San Diego It was March 10, 1998. A Tuesday. Early afternoon. Jim Schield and some colleagues pulled up quietly outside a block of condos in the tongue of land that hangs down into Mission Bay with Ingraham Street as its main artery. Number 3916 Riviera Drive. They glanced up at Unit 209. Inside, they hoped, was their man.
They had staked the place out before. All indications were that Neil G. Lombardo, alias Joseph Mercadante, and his wife, Maria, also known by her maiden name Maria Perrotta, also known by her alias Maria Soto, lived there with their kids, a son and a daughter.
It was just a case of getting lucky. Lombardo was as slippery as an eel, they believed; he knew the way cops, and especially U.S. marshals like Schield, operated. He had been on the run, successfully "disappeared" from New Jersey for seven years, ever since he'd stopped showing up at appointments with his parole officer in New Jersey in 1992. This was serious. He had been let out on parole after nearly a decade behind federal bars after being convicted on drug distribution charges.
But that problem paled in comparison to the job he allegedly botched on December 9, 1997. Authorities accuse him of trying to murder then-31-year-old Samuel Ippolito. Samuel's older and much-better-known brother Joseph Ippolito, 47, is serving a ten-year sentence for a federal narcotics offense. According to the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation, "Joey Ipp," as he is known, had ties to the Lucchese and DeCavalcante crime families. But then in 1997, word came out that Joey Ipp had decided to cooperate with the authorities in a drug probe.
In December of that year, New Jersey authorities say, Lombardo decided to -- or was asked to -- rub out Joey's brother Sammy to send a message to Joey to stop cooperating. If Lombardo was the hit man, he certainly didn't fail for lack of trying.
"Witnesses described the attempted murder as a ferocious attack upon [Samuel] Ippolito, which began when he left his [Point Pleasant Beach] house for a quick trip to a nearby convenience store," reported Neptune, New Jersey's Ashbury Park Press last December 20. "Authorities contend Lombardo shot Ippolito in his chest and neck at point-blank range, and then, while in a car with another man, who has not been identified, ran over Ippolito, breaking his leg.
"After Ippolito was shot once, and run over by [the] car, an occupant of the car got out, lifted Ippolito off his feet and threw him several feet, witnesses said. Ippolito then was shot at least once more, although one witness reported hearing two additional shots.
"Investigators found two spent bullet shells on the sidewalk; one was found underneath a pile of Ippolito's blood-soaked clothes."
The paper says Patrolman Peter Z. Andreyev rushed in and provided first aid. Andreyev wrote in his report, "This officer asked the victim who had done this. And he replied, 'Neil Lombardo of Staten Island.' "
Then Ippolito told him, "Contact my brother [Joey] and he'll tell you why [Lombardo] shot me," according to what executive assistant Ocean County Prosecutor John J. Mercun told the paper.
"Actually, the statement was taken by [the] police officer as a [death-bed] declaration," Ippolito's defense lawyer Thomas G. Roth later told a New Jersey superior court judge, "because nobody believed back in December of 1997 that Mr. Ippolito would live."
But live he did -- to face multiple drug charges. When cops went into Sammy's house to see if there were any more victims of Neil Lombardo's alleged ire, they discovered large amounts of marijuana, quantities of heroin, and other drugs stuffed in plastic bags in closets, kitchen cabinets, and underneath beds. And in the hospital's ER where they took Sammy, they found two packets of heroin in his pants pocket.
But Sammy's brother Joey was no punk wrecking his life on the stuff that was supposed to make him rich. It shows how high Lombardo had climbed, that Joey, the guy he was trying to send a message to, had connections that went all the way to O.J. Simpson -- if you believe Donald Freed and Raymond P. Briggs in their 1996 book Killing Time.
"Joey Ippolito is second-generation Mafia, one of several powerful successors of Meyer Lansky," say Freed and Briggs, quoting historian Alex Constantine. "Ippolito's influence in the Combination [organized crime] is felt from Philadelphia to Dade County, Florida, to Southern California. A former speedboat racer, he headed for California in 1988 after completing a 40-month prison sentence for marijuana smuggling. He opened, without flourish, Cent'Anni, a fashionable Italian restaurant in Malibu, and distributed cocaine in Santa Monica and Brentwood."
Freed and Briggs claim O.J. Simpson's close buddy A.C. Cowlings was "allegedly an occasional bodyguard to Ippolito. When police came to arrest the gangster and found Cowlings visiting, they also questioned him about Joey the Ip's [sic] business."
The authors also quote an August 24, 1994, Boston Herald article by Ralph Ranalli on the Joey Ippolito-Cowlings-Simpson connection.
"Cowlings was a close associate of New Jersey Mafia soldier Joseph 'Joey' Ippolito when Ippolito was running a popular Santa Monica restaurant -- and a thriving cocaine-dealing business.... Telephone records for the restaurant, obtained by federal prosecutors and the FBI in Los Angeles, also show calls from Ippolito's restaurant to O.J. Simpson's Brentwood estate...sources said."
But what about Neil Lombardo and the Pacific Beach connection? "As a fugitive he was very good," says John Cuff, a Newark, New Jersey-based U.S. Marshal's Service officer. Cuff is the man who tracked Lombardo down to San Diego. "Lombardo was on the run successfully for, what? [Seven] years? Our group, HIDTA [High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area] didn't get involved until after the shooting [of Samuel Ippolito]. It took us three months to [catch up with] him. We put an intense effort on it. He covered his tracks well. He successfully established a new identity. He maintained a network [of friends, safe houses], we believe."
San Diego's Jim Schields, supervisor of enforcement operations for the U.S. Marshal's Service, Southern District, and coordinator for the Fugitive Group of the Violent Crime Task Force, agrees.