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By David Staba

For more than three decades, a strictly enforced code of silence kept Michael "Butch" Quarcini at the helm of what became one of the region's most infamous, and ultimately heavily indicted, labor unions.

Members of Laborers Local 91 who dared defy the orders of Quarcini and his underlings, challenge the regime's authority or show the audacity to beat the boss at cards could expect few work assignments, threats to their homes and families or even a unique brand of "justice" meted out in the basement of the union's Seneca Avenue hall.

The most serious transgression, though, was discussing union business -- legitimate or not -- with anyone outside Local 91. Particularly law enforcement types.

Quarcini, who died in 2003 while under federal indictment, is gone. And so is his code of silence.

Last week, a Local 91 member convicted in a gang attack on workers from another union during construction of the Wegman's supermarket on Military Road agreed to testify about some of the most serious allegations contained in the government's massive indictment of nine union members and officers on extortion and conspiracy charges. His admissions included involvement in the 1997 firebombing of a house occupied by non-union workers.

"It's certainly a turning point in the continuing prosecution insofar as one person has withdrawn any objections to his extortion convictions," said Assistant U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. "And he provides eyewitness testimony to specific actions that hadn't been charged in the old indictment."

Anthony Cerrone, convicted in January of two counts of felony extortion for his part in the Wegman's brawl, told prosecutors he took part in a series of attacks on property and non-union workers. His testimony is expected to reinforce the feds' case against the Local 91 members still awaiting trial -- former presidents Mark Congi and Dominick Dellaccio, ex-vice president Salvatore Bertino, onetime assistant business manager Albert Celeste, Andrew Shomers, Salvatore Spatorico, Andrew Tomascik Jr., Paul Bellreng and Joel Cicero. The nine are scheduled to face trial together starting Sept. 7.

Cerrone's cooperation could not only have an enormous impact on the upcoming trial, but what he has to say could lead to further indictments.

"To the people who are under indictment under the present time, it makes their defense more difficult," said a law enforcement source close to the investigation. "What could be happening is there's at least one member who has not been indicted who could be facing indictment."

Two other Local 91 members, Brian Perry and James McKeown, pleaded guilty in the case last year and agreed to testify if needed. Another, Steven Markle, was convicted along with Cerrone in January. Mark LoStracco was acquitted of attempted destruction of a motor vehicle in December.

In his plea agreement, Cerrone admitted taking part in the firebombing of a house in the Town of Niagara where two non-union workers were living during an asbestos-abatement project at the Niagara Falls wastewater treatment plant.

Through the spring of 1997, Local 91 officers and members repeatedly threatened non-union workers of Sanala, Inc., who had been hired for the job.

"On numerous occasions after March 26, 1997 ... defendant Paul Bellreng and other members of Local 91 threatened to kill the employees of (Sanala) and their families," reads the federal indictment. "On numerous occasions on or about March 27, 1997 and continuing thereafter ... Congi, Andrew Tomascik Jr., Salvatore Spatorico, Brian Perry, Bellreng, Celeste and other members of Local 91 prevented employees of (Sanala) from entering and leaving the job site, launched projectiles, threatened to commit arson upon the employees, threatened to rape juvenile and adult female members of their families, and attempted to destroy their property."

The threats became more than mere talk in late April.

"On or about April 21, 1997, Bellreng exited the automobile of Celeste, told an employee of (Sanala) that 'I'm going to take your head off tonight,' and later that same evening, two explosive devices were detonated inside the residence of the employees, causing permanent injury to one," the indictment continues. "On or about April 22, 1997, a member of Local 91 asked an employee of (Sanala) how it was sleeping in the fire."

Cerrone's agreement to cooperate with prosecutors said he will testify about "an occasion when the defendant and other members of Laborers Local 91 threw two explosive devices into the home of certain non-union employees of Sanala, Inc., such explosive devices being first affixed to masonry bricks so as to create shrapnel upon detonation of the explosive devices."

The bombing was part of what prosecutors called a pattern of harassment and extortion that turned Local 91 into a "criminal enterprise," and thus subject to federal RICO laws aimed at long-running racketeering operations. Until Cerrone came forward, though, prosecutors had been unable to link any individual to the attack.

"That was one we were baffled on for a while," the law enforcement source said. "We knew it involved Local 91, but had little knowledge on it. It's nice to be able to close that one out."

The agreement goes on to say Cerrone "and other members of Laborers Local 91 destroyed a protective liner covering a portion of a landfill located in the Town of Niagara" that had been installed by workers from a non-union company.

Cerrone also admitted that a Local 91 official "procured for the defendant a fraudulently issued hazardous material license." Cerrone's agreement requires him to testify about "multiple occasions where members of Laborers Local 91 sabotaged property belonging to various persons, companies, law enforcement officers, government agencies and educational institutions."

He'll also testify about "multiple occasions when a co-defendant in the case ... contacted the defendant for the purpose of instructing the defendant not to cooperate with law enforcement, with one such contact occurring immediately prior to the trial of defendant Cerrone herein," according to the agreement.

"A lot of what he's saying has affirmed what the investigation has laid out," the law enforcement source said. "It helps us with the ones we hadn't been able to get yet."

The new information could lead to charges against those already indicted or other members of Local 91, be used to buttress the existing charges, or both. While the statute of limitations has expired on some of the incidents, testimony about them may still be admissible as evidence of conspiracy.

"The government plans to pursue the information provided by Mr. Cerrone to the fullest extent of the law," Hochul said.

By cooperating, Cerrone could shave years off his sentence, which could have been up to 20 years. With the remaining defendants facing charges that carry potential 20-year terms if convicted, investigators said there could be a ripple effect.

We're hoping this will stir up talk a little," the law enforcement source said.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 24 2005