpatrick.
"Milano's appeal is the last one left for the court to rule on," said Fitzpatrick, part of the legal team that challenged convictions of Pugliano, Milano and two others in the 1989 execution slaying of William Grasso, an underboss for the Patriarca crime family in Connecticut.
The legal battle paid off yesterday with Louis Pugliano's release from prison, one day after U.S. District Judge Alan H. Nevas in Bridgeport ordered him to be set free.
The other defendants - Pugliano's brother, Frank, 79, of West Springfield, and Frank Colantoni Jr., 53, of Longmeadow - were released after serving 12-year sentences. Remaining in prison is Milano, 55, of East Longmeadow.
The ruling capped six months of discussions between defense lawyers and federal prosecutors over the fate of Pugliano, a former owner of the Monte Carlo Restaurant in West Springfield and a well-known mob figure with the nickname of "Louie Pugs."
Thompson, who spent 11 years on Pugliano's appeal, said his client will celebrate the holidays with his two children and two grandchildren.
"He's very pleased," said Thompson, who said he celebrated the ruling by eating a bag of microwaved popcorn when he got back home to Springfield. Referring to client, Thompson added, "Sixteen years in prison is a long time. He didn't think he would ever get out."
The Pugliano family's holiday reunion could be complicated by the judge's order that Louis Pugliano have no contact with anyone with an organized crime background. At the time, his younger brother Frank, aka "Frankie Pugs," was sitting in the courtroom.
Thompson said he doubts his client will have any trouble with the judge's order, but did not elaborate.
The defense team, which included Vincent A. Bongiorni, of Springfield, maintained Pugliano and the other defendants were denied a fair trial, because a glitch in jury selection excluded residents from dozens of towns in Connecticut from the jury pool. Errors by Pugliano's trial lawyer, Anthony Cardinale, of Boston, were also cited in the appeal.
The argument was bolstered by revelations of collusion between Irish mobster James "Whitey" Bulger and the FBI bureau in Boston, where top FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr. assisted Bulger in exchange for information.
Specifically, the defense insisted that Bulger's faction wanted to consolidate power by pitting members of the Providence-based Patriarca crime family against each other. The scheme gave the defendants in Grasso's killing the false impression they had to eliminate the Connecticut underboss before he killed them, Fitzpatrick said.
Jurors were never aware of the ties between the FBI and Bulger's faction, Fitzpatrick said.
The corruption between Bulger and the FBI was exposed in the mid-1990s, after Pugliano and his co-defendants were sentenced in U.S. District Court in Hartford.
The government's handling of Louis Pugliano's case "was one of the real tragedies of the criminal justice system," Bongiorni said yesterday.
Thomas A. Carson, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said he could not comment on Pugliano's release or statements by defense lawyers.
In court Monday, Louis Pugliano admitted driving the van that picked up Grasso on the day he was murdered. Police found Grasso's body on the banks of the Connecticut River, with a single bullet in the back of his head.
"The day it happened I was asked to drive the van, not knowing what was to happen. I did know it was possible, but I was hoping it wouldn't," Pugliano said.
Milano, who owned two bars and a vending machine company, admitted that he shot Grasso while riding in a van along Interstate 91 in June 1989, then dumped his body in Wethersfield, Conn. At the time of his admission, he renounced his life in organized crime.
Investigators said the New York City-based Genovese crime family controls mob operations in Springfield and most of Western Massachusetts. The Patriarca crime family is believed to control the rest of New England, including Hartford and Worcester.