At first glance, Burton Kaplan hardly seems like a formidable figure, those who know him say. At 71, he’s a bit frail and by all accounts half blind, with one bum eye peering out at the world from behind oversize glasses. He’s soft spoken, with a Brooklyn accent said to be as thick as cholent on a Saturday afternoon.
But the convicted drug dealer — who is compared by some of his confederates to the notorious Jewish mobsters of the past, like Meyer Lansky and Lansky’s fictional alter ego from “The Godfather,” Hyman Roth — is likely to cast a long shadow in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, where two retired New York City cops are facing charges of being mob hit men.
It is now an open secret — confirmed by several sources and widely published — that Kaplan, who has spent the last eight years behind bars on a mob-related drug conviction, is the government’s key informant in its case against Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa. The two retired, highly decorated detectives were arrested during a March 9 raid as they dined at a Las Vegas trattoria. They were arraigned April 21 on a sweeping federal indictment that charges them with eight murders. The pair pleaded not guilty.
Caracappa and Eppolito — the latter of whom detailed his life growing up in a mob family before joining the New York Police Department in the book “Mafia Cop” — are also said to be suspected in a ninth killing, the 1986 execution-style murder of diamond dealer Israel A. Greenwald. Authorities unearthed Greenwald’s skeletal remains in a Brooklyn garage two weeks ago, and suspect that Greenwald was killed as a result of a dispute with mobsters over a scheme involving Swiss bonds.
Officially, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District has refused to comment on Kaplan’s role in the investigation, and the indictment against the two cops refers to him only as a confidential informant.
But privately, sources familiar with the case said much of the information that led to the indictments against the two retired cops came from Kaplan after he cut a deal with federal prosecutors in exchange for his freedom. The federal prison locater system, which identifies every inmate housed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, no longer lists Kaplan, who is less than one-third of the way through his 27-year-sentence for marijuana smuggling and tax evasion. That is an indication that he has been freed already and is under federal protection, sources said.
There is, said sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, little doubt that Kaplan, who had won the respect of the heads of the city’s most prominent crime families — they called him “The Old Man” —- is a man who knows both literally and figuratively where the bodies are buried.
“I think he’s going to be a strong witness,” said one source, who spoke on condition that he not be named. “He’s always been up front with me.”
In fact, the source said that Kaplan is likely to be a better witness than he ever was a mobster, and that to some degree, Kaplan’s ascent to the inner sanctum of the New York mob was an example of the Peter Principle in action.
A native of the lower-middle-class Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, the shy and bespectacled Kaplan gave the impression of being brainy and reliable. That appealed to local mobsters, the source said. To them, Kaplan was cast in the mold of one of their most treasured icons — Lansky, the prototypical Jewish gangster. As the source put it, “I think the Italians, they all looked at this guy and thought, ‘He’s smart and he’s a Jew.’ ”
By all accounts, however, Kaplan was hardly as smart as the Italian mobsters thought he was. He was a compulsive gambler, though later he reportedly kicked the habit and, unlike Lansky, who managed to outsmart cops and prosecutors for most of his life, Kaplan was almost constantly under scrutiny by the law. “There were several scrapes,” the source said.
In 1967, he was convicted on federal fraud charges and was granted probation. In 1972, he was back in court after authorities caught the putative garment dealer with a truckload of stolen clothes. For the next 25 years he was in and out of court on a variety of charges. In 1980, he was convicted of masterminding a plot to manufacture and sell $1 million worth of methaqualone, a popular drug at the time, marketed legitimately as Quaaludes. He served three years at the federal prison at Allenwood, Pa.
Through it all, Kaplan continued to keep his mouth shut about his mob connections. Despite his apparent penchant for attracting the attention of the cops, that discretion endeared him to the leaders of La Cosa Nostra, among them convicted Lucchese family underboss Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso.
Authorities had long suspected that Casso had put Eppolito and Caracappa on a retainer, paying them $4,000 a month to provide classified police information about potential mob victims, and that on at least eight occasions the two cops had done the killing themselves.
Authorities also were convinced that Casso had used Kaplan, “The Old Man,” as his designated courier, to ferry money and assignments to the cops.
In 1994, Casso admitted as much. By then serving a life sentence for a variety of crimes, including more than 30 murders, he offered to violate the mob’s sacred oath of omerta and provide information about the accused killer cops in exchange for a reduced sentence. The allegations against the two cops rippled through the press at the time, and while they didn’t immediately result in criminal prosecution, the heat the pair felt was enough to make they retire from the force. They moved to Las Vegas, setting up housekeeping across the street from each other.
The feds didn’t give up. Though they deemed Casso an unreliable witness, the source said, Kaplan was a different matter. They decided to put pressure on him. In 1996, they raided what the source described as “not-so-secret” warehouse Kaplan operated in Staten Island and seized vast quantities of marijuana and enough records to support a case of drug dealing and tax evasion.
Kaplan, both in court records and publicly at the time, insisted that the feds had targeted him on the drug charges in order to get him to talk about his role as intermediary in the Eppolito and Caracappa affair. He kept silent. But what galled Kaplan most, the source said, was the fact that much of the case against him was based on the testimony of mob informants, turncoats who were violating the very oath of secrecy that Kaplan was trying to uphold.
Kaplan was convicted and sentenced to 27 years, a life sentence for a man of his age. And for the first seven, the source said, he kept his mouth shut.
However the source reported that late last year, Kaplan cracked. His health was starting to fail, and it was starting to dawn on him “that he didn’t want to die on the inside.” But equally important to Kaplan’s decision to turn informant was his sense that Casso and the mob had betrayed him. “He’s the kind of guy who looks everywhere but in the mirror for someone to blame for the things that happen,” the source said. “I think he was bitter.”
So far, authorities have offered only tantalizing details about the sweep and scope of Kaplan’s testimony. They have not even officially acknowledged that Kaplan is their key source. But Eppolito and Caracappa’s attorneys are already attacking his credibility. As Bruce Cutler, who served as John Gotti’s defense attorney and is now representing Eppolito, put it: “All I know about him is that he’s a convicted drug peddler who wants to get out of jail. I don’t know much else about him…
“I’ve read about… this Kaplan fellow,” Cutler continued. “So we have to take him to task… against two highly decorated New York City police detectives, and see who wins.”