St. Petersburg Times (Florida)
May 31, 1996, Friday
Trial paints brothers as mob plotters
BYLINE: JULIA CAMPBELL
Early last year, Pinellas County chiropractors Joseph and Richard Forlizzo were so at odds with a business partner that they tried to force him out of the partnership by going to court.
But when that didn’t work, federal authorities say, the Forlizzo brothers called in the mob.
The Forlizzos, along with five others, are on trial in U.S. District Court in Tampa, accused of extortion, racketeering and plotting to have their former partner killed. A jury began deliberations Thursday.
The trial, which has lasted more than three weeks, has been a primer on the New York mob, and has included testimony about wiretaps and mob figures with colorful nicknames.
Prosecutors say the Forlizzos, who grew up in Clearwater’s Island Estates community, were so consumed with collecting debts that they resorted to thuggery. The brothers, they say, asked members and associates of the Genovese crime family from New York to help them.
The brothers were willing to pay up to $ 25,000 for the killing of Michael J. Muzio of Dunedin, their former partner in a magnetic resonance imaging company, prosecutors say. The brothers, they say, also used extortion to try to collect debts from Muzio.
The Forlizzos also are accused of:
Using extortion to try to collect $ 250,000 that Richard Forlizzo said was owed to him by Earl Ball, accountant for their MRI company.
Using extortion to get Brian Wolstein, a Clearwater chiropractor, to refer patients to their MRI company, and to get a doctor, Edward Feldman of Tampa, to dismiss a lawsuit against their company.
Federal authorities began to investigate the Forlizzos and their MRI company, American Mobile Imaging of Clearwater, after they got a tip last spring that the company was involved in insurance fraud and that it offered doctors kickbacks to refer patients. Authorities say a company employee then revealed that he had been offered money to kill Muzio.
Defense lawyers say the allegations are absurd: The brothers, they say, are not mobsters, but were merely entangled in a complicated business dispute. The Forlizzos declined to be interviewed for this story.
Before their arrest in April 1995, the Forlizzo brothers had led relatively unremarkable lives. Neither had a criminal record. Joseph Forlizzo, 46, lives in the Tarpon Woods subdivision in East Lake. Richard, 42, a former Palm Harbor resident, lives in Tarpon Springs.
The Forlizzo family moved to Clearwater from New York City 40 years ago when Joseph was 6 and his brother, Richard, was 2. Their father, Rocco Forlizzo, was a pharmacist who owned several drugstores in the region, including one in Tarpon Springs. Their mother, Mildred Forlizzo, at one point owned a music store at Clearwater Mall.
Family and friends said the brothers grew up in a close-knit Catholic family of six. Family dinners on Sundays after church remain a tradition. The brothers attended Clearwater Central Catholic High School and later studied chiropractic medicine at Life Chiropractic College in Marietta, Ga.
In 1979, Joseph Forlizzo opened a practice in Palm Harbor. He later moved his practice to Sunset Point Road in Clearwater. The practice, Forlizzo Chiropractic Clinic, is currently owned by Richard Forlizzo. The Tampa case does not involve the clinic.
In the 1980s, when the brothers worked in the practice together, they were known as Dr. Joe and Dr. Rick so that patients could distinguish between them, said Nancy Henslee, 43, Richard Forlizzo’s girlfriend. Prosecutors say the men used those names in their dealings with the mob.
By the late 1980s, both brothers had become successful chiropractors. Joseph Forlizzo, according to colleagues, had become known for his skill at atlas orthogonality, a chiropractic technique that uses an instrument, instead of hands, to adjust the spine.
“They were first-class, great chiropractors,” said Dr. Roy Sweat of Atlanta, who taught both brothers.
In 1988, Joseph Forlizzo sold the Clearwater practice to his brother and started an MRI business, Suncoast Mobile Diagnostic. Two years later, Joseph and his wife, Brenda, 28, moved to Southern California to set up another mobile MRI business. The couple moved back to Pinellas in 1993 after a golfing accident left Richard Forlizzo blind in one eye.
In August 1994, the Forlizzo brothers formed a partnership to establish American Mobile Imaging. The partnership included the brothers, Muzio and Ronald H. Woodley, a chiropractor the Forlizzos had known for years.
Woodley and Joseph Forlizzo were the principal stockholders. Woodley has not been charged in this case.
Muzio, AMI’s company chairman, with a 24 percent ownership, was running the company. The company provided MRI services to the patients of local doctors.
The brothers’ lives, according to relatives, friends and defense attorneys, began to unravel when the Clearwater company was spiraling into debt in late 1994.
Joseph Forlizzo testified that Muzio was at the center of the company’s failure. He said AMI was so poorly managed by Muzio that cash was scarce, monthly expenses could not be met and bills and taxes were left unpaid. The brothers also had come to believe that Muzio was taking money from the company and diverting business to other MRI centers, he testified.
Muzio has denied those accusations. He said in a recent interview that he wanted to stop doing business with the brothers because he believed they were not handling their business affairs legally.
In January 1995, the Forlizzos and Woodley decided at an emergency board meeting to take away Muzio’s authority to run the company and manage its bank accounts.
However, Muzio changed the locks on the business and warned the men not to trespass. The Forlizzos and Woodley asked a Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court judge to intervene, and a receiver was appointed to take over the company.
Not satisfied to let the courts resolve the dispute, prosecutors say, the Forlizzos sought out connections in organized crime. The brothers began to have discussions with men that federal authorities say have ties to the Genovese crime family, including Anthony “Pee Wee” Lanza of St. Petersburg, a reputed captain in the family and a defendant in the Tampa trial. Another defendant, John “Uncle Johnny” Cassano of New York, is suspected by federal authorities of being a member of the organization.
Other defendants in the Tampa trial are Michael “Mikey” Zampardi, Nicholas “Nicky” J. Musto and Biagio “Bratsee” Riguardi.
On several occasions, Joseph Forlizzo paid for Cassano and other men from New York City to fly to Tampa for meetings, according to trial testimony. Forlizzo testified this week that the talks were not about threats and extortion. Instead, he said, the men discussed whether to try to salvage AMI or invest in a new MRI business. Forlizzo said he invited the men to Florida because they had contacts in the medical field here.
But the prosecution says the men were brought to Pinellas County to strongarm Muzio and the others. Muzio said he believed the brothers were concerned about what the receiver would find in AMI’s books.
“The only way to get the receiver out of there was to get rid of me,” Muzio said in an interview.
Muzio said he became afraid after his life was threatened and he was punched by one of the New York City men. He said he received daily threats in telephone conversations.
In March 1995 Muzio said he acquiesced and signed an agreement to leave the company and accept a buyout offer. The receiver was dismissed, but not before he made a report to the court that he had found AMI and its records “in a state of disarray, with many bank statements and books and records missing.”
Defense lawyers say the actions and words of the brothers and the other defendants, some of which were secretly recorded on surveillance tapes, were misinterpreted by overzealous law enforcement officials who were desperate to find a link to organized crime.
Since their arrest, the brothers have been free on bail and living at their homes in Pinellas. Relatives interviewed for this story say the brothers didn’t even know the names of New York City’s notorious crime families until after their arrest.
Timothy B. Leahy, Joseph Forlizzo’s civil attorney, said his client is not capable of contract murder. “Would he get in there and fight for his business? Yes.” Leahy said. “Would he kill for it? No.”