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New Twist In ‘Pizza Connection’ Trial: Hitman Recants Testimony

September 28, 1987 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ The lawyer for a Mafia leader convicted in the ″Pizza Connection″ drug case asked for a new trial Monday after a mob hitman recanted his testimony as a prosecution witness.

Lawyer Ivan S. Fisher also said he might ask the trial judge to delay a hearing on the matter because ″we’re hoping to get additional information″ to secure a new trial for his client, Salvatore Catalano.

A federal prosecutor said the witness’ original testimony was not important enough that recanting it should make any difference.

Testimony at a 17-month trial showed Catalano led a massive drug importing and money laundering ring, dubbed the ″Pizza Connection″ after prosecutors said it used pizza parlors as fronts.

According to trial testimony, the ring imported an estimated $1.6 billion worth of heroin into the United States over nearly a decade.

The New York Times reported Monday that the witness, Luigi Ronsisvalle, voluntarily sought out Fisher to provide a sworn statement that his testimony was untrue.

Fisher confirmed to The Associated Press that he had met with Ronsisvalle earlier this month at the request of the admitted contract killer of 13 people.

″In substance, Mr. Ronsisvalle told us that two aspects of his trial testimony were inaccurate. Both of these inaccuracies targeted″ Catalano, Fisher said in papers submitted to U.S. District Judge Pierre Leval, who presided at the drug trial.

In an affidavit, Ronsisvalle took back previous testimony that he saw Catalano direct another man, Domenick Tartamella, to take possession of a car filled with heroin and guns on a Brooklyn street.

″All of my testimony about Salvatore Catalano and Domenick Tartamella was inaccurate,″ the affidavit said.

Ronsisvalle also swore that Catalano was not present during a 1977 conversation in which heroin deliveries were discussed.

Catalano was convicted along with 17 other defendants last March and sentenced to 45 years in prison and $1.15 million in fines. He also was ordered to pay $1 million to a fund for the rehabiliation of drug addicts.

Asked if a representative of Catalano had talked with Ronsisvalle before he recanted, Fisher said, ″I would doubt it very much. I would say ’No.‴

But the Times reported that when asked if he thought Catalano was out to kill him, Ronsisvalle said, ″Not any more.″

In a telephone interview, Fisher said that if the judge believes Ronsisvalle’s new statements, ″then he ought to grant a new trial. I think he has to.″

But U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani, whose office prosecuted the case, said the recanting would have no effect because ″Catalano’s conviction was largely for acts that had nothing to do with Ronsisvalle.″

Giuliani said Ronsisvalle was only ″a background witness″ who ″offered little or no testimony on things for which Catalano was convicted.″

Ronsisvalle’s testimony was part of what Giuliani called ″a mountain of evidence″ against Catalano, a Queens bakery owner accused of heading a Sicilian faction of the Bonanno organized crime family.

In addition to Ronsisvalle, the case against Catalano included other witnesses, tape recordings, surveillance by Italian and American police, photographs and ″a highly incriminating fingerprint of Catalano’s,″ said Giuliani.

Fisher called Giuliani’s remarks ″an absurd position″ because Ronsisvalle ″was the mantlepiece″ of the government’s case. ″He connected Mr. Catalano to hundreds of kilograms of heroin during a 1 1/2 -year period,″ said Fisher.

The Times said Ronsisvalle and Fisher met twice in a motel room outside Cincinnati. Ronsisvalle was paid $2,620 for what both men called expenses and both told the newspaper that the recantation was not made for money.

″He said he had been kicked out of or left the (federal Witness Protection) Program and the marshals would not pay his hotel bills,″ said Fisher.

Joyce McDonald, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Marshals Service in McLean, Va., said ″We usually cannot discuss whether someone is in the program or has been in the program.″

She added that ″participation is voluntary and a witness can terminate participation at any time.″