Monday, October 23, 2006
Updated: April 15, 3:28 PM ET
Skating With The Mob
By Bryant Urstadt
How does the old joke go? Oh, yeah: A guy went to a hockey game—and a federal racketeering case broke out.
Hey, maybe you had to be there.
The guy in question was Jim Galante, who, along with his son, A.J., was at the Danbury Trashers game on Dec. 1, 2004, the night Brad Wingfield broke his leg. Jim, who owned the United Hockey League team, was in the skybox he'd had built for himself, complete with a flatscreen TV, kitchenette and bar stools. A.J. was in Section 107, a platform above and to the right of the home goal. Jim's money came from hauling garbage, so what he was going to name his club was obvious from day one. Less obvious was naming A.J. as general manager. He was 18 years old.
There were about 1,000 fans at the Danbury Ice Arena that night, eight months after Galante had founded the team on April Fools' Day. He had spent millions that summer to turn the local rink into a real arena and to field a team. In return, he'd earned enough gratitude in this Connecticut community of 75,000 to sell out all 3,000 seats on weekends, with fans whom some players called the most dedicated they'd ever seen.
That was easy to believe if you were sitting in Section 102, a teeming mass of obscenity-chanting fans who liked to wave a body bag in the stands when an opposing player got knocked down in a fight. At one triple-OT game, when the players ran out of dry undershirts during the last intermission, the 102 crew took the Trashers shirts off their backs and sent them down to the locker room. Cheered on by their shirtless rooters, Danbury won, 3-2.
Yes, the locals in Hat City loved the Galantes, and they loved their Trashers, who called themselves the Bad Boys of Hockey.
They were good, too, headed for the semis of the UHL playoffs in their inaugural season. A.J. had put together the team himself, scouring the web for players and negotiating with other GMs around the country by e-mail, even as he started his first year at Manhattanville College in nearby Purchase, N.Y. The kid scribbled depth charts in his notebooks during classes, sometimes pretending to go to the bathroom so he could make a trade.
Jim appointed his son GM at supper one Sunday, while the family was enjoying Roseanne Galante's pasta. The Galantes were nuts about sports: Jim already owned a local modified stock-car racing team with six cars, and A.J. had just finished his fourth year of high school hockey at New Fairfield High, where he was an alternate captain. The GM had led his prep conference in penalty minutes, and he put together a team with muscle. In addition to signing skill players like Brent Gretzky (you-know-who's brother), A.J. rounded up a roster of toughs. Many had spent time in the NHL, like Garrett Burnett (Ducks) and Rumun Ndur (Sabres). A.J. also picked up Wingfield, a six-foot, 220-pound fighting machine who'd spent 10 years in the minors and once logged 29 goals and 576 penalty minutes in the same season.
Wingfield didn't break his own leg, of course. Josh Elzinga, a blueliner for the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Wings, did that for him. It went like this: Elzinga clipped Wingfield in the face, Wingfield asked for a fight, Elzinga declined. But as Wingfield skated away, Elzinga stuck his leg out and pulled back on the left wing's jersey. Wingfield's skate caught as he toppled, and the fall snapped his left tibia just above the ankle. The break, loud enough to be heard in the stands, was followed by Wingfield's louder screams. Dan Hickling of The Minor League News called it "the most gruesome sight" he'd seen in 35 years of watching hockey. "He was on all fours, like an animal braying for help."
A.J.'s team had a nasty streak, so it was no shock that Wingfield's injury incited a riot. Multiple fights ensued, with Ndur going "positively ballistic," Hickling says. Ndur was so angry that he fought two players, kicked at a linesman and charged the Kalamazoo bench before being hauled to the ice by officials. Jim Galante joined the melee. Outraged by calls against his team, he left the skybox to confront two officials, referee Steve Marofsky and linesman James Harper, as the game wound down. He headed to the ice through the penalty box, which was also an entrance to the rink, and in that tight space Jim Galante punched Jim Harper in the mouth.
