The Good Rat (2008) – Burt Kaplan – Book Review

Guest Post by TonyStrayVideo

Anthony Casso (L) was a guest at the wedding of Burt Kaplan’s (R) daughter

Of all the Mafia books I’ve read, there’s only one that I felt was objectively improved in its conversion to audiobook format: Jimmy Breslin’s rambling 2008 Mafia Cops book The Good Rat.

When you’re dealing with someone with a reputation like Breslin, it doesn’t feel right for the first review you write to cover something that was, to put it bluntly, phoned in.

I should explain; in 2005 retired NYPD detectives Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa were arrested and charged with, among other things, selling information to and carrying out a hit for mobster Anthony Casso of the Mafia’s Lucchese family. They’d first been accused in 1994[1] when Casso tried to cut a deal to get out of jail, but prosecutors couldn’t build a case until 2004, when the Cops’ handler Burton Kaplan was finally persuaded to cooperate after serving years in jail himself.

Even before the “Mafia Cops” case came to trial in 2006 the scandal detailed in the indictment was enough to get book deals started. Two NYPD detectives who’d helped make the case, William Oldham and Tommy Dades, got to work on what would become The Brotherhoods and Friends of the Family. The New York Daily News’ Greg B. Smith was preparing his Mob Cops for release the same year as the trial.[2]

Breslin himself was reported in a 2005 Vanity Fair article to have made a broader book proposal on the history of the American Mafia, with the Cops’ trial as its centerpiece.[3] But as the author himself explained in the final product, what he saw in early court proceedings wasn’t promising. For one thing the case had serious statute of limitations issues; most of the Cops’ crimes took place over a decade prior with only a largely unrelated drug case to show for the “continuing criminal enterprise” required to prosecute a racketeering case. Breslin wasn’t even sure if the case would go to trial at all, and when it did he found Eppolito and Caracappa so odious he had to question if there was a story worth telling.

And then star witness Kaplan took the stand with his own rich history, criminal and otherwise, and our author decided he would be the main subject instead. When he talks about a busted attempt to convert a hair cream production facility to a drug lab Breslin proclaims “Marvelous! He should be teaching at Harvard Business School, but instead these lessons come to us free of charge.”

The testimony of Burton Kaplan, as laid out under direct examination by prosecutor Robert Henoch, is the framework the book is laid upon, as well as a large chunk of its 270 pages. Through this, the reader is told the story of Kaplan’s dirty deeds with Eppolito and Caracappa. Unfortunately, in the book, it’s rendered in a dull transcript format, with Breslin’s prose only occasionally interjected for context or a snide comment. His admitted lack of early enthusiasm for the project shows through with how heavily he relies on the transcripts to fill pages.

Thankfully, while the book is lacking, the people who recorded the audiobook went the extra mile to make it presentable. Two additional readers were brought in to reenact Henoch and Kaplan’s revelations, and by far it’s Richard Mover’s portrayal of Burton Kaplan that makes it all work out. Following the description of the witness Breslin provides, Mover’s Kaplan is generally cold and nonchalant as he recalls the murders that were enabled by the Cops’ corruption, frequently irritated when Henoch fails to comprehend the intricacies of his crimes, and at times, completely deflated.

Part of Kaplan’s appeal, as a character and a witness, was that he was one of the last mobsters of his time to stick to the mob code of silence despite not even being eligible for Mafia membership because he was Jewish. Arrested in 1996 for trafficking marijuana, leading to a conviction and effective life sentence, he still refused to cooperate for years. And when he finally did – becoming the book’s title character, as Breslin explained in an interview, for finally doing the right thing[4] – he hated himself for it. But the way Kaplan told it, if he didn’t, Eppolito and Caracappa would cooperate against him when the government finally found a way to make a case against them.

I’ll repeat that. Kaplan asserted that prosecutors would cut a deal with two of the most corrupt cops in NYPD history to make a case against an old man who would never get out of jail anyway.

Jimmy Breslin was probably the only person in the world who took Kaplan’s official reason for cooperating at face value. Far more likely is William Oldham’s interpretation: this was simply the only way Kaplan could rationalize what he was doing to himself.[5]

The exchanges between Henoch and Kaplan provide the basis for a good audio drama of sorts, and the testimony is broken up with stories to fill in details of the crimes. Here, Breslin applies himself and makes the book worth a read. Usually these segments show the perspective of those who were hurt as a result of the crimes. Sometimes this can be as abstract as the misfortune of Timmy Byrnes, an NYPD detective turned funeral director, who saw his legacy tarnished. After he was promoted in the force, his detective shield badge number was inherited by the vanglorious, corrupt Louis Eppolito, who would go on to participate in the murder of mobster Eddie Lino on Casso’s behalf. Ironically, and conveniently for Breslin’s narrative, Byrnes would be one of the first responders to the Lino murder.

