There was no wrinkled trench coat, no chewed and smoking stogie this time for Lt. Columbo.
But actor Peter Falk, who died at 83 on Thursday, was involved in a real life drama in Ocean County in the fall of 1982 when he got a bit part in the trial of a college friend accused of a bizarre plot to bribe a young state trooper to forget the details of his arrest of wise guy’s kid at the Surf Club in Ortley Beach.
Falk was delivered by a limo that stopped on Hooper Avenue before he got out and went to Superior Court Judge William H. Huber’s second floor courtroom. The celebrity brought lots of onlookers, but his testimony was unremarkable. He was after all, only a character witness for Vincent Rigolosi, a Bergen County lawyer who had been the leader of that county’s Democratic organization.
Falk knew nothing about the case, but told the jury that was aware of Rigolosi’s reputation for truthfulness and honesty, and was gone in a swirl of craning necks. The lucky few got an autograph.
And his classmate at Syracuse, Rigolosi, got a walk on the charges he faced, all of them, conspiracy, witness tampering, tampering with public records, information and physical evidence, official misconduct, attempted official misconduct, and two counts of bribery. But five years later New Jersey’s Supreme Court disbarred him and the other lawyer indicted in the plot.
“Not guilty,’’ the jury foreman repeated 8 times in the criminal case when asked if Rigolosi had a role in the $10,000 paid to the young trooper to make the case against Philip Lombardo Jr. go away. Young Lombardo, it turned out, was not just some wise guy wannabe down at the shore letting off steam. He was the son of “Cockeye Phil” Lombardo, described by detectives as a leader of the Genovese family in New York.
Trooper Denis McDowell and the kid crossed paths at the Surf Club on July 19, 1981 when McDowell, in violation of State Police rules, was working as a bouncer at the Surf Club. He arrested young Lombardo for assault, resisting arrest, and possession of tear gas, setting in motion an elaborate scheme to fix the case.
According to the trial testimony, the owner of the Surf Club, Joseph Barcellona, arranged for his cousin, State Police Sgt. Joseph Lazaro, to meet with Alan Grecco, described as a member of Genovese family in New York. Then they met with Donald Conway, a former president of the state bar association who was representing young Lombardo and Rigolosi, his collegue. The others thought McDowell was part of the fix. Instead he had reported the bribery attempts to the State Police and recording conversations with the others about it.
Lazaro passed McDowell two $5,000 cash payments from Grecco as part of the scheme to have the trooper fail to identify Lombardo as the man who assaulted him when his trial took place.
Confronted with the evidence against him, Lazaro began recording conversations with the others as well. He pled guilty to his part in the bribery plot. Barcellona admitted being part of the conspiracy as well.
Grecco was convicted of conspiracy and bribery. Conway was convicted of conspiracy and witness tampering.
McDowell’s reward was to be shown the door by the State Police.