When Loan Sharks Bite
From Voice Printing, How the law can read the voice of crime by Eugene Block
The meeting was a routine monthly gathering of a journalism society in New Jersey.
The invited guest was a young, little-known assistant attorney general, and those who came expected an informal, innocuous address on relations between the press and law-enforcement agencies. Instead a bombshell exploded and another case of extortion came to light.
To the surprise of everyone, the speaker opened a Pandora’s box. Out of it came a scandal that shook the state for months. It reached into the state house, the legislature, and the courts. When it was over, political heads had fallen after a three-pronged official inquiry conducted separately by a legislative committee, a special grand jury, and the ethical conduct committee of the supreme court.
Highlighting the climax was the introduction of Voiceprints that provided an ending differing from public opinion and a jury verdict that few had foreseen.
The provocative speaker was William J. Brennan III, a son of a Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
At the start of the meeting Brennan launched at once into startling charges of extortion and corruption in the state legislature. Asserting boldly that certain of its members were “too comfortable” with leaders of organized crime, he pointed an accusing finger at a prominent legislator, declaring that he and
two influential lawyers had taken part in an unsavory out-of-court settlement of an extortion case. Even participation of Mafia characters in state affairs did not escape his mention.
Scarcely had the meeting ended when word reached the newspapers, and reporters began delving into what had been dubbed “the loan shark case,” an issue between a businessman heavily in debt and a money-lender that had been dropped abruptly when the merchant refused to testify before the grand jury regarding a menacing death threat for which he previously had blamed the other. The threat, he had charged, followed his sudden refusal to continue making allegedly usurious payments on two loans. Although Brennan did not say so at the time, he implied that the debtor had been “bought off.”
The explosive address, given before the New Jersey Chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, took place on an evening in mid-December, 1968, and though much time has passed, it continues to be a subject of reflective discussion and marks a significant victory for Kersta’s Voiceprints.
The startling repercussions from the lawyer’s speech far transcended the importance of the specific case, no doubt because public opinion had turned sharply against loan sharks in the wake of exposes in which some of their victims, although brutally beaten, had refused to press charges for fear of reprisals.
The principals in the case referred to by Brennan were virtually unknown outside of their own little circles. Yet, when finis was finally written to the scandal, three prominent lawyers, one of them a member of the state legislature, and another a legal official of his community, faced suspension from professional practice. Others scurried for cover and two disappeared.
The little-known principals in the early legal controversy were John DiGilio, a thirty-nine-year-old former professional boxer, of Jersey City, who had also been a boatman aboard a tug; and Julius Pereria Jr., chairman of the Middlesex County Young Democrats, who operated the DuRite Car Wash in Woodbridge, a sprawling town in the metropolitan area that has grown to more than 100,000 since World War II.
Because of the many ramifications developing in rapid-fire succession following Brennan’s speech, the story can best be told
chronologically, disclosing how one development led to another.
Only a short time after the fraternity meeting and its exciting disclosures, Edward J. Dolan, prosecutor for Middlesex County in New Jersey, sat behind closed doors with a hastily summoned investigating committee of the legislature, relating what he had learned about the manner in which a grand jury inquiry into Pereria’s accusations against DiGilio had ended some time before.
He explained that Pereria had borrowed $ 1,000 on two occasions—the first in 1966, the second a year later—from DiGilio, a heavily built man five feet eight inches tall, agreeing to pay $5o a week interest until he would be able to repay the principal. Despite business reverses the borrower had continued the weekly payments until he had paid a total of $7,400. Then, deciding that he already had paid far too much, he informed DiGilio that there would be no more checks. The other flew into a rage and walked away.
Not long afterward, according to Dolan’s recital, Pereria had received a telephone call at his place of business from a man who said, “I’ll come down there and chop your . . . head off.”
Badly frightened, Pereria went to the police insisting that the voice was that of DiGilio, which he said he recognized by a peculiar raspy note that contrasted with a rather high tone. It was then August, 1968.
Charges were preferred against DiGilio, but when the case was called before Judge Samuel Sladkus in Woodbridge Municipal Court the plaintiff flatly refused to testify. The matter was turned over to the grand jury and again Pereria remained silent. The grand jury, finding its hands tied, returned a “no bill,” which meant that the matter was ended.
Dolan, in reporting these facts, asserted that he knew there had been an out-of-court settlement; in other words the accuser had been “paid off.” He promised to provide further details at a later time or at the conclusion of a grand jury hearing that already had been started.
With two separate inquiries under way, Dolan pressed hard for grand jury action. Pereria was summoned and this time he was ready to talk. He told of the threats which he swore had
come from DiGilio, adding that three mobsters sent to his car wash business by DiGilio had broken in and damaged it.
