Produced by Paul LaRosa and Elena DiFiore
[This story first aired on Nov. 17, 2018. It was updated on April 20, 2019.]
Joey Comunale, a successful 26-year-old from Connecticut did what many young people do every weekend — go clubbing in New York’s hot Meatpacking District. Comunale ended the night at an after-party that seemed like any other … but this time, he disappeared.
Within hours of learningwas missing, his close friends went into overdrive scouring social media to find him. Using information they found on Instagram, Facebook and elsewhere, they traced the final steps their friend took that night – steps that ultimately led to his death.
“I called everyone in my phone,” friend Stephen Naso tells Erin Moriarty, after he got a call from Comunale’s father, Pat. “We go and we just start looking for him.”
“48 Hours” explores the last night of Comunale’s life, the race to find him, and the case against two young men — one of them the surrogate son of a so-called “Jeweler to the Stars” for brutally murdering him. A third man was also implicated for hindering prosecution and tampering with physical evidence.
It is a story of wealth, privilege, and an early morning after-party at an upscale NYC apartment that went terribly wrong.
A NIGHT OUT IN THE CITY
Preetham Dhivakarababu: I met Joey freshman year of college. We’ve been best friends ever since.
Todd Greene: My best friend
Max Branchinelli: Best friend.
Pat Comunale: Everybody called him their best friend, but I was his best friend.
Joey Comunale’s father Pat knew his 26-year-old son well and, at first, he wasn’t worried when he couldn’t reach him the morning after Joey went out with some friends on Saturday night Nov. 12, 2016.
Pat Comunale: I know it sounds crazy, but in New York, things don’t really start until late. It’s not unheard of for kids to come home at 6:00 in the morning and I figured he’s sleepin’.
Looking back, Joey’s friends, like Stephen Naso, will tell you that Joey never even intended to go out that Saturday night.
Stephen Naso: He was sick earlier in the day. …I think he took a nap for, like, three hours.
But then Joey’s college buddy Preetham Dhivakarababu, a part-time promoter, texted and offered Joey VIP treatment at the Gilded Lily, a club then located in the chic Meatpacking District in downtown Manhattan.
Preetham Dhivakarababu: I was working so I’d be able to take care of everyone that came in.
Elisa Libretto dated Joey Comunale on and off –but mostly on — for five years; first at Hofstra University and later, when Joey became a sales associate at his father’s security company and Libretto became a teacher.
Erin Moriarty: Did you ever worry about him?
Elisa Libretto: I worried about Joey because I loved him but I knew that, you know,. …he is like the rest of us. He wants to have fun, doesn’t want any problems.
But that particular Saturday, she and Joey, like a lot of longtime couples, were taking a break.
Elisa Libretto: We had a little bit of, like, a disagreement … And I was, like, “You know what? I just need a little bit of space like I’ll talk to him in the morning.”
So Joey headed into Manhattan from Stamford, Connecticut.
Stephen Naso: We hop on the Merritt Parkway and shoot down to New York City.
Joey was with Stephen Naso and they met up with a group of friends
Preetham Dhivakarababu: It was always a good time to meet people and that’s why Joey and them came out to the Gilded that night.
As the club was closing, Joey and his friends can be seen exiting on surveillance video. It was early Sunday morning and the crowd emptied onto the street. That’s when Joey began talking to three women standing outside the club.
Stephen Naso: 3:30 or so the night was ending so everyone exits. I remember Joey on my left and these girls were looking at him a certain way and he was looking back at me and just smiling like, you know, that he was interested.
Stephen Naso: I get approached on my right side by two guys and they try to start some conversation with me. Joey’s on my left … and they kind of form a group on that side.
The men did not know the women and they didn’t know Joey and his friends, either.
Erin Moriarty: He jumped in a cab and went off with these two guys. Why do you think he did, do you know?
Stephen Naso: I just don’t know, but I guarantee they’re saying that they have a penthouse apartment, there’s girls, this guy’s dad is a jeweler.
Stephen Naso: There’s six or seven million people in New York City and they cross paths with us.
At that point, Naso borrowed Joey’s phone and stepped away from the group. When he turned back, Joey and the group were gone.
Murray Weiss | “48 Hours”: And … this new group that he had met, somebody said, “Hey, you want to go to a friend’s apartment in Sutton Place and continue having some fun?”
