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Attorney for accused killer of alleged mobster says political rhetoric was motivation

Anthony Comello at his extradition hearing in Toms

Anthony Comello at his extradition hearing in Toms River, N.J., on March 18. Credit: AP/Seth Wenig

The 24-year-old Staten Island man accused of gunning down reputed Gambino crime boss Francesco “Franky Boy” Cali was influenced by online political rhetoric that his lawyer Monday said came from the "far right," including the White House.

Attorney Robert Gottlieb did not say his client, Anthony Comello, committed the slaying. But he told reporters outside Staten Island criminal court that the motivation for the March 13 slaying of Cali, 53, outside his Todt Hill home, appeared to be related to “far right” online hate speech. 

“The hate that is spewed on the internet ….by other right-wing conspiracy websites including right at the White House, those word matter and they have an effect,” said Gottlieb. “All of that is going to become clearer, once all of the evidence is known and the truth comes out.”

During an earlier court appearance in New Jersey, Comello had held up his hands to show reporters phrases written on his palm that referenced the Trump campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.”

Comello, who Gottlieb said occasionally had odd jobs, was ordered held without bail Monday by Criminal Court Judge Raja Rajeswari.   The court directed that Comello take his medications for an unspecified condition and agreed that he should be held in protective custody. Comello said nothing during his brief court appearance and entered no formal plea but Gottlieb said he indicated that his client would be pleading not guilty. 

The next court appearance for Comello was scheduled for April 3, when it was expected that prosecutors would announce if he had been formally indicted.

The single-page criminal complaint unsealed in the case Monday charged Comello with one count of second-degree murder, assault in the first degree and criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree. If convicted of the murder charge, Comello faces up to life in prison.

Gottlieb would not talk about the facts of the case or whether Comello knew Cali prior to the shooting. No motive was listed for the shooting in the sparsely worded complaint. But police have said, among other things, they were looking into whether Comello had been making unwanted contact with Cali’s niece.

A relatively quiet figure in the underworld, law enforcement officials said Cali was part of a group of three men of Sicilian ancestry effectively running the Gambino family. Cali had one criminal conviction in 2008 on a federal extortion charge which netted him 16 months in prison.

Any speculation that Cali was killed as a result of jockeying for power has been knocked down by law enforcement officials and organized crime experts who saw no evidence of a mob nexus. Still, concerns about Comello’s safety prompted authorities to place him in protective custody.

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