News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Dept. of Corrections

by | Oct 5, 2017

The old gambling den beneath Sonny’s Variety. photo/Chris Busby

In “The Donald Trump of Portland Goes Down: Part II” [August, 2017] we incorrectly stated that Peter T. “Sonny” Brichetto Jr. — former proprietor of Sonny’s Variety, a convenience store on Congress Street — was charged in a 2003 assault that resulted in a woman being hospitalized. The alleged perpetrator of that crime, as reported by the Portland Press Herald, was Sonny’s cousin, Peter A. Brichetto.

The same mix-up led us to incorrectly attribute Peter A.’s involvement in an oxycodone ring as being Sonny Jr.’s involvement in that same drug ring. To clarify, Peter A. Brichetto was in the vehicle stopped by Maine State Troopers when 2,996 oxy pills were discovered in an armrest. He was subsequently convicted, imprisoned and released under the circumstances we reported. Sonny Jr. was convicted of supplying pills to that ring by diverting prescription medication. We regret the errors.

While reading through court documents in Sonny’s case, several notable details were discovered that shed light on the larger story.

In a June 2014 letter to the court, Sonny’s attorney — George “Toby” Dilworth, of the prestigious Portland firm Drummond Woodsum — portrayed his client as the victim of an oxycodone addiction fostered by a pain-pill prescription that spiraled out of control. Sonny began taking oxys over 10 years ago to relieve foot pain, but his need for more pills “increased to the point where he was being prescribed 40 pills a day,” Dilworth wrote. By 2008, he was addicted. Lacking insurance, Sonny was paying upwards of $60,000 a year for the pain meds by 2009. “That’s more than most people in Maine make in a year,” Dilworth observed. “It was bankrupting him.”

According to a sentencing memorandum, Sonny started selling pills to one of his other cousins, ringleader James B. Brichetto, around 2011 to help cover the cost of his prescription drugs. Sonny was arrested in May of 2012. Prosecutors claimed they could prove he was responsible for diverting 4,800 oxys from the pharmacy to the streets. How many hundreds or thousands of pills he may have diverted before the wiretapping began in late 2011 is anyone’s guess.

Missing from all the documents in this case is any allusion to the fact that Sonny’s Variety was also an illegal gambling den. That fact — an open secret in Portland’s blue-collar bars, and even among some members of local law enforcement — would have gone far to explain how Sonny was able to support a $5,000/month drug habit for years before he began selling the synthetic smack, assuming his lawyer’s timeline is accurate. Sonny’s Variety was a tiny corner store in a low-income neighborhood, and by numerous accounts it did little business aside from the daily trade in cigarettes, scratch tickets and cheap beer.

In January of 2013, Sonny’s Variety was sold to Portland gambling kingpin Steve Mardigan, the longtime bookie and illegal-card-game host we’ve dubbed The Donald Trump of Portland, for a sum well below its tax-assessed value. As we reported last July, Mardigan is the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation that’s led the government to move to seize upwards of $15 million’ worth of property he owns in Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Westbrook and Gorham — a haul that would constitute the largest civil forfeiture case in Maine if fully undertaken. Last spring, federal agents seized about $750,000 in cash and luxury watches from Mardigan and his longtime girlfriend, Patricia Nixon, the daughter of a Portland cop. The federal case against Mardigan is still under seal and Mardigan remains a free man, collecting rent from commercial tenants along Forest Avenue like he’s always done — in person.

Another noteworthy revelation buried in Sonny’s court filings is the fact that he became a government informant and provided “active cooperation” to federal agents in 2013 in an attempt to reduce his drug sentence. A Motion to Permit Active Cooperation, submitted by the government to the court on Aug. 29, 2013, notes that Sonny, who was free on bail at the time, worked undercover for both the Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI.

“The Government proposes to have the defendant place recorded telephone calls and/or meet with individuals who wish to sell controlled substances,” the motion reads, seeking a delay in his sentencing. “Additionally, the Government proposes to have the defendant place recorded telephone calls and/or meet with subjects of illegal gambling investigations. Some of these conversations may involve the placement of bets at agents’ direction.”

It’s possible that the FBI gambling investigation Sonny worked on went nowhere and was discontinued. (The target of the probe is not disclosed in court documents.) It’s also possible that it’s the FBI gambling investigation focused on Mardigan, who bought the corner store/gambling den a few months after Sonny was arrested.

