Saturday February 28, 2015

Jurist in Residence Program with Hon. Frank Geraci '73, '77

By Professor Dennis Turner

Even federal judges have to be careful what they wish for.

In June of 2014, I asked the Honorable Frank Geraci (UDSL Class of 77), Federal District Court Judge for the Western District of New York, to spend a week at UDSL as our Jurist-in-Residence. Judge Geraci agreed to come and said he hoped I would keep him busy and “work him hard.”  Consequently I am suffering no pangs of guilt for scheduling him for four dinners, five lunches and as a guest speaker in ten different law school classes.  And, just to make sure Judge Geraci suffered no spells of boredom, I “volunteered” him to be part of Dayton Bar Association Inn of Court panel discussing the art of good legal writing. Judge Geraci told the one hundred attorneys in the room what judges are really looking for in the mountain of motions, memoranda and briefs they have to read. Plus, on Wednesday, Judge Geraci gave a talk to a full UDSL courtroom describing the long and intricate process of becoming a Federal District Court judge.

I am pleased, but not surprised, to report that Judge Geraci received rave reviews for all his presentations.  Judge Geraci is a natural story teller who can entertain and inform his audiences at the same time.  From tales about an attorney padding around a courtroom in his bare feet to the ongoing saga of dealing with the US General Service Administration which owns and maintains all government buildings, he kept his audiences wanting to hear more.  For example, did you know that US Courts are obliged to pay top dollar rent for its courtrooms to the US government and that the rent is higher depending on the height of the courtroom’s ceiling?

The best story related by Judge Geraci, however, must be retold.  It happened in 1986, when Judge Geraci was a US Attorney based in the Western District of New York.  He was an important player in a law enforcement operation that could easily become a movie. State and Federal agents had picked up a rumor that some nefarious types with connections to organized crime were trying to purchase a helicopter in Pine Bluff Arkansas.  It was first assumed the conspirators wanted the chopper to transport drugs.  Warrants for wiretaps were issued and surveillance was started on all persons of interest.  The justice department also planted numerous agents who were instructed to infiltrate the group, if possible.  By the time the conspiracy ended and arrests made, there may have been more federal agents acting as accomplices than actual co-conspirators. The federal agents quickly learned that the helicopter was not meant to transport drugs but was to be used to stage a prison break at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Williamsport, Pa. The prime mover behind the plot was the son of Stephen N. Vento Sr., 18 year old Stephen Junior.  Stephen Senior was an associate of the Nicodemo ''Little Nicky" Scarfo organized-crime family in Philadelphia. Stephen Junior, like any good and dutiful son, wanted to spring his beloved father.  Junior also had to act fast since he was out on bail stemming from a 1984 murder charge. Grenade launchers and machine guns were purchased from undercover federal agents posing as gun dealers. Pilots, who also were undercover federal agents, were hired to fly the helicopter.

The sting operation was so complex, and required the coordination of so many agents, that one whole wall of the US Attorney’s Office was covered in charts, lists, and diagrams with arrows connecting all the pieces. These pieces changed every day as the operation progressed. Complicating matters further was the problem of avoiding any leaks that would alert the conspirators.

Stephen Junior’s plan was that at 11:45 a.m. the helicopter was to swoop into the prison, neutralize the guard towers with grenade launchers and machine gun fire, and land in the exercise yard.  At that point, Stephen Senior and a his cohort were to strip off their prison uniforms and display cranberry tie-dyed tee shirts so the pilots knew they were picking up the right convicts. The escapees would race to the chopper and be whisked away to a nearby small plane which would take them to the Elmira New York airport. From there, a private plane would fly them to Canada.

Judge Geraci and the Justice department had enough evidence to arrest Junior and his fellow conspirators before the escape attempt took place, but to nail Stephen Senior and the other potential escapee, the Department needed the overt act of the convicts attempting to escape.  They also wanted to make sure of the identity of the other convict.  Hence, at H-hour the chopper flew into the prison piloted by FBI agents.  There was no need to neutralize the guard towers because Federal agents were also manning them.  When the helicopter landed, Stephen Vento Senior and Noah Vance ripped off their orange prison garb and raced toward the waiting helicopter.  Much to their surprise and chagrin the helicopter took off without them and they ran right into the arms of a dozen federal agents who had been hiding nearby.

If staging the phony escape was not complicated enough, the Feds also had to coordinate the arrest of the far-flung co-conspirators.  They wanted the arrests to occur at exactly the same time so no conspirator could get wind of the coup and escape the federal net.  Within minutes of each other the conspirators were being cuffed and read their Miranda rights.  Stephen Junior was on his way to Elmira by commercial flight to meet dad.  He had no idea that his seatmates on the plane were federal agents.  When the agents received the “Go” signal, Junior felt two hands grasping his wrists and a deep voice telling him he was under arrest.

While in Dayton, Judge Geraci made it abundantly clear to everyone to whom he spoke that he loved UD and the University of Dayton School of Law.  He was proud that four of his children graduated from UD, including a son who graduated from the law school. Judge Geraci said he first arrived on campus as an undergraduate freshman in 1969, when his parents just dropped him off at Stewart Hall.  He had never visited the campus and knew no one.  He said for the first day he was miserably homesick, but by the second day he loved the University.  He feels the same way about the law school to which he returned in 1974. He was a part of that amazing first class (1977) of the reopened law school.

So, Judge Geraci’s week as the UDSL Jurist-in Residence turned into a kind of “love-fest” because everyone who met Judge Geraci loved him.  All of us at UDSL, and I in particular, owe Judge Geraci a huge debt of gratitude for being our first Jurist-in-Residence in ten years.  He will be a very tough act to follow in 2016. Thank you Judge Geraci.


For questions on this post, please contact Professor Dennis Turner

For more information, or to submit a news item, contact Denise Baker, assistant director of communications at the University of Dayton School of Law, at lawcomm@udayton.edu. Or submit your news online here.

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