Longtime New York crime reporter Murray Weiss covered the Joey Comunale story when it first broke and is now working for “48 Hours.”
Murray Weiss: So Joey went along, leaving his phone behind with his friend, thinking, “I’ll get it tomorrow. No big deal.” …They just jumped in a couple of cabs and off they went.
Naso got word that Joey had gone to a party uptown at someone’s apartment. So he headed home with Joey’s phone. Hours later, on Sunday afternoon, back in Naso’s apartment, Joey’s phone began ringing.
Stephen Naso: And it was his father … He said, “Hey, where’s Joey?” I said, “He stayed in the city.” And he was, like, “All right, well somethin’ happened. Find him for me.”
Pat Comunale: So then I went to Joey’s place … and he wasn’t there.
Erin Moriarty: Did you talk to him every day?
Pat Comunale: Yeah everyday. …We talked about the Yankees and the Rangers and … [sobs]
Erin Moriarty: I’m so sorry Pat.
Naso got in touch with Dhivakarababu, who tracked down the phone number of a guy named Larry who had been at the party.
Preetham Dhivakarababu: Larry told … us that he doesn’t know where Joey went.
That’s when the vast network of Joey’s friends got to work, combing through social media, searching for any scrap of information. Friend Mike Mullen says they plugged Larry’s phone number into Google and got a last name.
Mike Mullen: And actually his Facebook popped up, Lawrence Dilione. “Is this the kid?” “Yeah, that’s the kid we were with last night.”
Mike Mullen: Max was the one who really put everything in motion.
Max Branchinelli was perhaps Joey’s closest friend. He manages a restaurant, but when he heard Joey was missing, he turned himself into an online detective.
Erin Moriarty: Had you ever tried to track down or retrace somebody’s steps before using social media?
Max Branchinelli: No … you’re in a panic and you’re tryin’ to find your – your friend.
Erin Moriarty: So show me where you started.
Max Branchinelli: So I went on Instagram.
Erin Moriarty: And why Instagram? Why would you start there?
Max Branchinelli: Instagram, you can click on the location of a place and it will show people that posted a picture there … from that place.
Here’s what Branchinelli did. He began using Instagram’s locator function for the Gilded Lily, looking for users who had posted the previous night and that morning. He kept his eye out for Joey.
Max Branchinelli: As I was scrolling, I landed on — this picture.
Erin Moriarty: And why did this catch your eye?
Max Branchinelli: This caught my eye because I happen to know him, in the middle.
By total coincidence, Max spotted a friend, Alvin. But that’s not the only reason he stopped at the photo.
Max Branchinelli: I know the type of girls Joey chases. They’re dark features. And I just had a hunch. …So I screenshot the picture, and I sent it to the group of the guys that were out at the club with him the night before.
Erin Moriarty: And what’d they say?
Max Branchinelli: They were like, “Yeah, it’s that girl right there on the right.” …and I was like, “Wow.”
That woman had also gone to the Sutton Place party that night. Branchinelli called his friend, Alvin, who had her phone number.
Max Branchinelli: So I then hit her up. …”Do you remember being with Joey last night? Like, we can’t find him. He’s missing.” And she told me, like, “Yeah, we were with him last night.”
She told him that when the party ended early that Sunday morning, Larry Dilione and Joey walked her and her friends to an Uber.
Max Branchinelli: She told me they waved … He looked like he was going back inside with Larry.
But when Max called Larry Dilione, he said Joey did not go back inside the building.
Max Branchinelli: He’s like, “he left in an Uber with the girls.”
Those were two very different stories.
Max Branchinelli: At this point, I’m not sure who’s lying to me.
How does a 26-year-old man simply disappear? Joey Comunale was part of a close-knit, loving family with a younger sister, Alexa, and parents, Pat and Lisa.
Lisa Comunale: He loved going to the city … he did it all the time. He loved it.
Pat Comunale: He’d go to Ranger games. He’d go to the Yankee games. He’d go to the Giant games.
Pat Comunale lives in a tony part of Connecticut, but he’s a Bronx kid at heart. He moved here, met his future wife Lisa, and founded a successful security firm that he later sold for more than $400 million. But that meant nothing now that his only son was missing.
