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Reputed Gambino associate arrested in Caffe hate case

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A reputed Gambino crime family associate, his wife and daughter were arrested last week on charges they made anti-Asian remarks and physically attacked an Asian woman during a late-night dinner Jan. 3 at Caffe on the Green in Bayside, law enforcement officials said.

George Fortunato, 60, his wife Jacqueline, 58, and daughter Annamarie, 34, of Mill Basin, Brooklyn, were each charged with assault as a hate crime and aggravated harassment, said a spokesman for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. They face a maximum of four years in prison if convicted, said the spokesman.

At their arraignment in Queens Criminal Court in Kew Gardens last Thursday, the Fortunatos did not enter pleas and were released on bail. The Fortunatos were due back in court March 20, the DA’s spokesman said.

The DA’s office would not confirm reports that police were still searching for another man in connection with the alleged assault on Connie Coleman, 45, of Roslyn Heights, L.I.

“The investigation is continuing,” a DA spokeswoman said.

Law enforcement officials identified George Fortunato as an associate and Caffe on the Green owner Joe Franco as a soldier in the Gambino crime family.

Franco, whose elegant restaurant hosts many high-powered events for Queens politicians and nonprofit groups, denied any ties to organized crime.

“This is a family restaurant. This is not a place where any mob people hang out, nor did I ever see or (hear) of the people that were arrested,” he said.

Franco was not involved in the incident.

According to the criminal complaint, Coleman, who was born in Hong Kong, was having dinner in the nearly deserted restaurant on a Friday night at a table next to the Fortunatos’ when they began making anti-Asian comments.

When Coleman got up to leave, the complaint states, the unapprehended man threw a glass of wine in her face.

Jacqueline Fortunato then held Coleman down while George Fortunato, his daughter and the other man punched Coleman, the complaint says.

Coleman has said the Caffe on the Green staff did nothing to stop the assault that occurred around 10:30 p.m. when she, her dining companions and her assailants were the only customers left in the restaurant.

She was treated at a hospital for “bruising, swelling, lacerations and scratches,” according to the complaint.

At a news conference last Thursday after the arrests, Coleman said she was “still exploring” a lawsuit against the restaurant.

Joseph Mure, George Fortunato’s attorney, gave a version of events that he said was “absolutely 100 percent different.”

Mure denied that Annamarie Fortunato was even present that night, but he would not reveal the identity of the couple he said was dining with the Fortunatos.

Fortunato’s attorney said he brought the couple to the DA’s office Monday but that police had not arrested them as the investigation continued. A spokesman for the DA declined to comment on that development.

According to Mure, George Fortunato accidentally bumped into one of Coleman’s dining companions on his way out for a cigarette.

“That obviously ticked someone off at the table,” he said.

Coleman later backed her chair into Jacqueline Fortunato’s, then elbowed her and slapped her with a pocketbook, according to Mure.

At one point in the ensuing scuffle, Mure said, Coleman picked up a knife and threw it at George Fortunato.

Franco, who was not at the restaurant during the incident, publicly apologized to Coleman and her family at a news conference at his restaurant Jan. 31.

“I’m relieved,” Franco said Monday of the arrest. “Now maybe justice will be served and it will be in court and let the court find out the right and the wrong.”

Franco maintained that a waiter had intervened in the fight.

“If I was there that night, maybe none of this would have ever happened,” he said.

Franco denied a claim by law enforcement officials that his restaurant had not cooperated with the investigation.

“Everything they asked for, we furnished,” said Franco, adding that he had given to police, among other things, a reservation book from the night in question, a list of employees who were present, and a list of credit card receipts for all the patrons who were there that night.

The Fortunatos left the restaurant without paying a $400 bill before police arrived, Franco said earlier this month.

He said that in two meetings with his staff, he encouraged them to come forward with any information about the perpetrators and even gave them the police tipline phone number if they wanted to make an anonymous report.

It was anonymous tip that led to the arrest, law enforcement officials said.

At a news conference last Thursday with Coleman, City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) said his chief of staff, Phillip Hom, had received an anonymous phone call at the office about a week and a half earlier from a man who identified Fortunato as the perpetrator.

According to a law enforcement source, Fortunato’s name was mentioned in testimony at the recent racketeering trial of Peter Gotti.

As the City Council’s only Asian-American member, Liu said he felt compelled to speak out on behalf of Coleman and the Asian community, which he said was outraged over the alleged hate crime.

“We have to move on to a full and vigorous prosecution,” said Liu.

Caffe on the Green, a former residence of film star Rudolph Valentino, sits on land owned by the city Parks Department.

Parks officials would not comment on whether the latest incident would jeopardize Franco’s status as a Parks concessionaire. A still-unsolved shooting took place outside the restaurant last April in which a patron was shot in the leg and then refused to cooperate with investigators.

Franco said he had not received any indications that he could lose his concession and that “we did absolutely nothing wrong.”

Concessions are awarded after a bidding process in which aspiring concession operators respond to a city agency’s Request for Proposal.

“The liability that is attributable to the restaurant is yet to be determined,” Liu said. “If he is found to be responsible, there are plenty of other people who can operate that restaurant on Parks Department property.”

Liu said Fortunato’s reputed mob ties were “of no relevance to me.”

“A bad guy’s a bad guy,” said Liu.

Coleman said, “I don’t really care who they are. All I know is that they hurt me.”

George Fortunato was released on $5,000 bail, and his wife was released on $2,500. Annamarie Fortunato, an attorney, was released on her own recognizance.

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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