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.
"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."