Erin Moriarty: How important is family to you, Pat?
Pat Comunale: Hmm [sobs].
Pat Comunale: Yeah, family’s important. That’s — that’s [sobs] everything.
Erin Moriarty: Tell me about his relationship with his dad.
Elisa Libretto: I have never seen a person admire their father so much. I’ve never seen a father admire their son so much. They were inseparable.
By Sunday evening, with Joey now missing about 10 hours, Pat Comunale phoned Larry Dilione — who had been at the Sutton Place apartment with Joey.
Pat Comunale: Larry says … they walked the girls out to the car and that’s the last they saw of him.
But then Dilione provided one small additional detail about Joey that, to Pat, seemed off.
Pat Comunale: He said, “The last I heard, he said he was goin’ to get cigarettes.”
Erin Moriarty: Did that make sense?
Pat Comunale: …didn’t make any sense ’cause if you talk to his — his friends, they’ll tell you that he never bought a pack of cigarettes in his life.
Max Branchinelli: Joey smoked cigarettes from time to time, but he never bought them [laughs]. That’s why it doesn’t make any sense.
Pat Comunale thought so, too. He decided to file a missing persons report.
Pat Comunale: So I said, “All right, let me go to the Stamford P.D.”
By then, Pat Comunale had Larry Dilione’s phone number. The on-duty sergeant called Dilione, who denied knowing where Joey was but he did provide the names and numbers of two friends at the party: James Rackover and Max Gemma. Dilione also provided the address: 418 E. 59th Street in Manhattan, a building that calls itself the Grand Sutton.
The Grand Sutton is a luxury condo in one of the wealthiest sections of New York City. And apartment 4C was home to 25-year-old James Rackover.
Pat Comunale: You’re not expecting an issue in Sutton Place … Sutton Place is a beautiful place to live. …what could go wrong … in the Upper East Side?
No one would disagree. Over the years, the neighborhood’s been home to a parade of celebrities including Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson and rock star Freddie Mercury.
Erin Moriarty: And do you know anything about Larry Dilione or James Rackover or Max Gemma at that point.
Pat Comunale: Nothin’.
Erin Moriarty: You know nothing about them.
Pat Comunale: Nothin’
But, as the days passed, the police would find out a lot more about the three young men — all in their 20s — who partied that morning with Joey.
Murray Weiss: The three young men in this story … are young men of privilege.
Larry Dilione worked in real estate and came from a well-off New Jersey family that owned thoroughbred horses.
Max Gemma was a computer software salesman whose father was once the mayor of Oceanport, New Jersey, and had been in business with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law.
But no one appeared to live a more charmed life than James Rackover, who was living in Sutton Place. His father Jeffrey, who had a much larger apartment in the same building on the 32nd floor, specialized in getting one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry for the world’s rich and beautiful.
Murray Weiss: I grew up in the same town with — Jeffrey Rackover. We grew up a block apart. And while we weren’t close, our families knew each other.
Murray Weiss: …he not only cultivated becoming a jeweler to the stars, he wanted to be among them. …He was friends with Jerry Jones … the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. He came to know Oprah. His apartment has photographs of himself with all these personalities.
James Rackover enjoyed the good life. He was an aspiring model working in the insurance business, loved boxing and even had a boxer named “Gloves.”
Murray Weiss: I think Joey … had an opportunity to go to a fancy part of New York City, into a fancy apartment. And he went along.
And there were those three young ladies along for the ride: Jenna Stisi, Katie Conroy and Samantha Guardiola.
But all that mattered to Pat Comunale was finding his son. He had already filed a missing persons report with the Stamford Police, but also wanted to alert the New York City cops. So at 9 a.m. Monday morning — some 25 hours since anyone reported seeing Joey — Pat was at the 17th Police Precinct where he told NYPD Detective Yeoman Castro everything he knew.
Pat Comunale: Detective Castro — I still remember sayin’, “Let’s go to the building.” And we jumped in the police car.
When they arrived at the Grand Sutton, Detective Castro asked to view the building’s surveillance video.
Pat Comunale: And then — he starts reviewing video … they asked me a couple times to come in and to identify if that was my son. [Sobs] So we did.
Erin Moriarty: At some point, you see your son? [Pat sobbing] So sorry, Pat.
