George Bratsenis shuffled into a New Jersey courtroom, chained up, an old-fashioned mobster with thick glasses, white hair and a tattoo on the forearm.
The court is a familiar setting for Mr Bratsenis, 73. So is the prison. His Tarantino-esque odyssey spans at least three states and Canada and includes the murder of a drug mule known as the Turk, ties to organized crime, and a bizarre failed prison break attempt.
He was now in court for being involved in a contract killing involving a veteran campaign adviser, which many in the New Jersey political class believe could become the state’s next major public corruption scandal.
The adviser, Sean Caddle, had admitted to plotting the murder of an employee who was fatally stabbed in his burning Jersey City apartment in 2014, and he had told Mr. Bratsenis named as his hit man.
Mr Bratsenis’ appearance, on February 22, ended abruptly without explanation, adding to the mystery of his place in the plan. Clarification will likely come Thursday when, the US law firm in New Jersey said, he will make a plea.
It’s a new chapter for Bratsenis, whose criminal heyday spanned roughly from 1974 to 1985. During that time, according to interviews, court documents, other public records and newspaper articles, he received 10 convictions, many for crimes such as burglary, armed robbery and, once, conspiracy to commit murder. He took orders from associates of the Gambino crime family and was an enforcer for a notorious former Connecticut police lieutenant.
“He’s a very bad guy,” said Alan H. Nevas, who in the 1980s as the US attorney in Connecticut won convictions against Mr. Bratsenis for bank robbery and murder conspiracy.
Mr. Bratsenis did not respond to an interview request sent to him at the Brooklyn Federal Penitentiary, where he awaits his conviction in a bank robbery. His lawyer declined to comment.
Born in Stamford, Conn., Mr. Bratsenis grew up with five sisters. (Whoever he says he’s closest to hasn’t answered the phone.) In a lawsuit, he describes a childhood of walks to the park and Little League games.
In the same document, he says he started drinking as a teenager before switching to LSD, cocaine and heroin. He graduated from high school in 1966—“likes girls, water skiing, baseball, hunting, and cars,” says his yearbook—then joined the Marines. He was honorably discharged, has been married and divorced twice – the first marriage lasting about a year – and has four children.
“I don’t want anything to do with him or his family,” his second wife, Patricia, said in a telephone interview. “I wish him nothing but yuck.”
The criminal career of Mr. Bratsenis started when he returned home from serving his country. His father had a destruction company, but George chose a different path.
An early arrest came in October 1973, when he and three other men broke into a seafood restaurant in Westport, Conn. Several months later, he was arrested 800 miles away in Nova Scotia, Canada, on charges of robbing a bowling alley at gunpoint. He pleaded guilty to armed robbery and was sentenced to 90 days in prison.
Back in Stamford, the Gambino and Genovese crime families battled for control of the illegal rackets. Mr Bratsenis and his cronies “would contact organized crime officials and carry out their orders – robberies, burglaries, selling drugs,” said Captain Richard Conklin of the Stamford Police Department.
“Subcontractors,” Michael Docimo, a retired Stamford officer, called them: “They would do anything to hire someone.”
Mr Bratsenis was “a bit of a loose cannon” with a “certain meanness,” said Captain Conklin. At six feet tall and over 200 pounds, he was also physically intimidating — a trait he used, Mr. Docimo said, as “muscle” for Larry Hogan, a retired Stamford police lieutenant and long-time target of law enforcement investigation for his suspected links to the drug trade and organized crime. (Mr. Hogan was convicted in 1982 of buying heroin from secretive federal agents. The verdict was overturned on appeal.)
Mr. Bratsenis’ primary partner was Louis Sclafani (he called himself Trigger Lou). From 1979 to 1983, court records show, they went on a whirlwind of crime: Connecticut banking jobs; grand theft arrests in Florida; jewelry stores and gun and drug convictions throughout New Jersey.
In 1980, the bullet-riddled body of David Avnayim, also known as the Turk, was found in a car trunk near Mr Hogan’s home. Four years later, Mr. Bratsenis, mr. Sclafani and Mr. Hogan indicted for the murder. mr. Hogan died before the trial. Mr Sclafani cooperated. mr. Bratsenis pleaded guilty to one charge of murder conspiracy.
