By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Dec. 6, 2006
“I don’t know why they’re digging into my past,” remarks 56-year old Nicholas Argyros Piscatelli, a local developer and owner of the now-defunct downtown nightclub Redwood Trust. He’s on the phone with a reporter, commenting about the double-murder case involving the club’s former manager, Jason Convertino (pictured, above left), who was shot to death in April 2003 in Convertino’s Fells Point apartment, along with Sean Wisniewski (pictured, above right), who worked for Buzzlife, a nightlife promotions company that held events at Redwood Trust. Suspect Anthony Jerome Miller‘s trial in the case, which turns largely on the presence of DNA consistent with Miller’s found in latex gloves discovered at the crime scene, is scheduled to start in January. But Piscatelli is concerned about recent indications that the case is delving into the possibility that he had something to do with the crime.
“I see what they’re going to do, which is a shame,” Piscatelli continues, referring to Miller’s defense, mounted by attorney Paul Polansky. “Which is to cast doubt and get this guy off.” Neither Polansky nor prosecutor Sharon Holback will discuss the case, and there is no indication that information about Piscatelli will be used by either side at Miller’s trial.
Casting doubt to get people off is what criminal-defense attorneys do for a living, and part of that effort involves understanding the evidence that police and prosecutors gather to bring charges against their clients. In Miller’s case, the nature of that evidence had been limited for the most part to the DNA analysis–until recently, when a new prosecutor took over the case and, as the law requires, submitted to Polansky voluminous documentation about the lengthy investigative process that led to Miller’s indictment in January. Delays in “discovery,” as this process is called, in large part have been responsible for rescheduling the trial date, which was reset four times and is now scheduled to start Jan. 24, 2007.
In October, Polansky argued in court that the state’s discovery failures had been so severe that the charges should be dismissed. A judge disagreed, so the case is proceeding, and on Dec. 5 Miller’s request for a change in his no-bail status was denied. Meanwhile, the late-arriving discovery has fattened the case file with information stating, among other things, that Convertino’s mother was told shortly after the murders that Piscatelli ordered them.
On Oct. 27, Holback disclosed in a memorandum to the defense that “Pam Morgan [Convertino’s mother] has stated that an unknown man approached her at a benefit in Binghamton, New York, held for her son’s child shortly after his murder. The man advised her that Nick Piscatelli was behind her son’s murder, he covered his tracks and hired someone to kill him.” The memo does not indicate when Morgan shared this information with investigators, but she told City Paper during a Nov. 30 phone interview that the event was held in May 2003, just weeks after the murders.
“At the benefit, this guy comes up to me and he says he knows who was behind my son’s murder” Morgan recalls. “I didn’t know Nick [Piscatelli] at that point.” Since then, though, Morgan says she has kept in regular, friendly phone contact with Piscatelli.
“Oh boy! She said that?” Piscatelli says when informed of Morgan’s statement about the man’s visit to the Binghamton gathering. “That’s unfortunate. I’ve spoken to her several times, and she’s never mentioned anything like that to me. That’s certainly sad to hear. There has been no animosity between us.”
Over the phone from her home outside of Binghamton, Morgan describes the man who dropped Piscatelli’s name at the benefit as white, in his 30s, several inches shy of six feet tall, with “lightish hair,” of “medium build,” and “wearing a long coat, like a trench coat.”
“He came in, talked, and left,” she continues. “I was like, `Whoa!’ And that’s when I first started questioning the club, and had these theories [that Piscatelli might be involved]. And I also thought, did [the man] do it purposefully, to throw it off someone else by naming Nick? Because there is no evidence against Nick.”
Still, she says she’s fearful of Piscatelli, and now that her suspicions have been made public in Miller’s case file she says she will stop calling him. “That was my last call to him, probably in September,” Morgan recalls, when she says she discussed with Piscatelli items still in his possession that belonged to her son. (The Oct. 27 memo also discloses that Morgan told investigators that this reporter shared with her information about Piscatelli obtained through unnamed sources.)
