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Dark family secrets buried in St. John’s Cemetery

Caruso, 70, a retired graphic artist, will soon make his first visit to an unmarked grave long unknown to his family at St. John's Cemetery to pay respects to the brother he never met. But he will also visit the nearby grave of Mafioso Salvatore D'Aquila, whom he said paid for his brother's burial, and Maspeth doctor Casper Pendola, who was murdered in 1927 by Sicilian immigrant Francesco Caruso, Dom's father.The murder and Francesco Caruso's two trials provided scandalous headlines in 1927, but it was not until 1952 when Dom Caruso, at age 16, learned his father's secret."He told me the doctor was not the first man he had ever killed," he said in an interview with the TimesLedger. .Caruso, a laborer, told his son he had been a "made man" in the Sicilian Mafia before moving to the United States in 1911 and for years had worked as an enforcer for D'Aquila, an Al Capone associate and early boss of the Gambino crime family.Although their relationship was strained, Dom Caruso promised his father he would turn the family's saga into a book. He plans to collaborate with former Daily News editor Neal Hirschfeld, who first chronicled Caruso's story in The New York Times. "It became a family secret that no one ever spoke about," Caruso said. "But it affected all our lives. We all scattered because we knew there was something terrible about it."Francesco Caruso was arrested in 1918 for carrying a pistol and fined $100, but otherwise kept a low profile. But on Feb. 11, 1927, his beloved son, Joey, was diagnosed with diptheria. The family enlisted Pendola, a local doctor, who wrote an antitoxin prescription for the boy on Feb. 12 and told Caruso he would return by 10 a.m. the next day. But Pendola reappeared at noon and Joey had died. Dom Caruso said the doctor asked his grieving father for a favor which enraged him."(He) asked to buy his secrecy, to not let anyone know he was there when Joey died," he said.The father strangled the doctor and stabbed him twice in the throat, killing him, while Caruso's wife stood in the doorway. In court, the father testified that the doctor laughed at news of the boy's death, but the Court of Appeals characterized Pendola's reaction as a facial twitch which may have been misinterpreted as a smile, Caruso said.In April 1927, a jury in Kings County Court rejected the defense's argument that Caruso suffered from temporary insanity at the time of the killing and convicted him of murder. But he was given a new trial, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and only served seven years of a 20-year sentence. Dom Caruso was born after his father was released from prison.Future New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia; Walter Pollak, who was later on the defense team of the Scottsboro Boys case; and Clarence Darrow, defender of evolution in the Scopes "monkey trial," were enlisted to Caruso's defense committee, which likely helped him get a reduced charge, Dom Caruso said.He said his father told him D'Aquila paid for the trial. Caruso said he eventually became estranged from his siblings as he tried to publish his family's secret and was never able to establish lasting contact with Pendola's descendants. Reach reporter Nathan Duke by email at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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