On a related note, this summer the FBI sent letters notifying at least two people in the Portland area who’ve done legitimate business with Mardigan — a commercial tenant and a contractor — that their phones were tapped as part of an investigation in a sealed federal case. The tenant — who showed the letter to The Bollard on condition of anonymity — was informed that calls made on the business line were intercepted during a 30-day period in March, shortly before Mardigan and Nixon’s Back Cove home was raided.

True to their word, federal prosecutors asked the court in June 2014 to reduce Sonny’s sentence “in view of the substantial assistance” he provided to the government. Judge D. Brock Hornby sentenced Sonny to two years behind bars, followed by two years of supervised release, for his role in the distribution of many thousands of 30 mg. oxys into our drug-ravaged community.

Bookie beats cook

On Aug. 17, Keith Costello got his day in small-claims court. Costello and his wife Rosetta own The 5 Spot, a sandwich shop in Sonny’s Variety’s former Congress Street location. As we reported in August, Costello has had a difficult relationship with his landlord, Mardigan, who he faults for not clearing out the basement of the building — the former gambling den — in a timely manner.

Costello, a brash and boisterous native of Philadelphia, brought a civil suit against Mardigan for $2,650: the portion of rent he’s paid since last spring for what he claims was “unusable” leased space. Mardigan’s workers cleaned out the basement in July. At a pre-trail mediation session that morning, Mardigan countered by claiming Costello owed him $318 in late fees for failing to send rent checks on time. The bench trial before District Court Judge Maria Woodman was scheduled for that afternoon.

Mardigan and a woman I later learned was Nixon were sitting on a bench outside the courtroom that day. Mardigan wore jeans and a button-down shirt of a shade commonly called “powder” or “prison” blue. He has piercing blue eyes, a graying goatee and dyed-black, combed-back hair. Neither of them was wearing a watch. I introduced myself and extended a hand. He declined to shake it.

I told Mardigan I wanted to get his side of the story and offered him my business card. He declined to take it. I told him I wanted to take his photograph and asked him if that’d be OK. He said no. I then politely explained that it was my understanding that since we were outside the courtroom I was free to take photos, and proceeded to take several snapshots of him with my phone. He kept his head down, pretending to read some documents. Nixon raised her phone, apparently to record me as I photographed them. I asked her who she was. She exercised her right to remain silent.

I walked to another bench nearby and sat next to Costello to get his comments. Soon I noticed Mardigan talking with a small group of security guards, gesturing in my direction. I approached the group and was told by a guard that the rules had recently been changed: no photography is allowed anywhere inside the courthouse without official permission. Mardigan muttered something about getting protection from harassment, then walked away.

The trial was a shit show. Judge Woodman struggled, largely in vain, to keep both parties focused on the just-the-facts, question-and-answer format of the proceeding, but they kept getting sidetracked, raising other grievances and trying to make the other look bad. “Both egos need to cut it out!” the judge admonished them after several prior warnings went unheeded.

“There’s someone in this courtroom who’s been harassing me,” Mardigan told the judge in an early digression. Nixon and I were the only people in the gallery. The judge ignored that comment, but not long afterward one of the two security guards present approached the bench and Judge Woodman halted the trial. She asked me who I was and if I was covering the trial as a member of the press, to which I responded accordingly. She then called a brief recess and left the chamber, soon followed by both guards and the court clerk. Costello, Mardigan, Nixon and I were left alone in the courtroom for several awkward, silent minutes until the judge returned and resumed the proceeding without comment regarding the nature of the recess.

“I became a de facto storage unit for Mr. Mardigan,” Costello complained. He said the junk in the basement had prevented him from preparing to use the space for additional seating.

“I don’t understand why we’re here,” Mardigan said at another point. “I think it’s a crying shame. I’m just a businessman.” The landlord complained that Costello was turning out to be like so many other renters he’s had: “Tenants come in like lambs and come out like lions,” he said.

In her judgment, mailed to the parties a few days later, Judge Woodman ruled that Costello had failed to prove he’d lost revenue as a result of the junk in the basement. His small claim was denied.

Costello released a statement following the ruling. “I took an Oath 33 yrs ago as a 14 year old Cadet at Valley Forge Military Academy … that states in part ‘A Cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do,’” it reads. “Honesty and integrity are two big hallmarks of a person’s character and I do my best to live by that Oath every day of my life. It would be a grave disservice to that fine institution and the people who taught me how to be a man to [renege] on that pledge now. Rosetta and I respect the Court’s decision and are moving forward.”

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