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Mistrial declared in juice loan extortion case after agent mentions ‘organized crime’

A federal judge on Friday took the rare step of declaring a mistrial for two west suburban men accused in a juice loan extortion scheme after an FBI agent testified he investigated “organized crime matters,” a term that the judge had explicitly barred to avoid prejudicing the jury.

Gene “Gino” Cassano, 55, and Gioacchino “Jack” Galione, 47, both of Addison, are charged with conspiring to collect a debt by extortionate means, which carries a maximum of 20 years in prison. Galione is also charged with using violence to collect a debt.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman to halt the trial came after three tumultuous days of testimony, including one witness who accused a defense attorney in front of the jury of being a liar who is “paid to represent criminals” and others with lengthy rap sheets who had to be dragged into court under threat of incarceration.

There were a total of six motions for a mistrial by the two defense teams for various alleged infractions, culminating with the “organized crime” comment late in the day Thursday that the judge said left her “no choice” but to discharge the jury and start anew.

A status hearing to figure out next steps was set for Monday. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office had no immediate comment.

The case is limited to a single incident involving a victim who was allegedly punched by Galione in an attempt to collect a juice loan debt.

Federal court records show it’s tied to a wider investigation of the Chicago Outfit, including gambling and prostitution rackets allegedly being run by the mob’s notorious Elmwood Park crew. But Johnson had barred mention of the mob connections to avoid prejudicing the jury.

The issue that led to the mistrial occurred late in the day Thursday, when prosecutors called FBI Special Agent David Patch to give routine testimony about a download from a witness’s cellphone.

Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hogan, Patch told the jury he’d worked in the FBI Chicago field office for his whole career and investigated national and international “organized crime matters.”

Several members of the defense teams immediately shouted objections, prompting Coleman to abruptly end the trial for the day.

In arguments outside the presence of the jury, lawyers for both Cassano and Galione accused Hogan of intentionally disregarding Coleman’s orders, saying he either knew or should have known that Patch’s response to the question about his background would have mentioned organized crime.

In a written motion filed early Friday, attorneys Damon Cheronis, who represents Galione, and Todd Pugh, who represents Cassano, accused the prosecution team of trying to creatively insert references to the mob into the trial.

“The government has been attempting to find ways to inject organized crime gloss to this case from the jump,” the motion stated. “Of course, nobody is entitled to a perfect trial but there must be a line and this court has to be standing on that line and protecting the rights of these two men because the government has abandoned its post.”

In a motion of their own, prosecutors apologized and suggested it was a misunderstanding, writing they did not believe the bar on organized crime testimony included routine questions about an agent’s work history.

“Going forward, the government will be sure to instruct all witnesses that they cannot use the term ‘organized crime’ in any context, including to describe their own backgrounds,” the motion stated.

The case focuses on the Aug. 1, 2016, assault of Luigi Mucerino inside Galione’s garage in Addison, which prosecutors allege was over a $10,000 juice loan Mucerino had taken out from Cassano and failed to pay back.

Mucerino, who was granted immunity by the U.S. attorney’s office, testified Tuesday that he was driving back from a business trip to Lake Geneva on the night of the assault when he got a panicked call from his wife that someone was banging on the windows and doors of their home.

After Galione called him and said he was at the home, Mucerino agreed to meet him and they drove to Galione’s garage. Before Mucerino could ask what it was all about, something slammed into his eye, knocking him unconscious, Mucerino testified. When he woke up, he was on the ground, his face broken and bloody, and Galione was standing over him with a towel.

“I got cold-cocked,” Mucerino, 39, told the jury in a matter-of-fact tone. He said Galione never told him why he’d hit him, saying only that it “was just business.”

Attorneys for the defendants told the jury they’re not denying Galione roughed up Mucerino that night. But they said the victim and key witnesses have changed their stories repeatedly and have so many credibility problems it’s impossible to determine the motive for the assault, which is an element prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Mr. Cassano did not send anyone, hire anyone to go there,” Pugh said in his opening statement. “Gene had nothing to do with what occurred in that garage.”

The defense has also painted Mucerino as an admitted drug trafficker, degenerate gambler and marijuana abuser, who acknowledged feeding a series of half-truths and outright lies to police and later to the FBI about the loan to throw them off the case.

The flap over the agent’s organized crime statement was far from the only issue in the trial. Just hours earlier on Thursday, the defense had requested a mistrial after a prosecutor objected to a witness, who was a paid FBI informant, being asked where he currently lives.

Coleman overruled the objection, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Kelly Guzman blurted out in earshot of the jury that there were “safety concerns” with the witness. Defense attorneys argued the statement was “completely inappropriate and certainly suggested that the government believes the witness’ life could be endangered.”

In response, prosecutors said it was clear the witness had cooperated against many individuals other than Cassano and Galione and it “does not follow” that they were the reason for the safety concern.

“The jury heard that the witness was a prior FBI confidential informant who had cooperated against many other individuals and was outed because of this trial,” prosecutors wrote in a motion Friday. “It does not follow that the government’s concerns for the witness’s safety stem from perceived threats from the defendants.”

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com