Pat Comunale was overcome when he spotted son Joey and Larry Dilione walking the three women out to the curb.
Erin Moriarty: But then what do you see?
Pat Comunale: We see him come back into the building.
Erin Moriarty: So you see Larry Dilione and your son walking back in the building?
Pat Comunale: Right, right.
Erin Moriarty: And what did that say to you?
Pat Comunale: They’re lying. There’s a problem here.
Remember, Larry Dilione had said Joey did not go back inside the building. It was all too much for Pat. Detective Castro asked him to wait at the 17th Police Precinct.
Pat Comunale: So as I went outside to make phone calls, the porter started to bring garbage out. And I ran back inside and I said to the police, “Don’t let the garbage go. Make sure you search all the bags” … I just kinda had that sense that if these guys are lying, there could be something in the garbage.
Sadly, he was right. Inside those bags police discovered Joey’s bloody pants, his shirt and his driver’s license. Also tossed in the trash, a special chain Joey always wore given to him by his father.
Pat Comunale: I said to myself, “I don’t think he walked outta the building alive.”
A FATAL ARGUMENT
Fourteen hours after Joey Comunale and Larry Dilione were seen on video walking those women to their Uber, surveillance cameras caught James Rackover taking his father’s Mercedes Benz for a drive. With the help of NYPD’s network of cameras, detectives were able to track some of his movements.
Murray Weiss: They quickly put in Rackover’s Mercedes Benz license plate… and, bing, bing, bing, it started showin’ up goin’ down the FDR Drive … The car went south around southern Manhattan. It then made a turn into the Holland Tunnel that led out to New Jersey.
But detectives could not pinpoint precisely where the car eventually stopped. They needed a break and they soon got it from Larry Dilione.
Murray Weiss: He agreed to meet with them … And they sensed that there was something that he wanted to say. …and so the detectives said to him …”What do you wanna tell us? We have a missing boy here. His family, you know … wants to know what happened to him.”
On Tuesday, Dilione began talking. The party at the apartment in the wee early hours of Sunday morning had been lively, he said. One of the women videotaped some of it on her phone. There was cocaine and plenty of drinking. Dilione and James Rackover even competed to see who could give the best lap dance. But by 6:45 a.m., the women left in that Uber. And that’s when cameras captured Dilione and Joey walking back into the building and up to apartment 4C, where, Dilione says, a fatal argument erupted.
Murray Weiss: Larry Dilione tells the police … he has an exchange of words with Joey Comunale, that Joey Comunale says something like, “James got the cocaine. You know, I got the cigarettes. What have you brought to the table?” and kinda pounded his hand on a table. …And Larry Dilione admitted to the police that he just flew into a rage and slammed Joey … knocked him down, and hit him a few times.
Dilione says when he began punching Joey, his friend Max Gemma was asleep on the couch. Then, Dilione said James Rackover, a boxing fan who took pride in his chiseled physique, jumped right in.
Bob Abrams: According to Larry, James starts also beatin’ the crap out of Joey who’s now defenseless and gurgling because he can’t hardly breathe.
Comunale lawyer Bob Abrams has heard Dilione’s confession.
Bob Abrams: He claims that after he had beaten a defenseless Joey and almost killed him … Max woke up — they got so very nervous because Rackover was now beatin’ the crap out of Joey, that they would do anything Rackover said. …and this is really difficult for me to talk about, because what they did and how they did it is just so horrific.
Dilione says he told Gemma to leave and that’s when Dilione says James Rackover began stabbing Joey.
The stabbing ended Joey’s life. Dilione says Gemma left the apartment and had no involvement in the murder. He says James Rackover then dragged Joey’s lifeless body into the bathroom.
Murray Weiss: …he tries to dismember him with a serrated knife … Dismembering somebody is not an easy thing to do.
And James Rackover was not able to do it. While they plotted their next move, they began a frenzied cleanup of the apartment, mopping up Joey’s blood with bleach and paper towels — all the while fielding calls from Joey’s friends — and even his father.
Erin Moriarty: You’re talking to Larry Dilione …And your son’s still in the apartment. And they act like there’s nothing wrong.
Pat Comunale: Yeah.
