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Three cold-case rookies, and a dead victim's words, solve a trio of murders

A file photo of Christian Tarantino leaving FBI

A file photo of Christian Tarantino leaving FBI Headquarters in Melville to be arraigned. (Sept. 24, 2008) Credit: Howard Schnapp

A forensic science breakthrough. A dead man's testimony. An incriminating tape recording that mysteriously arrived in the mail.

Without all of that -- and more than a decade of dogged police work -- three cold-case murders on Long Island wouldn't have been solved, according to law enforcement sources.

The payoff came last month when Dix Hills businessman Christian Tarantino, 44, was sentenced to three consecutive life prison terms for the killings.

Much of the credit, former colleagues say, goes to a criminal justice trio that had never handled a cold case before.

Federal prosecutor James Miskiewicz, FBI agent Robert Schelhorn and Nassau police Det. Anthony Zacarese, now retired, wound up solving two 1994 murders, and a third that was 9 years old.

The evidence they compiled convinced a U.S. District Court jury that Tarantino, the wealthy owner of a string of health clubs, was also the head of a murderous crew of armed robbers.

Tarantino maintains his innocence, and his lawyer says he plans to appeal.

After a monthlong trial, Tarantino was convicted of the slaying of armored-car guard Julius Baumgardt during a 1994 robbery in Muttontown that netted $90,000. He also was found guilty of the murder several months later of his accomplice in the heist, Louis Dorval, whose body was found in a large tool chest floating off Fire Island.

The third conviction was for the 2003 slaying of Tarantino's childhood friend and co-conspirator, Vincent Gargiulo, the brother-in-law of Twisted Sister singer Dee Snider.

The killings seemed unrelated at first, but the investigators uncovered crucial links.

Tarantino, they determined, shot Dorval and conspired to have Gargiulo killed because he feared they'd become informers against him in the armored-car murder.

Gargiulo and Tarantino grew up together in the Bellmore-Merrick area, and both were involved in running the health clubs and various criminal enterprises, sources said. In the early 1990s, Gargiulo and Tarantino pleaded guilty in a New Jersey federal case to interstate trafficking of stolen merchandise and served time in prison.


'A good mix'

When their cold-case investigation began in 2001, Schelhorn, who had worked on Russian spy cases in New York City, had been newly assigned to criminal investigation in the bureau's Long Island office.

Zacarese was a seasoned detective but new to the county homicide squad. Miskiewicz hadn't touched a murder case: He'd been a clerk to a federal judge in Arkansas and an environmental lawyer with the Justice Department in Washington.

Together, though, "They were a good mix," said Joseph Conway, who headed the Long Island U.S. attorney's office during the early part of the investigation. "The three of them were newcomers, sort of like rookies, and they had the fresh enthusiasm of rookies."

Some of the trio's colleagues, however, thought they were wasting their time, likening the investigation to Ahab's obsession with Moby Dick. One told them it was a "career case" all right -- one destined to end rather than make their careers.

The investigators shrugged off the skeptics. Their persistence in doing and redoing witness interviews would eventually pay off.

One key witness -- who worked in the building where the armored-car robbery took place and was standing nearby when Baumgardt was shot to death -- finally admitted 17 years later that he knew Tarantino. Not only that, the witness said he had seen him canvassing the building a few days before the holdup.


The big breaks

Another big break came via the FBI crime lab, which in the years since the 1994 murders had developed a database for the presence in the population of different types of DNA. The new analytic technique showed there was a strong likelihood that hairs found in the robbers' getaway car matched those of Tarantino and Dorval.

Tarantino had shaved his head when he heard from his lawyer that investigators would be seeking a DNA sample, sources said. He evidently didn't realize that a swab of his cheek cells, taken by investigators, would also contain the DNA needed for analysis.

The investigators also succeeded in getting the trial judge to allow a "dead man's" damning testimony.

What a dead man says to another person can't be used in court to win a criminal conviction -- unless it can be shown that the accused had the dead man killed to prevent him from testifying.

A longtime organized crime informant had told the investigators that Dorval, before he was killed, said that he and Tarantino had taken part in the armored-car robbery.

Before Miskiewicz could use that evidence at trial, however, he had to convince U.S. District Judge Joanna Seybert that he had a strong case. Seybert previewed the prosecution's case and made a vital ruling: The words of the murder victim were admissible.

Another crucial development came as a surprise.

In April 2004, the NYPD passed on a tape recording mailed anonymously to detectives that featured Tarantino talking about his role in the Baumgardt and Dorval murders. FBI technicians spent months verifying that the voices on the tape were that of Gargiulo and Tarantino, and that the recording hadn't been tampered with. The tape became another key piece of evidence.

Gargiulo had tried to sell such a tape, which amounted to a Tarantino confession, to both Tarantino and the FBI for $500,000. That was the reason Tarantino conspired to have him killed, according to trial testimony.

With Tarantino sent away for life without parole, former colleagues are praising the determination of Miskiewicz, Schelhorn and Zacarese, who declined to comment, citing the likelihood of an appeal.

"I have never seen investigators work so hard. They gave up days and nights and weekends to solve the cases," said Richard Donoghue, who succeeded Conway in the U.S. attorney's office.

"Jim Miskiewicz once told me he was losing sleep over finding out who was responsible," Donoghue said, "because he knew as time went on it might be put on the shelf and might never be solved."

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