THE BRONX — As crimes go, the theft of $189,000 worth of brass and other metals adorning monuments and mausoleums in a Bronx cemetery was not the heist of the century.
But it took the ghost of a notorious Mafia chieftain to crack the case.
St. Raymond's Cemetery in Throgs Neck is the final resting place for several famous New Yorkers, among them the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday and prizefighter Hector “Macho” Camacho, who rest alongside bishops, priests and nuns.
Buried there also are some of the area's legendary mobsters, including Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno.
The cigar-chomping Salerno ruled the Genovese crime family between 1981 and 1986. Once listed by Fortune magazine as the richest and most powerful mobster in America based on “wealth, power and influence,” Salerno sat atop the Mafia’s ruling body, "the Commission," before he was convicted and succeeded by Vincent "Chin" Gigante.
On Feb. 19, homeless man Louis Peduto, 56, was arrested following a two-month spree of grave robberies at the cemetery, which sits just south of East Tremont.
Two days earlier, a cemetery guard had spotted him acting suspiciously amid the mausoleums. The sentry confronted Peduto and asked to take his picture. He obliged and was photographed holding a tulip-shaped solar powered light in his hand.
The following day, he allegedly returned to St. Raymond’s. The same guard said he caught Peduto red-handed with a sackful of brass fixtures. Peduto dropped his haul and ran, but was quickly found by cops the next day in the neighborhood, police said.
He was taken to the 45th Precinct, where detectives confronted him with evidence of the two-month spree. The cops were looking for closure, but Peduto denied everything.
“I took nothing,” Peduto insisted, according to sources. "I was not the man in the cemetery with the sack."
The detectives tried various approaches to get him to confess. Nothing worked.
A New York Times reporter last week got a taste of what they faced. She spoke with Peduto on Rikers Island, where he is being held. She had an angle on the great cemetery caper. She told Peduto that the tulip light belonged to a Bronx woman who claimed she left it on her son’s grave the day before it disappeared.
Peduto, as he did with the cops, denied all.
“I’m not a monster they’re making me out to be, robbing graves like a ghoul,” Peduto told the Times, pointing out he was also suspected of taking doors weighing as much as 500 pounds each.
“How am I even going to carry that?” he asked. “On my back? I am not Superman.”
So how did the detectives crack Peduto?
Every local resident, homeless or otherwise, knows the area contains a large enclave known for producing some of the Mafia’s most fearsome bosses — dating back a century to the days of the Black Hand.
With that in mind Lt. James Hanvey, the detective squad commander, came up with an idea. Why not tell Peduto that among the majestic mausoleums he desecrated was Salerno's?
The mere mention of Salerno's name left Peduto looking scared stiff, as though he saw a ghost.
“Oh my God!” Peduto said. “I am a dead man. They are going to kill me.”
Suddenly, Peduto’s protests evaporated. He even provided the cops with the name of the scrap metal shop in Hunts Point where he sold the thousands of dollars worth of metal for a mere handful of hundreds.
The detectives visited the store, spoke with the owners and recovered some scraps that Peduto allegedly sold there. He was then formally charged.
Meanwhile, his arrest must have had Salerno rolling over in his grave.
Salerno was the last person who would want to have played any role, alive or dead, in helping the police. Faced with 100 years of prison time, Salerno never ratted out any of his Mafia brethren and died in 1992 in federal prison.