NEWARK, N.J. -- A former casino executive admits he paid thousands of dollars to a late organized crime figure because he was afraid of him but said the money did not come from the gambling hall's operations.
'I never willingly gave Anthony Russo anything,' Dennis Mastro, 38, of Scottsdale, Ariz., said Monday as the defense began its case in the 2-week-old trial before U.S. District Judge Frederick Lacey.
Mastro, Peter DeLamos, 40, of Rumson, and Paul Bendetti, 38, of Phoenix are accused of agreeing to make Russo and his mob associates hidden partners in the Jolly Trolley Casino and allowing them to skim its profits from 1976 to 1978.
Faced with a 'life-threatening situation,' Mastro said they complied with Russo's demand for $100 a day, but the 'thousands of dollars' paid out to Russo came out of their own pockets, savings accounts and loans, never from the casino.
'I thought he was a vicious, potential killer, and I was scared of him,' Mastro said of Russo, the reputed shore-area boss of the Vito Genovese crime family until he was gunned down in 1979.
Mastro, a successful New Jersey restaurant and travel agency owner, disclosed that Russo, a travel client, came to him in 1975 with the idea of joining the others in a Las Vegas casino-restaurant venture.
In October 1976, several months after casino president Bendetti and treasurer DeLamos were granted owner's licenses, Mastro said they were called to Russo's West Long Branch, N.J., office and told to sign a secret partnership agreement.
Mastro, the casino's food and beverages director who allegedly was also a secret owner, said there was a gun on Russo's desk when they unwittingly signed over a 28 percent share in the now-defunct casino.
Testifying about the meeting, Russo's lawyer, Jack Russell, recalled Monday that the defendants appeared 'upset, hesitant and frightened,' while Russo was 'aggressive, loud, menacing.'
Russell said he urged the the businessmen to sign the agreement because Russo was 'crazy' and the documents had 'no legal signficance.'
'Just sign it and let's get out of here,' Russell advised.
'I had no idea what the substance of the document was,' he said. 'I was just there to witness the signatures.'
Russo claimed to have been 'working very hard' to ensure that no harm came to the defendants 'and he was sick and tired of working for nothing -- he wanted a piece of the casino,' Mastro said.
However, he said, Russo's alleged efforts to provide protection, financing and labor peace were nothing more than 'imaginary acts' to 'justify' his demand for money.
Despite Russo's 'constant threats' and 'badgering for money,' Mastro said they hoped 'to fend him off' by stalling and 'giving him as little as possible.'