Incredibly, evidence shows that James Rackover and Dilione took time out to eat — placing a delivery order. Then, as shown on building surveillance cameras, they explored the basement looking, police say, for a way to get Joey’s body out of the Grand Sutton without being seen. Then, they had another idea.
Murray Weiss: What they do next is totally insane.
As darkness settled on the city, Dilione claimed he moved Joey’s body — now wrapped in a comforter — to the ledge of James Rackover’s fourth floor window while James moved the Mercedes Benz into position on East 59th Street.
Bob Abrams: When Rackover gave him the clear sign, Dilione pushed the body– outta the window four floors.
Erin Moriarty: And nobody saw it? We’re talking about a upscale apartment, midtown Manhattan and nobody saw it?
Bob Abrams: The Grand Sutton faces … the Queensboro Bridge in Manhattan … and it was dark. …It fell into an area where there may have been some bushes … and concrete and then when nobody was looking, after Dilione came back down, they stuffed the body into the trunk of the car and then they drove off.
Murray Weiss: Larry had told them that they had driven the body down to Oceanport, New Jersey, and that they had deposited him in a wooded area behind a florist shop.
It was an area that Dilione was very familiar with. He grew up in Oceanport, a Jersey shore town some 60 miles from Manhattan.
Bob Abrams: …he admits to helping take the body and to participate in … digging — I don’t wanna call it a grave because it’s not a grave — a hole, and then dumping Joey’s body in a hole.
Bob Abrams: But right before they were gonna cover up the hole, James Rackover took gasoline and started to pour it over Joey’s body and, in fact, did light Joey’s body on fire.
After Dilione’s confession, police raced out to Oceanport and discovered Joey’s burned body in a field behind the florist shop, exactly where Dilione had said it would be.
Two hours later, Sgt. Yeoman Castro arrived at Pat Comunale’s home in Stamford.
Pat Comunale: You heard a car door close. And I popped up. And I saw Detective — Castro. [Sobs, then sighs] I already knew. Yeah. That was it.
James Rackover and Larry Dilione were arrested and charged with second-degree murder.
Max Gemma, who Dilione insists had nothing to do with Joey’s death, was arrested later but he was not charged with murder. He was charged with hindering prosecution and tampering with physical evidence. Gemma was granted bail.
All three men pleaded “not guilty” — even Larry Dilione. He challenged his confession, saying police had ignored him when he informed them he had a lawyer.
But the biggest shock was yet to come when it was revealed that James Rackover — who seemed to live a charmed life—was not who he claimed to be.
Erin Moriarty: James Rackover isn’t really James Rackover, is he?
Murray Weiss: No.
WHO IS JAMES RACKOVER?
Elisa Libretto: It just seemed like there was always more to learn about James, more terrible things.
To the outside world,was a wealthy young heir and would-be model living in the lap of luxury on Sutton Place. But the man that Larry Dilione claims is the ringleader in Joseph Comunale’s vicious murder is not all what he appears to be.
Murray Weiss: James Rackover was not his real name.
Detectives discovered James Rackover was not the son of celebrity jeweler Jeffrey Rackover. He’s an ex-con from Florida — a world away from the understated wealth of Sutton Place.
And James Beaudoin has a rap sheet dating back to his teens.
He spent nearly a year-and-a-half in prison for second-degree burglary. Three months after his release, in September 2013 after moving to New York, he reportedly met Jeffrey Rackover at a gym.
Murray Weiss: They were working out and they kinda hit it off.
Surprisingly, the multimillionaire bachelor, then in his mid-50s, soon invited the 22-year- old James to live with him in his lavish Grand Sutton apartment on the 32nd floor. And if anyone asked why the two were suddenly living together, Jeffrey Rackover explained it this way.
Murray Weiss: Jeffrey Rackover told his closest friends and … relatives that one day there was a knock on his door and a young man was standing at the door and said, “You don’t know me, but I’m your son.”
Jeffrey Rackover even took the extraordinary step of allowing James to change his last name to Rackover. James claimed he was Jeffrey’s biological son.
Erin Moriarty: These are the documents for the name change. …they put this in a legal document … James Rackover said … Jeffrey Rackover is his biological father. …He lied in this document, didn’t he?
Bob Abrams: James lied in that document. And Jeffrey Rackover confirmed the information.
Comunale family attorney Bob Abrams says it was all an act.