The result was an indictment accusing both DiGilio and an associate, fifty-eight-year-old Gerald Grimaldi, of conspiracy in threats and extortion against Pereria. Grimaldi, it was alleged, had introduced the other two; he also had been identified as one of the trio at the car wash.
What Pereria had to tell about the settlement that previously had silenced him became one of many sensations at the trial of DiGilio, which opened on February 4, 1970, in New Brunswick, the county seat of Middlesex.
Its setting was a study in sharp contrasts. While the nature of the case was grim and forbidding, it was to be aired in a colorful, modernly furnished courtroom on the third floor of the relatively new county courthouse, a five-story structure overlooking a century-old county jail.
Judge John B. Melineux, who was to preside, had earlier ordered separate trials for the two defendants, since Grimaldi had suffered a severe heart attack. It was the first of many delays.
Even before questioning of prospective jurors began, Voiceprints became the subject of bitter argument. Defense Attorney Michael Querques had moved for permission to have Lawrence Kersta compare a tape of DiGilio’s voice with a recording made by Pereria at his business place when he received the threatening phone call. His request met with heated opposition from J. Norris Harding, the assistant prosecutor, who accused his opponent of “trying to shift the burden of the defense to the state.”
The court reserved judgment, at the same time ordering a day’s postponement to allow counsel to go to Grand Bahama Island, where the defense claimed it would establish that DiGilio was with others at the time of the phone threat and that no call had gone from the island to New Jersey on that day.
The defendant’s contention was fully verified. DiGilio had scored his first important point.
With resumption of the trial, Voiceprints again became a controversial issue. The court, first having refused to order the state to give the defense recordings of the threatening message,
later relented but reserved the right to bar such evidence. This was based on the fact that the state’s high court had not yet ruled on this new type of evidence.
No sooner had this been disposed of than other delays became necessary. During an afternoon recess DiGilio had fallen overboard from a tug, sustaining painful injuries. There was a squabble over the long postponement demanded by the defense, and the court finally agreed on a two-day recess which later was extended after the defendant was hurt again in an automobile crash.
After still further postponements DiGilio finally returned to court on February 24, and in a short time a jury of seven men and an equal number of women was impaneled.
Harding, the prosecutor, in his opening statement, reviewed the details of the loan transaction, explaining that Pereria had met the defendant through the latter’s friend, Grimaldi, then owner of a Woodbridge paint store. He went still further, and for the first time details of the cash settlement that sealed the accuser’s lips went officially into the record.
Harding told the jury that Attorney David Friedland, a member of the State Assembly and its minority leader, had represented DiGilio in negotiating the settlement with Pereria’s lawyer, Norman Robbins, law director of Woodbridge Township. Through their agreement, the prosecutor stated, DiGilio had paid $6,500 to his creditor and the matter was considered closed.
DIGllio’s attorney, Querques, was on his feet interrupting. He implied that the money had been paid by the lender in good faith “for his own peace of mind” and because he did not wish to worry his pregnant wife.
After the prosecutor had concluded, Pereria was called to the stand as the state’s key witness. Obviously nervous, he related the details of the loan and his difficulty in meeting the weekly payments. “I knew it was shy money,” he testified. “I knew the general procedures. If you don’t pay, you end up with threats or wind up with your head busted.” He even related a conversation with Grimaldi when they discussed the possibility of having the car wash set afire for the insurance.
A titter ran through the courtroom when the witness testified that the New Jersey police “wired me for sound,” referring to a microphone that detectives had secreted in his clothing to obtain recordings of his conversations with Grimaldi, who often reminded him of the dire consequences that might follow his refusal to continue payments.
These tapes, liberally laced with four-letter words, were later read in open court. Spectators had a field day.
Soon afterward the much-talked-of pay-back by DiGilio to Pereria at last became a part of the official court record. The details were disclosed by Assemblyman Friedland, a young man .with thick brown hair and long sideburns, who appeared in an Edwardian gray suit, eager to tell what he knew. With him, as a corroborating witness, was Robbins.
After picturing DiGilio as a troubled man, whose pregnant wife had undergone spinal surgery, Friedland stated that the defendant had paid $6,500 to Pereria, following arrangements that he said had been concluded on the floor of the legislature after a series of conferences in which Pereria’s demand for a larger sum was finally reduced to the accepted figure. The witness admitted that he had told DiGilio of the possible danger of a civil suit over charges of usury, although others had assured him that he was certain of acquittal on the pending accusations.
In closing, the defense lawyer insisted that his client was innocent of any wrongdoing and had agreed to the payment rather than endure the strain of a trial because of his wife’s illness.
