Trial paints brothers as mob plotters

St. Petersburg Times (Florida)

May 31, 1996, Friday


Trial paints brothers as mob plotters


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.”