Usually, however, the harm inflicted is much more tangible, such as in the case of “Good Nicky Guido” – aka “The Wrong Nicky Guido.”

After the cops tracked down and abducted a mobster who’d tried to kill Anthony Casso, and turned him over to his would-be victim, Casso set out to eliminate the rest of his would-be killers – one of whom went by the name Nicky Guido. Breslin then gives us a brief biography of a good, caring, hard-working young man by that name who wanted to become a firefighter. This is “Good Nicky Guido” – roughly the same age as the failed hitman “Bad Nicky Guido” – which leads to Stephen Caracappa confusing the two when he tries to track down the assassins on Kaplan and Casso’s behalf.

Casso subsequently refuses to pay the Cops to confirm their results, fingers “the Wrong Nicky Guido” in his own haphazard investigation, and puts a hit out on him – executed Christmas Day 1986.

As described by Breslin, Nicky Guido is a naive goody-two-shoes to the nth degree, but he doesn’t dare make fun of the victim of such a senseless crime. He instead tries to find a silver lining; sitting in his car with his uncle and seeing gunmen approach, Good Nicky Guido’s final act is to shield his passenger with his own body. Breslin thus declares “he died the hero he wanted to be.”

In a few chapters, Breslin sets the trial aside to tell stories giving a short course on the history of the American Mafia. These can be loosely grouped into two themes; first is autobiographical tales of Breslin’s coverage of the mob. The author doesn’t focus too heavily on major events because that’s Selwyn Raab’s job, but instead gives us slices of everyday mobster life. He recalls, for instance, visiting the formidable grandmother of Crazy Joe Gallo and being gifted with a valuable writing prompt when she berates Larry Gallo (“Larry, what’s the matter? You no can shoot straight?”) after complaing to Breslin about another member of the gang stupidly fumbling a bank robbery.

Breslin’s history is far from perfect. He prematurely reports the death of reputed Paul Castellano hit MVP[6] John Carneglia Discussing one of the acquittals of John Gotti, Castellano’s successor as Gambino boss, he says the prosecutor was hampered by not knowing one of Gotti’s co-defendants, Willie Boy Johnson, was an informant. In reality said prosecutor, Diane Gaicalone, was the one who outed Johnson to try to get him to cooperate. By far the worst error he makes is claiming that the Gambino family mobsters who arranged the attempt on Casso’s life were retaliating for him trying to blow up Gotti. In and of itself this isn’t the worst in terms of deviating from reality. This problem is, while Anthony Casso was guilty of this, the Gambinos didn’t actually know this at the time; they simply threw that claim out there as an excuse.[7] The real story would’ve better served Breslin’s narrative – painting the Mafia as incompetent thugs who’ve never lived up to their pretensions of being “men of honor.”

The second theme is the decay of Omerta – the Mafia’s code of silence – beyond the Kaplan case study. Specifically Breslin shows us the betrayal of Bonanno boss Joseph Massino by his brother-in-law underboss Sal Vitale, which in turn motives Massino to cooperate to avoid the death penalty. When we return to the Bonannos they’re still recovering with their elderly new acting boss “Tony Cafe” Rabito getting pickpocketed and presiding over a table of codefendants in a gambling case complaining of their age-related health woes. Tony Cafe blames the flashy John Gotti for provoking a government crackdown on the mob after he beat a racketeering case by bribing a juror. This lets Breslin segway into talking about how Gotti was done in by his own underboss, Sammy Gravano, testifying against him.

I wish The Good Rat could’ve dug deeper into the decline of Omerta – if only to live up to its title. Breslin, for example, includes an encounter he had with Lufthansa heist mastermind Jimmy Burke, but doesn’t say anything about the associate who sold Burke out to save himself. I dunno – maybe someone else covered it.

Around the same time I started thinking of The Good Rat as an audio drama rather than a book I realized what its most glaring omission was: Jimmy Breslin leaves out Burton Kaplan’s cross-examination. Defense lawyers Eddie Hayes and Bruce Cutler weren’t able to do much to mitigate the damage the star witness did, but the latter did question Kaplan’s stated reason for cooperating, which would have given him more angst for Breslin to write about.