Robbins followed him to the stand with his own version of the money transaction. He said that he had received $1,000 for his services.
During cross-examination of the two lawyer-witnesses strange names flitted in and out of the testimony. There was mention of “The Moose,” of “John the Greek,” and others, but their real identities were not disclosed, though their sobriquets added interest to the courtroom drama.
The defense scored heavily when it opened its case on the morning of March 5. As had been expected, its first witness, Nicholas Vaccaro, testified that he had been with DiGilio and the latter’s wife on a four-day gambling junket to Grand Bahama Island off the Florida coast and that they were all together there on the day that the defendant was accused of making the threatening call to New Jersey. To prove his story, he showed the jury photographs of the party at the island casino.
Then, on the following day, came the dramatic climax of the trial—Voiceprint evidence. While it had been rumored that the defense had “something scientific up its sleeve,” the appearance of Dr. Tosi came as a complete surprise. Word that something unusual was to happen resulted in a packed courtroom.
“Who’s he?” one spectator asked another as the bearded professor, responding to his name, walked briskly to the witness chair.
“The Voiceprint man,” someone whispered; and another, catching the words, followed with: “Voiceprints, what’s that?” They were soon to know.
After Tosi had been sworn and asked about his qualifications, he related that he had received the tape recordings from the defense and had compared the spectograms produced from them.
“Now, Dr. Tosi, what are your conclusions?” asked Attorney Querques in DiGilio’s behalf.
Tosi’s reply caused an excited stir among the spectators. Testifying under oath, he declared that the voices were not the same—in other words, Voiceprints had established that DiGilio was not the man who made the death threats against Pereria.
To further emphasize the impact of the expert’s judgment, defense counsel asked the court’s permission to provide a demonstration. DiGilio read aloud from a transcript of one conversation, playing the role of the extortioner; Detective Captain Silvio Donatelli took Pereria’s part. When they had finished Dr. Tosi looked at the judge repeating what he had said before: “The two voices belong to two different persons.”
To support the Michigan scientist, the defense called a second expert, Dr. Louis J. Gerstman, a psychology professor and speech researcher from New York University, who also had studied the tapes.
“The same voice,” he declared, “could not possibly have made the two recordings. I am certain that these are the voices of two different people.” DiGilio, he went on to explain, “is a tenor while the man who called Pereria had a considerably lower voice.
The defense now had dealt telling blows to the state’s case, but it still had not finished. “And now,” Attorney Querques will
announced, “we hear from the expert who invented Voiceprints. Mr. Kersta, will you please come forward?”
Necks were craned as the tall, lanky engineer with a gray Van Dyke, walked rapidly down the aisle. He was first asked by the judge, as had been inquired of the others, whether his testimony would support the defense, for New Jersey was not yet ready to admit such evidence by the prosecution. After assuring the judge that he was appearing in the defendant’s behalf, he proceeded with the usual self-qualifying statements. Then, laying a foundation for the all-important question he was expecting, Kersta told how he had made spectograms of the recordings and had compared them.
“And just what did you find?” the lawyer pressed.
“The unknown voice was not the voice of Mr. DiGilio,” he replied.
Under cross-examination he did not conceal his anger when Harding, the prosecutor, tried to confuse him with a question. Having personally been to the New Jersey laboratory with a detective, Harding had come away with seven spectograms and now he asked the witness how many voices they represented.
Kersta bristled. “I will not jeopardize a scientific technique,” he retorted, “by attempting to read these graphs while I’m on the witness stand. I don’t perform before an audience.”
The question went unanswered.
The jury was informed that each of the experts had reached his conclusion by slightly different methods of comparisons.
The climax of the trial was over, but the defense still had more to say. It called Grimaldi, awaiting trial on similar charges, and he added more confusion to the already complicated case. His version was that actually the loans had been made by him
rather than by DiGilio; that therefore the defendant would have had no reason to threaten Pereria.
DiGilio’s appearance on the stand as his own witness marked the approaching end of the trial. He denied making the threatening call or ever having loaned money to his accuser. Asked why, then, he had agreed to a $6,500 payment to Pereria, he answered, “I was buying peace of mind.” It was his way of explaining that he feared his wife would suffer a breakdown if he were compelled to face a jury trial. “She was crying all the time,” he told the jury. “She was driving me crazy.” And, recalling his arrest, he added: “I’m sitting in the jail wondering what I done. After a while a detective told me of the charges and I told him ‘Impossible—you picked the wrong guy.
Harding in cross-examination drew a few laughs as he pressed the witness for some explanation as to why Pereria had singled him out for an allegedly false accusation. DiGilio thought for a moment before replying: “This guy took a million-to-one shot and picked me.”
