One of the founding members of Rescue Ink, the tattooed biker group whose "in-your-face" approach to quelling animal abuse is the subject of a cable TV show and a book, pleaded guilty in 2002 to a money-laundering charge and served most of a 3-year jail sentence.
Robert Misseri, 40, has alternately been described as the executive director, organizer, dispatcher, CEO and principal of the Long Beach-based group of motorcycle-riding animal lovers, who investigate and not-so-gently persuade people they say are abusive pet owners into changing their ways.
The group made headlines last week after members were escorted out by police for interrupting a pet-store news conference to charge that the Suffolk County SPCA mishandled the case of a Selden woman charged with animal cruelty. Some 20 dogs were found buried in the woman's yard.
National Geographic Channel, which airs "Rescue Ink Unleashed," said it is aware of and has never tried to hide the sometimes checkered histories of a few members of Rescue Ink, including two (Misseri and Joe Panzarella) who federal officials once accused of having ties to organized crime.
"This is a story about redemption, not only for the animals but also these guys," said National Geographic Channel spokesman Chris Albert.
In an interview Friday, Misseri said he has "taken a step back" from the group because of a busy schedule running a catering company, though he said he remains active in animal rights issues and "independent" rescues. He also is managing partner in two related for-profit Rescue Ink entities.
He concurred Rescue Ink has "always been about redemption."
Misseri said the case against him, which initially involved murder and arson charges - allegations that were later recanted and dropped - is behind him. "That was 10 years ago," he said. "I've come a long way since then." Letters from the governors of several states thanked him for efforts in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, including feeding responders, blood drives and benefits.
In a 2000 indictment against him and 10 others, Misseri was accused by federal prosecutors of directing the "Galasso-Misseri crew" of the Colombo organized crime family. But as the case neared trial, the charges against him largely disintegrated.
"This is about a guy who befriended certain people and wound up in their web of lies," Misseri said. "It ruined my life."
He pleaded guilty to a single count of money laundering conspiracy related to the sale of what the government contended were nonexistent pay telephone routes.
Misseri passed two lie detector tests his lawyer said proved he had nothing to do with the murder and arson, and the government ultimately dropped the charges, court papers show.
His lawyer, Alan Futerfas of Manhattan, Friday said he's rarely dealt with a case in which such a long list of serious charges were proven false.
"The government threw around a lot of allegations," he said. "They were all -- ."
Robert Nardoza, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn, which brought the case, said, "The record speaks for itself and his guilty plea is in the public record."
According to the indictment, a witness had accused Misseri of being in a car during the 1994 murder of Louis Dorval, an accused mobster whose body was found stuffed in a large toolbox found floating in the ocean south of Long Island. Prosecutors have since charged a Long Island gym owner, Christian Tarantino, who was not among the original 11 defendants, with ordering Dorval killed. Tarantino's lawyer said he denies it.
Arson charge dropped
The arson accusation involved a fire at the Have-A-Home Kennel in Old Brookville, in which Misseri denied any role. A police report made no mention of him having been in a car of men who confessed to the crime, court papers said. Futerfas said the government's main witness failed four lie detector tests.
"I told prosecutors, 'I think you overreached, you have the wrong guy,' and they were willing to listen," said former FBI agent Warren Flagg, who worked on Misseri's defense. Misseri has "done his time. Rescue Ink is doing well."
Promotional material for Rescue Ink makes no bones about some members' histories. "Some of the guys grew up in the projects, some had their brushes with the law, some used their smarts to survive, even thrive on the streets," the group says on its Web site.
According to the group's authorized book, "Rescue Ink," Joseph Panzarella is a man whose "body is an encyclopedia of war wounds." The book says he once used toilet paper to plug up a bullet hole in his chest after being shot five times.
The book suggests he was the target of a hit but, avoided death becausehe knew enough not to go to "his apartment and the hospital. Those would be the first places they would look for him to finish the job."
In court papers filed in the 2008 racketeering and murder trial of convicted mobster Charles Carneglia, Panzarella is described by prosecutors in Brooklyn as "Gambino family associate" who was shot in a 1995 mob conflict. Carneglia, according to the papers, sought to avenge the shooting of Panzarella by another accused mobster, referred to as "Cliffy LNU."
The court papers in a footnote describe Panzarella as an "unnamed co-conspirator" in five racketeering acts of the Carneglia case. He has not been charged with any crime.
Albert, the National Geographic Channel spokesman, said court references to Panzarella "surfaced after we were already working on the show." He noted that Panzarella was "not indicted, he's not arrested. He's being called as a witness."
Numerous attempts to reach Panzarella, who a person affiliated with the group said was traveling in Europe last week, were unsuccessful.
In the Misseri case, in a letter to the court in which he explains witness Peter Pistone's recanting of murder allegations against Misseri, assistant U.S. Attorney James Miskiewicz charged that "witness intimidation and obstruction ha[ve] emerged as a pattern in this case . . ."
Pistol incident alleged
He pointed to an incident in which "Misseri, while out on bail in this case, put a starter's pistol to the back of [government witness Frank Saggio's] head in an obvious attempt to determine whether Saggio was in fact a cooperator." Misseri denied the account as "absolutely absurd."
In addition to 37 months in prison, Misseri was sentenced to 3 years supervised release and ordered to pay $109,349.50 in restitution, court papers say. He was given credit for time served from April 10, 2000, until Nov. 22, 2000, and he says he served 32 months.
In prison at Allenwood, Pa., Misseri said he started an organization called Get Out and Stay Out, which prepared inmates for clean lives after prison. "I've been a do-gooder my whole life," he said.
His court record also includes several letters filed by religious and charitable organizations and friends attesting to his generosity and compassion. One even hints at his future working with animals.
In that April 2000 letter to the court, the North Fork Animal Welfare League recalled how Misseri and his wife happened to be driving by when a dog escaped from its kennel. "They noticed our predicament and stopped their car to assist," the agency wrote. "Not only did they help to control traffic so the dog would not be hit, they got out of the car and actively took part in the safe recapture of the animal."
Misseri said he hopes less-flattering revelations of his past don't hurt his mission.
"This is a period of my life that is behind me," he said. "Ultimately, an animal doesn't care about problems I've had in my past. I've been doing only good since then."