Or maybe he didn't; proving his innocence in the scuffle would quickly matter a lot more to Galante than questionable minor league officiating. Galante, it turns out, wasn't simply the boss of a trash-hauling business. Like the father of another teenage A.J., Galante was in "waste management." And like that other A.J.'s father, Galante's alleged ties to organized crime had drawn the attention of law enforcement officials. The FBI had been tapping Galante's phone for months, and federal prosecutors wanted to prove that Galante was prone to violence. If they could do that, they could put the owner of Automated Waste Disposal in jail while he awaited trial for what is one of the biggest racketeering cases in Connecticut history.
ON JUNE 27, 2006, Galante, wearing brown jail scrubs, was led to the defendant's table under the high ceilings of Room 3 in the New Haven federal courthouse. He was charged with, among other things, racketeering, conspiracy to extort, mail fraud, wire fraud, witness tampering and conspiracy to defraud the IRS. In all, the indictment contained 72 counts against Galante detailed over 113 pages. Eighteen days prior, on June 9, federal agents had arrested Galante. Three days after that, A.J. (who has not been indicted) had announced that the Trashers were shutting down for good.
Now Galante was at a pretrial hearing to decide if he would stay in jail until his as-yetunscheduled trial. The defendant sat quietly on the left side of Room 3, his gray hair and beard closely cropped, looking younger than his 53 years. Behind him were Roseanne and A.J., the kid in a wide-shouldered dark suit with white pinstripes and a pocket handkerchief. Across the aisle sat several U.S. attorneys in gray suits and sensible shoes. At the bench, 82-year-old Judge Ellen Bree Burns presided.
Central to the case against Galante was the allegation that he controlled southwestern Connecticut's garbage industry with help from "La Cosa Nostra," the term used in the indictment. Four times a year, prosecutors alleged, a mobster name Matty "The Horse" Ianniello sent someone to collect $30,000 in cash from Galante. In return, the garbage king would never have to worry about competition for his routes. Ianniello, the reputed head of New York's Genovese crime family, had been arrested the same day as Galante, and he'd left the courtroom just an hour before, after pleading not guilty to an array of charges with a theatrical shrug and a smile.
The indictment asserted that Galante ran his hockey team fast and loose, too, alleging that he had violated the UHL's $275,000 salary cap by writing housingallowance checks to players for sums they'd already been paid and providing no-show jobs to players and/or their wives. One player, for example, was hired as a "salesman"; another's wife was on the Automated Waste Disposal payroll as an "assistant sales manager." It's unlikely they were hired for their waste management skills.
At least five Trashers had been called before a grand jury to discuss the suspicious salaries, according to the Associated Press, including Gretzky and minor league vets Jim Duhart, Jeff Daw, Jay Murphy and Scott Stirling, brother of former Trashers coach J. Todd Stirling. Uncle Sam doesn't get involved in salary cap disputes—even ones that exceed a league's ceiling by almost half a million dollars—but in racketeering indictments, almost anything that can be included will be. Almost anyone, too: Todd Stirling was named in the indictment for wire fraud conspiracy. (Salary cap documents were faxed interstate, which allowed the government to add the alleged hockey fraud to the racketeering charges.)
But Galante was the big fish, and he was looking at a major ( major ) misconduct in a federal penalty box. He'd already spent 18 days in state and federal detention centers, held without bail. His lawyer, Hugh Keefe, was appealing that incarceration, and crucial to Keefe's case were the events on and connected to Dec. 1, 2004. If they had played out as the feds claimed, they seemed to prove that Galante was a man who tampered with witnesses and could get violent, and thus a man who ought to stay in jail. But if Keefe could raise doubts, Galante could prepare for his trial at home.
A video screen was set up in the courtroom, and the Galante-Harper incident was played repeatedly: at full speed, half speed, onequarter speed. There was Harper stepping off the ice, and then … a blur of angry men. Keefe asserted that it was impossible to tell who hit whom and had his colleagues read statements from witnesses claiming that Harper had slugged Galante, not the other way around. Yes, the linesman signed an affidavit saying he'd been punched in the mouth—and yes, the police report described blood coming from that same mouth—but local prosecutors dropped charges against Galante, citing a lack of clear proof.
