continued "Lombardo was good at being a fugitive, and he managed to do that for a number of years, since 1992. And he knew how law enforcement worked. He knew the system. There's no doubt that he is an intelligent individual. I don't know if he was a 'made man.' I know that he had ties and associations with organized crime."
Did that make Lombardo a danger to his neighbors in the Mission Bay condos at 3916 Riviera Drive? "No. I think he felt he had just kind of assimilated here, the Southern California dress and attire and lifestyle.
"I think he had a feeling that he was pretty safe. He left the impression that he had a safe hiding place."
He did have a new name. Actually several new names. He had no obvious need for a regular job, he drove two cars, including a gold Lincoln, registered in the name of the friend whose moniker he had also borrowed, Donald Mercadante. He gave no impression of preparing to flee.
"He felt he was safe," says Schield.
But he wasn't. Last month's New York Law Journal outlines what happened next. Based on an affidavit Jim Schield penned in support of the application for a search warrant of Lombardo's condo, the Journal details how the marshals closed in on their man.
"Schield's affidavit detailed the [marshals'] tracking of Lombardo in New York City, Pennsylvania, and California, through information provided by a cooperating witness and uncovered by subpoenaing records of telephone calls made from telephones associated with a girlfriend of Lombardo, Lombardo's associate Donald Mercadante, and Lombardo's family. Calls were frequently made with the use of debit cards, from public pay phones, and to a pager purchased two days after Ippolito was shot. A call originating from a telephone number listed to a Maria Soto [a name they knew was an alias for Lombardo's wife, Maria Perrotta] at 3916 Riviera Drive, Unit 209, led investigators to the condominium complex [in San Diego]. The telephone had been activated five months after Lombardo became a fugitive in 1992.
"A representative of the property manager at the condominium complex on March 6, 1998, told law enforcement that he knew the residents of 3916 Riviera, unit 209 to be 'Joseph and Maria Mercadante' and that they had two children. The representative identified photographs of Lombardo and Maria Perrotta as the residents. A four-door Delta 88 was observed parked near 3916 Riviera Drive with a California license plate registered to a Donald Mercadante in San Diego."
After seven years, Neil Lombardo had been found.
* * *
Was it the kids, that Tuesday afternoon, March 10, who begged their dad to walk on the beach with them? Did he say, "Okay, let's go!" not realizing it would expose him to Jim Schield's field glasses?
"We had been watching this residence for a while," says Schield. "We knew that Mr. Lombardo had come and gone from that residence on a regular basis. But we weren't sure when he was going to be there, so we were watching it periodically. That day, we happened to spot him down on the beach. We called in additional units from our Violent Crimes Task Force and surrounded the place."
"Shortly thereafter," says Schield's affidavit, "a gold Lincoln...was observed leaving the complex. San Diego police stopped the car and identified Maria Perrotta as the driver. Perrotta initially denied knowing Lombardo but then reported that Lombardo was in unit 209 with their children. Surveillance units observed Lombardo [back from the beach] walking around the condominium complex."
"I had a feeling that he may have spotted some of our surveillance crew," Schield says. "Or some of the additional responding units. That may have caused him to decide that he was going to leave and try to send his wife out as a decoy to draw our attention away. But we had enough people that we were able to cover both of those situations.
"Things happened rather quickly. He exited the residence and was attempting to jump over a fence when our people moved in and arrested him. He's not a very large man. But he was fit. I think he has the potential to be aggressive and violent, but we just didn't give him a chance."
Neil Lombardo was taken to the downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center and finally was loaded aboard a Marshal's plane for New York. Last July, in Ocean County, New Jersey, they charged Lombardo with a total of ten crimes, including attempted murder. In October, a federal indictment returned by a grand jury also accused him of shooting Samuel Ippolito. He is still awaiting trial.
But why did he choose San Diego? Was it contacts? Schield says it certainly wasn't anything to do with the condo's owners. He says they had no cause to know anything of the Lombardos' background.
"Absolutely not. [The owner] is an innocent third party," says Schield. "I think [Lombardo] chose San Diego because of its close proximity to the international border, he could have all the amenities for living in the United States with an opportunity to drive south and get into another country. That is the reason a lot of [criminal] people do come here. Because they have the direct access to the international border if they need to have a quick getaway. You go to Tijuana, and you can get to just about anywhere in the world."