YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: Hours before a federal appeals court ruled that family members of a reputed organized-crime associate from Tenafly can sue the former Bergen County prosecutor’s chief of detectives in connection with his unsolved mob-style murder, their lawyer killed himself in a South Jersey hotel.
The death of civil rights attorney William Buckman, which authorities ruled a suicide, adds a twist to the history of a lawsuit filed by the heirs of Frank P. Lagano.
CLIFFVIEW PILOT was the first to report when U.S. District Court Judge Faith Hochberg dismissed the suit in June 2013. READ MORE….
However, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Hochberg’s decision on Wednesday, saying that she “erred in reaching these conclusions.”
The family’s accusations “support a reasonable inference” that Michael Mordaga — now the Hackensack police director — and members of Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli’s office didn’t act “within their classic investigatory and prosecutorial functions” in creating what the plaintiffs call a “state-created danger in violation of [Lagano’s] due-process rights.”
The family claims that Mordaga blew the 71-year-old informant’s cover, leading to his being shot in the head on April 12, 2007 in the parking lot of a Middlesex County diner that he co-owned.
They’re seeking more than $4 million in damages, which they claim the former Lucchese soldier would have earned over the next 14 years if he hadn’t been whacked.
Mordaga and Molinelli have repeatedly told CLIFFVIEW PILOT that the lawsuit had no merit.
Molinelli said his office had no knowledge that Lagano was a snitch. He also accused the family, through Buckman, of trying to intimidate his office into returning the seized money, which he said were proceeds from gambling, extortion and other crimes.
Buckman, who publicly sparred with the prosecutor over the case, came to prominence through his involvement with a 1996 court case that was credited with helping to bring racial profiling to light. His body was discovered Tuesday in a room at the Residents Inn on Route 38 in Mount Laurel, police said.
Lagano’s cooperation with law enforcement began after investigators from Molinelli’s office seized more than $50,000 in cash and other items during a Dec. 1, 2004 raid on his home.
The raid was part of “Operation Jersey Boyz,” a sweep that netted 40 or so organized-crime figures in what was billed as one of the largest gambling busts in North Jersey history — featuring a haul of more than $1 million in cash, weapons and drugs.
Lagano’s estate claimed that the investigators didn’t produce an inventory of what was taken and then used the haul “to their own benefit or to the benefit of their confederates or supervisors.”
Following the raid, Molinelli’s office went to court in a forfeiture action, indicating that a total of $265,428 was seized, according to court records. The money went into a fund used to subsidize a variety of law enforcement- and justice-related services throughout Bergen County.
As the civil and criminal cases were proceeding, the lawsuit claimed, Mordaga met with Lagano, a personal friend and business associate.
Mordaga gave Lagano the card of an attorney who he said would make “90% of [his] problems go away,” according to the lawsuit.
Instead, Lagano threw in with James Sweeney, a former DCJ investigator, apparently hoping he could dime out fellow mobsters in exchange for a lesser sentence, court papers show.
The estate claimed in its suit that Mordaga told Lagano he could not “count on Sweeney helping” with Lagano’s legal problems because “Sweeney is going to jail.”
Soon after, someone in the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office tipped off “alleged members of certain crime families” arrested in a major sweep the day of the raid that Lagano was an informant, the dismissed suit alleged.
This “created a dangerous situation that resulted in Lagano’s death,” it said.
The gangland-style killing still hasn’t been solved. Sweeney, who has since died, brought his own case against the state, which became a blueprint of sorts for Lagano’s estate.
Law enforcement sources with knowledge of the situation told CLIFFVIEW PILOT that Lagano was introduced to Sweeney by another informant who allegedly owed Lagano money.
Two other associates he owed money to ended up shot dead, something Lagano may have been aware of, one of the sources said.
All of them questioned how much, if at all, Lagano cooperated. One noted that the charges from the earlier sweep were still pending against him when he was killed.
PHOTOS of Mordaga, Molinelli: CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter Mary K. Miraglia
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