Vito Colucci needed a watch.
The FBI told him he would have to keep notes of his movements, writing down what he saw and the exact time he saw it.
But he didn’t have a watch.
Colucci was a young narcotics officer who was pretending he’d quit the Stamford Police Department, but, in fact, he’d gone undercover for the FBI to try to break the mob’s hold on the city.
So he went to Caldor, the big discount department store downtown, and bought a wrist watch. The next day he went to the FBI office to get wired for his first undercover assignment.
It was 1977.
“I was feeling anxious. Wires weren’t small like they are today. If anybody hugged me, they would feel it,” Colucci said last week. “When I was leaving I said to one of the FBI guys, ‘How do I look?’ I wanted to make sure no wires were showing. He said it was fine.
“Then, in my nervousness, I said, ‘I went to Caldor and bought a Timex watch, $29.99.’ I showed it to him. He stared at me without moving a muscle. Then he said, ‘Cops wear Timex. The mob wears Rolex.’”
Colucci tells the story in the second edition of his book, “Rogue Town,” which sold out when it first was published in 2013. The publisher went out of business and Colucci has self-published the second version.
It is revised and updated, and has about 100 pages of new content. Like the first edition, there are lots of newspaper clippings to back up what Colucci has to say.
“Otherwise, people might find it hard to believe,” Colucci said.
A bad reputation
In the 1970s, Stamford was known as one of the dirtiest cities in America.
Corruption was rampant, and nowhere worse than in the police department, where officers went on Las Vegas junkets with mobsters; took bribes; looked the other way on drug deals; stole from businesses while on patrol; and got high, visited prostitutes and gambled on duty.
New York’s Gambino and Genovese crime families were virtually running Stamford. They had their hands in not only the police department but the fire department, building department, personnel department, public works department, and more.
Before he went undercover, Colucci and his partner, Joe Ligi, were trying to investigate one of their lieutenants, Larry Hogan, who worked for the mob and ran the biggest drug ring in southern Connecticut out of Stamford police headquarters. The lieutenant’s accomplice was a sergeant, Duke Morris, who killed anyone who got in their way.
They tried to kill Colucci a few times.
“Most people never experience knowing that someone wants them dead,” Colucci writes in “Rogue Town.” “When you live with it day after day, it takes a toll. I walked the dog at night with my gun tucked in my pants pocket and watched every car that drove by. ”
Corruption hampered the administration of justice many times, including in the city’s most notorious murder cases, Colucci writes.
Don’t solve that murder
Joseph Pellicci was a member of the family that owns Pellicci’s, an iconic Stamford restaurant with celebrity customers that included N.Y. Yankees great Joe DiMaggio, singers Tony Bennett and Nancy Sinatra, sportscaster Howard Cosell, and news anchor Walter Cronkite.
On the morning of Feb. 4, 1973, Pellicci disappeared. His body was found – wrapped in a blanket, hands tied with cord – a month later in Westchester County, N.Y.
Colucci writes that he and his partner, Ligi, were among the many officers assigned to the case. “Progress was quick,” he writes. They had a witness who could identify a suspect’s car, part of a license plate number, and evidence that linked the blanket and cord to the same suspect.
They were confident they had enough evidence for an arrest warrant. But Hogan suddenly took over the investigation and pulled them from the case.
It is unsolved to this day.
“Not only was Hogan running the drug and gambling activities, but he was compromising a murder investigation,” Colucci writes. “The Pellicci case was lost in that era of corruption and incompetence.”
It happened, too, with the infamous “bra murders,” which made headlines nationwide.
From 1967 to 1971 the bodies of five young black women, some of them prostitutes, began turning up along the Merritt Parkway in Stamford. Four had been strangled with their bras.
In 1972, police arrested Ben Miller, a postal worker from Darien, a schizophrenic, and a self-proclaimed preacher who would hang around downtown Stamford, waving a Bible and shouting at the prostitutes to repent. There were serious questions about how police conducted Miller’s interrogation and resulting confession.
Still, police called a nationally televised news conference and charged Miller with the bra murders. Four months later, Robert Lupinacci, a Stamford electrician, was caught trying to strangle a young black woman by the parkway.
Lupinacci was charged with assault, and police refused to look at him for the bra murders. Miller spent 16 years in a state institution for the criminally insane before a federal court set him free, ruling that his public defender ignored evidence about another suspect, Lupinacci.
Son steps out of silence
Lupinacci’s son, Jeff, contacted Colucci after the first edition was published to ask why Robert Lupinacci, who died in 2013, was never considered a suspect in the bra murders.
Jeff Lupinacci wrote a chapter for the second edition saying he believes Robert Lupinacci killed not only the five women in the bra murders case but two other Stamford-area women, one in 1980 and another in 1981.
Jeff Lupinacci writes about Robert Lupinacci’s cruelty. He beat Jeff, beat his mother and held a revolver to her head, abused animals, lied, cheated and stole, Jeff Lupinacci writes.
The book includes a chapter on Whiting Forensic Institute in Middletown, the state’s maximum security institute for the criminally insane, where the wrongly convicted Miller spent many years. An investigation into abuses at Whiting ended in the arrests of 10 employees, the dismissal of about 40 more, and a $9 million award last year to a patient-inmate who was abused and whose Greenwich family sued on his behalf.
Colucco writes in “Rogue Town” that, by the time things got cleaned up in Stamford, 15 city and state officials resigned or were fired. Multiple others, including police officers and organized crime figures, were convicted of crimes.
Stamford Advocate reporter Anthony Dolan won a 1978 Pulitzer prize for his stories revealing corruption and went on to become chief speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. Based on what he learned in Stamford, Dolan presented Reagan with a plan for stopping mob activity nationwide. It resulted in the Presidential Commission on Organized Crime.
“In only a few years, the head of the FBI’s organized crime squad was saying a federal government that had been losing the struggle against the syndicates had suddenly begun holding its own, and then for the first time actually winning that struggle,” Dolan writes in a foreword to the book.
‘People like true crime’
Colucci said that, after the first edition was published, he heard from Stamford people who had more stories of corruption they’d witnessed.
One was former Stamford Fire Chief Bob McGrath, whose letter to Colucci is published in the second edition.
“I am aware of the corrupt police officers, and some you don’t mention by name, and am aware of the corrupt fire inspections and fire department employees that covered up arson fires, and one in particular – a bowling alley fire that the inspector noted as an accidental cause when there in fact were multiple points of origin,” McGrath writes.
Colucci is writing a second book, so far untitled, that he expects to publish by the end of the year. It will be about cases he handled after he left the police department and became a private investigator.
Cases include the Shippan fire that killed three girls and their grandparents on Christmas Day 2011, and the 2004 death of 19-year-old John Bria III, who overdosed after a party at his home, where other Greenwich teens brought drugs. Greenwich police at first refused to bring charges against any of the teens, including the daughter of a well-known Hollywood director who witnesses said gave Bria drugs.
“I kept getting asked for copies of ‘Rogue Town,’ but I couldn’t get more printed because the publisher isn’t in the business anymore,” said Colucci, who now lives in Byron, Illinois. “I found out that I had the rights, so I decided to add to the book and publish a second edition on my own. People like true crime stories, especially when they happened in their own town.”