David Golub, a lawyer representing Mr Hogan, said in an interview that he had read about the murder in which Mr Bratsenis was now involved.
“Is this about George Bratsenis raising his ugly head?” Mr Golub said when he answered the phone, adding: “If he’s out of jail for more than a day, it’s a fluke.”
The outburst of Mr. Bratsenis ended in 1983 when he was arrested and charged with one of the New Jersey jewelry store robberies. Before his trial there, he was convicted of robbing two banks in Stamford. (Mr. Sclafani cooperated again.) He was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the robberies and 10 to 20 years, to be served concurrently, for the Turk’s murder.
Next came the New Jersey trial for the thefts from jewelers. Prosecutors said they followed a typical pattern: Mr. Bratsenis and his associates started looking for places to rob. Then they would set fires elsewhere to distract the authorities.
The trial was a spectacle. Mr Sclafani, who again testified as a federally protected witness, was brought to trial under the supervision of rooftop snipers guarding against a targeted murder.
Then there was Mr Bratsenis’s escape plan.
While he was in prison awaiting trial, one of his sisters smuggled him a balloon filled with a nausea-inducing drug that he held in his rectum for weeks. He planned to make himself sick by taking the drug the day the trial began, which led to a trip to a hospital. There, armed men would help him flee.
The plan crumbled thanks to a prison informant and an undercover cop filming Mr. Bratsenis’s sister talking about it. The trial continued and he was convicted.
“I’ve always said this in passing the sentence, that it’s hard to say if anyone will commit another crime,” the judge said when ordering him to spend a minimum of 25 years in state prison. “But based on this defendant’s history, his attitude, there is no doubt about it.”
Foresighted words. Bratsenis finished a total of 25 years — nine in federal prison and 16 in state custody — before being paroled in 2010.
Then, on September 29, 2014, he was arrested in Trumbull, Conn., and charged with bank robbery. A second man, Bomani Africa, was also charged. Mr Africa pleaded guilty, admitting that he and Mr Bratsenis had stolen a car that they had used in their escape and then set it on fire.
The case received little attention until January, when Mr. Caddle, the campaign adviser, pleaded guilty to arranging the murder of Michael Galdieri, 52, and Mr. Bratsenis paid thousands of dollars in cash for the job. Mr Africa pleaded guilty to participating and said Mr Bratsenis recruited him.
Prosecutors say – and Mr Africa, 61, has admitted – that he and Mr Bratsenis met in a New Jersey prison, where they spent several years in the same cell block, and planned to commit crimes together after they were released.
mr. Bratsenis’ link to Mr. Caddle is vaguer. Mr. Caddle’s brother, James Caddle Jr., is a possibility. He also spent several years in the same prison as Mr Bratsenis. He is dead and it is not clear if they met.
Another source of intrigue is the confession of Mr. Caddle, who ran a web of black-money nonprofits and super-PACs, said he collaborated with the FBI in what his attorney called a “large-scale investigation.” It is unclear where his cooperation could lead.
The details of the murder of Mr. Galdieri prompted the son of a prominent New Jersey couple whose deaths remain unsolved in September 2014 to investigate a possible connection between the cases.
In a letter to law enforcement, the son, Mark Sheridan, wrote that, like Mr. Galdieri, his parents, John and Joyce Sheridan, who were found dead in their home, had been stabbed and a fire had been set nearby.
There is no evidence linking the deaths, and federal and state authorities have declined to comment.
Bratsenis, who has been in prison since his arrest in the bank robbery, will be sentenced next month in that case — more than three years after pleading guilty. He has written to federal officials to complain about the long wait and the conditions in which he has been held.
“Sometimes I was so upset that I forgot where I was,” he wrote to a top prison official last March about the “inhumane” Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. “I said to myself, ‘Self, this is not the great US'”
In a lawsuit, his attorney, Charles Kurmay, asked for a lenient sentence, citing Mr Bratsenis’ prostate cancer and advanced age.
“He would like not to die while in prison,” he wrote.
Tracey Tully has reported. Kirsten Noyes contributed to research.