Continuing on that thought I ask myself: if this is a drama, and Burton Kaplan our protagonist, who exactly would we consider our antagonist? As far as I’m concerned it should have been Bruce Cutler, Eppolito’s attorney. He’d been John Gotti’s lawyer in his three acquittals as Gambino boss, so his background and earlier antics would have been easy enough to squeeze into Gotti’s own chapter. If only the book included the cross-examination.

The Cops themselves? Unfortunately, Breslin wasn’t able to dig up any telling details on Stephen Caracappa that I didn’t already read in The Brotherhoods, so he’s not developed well enough for that role. And our author tears down Louis Eppolito at every opportunity, painting him as a petty thief, pathological liar and unconvincing tough guy as well as a dirty cop. He’s not a credible threat.

Ironically, the closest I saw to a credible antagonist in The Good Rat is one of the good guys, and someone Breslin spoke of highly: presiding Judge Jack B. Weinstein. Breslin praises his merciless sentencing of mobsters, but also for not bending the law. At the very start of the story he makes it clear he doesn’t think the new charges against the Cops can be connected to their old crimes to bypass the statute of limitations, but lets the trial go ahead anyway. Then, after the Cops have been convicted on all charges, he threw out the verdict on said statute of limitations issues.

The verdict was reinstated on appeal in 2008,[8] and Eppolito and Caracappa died in prison.[9] The Good Rat was released shortly before this decision, leaving Jimmy Breslin with the same problem Oldham and co-author Guy Lawson had when they rushed out The Brotherhoods in 2006: how do you give this a satisfying ending?

But, Breslin found a way.

Among other things, the final chapter of The Good Rat includes a speech Louis Eppolito gave at his initial sentencing hearing. There’s nothing of substance in it – just denials and self-aggrandizement. The only reason it holds any significance is for what happened when he was talking: he was interrupted by one Barry Gibbs, a man he’d framed for a murder by intimidating a witness.

Though Breslin couldn’t find the time to speculate on a motive for this particular act of corruption, he does point out Gibbs’ case only came under review when the relevant files were found in a search of Louis Eppolito’s home – something that would never have happened if Burton Kaplan hadn’t flipped. This is brought up in the final scene of The Good Rat, at a hearing where Kaplan’s original sentence for his marijuana conviction was reduced to time served in return for his testimony.

And so Burton Kaplan, who died a year after The Good Rat was published,[10] got a happy ending. And Jimmy Breslin assures us he’d earned it.

Disclaimer: I am a big fan of Tony’s book reviews and I uploaded this review so that he can hopefully get even more visibility.

[1] Jerry Capeci, “A Closet Full of Turncoats,” New York Daily News, April 26, 1994. As reprinted in Jerry Capeci’s Gang Land (Alpha Books, 2003, pages 151-152.)

[2] These three pre-trial projects, among others, are listed by Oldham and co-author Guy Lawson in The Brotherhoods: The True Story of Two Cops Who Murdered for the Mafia (2007 Pocket Books edition, page 607.)

[3] Howard Blum and John Connolly (not that one,) “Hit Men in Blue?” Vanity Fair, August 2005.

[4]City Talk: Jimmy Breslin, author, The Good Rat: A True Story,” (9:00) CUNY TV via Youtube. Uploaded June 14, 2011.

[5] Lawson and Oldham’s The Brotherhoods, page 621.

[6] Though never charged, of the four designated shooters of the December 16 1985 hit, Carneglia is named as the one who killed Castellano personally. (Jerry Capeci, “20 Years Later, a Mob Hit Reverberates,” New York Sun, December 1, 2005.) One witness also said he finished off Castellano’s driver and short-lived underboss Thomas Bilotti. (Arnold H. Lubasch, “Witness Describes Scene At Murder of Castellano,” The New York Times, February 27, 1992.)

[7] Jerry Capeci and Gene Mustain, Gotti: Rise and Fall (1996 Onyx, page 198.) Sammy Gravano also told biographer Peter Maas in Underboss (1997 HarperCollins, pages 209-210) that he was blindsided by the news of Casso’s involvement.

[8]Conviction Of ‘Mafia Cops’ Stands,” Associated Press / CBS News, September 18, 2008.

[9] Ed Shanahan, “Louis Eppolito, Police Officer Turned Mob Hit Man, Dies at 71,” The New York Times, November 7, 2019.

[10] Greg B. Smith and John Marzulli, “Gangster who ratted out ‘Mafia Cops’ dies,” New York Daily News, July 21, 2009.