Morgan’s statements are not the only ones mentioning Piscatelli in the discovery documents. A Nov. 9 discovery memo states that “a record of firearms owned and registered to Nicholas Piscatelli” was shared with the defense. Piscatelli reacts to this news by saying that “it was years ago–during the 1990s, or the 1980s–that I bought a couple of guns for hunting or target practice,” and asserts again that Polansky and Miller are “trying to use whatever they can to cast a shadow of a doubt.”
On Oct. 24, court documents also show prosecutor Holback shared with the defense “notes of detective’s interview of Carl Weaver (who is believed to be also known as Carl Curry)” that provide information about Weaver’s relationship with Piscatelli and “several other men,” including one that “obtained drugs for Nick Piscatelli.” Neither Weaver nor the two men whose names are mentioned could be located by City Paper in time for this article, and Piscatelli asserts he doesn’t know them. As for Weaver’s allegation about drugs, Piscatelli, who in the mid-1990s pleaded guilty to cocaine possession in Howard County, doesn’t directly respond but says that “there were no drugs in that club and no evidence of that going on.”
In fact, as City Paper has previously reported (“Club Trouble,” Mobtown Beat, June 11, 2003), evidence of drugs at the Redwood Trust does exist in the public record. In 2002, police executed a search-and-seizure warrant there and seized small amounts of cocaine and other drugs from the club. However, despite the evidence, the Baltimore City Liquor Board acquitted Redwood Trust of the resulting violations. “The fact [is] there were drugs there, obviously,” then-liquor board Chairman Leonard Skolnik said at the 2002 hearing.
In a November 2003 police report, Piscatelli stated that, while at the club, he was forced to sign a fraudulent promissory note for the sale of the nightclub business to another party, who, along with three armed men wearing masks, threatened Piscatelli and his business partner, Paul Chrzanowski, and asked them to sample “cocaine in a paper towel” (“Deadwood Bust,” Mobtown Beat, April 28, 2004). No criminal charges resulted from the incident, though competing lawsuits over the promissory note ended in October 2005, with Piscatelli winning a $1 million judgment against the buyer, Omar Haughton of Ellicott City.
Miller, meanwhile, worked for Redwood Trust, according to Piscatelli, who said prosecutors have asked him to produce Miller’s employment records. In court cases against him in the 1990s, Miller used an alias and three different dates of birth that today would place him in his mid-30s. One case, for murder in 1993, resulted in an assault conviction and two months of incarceration. Miller’s other conviction was for forgery in the mid-1990s, though he has dodged drug-conspiracy and other charges.
The state has accused Miller not only of murder in the Redwood Trust case but also armed robbery. This is apparently due to the fate of Convertino’s laptop computer, which court documents show Miller pawned the day after the bodies were found on April 16, 2003. Court records also indicate that Miller used Convertino’s credit card to pay for his honeymoon in Cancun, Mexico. Miller was first interviewed by detectives at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on May 14, 2003, when he and his wife, Tarsha Fitzgerald, returned from their honeymoon. During that interview, according to a detective’s notes contained in the court file, Miller described Convertino as a friend.
“Jay was a good guy,” the detective wrote of Miller’s statements at the airport. “Jay was willing to help anyone out at any time.”
Miller has consistently maintained his innocence and asserted his right to a speedy trial since his arraignment this past March. Until the trial, it’s anyone’s guess how Miller’s DNA was found in the gloves left at the murder scene, what Miller was doing with Convertino’s laptop, and how Miller came to use the victim’s credit card to pay for his honeymoon.
Piscatelli says Miller also asked him for honeymoon money, though he declined to lend it. “I didn’t really know [Miller],” Piscatelli says, “and didn’t really hire him” to work at Redwood Trust. That, he maintains, was Convertino’s decision.
Piscatelli is bewildered by indications that the case against Miller is developing to include information that suggests Piscatelli is being investigated in connection with the crime. “It’s a shame this thing is going in this direction,” he states ruefully. “I wouldn’t ever dream of doing anything like that. . . . I wouldn’t hurt a fly.”