NEW YORK — Joseph Romano was once a wealthy swindler who had a taste for vintage cars — a 1957 Chevy, a 1968 Camaro, a 1967 Impala — and a hefty bill with a mechanic that he wasn’t paying.
A dispute over that bill has become a strange footnote to an ongoing trial where Romano is accused in a failed plot to mutilate and kill a prosecutor and a judge.
Federal prosecutors in New York City allege that Romano also sought to hire someone to assault the Long Island mechanic, Nicholas Pittas, as payback for having the Camaro seized from his home on a flatbed. Undercover investigators ended up staging a photo to make it look like Pittas had been knocked out in a beat-down.
“That’s a picture of me laying next to the trailer that’s on the side of our building,” Pittas told jurors in testimony this week that provided a lesson in both the mechanics of cars and of an FBI sting.
Lawyers for Romano, who has pleaded not guilty to attempted murder charges, say he was entrapped and that no one was ever in real danger. His trial resumes Tuesday with closing arguments.
Romano, 50, met Pittas in 2008 while he was making a fortune with a boiler-room operation that cheated elderly investors in a collectible coin scheme. He hired the 39-year-old Pittas, who a year earlier had opened a custom auto shop with his father, to care for his car collection.
“The ‘57 Chevrolet and the Camaro came and went, but the Impala was always at our shop,” Pittas testified. “It was a bigger job.”
Romano gave the go-ahead for a complete — and expensive — restoration of the Impala.
“Basically every nut and bolt was removed, refurbished,” Pittas said. “The body was taken off the chassis, engine, transmission — all rebuilt.”
By 2010, parts and labor had reached $50,000, he said. When it wasn’t paid, the shop placed a lien on the Camaro and took possession of it.
Following Romano’s arrest in the coin scam, his business partner showed up at the shop to tell Pittas that Romano wanted the Camaro back. The exchange ended with the mechanic telling the partner that if he covered the costs for both the Impala and the Camaro, “We’d gladly get rid of them.”
In the summer of 2012, investigators learned through a jailhouse snitch that Romano wanted to avenge his 15-year sentence and $7 million forfeiture in the fraud case by having the judge and prosecutor killed by decapitation.
An undercover agent wearing a wire and posing as a professional hit man named Bobby Russo visited Romano who, as a test, first asked him to assault Pittas for $3,000 and told him more work would follow, authorities said. He also wanted proof that the job was done.
“I have one to start. Stole two cars from me,” Romano said in the recorded conversation, referring to Pittas.
“Beat him up? Smack him up?” the undercover asked.
Shortly after, an FBI agent showed at Pittas’ shop and told him about the threat. The agent also had an unusual request: He wanted Pittas to lie down on the ground for a photo and also to give him a piece of identification.
The FBI provided Pittas bandages and a brace to wear afterward “to make it look like I was assaulted,” he testified.
The undercover turned over the photo and identification — Pittas’ body damage estimator’s license — to Romano’s business partner. The partner showed both to Romano while visiting him in jail, authorities said.
Romano was satisfied enough to send word to the undercover that he would pay $40,000 to kill the judge and prosecutor, authorities said. This time, prosecutors say, more gruesome proof was demanded: the heads of both preserved in formaldehyde.
He was charged before the alleged plot could go any further.
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