U.S. attorneys saw things differently. (So much for instant replay.) The FBI had recorded more than 100,000 conversations between Galante and his pals during the investigation. These included a call made three days after the fight to a business associate named Ciro Viento, asking Viento to call UHL commissioner Richard Brosal and "Tell him that it is f—ing imperative that we get that letter that … Harper's gonna write to Brosal." Galante's hope was for Harper to let everyone know—the UHL, prosecutors—that he had had second thoughts about the fracas; that, in Galante's words, "after coolin' off and thinking about it for a few days … I was just as much at fault … I realized that when the incident took place there was pushin' and shovin' and people in the penalty box, and I can't be sure now whether Mr. Galante hit me or didn't hit me or if it was somebody else."
Galante sounded like he knew what an assault conviction could mean, should he ever be in court, telling Viento that the call to Brosal was important because in "all the cases that the government's ever come after me for, there's never been any violence … although they were looking for it. Now they have it."
Viento called Brosal, saying, "I was asked to give you a call, but not to give you a call, so that you would never be put in the predicament where somebody said that you were called." Viento laughed, and Brosal said he'd fax the letter to "Jimmy's lawyer," joking that it would read, "I, Jim Harper, solemnly swear that I have been coerced into dropping the charges." Brosal, who later denied that anybody had tried to coerce anyone, told the Danbury News-Times that no letter was ever sent. In the end, the joke was on Harper: He was suspended for five games.
Other calls were played in court suggesting that Galante knew how to apply pressure. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Gustafson described one call during which Viento, in Gustafson's words, discussed an associate's trip "to nearby Mount Kisco to retain the services of a leg-breaker known as The Carpenter." In another, Galante asked that an associate deliver a message to a man just out of the witness protection program, who might be called to testify in an ongoing investigation. The message was, "Long Island says hello," invoking the specter of Matty The Horse.
Despite all this, Judge Burns let Galante out of jail, agreeing in the end that the tapes were too inconclusive to keep a man incarcerated. But he is hardly free. Still waiting for a trial date, he is under house arrest, ankle monitor and all, forbidden from contact with former associates. To prevent unmonitorable calls, cell phones are not allowed in the house.
There are a lot of people who might like to give him a call. Galante has many friends, especially among Danbury hockey fans. Jerry Deno is a police dispatcher in Branford, Conn., who oversaw off-ice officials for the Trashers. "Galante is a friend of mine," he says. "And I don't mind saying it." Bill Thebert is a professional photographer who shot Trashers games for fun. "It was the best," he says. "It was just magic."
THE MAGIC is gone now. This past August, the former GM of the Danbury Trashers wandered with a writer through the club's offices at the Arena. A.J., who had agreed to talk about hockey but not his dad's legal woes, pointed out the team store, empty save a few cardboard boxes. He headed upstairs, stepped around a Trashers logo in the carpet and walked into a locker room, the best-equipped that many of the Trashers had ever seen. There was also a gym, a trainer's room and an equipment room, the latter with a skate shapener still plugged in.
A.J. talked about his favorite Trashers, among them Michael Rupp, who appeared out of nowhere to score the Stanley Cup-winning goal for the Devils in 2003. A.J. was at that game, and he amazed himself by getting Rupp to play for the Trashers for 14 games during the NHL lockout. "We'd call anyone," A.J. said. "My Dad and I, our theory is we all put our pants on the same way."
Across the hall, A.J. stopped at the office he once shared with his father. There wasn't much left, just a clipping about the 18-year-old GM from the New England Hockey Journal , a few sticks and a Donald Trump doll, still in its box. "It was a gift someone gave to my dad," A.J. said, picking it up. "Because he's kind of like Trump, except Trump doesn't get into trouble like my father does.
"On game nights, people would just stream through the doors. I know people thought it was all a joke, me being the president and whatever, but we worked hard at it, and we had a lot of fun.
"In a way, that was the main thing."
He put the doll down and left the office.