“Picked you out of a hat?” the prosecutor inquired, smiling. “I don’t know,” he answered, “but I’m here.”
Mrs. Ellen DiGilio, following her husband to the stand, did her best to corroborate his explanation of why he agreed to a cash settlement to stay prosecution. She referred to her highly nervous condition over his troubles, adding that they both were afraid that their child might be born dead, as her doctor had feared. She also disclosed that her husband’s income from two jobs had totaled $27,728 the previous year, a point that neither side chose to pursue.
Near the close of its case the defense scored again through the testimony of other witnesses who said that they had been gambling with DiGilio and his wife on Grand Bahama Island on the day of the threatening call to Pereria.
Harding’s rebuttal for the state was brief, but some courtroom attendants believed it indicated his fear of the Voiceprint testimony in the defense’s behalf. Again referring to his visit to Kersta’s laboratory, he related that he had been given a few spectograms to illustrate the method; then in derisive tones he told the court that “one looks like a mountain and the other like a tree.” It was obvious that he was trying to discredit the testimony of Kersta and his colleagues.
Closing arguments provided an interesting study in forensic styles. Querques, at times highly emotional, painted a touching word picture of DiGilio and his wife, suffering mental anguish as they awaited the birth of their child. He emphasized the findings of the Voiceprint experts who had testified for the defense, stressing his claim that a man proved innocent by science had been brought to trial. Sometimes there were tears in his eyes; occasionally he shouted to impress the jury. Now and then he lowered his voice to a whisper.
Harding, on the other hand, spoke calmly and with no emotion. In his direct fashion he reviewed the state’s case, attempting to .-place DiGilio in the center of a web of incriminating evidence and he branded Querques’ plea for sympathy as “one grand hoax.”
Judge Melineux gave his instructions and the jurors retired. It was March 12, 1970, a few days less than two years after Brennan’s sensational speech. Taking of testimony had consumed ten and a half days.
Speculation was rife over the outcome, though many left the courtroom expecting long deliberations. Some believed that the Voiceprint evidence had clinched the case for the defense; others questioned whether “the new-fangled machine,” as they called it, would influence the jury. And there were those who believed that it would be impossible to reach a verdict in view of the complicated and conflicting evidence involved. At best the result appeared to be anybody’s guess, yet no one had imagined the speed with which DiGilio’s fate would be determined.
The clock showed the passage of only seventy minutes since the jurors had retired when there came a knock on the jury-room door. Judge Melineux was hastily summoned, court was convened, and the bailiff rapped for order.
DiGilio, in a chair beside his lawyer, sat rigidly as the usual formalities received necessary attention. Not far away his accuser, Pereria, flanked the prosecutor at the state’s table.
The jurors were escorted back to the box, their faces immobile, with no indication of their decision. The foreman rose and at the court’s request read the writing on the slip of paper in his hand.
As he spoke the words “not guilty,” applause broke out among those remaining in the courtroom. DiGilio’s face beamed as he moved toward his wife, whose tears stained her makeup. They walked outside arm in arm and to newsmen DiGilio declared: “I feel twenty years younger. I was never this nervous before a fight.” Then he asked his wife to phone his mother. “I’m even too nervous to do that,” said the former boxer.
Later in the day Kersta and his associates received the news. They were gratified that the jury had accepted their interpretation of Voiceprint evidence.
However, the old scandal that Brennan had exposed long before had not yet reached a final conclusion. During the progress of the trial a special legislative committee had conducted an intensive inquiry to determine whether the three prominent lawyers involved in DiGilio’s repayment of borrowed money and interest to Pereria were guilty of unethical conduct. At its conclusion the New Jersey Supreme Court directed that the trio be summoned to a hearing in their own defense.
When this was over the high court ordered the three men suspended from practice—Friedland and Robbins for six months each; Querques for three months.
There now remained only the case of Gerald Grimaldi, once DiGilio’s co-defendant, his trial having been separated from the other because of illness. Though it had been intended to begin his trial with as little delay as possible, more technicalities were raised; then Grimaldi became sick again.
The matter dragged on for more than a year until July, 1972, when Grimaldi suddenly waived trial and pleaded guilty to taking part in a conspiracy to threaten Pereria. He was sentenced to serve from one to two years in New Jersey state prison and fined $1,000 by Superior Court Judge Charles M. Morris, Jr. It was an ironic turn in the long-lingering case that would have been dropped and forgotten but for Attorney Brennan’s speech to a fraternity more than three years before.
The identity of the man who actually threatened Pereria over the telephone still remains a mystery that Voiceprints cannot solve.by