Erin Moriarty: They’re not related.
Bob Abrams: They are not related.
Abrams alleges there was a sexual relationship between the two, but Jeffrey Rackover’s lawyer categorically denies it. What’s more, James Rackover’s defense attorneys, Rob Caliendo and Maurice Sercarz, say they’ve only seen a father-son relationship.
Maurice Sercarz: Jeffrey Rackover, provided structure in the life of this young man.
Jeffrey Rackover paid for James’ education and helped him find a job. He even paid James’ nearly $4,000-a-month rent when, in early 2016, James moved into apartment 4C at the Grand Sutton. After James was arrested for Joey Comunale’s murder, Jeffrey Rackover paid, at least initially, for James’ defense attorney.
Erin Moriarty: What does James Rackover face if he’s convicted of all charges?
Maurice Sercarz: He faces spending the rest of his life in jail.
Charged with second-degree murder and other crimes, James Rackover is set to stand trial first, before Larry Dilione and Max Gemma. Sercarz has a unique strategy; he says James is guilty of covering up a murder but not of committing one.
Erin Moriarty: You are asking this jury to separate the murder from other pretty terrible acts. … tryin’ to cut up the body. Getting rid of the body. Burying the body. Burning the body.
Rob Caliendo: It is tough, but — but they are separate things.
They say it was Larry Dilione who killed Joey. In October 2018, two years after Joey Comunale’s murder, James Rackover’s trial began.
But Jeffrey Rackover, James’ biggest supporter and surrogate father, did not appear in the courtroom.
It was a much different scene for Joey, whose family and friends packed the courtroom every day.
Erin Moriarty: What’s been the worst part?
Pat Comunale: Everyday … it’s everyday. [Emotional]
Pat Comunale was the first witness and his emotional testimony quieted the courtroom.
Maurice Sercarz: I know it affected the jury. It affects the jury in any murder case.
Prosecutors painted James Rackover as a “monstrously callous” killer, playing this phone call—recorded in jail—where he brags to a friend:
JAMES RACKOVER JAIL PHONE CALL : I don’t know if you’ve been following this sh-t but I start trial September. So I’m looking at being home around October-ish … my rep’s gonna be up there bro, like my … when I hit the street. They’re gonna be like, “Yo, this kid just f—ing beat this sh-t like Rocky? And he’s home, oh my God!”
Prosecutors called to the stand women who attended that party — Jenna Stisi and Katie Conroy, but parts of their testimoney helped the defense. Conroy, in particular, said Dilione was the one brandishing a knife.
Rob Caliendo: …he was using it to do coke off of … the women– painted a picture of him being pretty quick to use this knife for any variety of tasks.
James Rackover’s defense lawyers also point out that he had nothing to gain and everything to lose by killing Joey.
Maurice Sercarz: James knew that if Jeffrey ever found out that a dead body had been discovered in his apartment, that was the end of their relationship. And that had to be factored into account as well, when you consider why James felt so compelled to get that body out of the apartment.
After more than a week of testimony, prosecutors had a strong case proving the cover-up but there was nothing that directly pointed to James Rackover as Joey’s killer. They seemed to need something or someone more.
Murray Weiss: And sure enough, they announced that they had a star witness who was gonna take the stand.
Prosecutors hoped to seal James Rackover’s conviction by unleashing an 11th hour witness: Louis Ruggiero, a close friend of James Rackover.
Murray Weiss: The new witness turned out to be the troubled son of a very, very popular New York television morning anchor woman named Rosanna Scotto.
Popular and well connected, Rosanna Scotto is as hometown as New York gets, and her 24- year-old son told the court that he met James because of his mother’s friendship with jeweler Jeffrey Rackover. The day after Joey Comunale’s murder, Ruggiero said he was working out at the gym when James called him, desperate to talk.
Murray Weiss: Louis testified that James looked strung out. He had bags under his eyes.
Murray Weiss: And he said that James told him, “I’ve done something awful.” …There was a kid in the apartment. Lawrence Dilione got into a fight with him. Kinda knocked him out. And then James says, “I got my own licks in there. And I didn’t want a dead body in my apartment. So I slit his throat.”
