A Mobster Dodged Hit After Hit—His Son Finally Got Him

From a New York Times story by Colin Moynihan headlined “A Mobster Dodged Hit After Hit. His Son Finally Got Him.”:

Someone kept trying to kill Sylvester Zottola, month after month.

The first attack came in September 2017, when a man approached Mr. Zottola, whom the authorities described as a Mafia associate, outside his Bronx home and knocked him down with a punch in the face.

That November, someone tried to shoot Mr. Zottola as he drove on the Throgs Neck Expressway. Two days after Christmas, men lurking inside his home stabbed him in the neck. In the summer of 2018, a man walked up on the sidewalk, pointed a pistol at him and pulled the trigger only for the weapon to misfire.

Finally, that fall, an attacker succeeded in killing Mr. Zottola, 71, shooting him repeatedly as he sat in his S.U.V. at a McDonald’s drive-through on Webster Avenue.

On Wednesday, a jury in Brooklyn convicted Anthony Zottola, his 44-year-old son, of conspiracy, murder-for-hire, shooting his brother, Salvatore Zottola, and murdering his father.

Prosecutors had told jurors that Anthony Zottola planned to kill his brother and father so he could control a family real estate business worth millions of dollars. He was accused of working with a high-ranking member of the Bloods street gang who hired a “network of hit men.”

Himen Ross, who was accused of firing the fatal shots, was convicted on Wednesday, along with Anthony Zottola. They face life sentences, prosecutors said.

Alfred Lopez, who prosecutors said was Mr. Ross’s getaway driver, was acquitted. Several other men had pleaded guilty to participating in the plot. Among them was a senior Bloods member, Bushawn Shelton.

After Wednesday’s verdict, Anthony Zottola’s wife exited the courtroom weeping. In a hallway, Salvatore Zottola said his father was a good man.

“He didn’t deserve this,” Salvatore Zottola added. “None of us did.”

Evidence presented by prosecutors during an eight-week trial in Federal District Court included surveillance camera footage of shootings, hundreds of text messages among conspirators and testimony from a hired killer who described bumbling assassination attempts.

That witness, Ron Cabey, testified that in addition to trying to kill Sylvester and Salvatore Zottola, who was shot in 2018, he contemplated murdering Mr. Shelton, whom he suspected of withholding information from him, and two getaway drivers whom he deemed overly talkative.

In the end, Mr. Cabey’s decision to talk broke the case. He was arrested in the summer of 2018 after a police officer saw him disposing of a gun and he eventually told investigators about the murder plots. That led to the arrest of Mr. Shelton and the discovery of text messages he had exchanged with Anthony Zottola.

Prosecutors said the two often used code. They referred to Sylvester Zottola as “the actor” and to murder attempts as “scenes.”

On the day that Sylvester Zottola escaped the attempted expressway shooting, Mr. Shelton wrote to Anthony Zottola, saying: “The actor wanted to do his own stunts and throw it in reverse in the middle of shooting a scene and drive in the opposite direction.”

Mr. Zottola replied that he was “changing the location of the last scene” adding: “We going to film in his dressing room.” Hours before the attack on Sylvester Zottola in his home, Anthony Zottola wrote: “I get keys to dressing room.”

The Zottola family had lived for decades in the Bronx, with generations sharing homes in the Pelham Bay neighborhood and in Locust Point, a quiet enclave facing the Long Island Sound. Sylvester Zottola built several large brick houses there with mottos carved into their facades, including “Our walls are built thick. Our love for each other is thicker.”

“He wanted us to live together,” Salvatore Zottola testified. “It was his dream.”

A prosecutor in court said that Mr. Zottola “had ties to the Mafia,” and he reputedly was associated with the Bonanno crime family. Salvatore Zottola testified that, although his father was friendly with mobsters, he was not a “made member” of La Cosa Nostra.

His father’s income came from providing pool tables, jukeboxes and poker machines to bars and restaurants, Salvatore Zottola said, and from about 30 properties in the Bronx that yielded roughly $1.5 million a year in rental income.

Salvatore Zottola’s wife, Katie Zottola, testified that Anthony Zottola had told her he had a buyer who would pay $27 million for those properties. But, she added, the elder Mr. Zottola had vetoed the sale.

 “Anthony believed his father and his brother were in his way,” a prosecutor, Devon Lash, told jurors during her opening statement. “He decided to kill them both.”

Defense lawyers said Anthony Zottola had not conspired to kill his father and brother. Instead, they said, he had been taken advantage of by a group of criminals with whom he had cultivated a relationship because he felt he needed protection against the Mafia.

“That is something he is going to have to live with for the rest of his life,” one of his lawyers, Ilana Haramati, told jurors.

Perhaps the most riveting evidence in the trial came from Mr. Cabey, who testified that Mr. Shelton offered him separate fees of $10,000 to kill Sylvester and Salvatore Zottola.

Mr. Cabey testified that he set out several times to kill one or both, but was hindered by poor planning and blunders.

Once Mr. Shelton berated a getaway driver who had risked drawing unwanted attention by smoking strong-smelling marijuana while parked at night on a quiet residential street near Salvatore Zottola’s Locust Point home, Mr. Cabey said.

Mr. Cabey also testified that a brown van used as a getaway vehicle often had engine trouble. On another night, parked near Salvatore Zottola’s home, he and a driver had to call Mr. Shelton and ask for a jump start.

One day in June 2018, Mr. Cabey stalked Sylvester Zottola through the streets of Pelham Bay, then walked toward him pointing a pistol, an episode that was partly captured on video.

“As I’m brandishing the firearm, I’m pulling the trigger and the trigger was just not firing,” Mr. Cabey testified.

Mr. Cabey fled as Mr. Zottola fired his own pistol back at him. When the police arrived, they arrested Mr. Zottola for criminal possession of a firearm. Mr. Cabey was arrested later that day by officers in Manhattan who saw him throwing away a gun but did not know about the incident in the Bronx.

In July, a man shot Salvatore Zottola as he emerged from a van he had parked outside his home, striking him in the chest, the back and the head.

“Didn’t hurt as bad as I thought it would,” he testified. “The first shot, when it hit me, it was more of just a push back to the van. When I got shot in the back, that hurt. Then when I got shot in the head, that was the last shot I remember.”

Still in jail after his arrest in June, Mr. Cabey saw a television news report on the shooting and recognized the neighborhood he had been staking out. Soon after that, he testified, he learned from a criminal associate who had helped introduce him to Mr. Shelton that he was to have received $25,000 for each murder he committed, while Mr. Shelton had promised him only $10,000.

By that time, Mr. Cabey said, Mr. Shelton had stopped communicating with him. And the television report made him realize that he was participating in a plot guaranteed to draw public attention. Within months, Mr. Cabey began cooperating with investigators and pleaded guilty to murder-for-hire.

That came too late to stop the death of Sylvester Zottola. He was on the phone with his girlfriend while waiting in the McDonald’s drive-through for a cup of coffee when, prosecutors said, Mr. Ross ran up and shot him.

Salvatore Zottola testified that after the shooting, he spoke on the phone with his brother: “He said that Margaret, my father’s girlfriend, was on the phone with my dad and she heard a bunch of bangs, and he never answered the phone again.”

According to text messages introduced as evidence, Mr. Ross wrote “Done” to Mr. Shelton four minutes after the shooting. Four minutes after that, Mr. Shelton sent a message to Anthony Zottola saying: “Can we party today or tomorrow.”

Anthony Zottola replied that it was his son’s birthday, adding that he was taking him to his favorite place — McDonald’s.

“Hey it’s like your birthday today as well lol,” replied Mr. Shelton.

 

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