In a four-page decision that brought the trial of ex-agent Lindley DeVecchio to a stunning end Thursday, state Supreme Court Justice Gustin Reichbach said the FBI violated its own rules by allowing DeVecchio to court a known killer as an informant for well over a decade.
"In the face of the obvious menace posed by organized crime, the FBI was willing ... to make a deal with the devil," Reichbach said in a hushed Brooklyn courtroom. "At best, the FBI engaged in a policy of self-deception, not wanting to know the true facts about this informant-murderer whom they chose to employ."
The judge also referred to testimony by Linda Schiro, informant Gregory Scarpa's longtime girlfriend, that Scarpa had assisted the FBI in finding the bodies of slain civil rights workers in Mississippi. In 1964, she said, Scarpa shoved a gun into the mouth of a Mississippi Klansman - a threat that persuaded the man to reveal where the trio's bodies were buried.
"That a thug like Scarpa would be employed by the federal government to beat witnesses and threaten them at gunpoint to obtain information ... is a shocking demonstration of the government's unacceptable willingness to employ criminality to fight crime," the judge said.
Prosecutors had built their case on the word of Schiro, a mob mistress since she met Scarpa at age 16. Their hopes imploded Tuesday when two reporters surfaced with decade-old interviews showing that back then, she implicated DeVecchio in only one murder, not the four she testified about under oath.
District Attorney Charles Hynes said Thursday prosecutors would not have brought the case if they had heard the tapes beforehand.
"It's that simple. We would not have prosecuted because it would have been so damaging to the central part of our case that it would have been unthinkable to proceed," he told reporters.
The judge threw out the case mid-trial, and DeVecchio walked out a free man to the applause of friends and former colleagues.
"After almost two years, this nightmare is over," said DeVecchio, referring to the time since his indictment. "My question is, `Where do I go to get back my reputation?"'
Allegations about leaks from DeVecchio to the ruthless mobster known as "The Grim Reaper" began after Scarpa's 1994 death in a prison in Minnesota. A Department of Justice internal investigation found no reason to prosecute DeVecchio, who retired to Florida in 1996.
But in March 2006, Brooklyn prosecutors announced DeVecchio's indictment on four murder counts, alleging the FBI agent had cooperated with the Colombo capo between 1987 and 1992 in exchange for cash, stolen jewelry, liquor - even prostitutes.
It wasn't until Schiro began testifying this week that the case reached its unexpected conclusion. The key prosecution witness was the lone direct link between DeVecchio and the murders.
Once she finished her first day of testimony, veteran reporter Tom Robbins came forward with tapes made in 1997, when he and fellow journalist Jerry Capeci interviewed Schiro for a never-published book.
"A guy was facing prison for life over this, over her testimony, and I didn't see how I could sit silent," Robbins told CBS News correspondent Jeff Glor.
"I am surprised," Robbins said, "I am surprised that the D.A. - Joe Hynes is a veteran. I am surprised that they went as far as they did, based on this one shaky witness."
Schiro now faces possible perjury charges, said Assistant District Attorney Michael Vecchione. Because of the double jeopardy rule that a person can't be tried twice for the same crime, DeVecchio is free and clear of the charges.
A court-appointed attorney for Schiro said she stood by her recent sworn testimony, despite the discrepancies raised by the book interview.
"She told the truth in court under oath," said the lawyer, Gary Farrell.
To celebrate the case's collapse, DeVecchio went to Sparks Steak House, the site of a notorious 1985 mob murder. Mafia boss "Big Paul" Castellano was gunned down outside the Manhattan eatery in a hit that eventually led to John Gotti's ascension as boss of the Gambino crime family.
"The food is good," DeVecchio said as he, his wife, lawyers and friends popped a bottle of champagne, according to the New York Post.