Murray Weiss: “We then put him in a comforter, threw him out the window. Drove him 60 miles and buried him in a grave.” And then he adds, “Don’t worry about it because I bleach cleaned the entire apartment and nobody’ll know about it.”
Ruggiero testified he thought James was just making a sick joke. But the reaction in the courtroom was very different.
Murray Weiss: Gasps came out of half of the room that was filled with Joey’s family and friends … you could see the jurors actually recoil when he used the word, “I slit his throat.”
It was a stunning moment because Ruggiero was the first witness who directly implicated James Rackover in Joey Comunale’s murder.
Maurice Sercarz: The testimony by Mr. Ruggiero was very damaging.
But defense attorney Maurice Sercarz maintains that Ruggiero’s testimony was riddled with factual errors.
Maurice Sercarz: Ruggiero testified … that my client slit his throat. Joseph Comunale did not have his throat slit.
Sercarz stuck to his defense that Rackover is guilty of the cover-up but not the murder. On cross examination, the defense attacked Ruggiero.
Robert Caliendo: He had a lot of issues … in the fall of 2016 … He was in the throes of as bad a drug problem as you could have.
Ruggiero admitted on the stand that he had been spending $1,200 a day on marijuana, OxyContin, Xanax and cocaine. He never called police to tell them about James’ confession.
Robert Caliendo: …there were a number of reasons to think that Mr. Ruggiero might not be the person you wanna hang the hat of a murder conviction on.
The prosecution rested soon after Ruggiero’s damaging testimony. The defense then presented only one piece of evidence: the ring reportedly worn by Larry Dilione when the fight broke out.
Erin Moriarty: And why is that ring so important?
Rob Caliendo: The ring had a sizeable dent in it … And if you conclude that he hit Joseph so hard that he dented it … that’s certainly — is a fact that we would want the jury to consider … it certainly speaks to who — might have committed murder and who might not have.
In his closing argument, Sercarz had one last surprise. He showed jurors 4 minutes of video where James could be seen in a building elevator and then in Jeffrey Rackover’s bedroom where Jeffrey is sleeping. Sercarz argued that in those are 4 minutes when James was not in apartment 4C, Dilione alone killed Joey.
Maurice Sercarz: Four minutes is plenty of time.
But prosecutors have a different theory that James was looking for cocaine in Jeffrey Rackover’s bedroom, didn’t find any, and the fight broke out when he returned to apartment 4C empty-handed.
After 10 days of witness testimony and evidence, the jury got the case.
Pat Comunale: Just gotta get justice…that’s really it. Now it’s a waiting game.
On Nov. 2, 2018, after nearly 5 hours of deliberations, the jury announced it had reached a verdict.
The former James Beaudoin of Florida, now James Rackover from New York, was convicted on all counts for the murder of Joey Comunale. The verdict was greeted with relief and tears.
Pat Comunale [to reporters]: I want to thank the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. I couldn’t be more proud of the NYPD … And all Joey’s friends and everybody else who supported us over the last two years …I can’t wait to get these other two sons of bitches to go down, just like this a–hole. Pardon my language.
Those who knew Joey best, like girlfriend Elisa Libretto, are left with their memories.
Elisa Libretto: I definitely thought I was gonna marry him one day. …He was just a beautiful person inside and out. My life without him has been crazy.
Joey’s mother Lisa can barely speak about her only son.
Erin Moriarty: What do you think when you take a look at Joey?
Lisa Comunale: I just miss him every day [cries].
As a way of remembering Joey, some of his friends got tattoos with the number 9, which is the number Joey always wore when he played sports.
But, of course, Pat Comunale just had to get the most elaborate tattoo.
Pat Comunale [rolls up his sleeve]: I do have one. …It’s pretty big.
Erin Moriarty: So your son’s always gonna be with you.
Pat Comunale: Yeah (teary)…I said, “You better make sure it looks just like him” and it does.
Pat Comunale: Honestly, I never saw the kid cry (sobs). Never one time. Ironic. I’m makin’ up for it. … He was a special kid. He really was.
to 28 and 2/3rd years-to-life in prison, the maximum.
Larry Dilione pleaded guilty to manslaughter for a sentence of 23 years in prison.
Max Gemma pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution and tampering with evidence for a sentence of six months in prison.
Jeffrey Rackover moved out of the Grand Sutton and cut ties to James Rackover.