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Arrest in Deadly Vendetta Against Mob Figure Only Thickens the Plot

The New York Times logo The New York Times 4 days ago By ALI WATKINS
Wayne Rooney et al. standing in front of a store: Sylvester Zottola, 71, a reputed member of the Bonanno crime family, was shot to death Oct. 4 while in his car in a McDonald’s drive-through in the Bronx. © Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times Sylvester Zottola, 71, a reputed member of the Bonanno crime family, was shot to death Oct. 4 while in his car in a McDonald’s drive-through in the Bronx.

When investigators found $45,000 in cash inside the Brooklyn apartment of a man they suspected might be linked to last week’s killing of a reputed mobster, the man’s grandmother offered an explanation.

The money had turned up in the last week, she told investigators, and it came from her grandson’s T-shirt business.

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Federal prosecutors had a different theory: The man, Bushawn Shelton, 34, was a high-ranking member of the Bloods street gang, and had taken part in a plot to kill Sylvester and Salvatore Zottola, a father and son who were reputed to be associates of the Bonanno crime family.

On Thursday, Mr. Shelton, who is known as “Shelz,” was arrested and charged in United States District Court in Brooklyn with federal conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire and brandishing a firearm.

A law enforcement source confirmed Mr. Shelton is suspected in connection with the murder of Sylvester Zottola, 71, who was gunned down outside a Bronx McDonald’s last week, even though he was not specifically charged with that crime. Mr. Zottola’s son, Salvatore, 41, also barely escaped a botched attempt on his life earlier this year.

[Read more about the assassination of Mr. Zottola.]

Prosecutors said the search executed at Mr. Shelton’s home earlier on Thursday not only uncovered the $45,000 in bills but also loaded firearms.

The charges against Mr. Shelton signaled a break for investigators in a frustrating case, though it still left many questions unanswered. For nearly a year, Mr. Zottola and his son had been hunted by shadowy assassins on the streets of the Bronx. It was a pursuit law enforcement officials suspected stemmed from the pair’s well-documented connections to New York’s organized crime families.

A criminal complaint said Mr. Shelton was part of a murder-for-hire plot targeting the Zottolas over a nearly five-month period ending with a botched July 11 assassination attempt against the younger Zottola outside of the family’s compound in the Throgs Neck neighborhood. Neither Zottola is named in the complaint, but a law enforcement official confirmed the anonymous John Doe 1 and John Doe 2 cited in the document refer to them.

[Read more about the attempt on the Salvatore Zottola’s life.]

Mr. Shelton is accused of paying another man to try to kill the pair and providing him with getaway drivers and firearms to carry out the plot. But the hired hitman was arrested, pleaded guilty to murder-for-hire and agreed to cooperate with federal investigators against Mr. Shelton, the complaint said.

Who initially hired Mr. Shelton, and why they wanted the Zottolas dead, remains a mystery. Court documents make no mention of a motive. Sworn testimony indicates the case was investigated by the F.B.I.’s Balkan and Middle Eastern organized crime squad, bolstering theories that the Zottolas may have somehow crossed an Albanian organized crime group.

For years, the Zottolas fostered close ties to the Luchese and Bonanno crime families, providing and maintaining electronic gambling machines for mob-controlled hubs in New Jersey.

The elder Mr. Zottola had a particularly close relationship with Vincent J. Basciano, who led the Bonanno crime family in the early 2000s before being convicted of racketeering and murder. At the turn of the millennium, Sylvester Zottola allowed Mr. Basciano’s girlfriend, Debra Kalb, to live at his compound in the Bronx, according to court transcripts.

But the elder Mr. Zottola’s ties to organized crime extended beyond the Bonanno family. He had a long history with the Lucheses, according to an investigator who handles Mafia inquiries but was not involved in the murder case, and an F.B.I. report that summarizes the agency’s debriefing of a high-ranking Bonanno crime family figure.

The investigator said Mr. Zottola also had ties to the Genovese crime family: He had grown up with Pasquale Falcetti, a soldier from the Genovese family’s East Harlem crew who was known as “The Clubber.”

Mr. Shelton is expected to appear in court for a detention hearing on Friday.

Follow Ali Watkins on Twitter: @AliWatkins

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