The 24-year-old man arrested in connection with the killing of Francesco Cali, a reputed boss of New York's Gambino crime family who was gunned down in a brazen hit last week, wrote pro-Donald Trump slogans on his hand and flashed them to journalists before a court hearing Monday.
Handcuffed and dressed in green stripes, Anthony Comello, of Staten Island, tried to use his hands to block the cameras from his face as he sat in the jury box.
While waiting for a court hearing to begin in Toms River, New Jersey, in which he agreed to be extradited to New York, Comello held up his left hand.
On it were scrawled pro-Trump slogans including "MAGA Forever," an abbreviation of Trump's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again." It also read "United We Stand MAGA" and "Patriots In Charge." In the center of his palm he had drawn a symbol for QAnon, a conspiracy theory about the president widely circulated on 4Chan and other far-right message boards. It was not immediately clear why he had done so.
Comello's lawyer, Brian Neary, would not discuss the writing on his client's hand, nor would he say whether Comello maintains his innocence. Asked by reporters after the hearing what was on Comello's hand, Neary replied, "Handcuffs."
He referred all other questions to Comello's Manhattan lawyer, Robert Gottlieb, who said in an emailed statement his client has been placed in protective custody due to "serious threats" that had been made against him, but gave no details of them.
Ocean County officials could not immediately be reached after hours on Monday.
"Mr. Comello's family and friends simply cannot believe what they have been told," Gottlieb said. "There is something very wrong here and we will get to the truth about what happened as quickly as possible."
The statement did not address the writing on Comello's hand, and a lawyer from Gottlieb's firm declined to comment further Monday evening.
Comello sat with a slight smile in the jury box of the courtroom Monday afternoon as dozens of reporters and photographers filed into the room. When they were in place, Comello held up his left hand to display the writings as the click and whirr of camera lenses filled the room with sound.
During the hearing, Comello did not speak other than to say, "Yes, sir" to the judge to respond to several procedural questions.
Camello was taken into custody at a home in Brick, New Jersey, on Saturday. Investigators anticipate returning him to the city to face murder charges for Cali, said NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea.
Police are investigating whether other people were involved as well as a possible motive, Shea said. The gun hasn't been recovered, but law enforcement sources familiar with the case say the killing doesn't appear mob-related.
One source described Camello as a "conspiracy theory type" of guy while a second source said he appears "a bit off."
One theory being looked into is whether the suspect wanted to date one of the mob boss's relatives and Cali told him to back off, the sources said.
Camello was picked up at the Brick home by the NYPD and U.S. Marshals, sources familiar with the investigation said. His pickup truck was found on Staten Island and cellphone records may have helped lead police to Brick.
Cali, known as "Franky Boy," 53, was shot to death in front of his home on Hilltop Terrace not long after dinnertime Wednesday. The 911 caller had initially reported a man had been run over by a vehicle on purpose and that he was trapped; the caller then said he had also been shot multiple times. A suspect fled the scene in a blue pickup truck, the NYPD said.
Investigators began retrieving video from NYPD cameras positioned on the pair of roadways that lead in and out of Todt Hill, another source told NBC 4 New York. Surveillance video from the shooting scene is grainy, the source said.
But it shows the suspect’s truck apparently deliberately hitting the vehicle — perhaps to get Cali to come out of his home. The two shake hands, the license plate from the suspect's vehicle falls off, the suspect picks up the license, hands it to Cali, then pulls a gun and shoots as Cali puts the license in his own car, according to the source.
Shea said Thursday that 12 shots were fired, with at least six striking Cali, who tried to use his car as a shield to protect himself during the shooting.
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn had referred to Cali in court filings in recent years as the underboss of the Gambino organization, related through marriage to the Inzerillo clan in the Sicilian Mafia.
Multiple press accounts since 2015 said Cali had ascended to the top spot in the gang, although he never faced a criminal charge saying so.
His only mob-related criminal conviction came a decade ago, when Cali pleaded guilty in an extortion conspiracy involving a failed attempt to build a NASCAR track on Staten Island. He was sentenced to 16 months in federal prison and was released in 2009.
The last Mafia boss to be shot to death in New York City was Gambino don Paul Castellano, assassinated outside a Manhattan steakhouse in 1985 at the direction of Cali's swaggering 1980s-era predecessor, John Gotti.
In 1992, Gotti was convicted in Castellano's murder and a multitude of other crimes. He was sentenced to life in prison and died of cancer in 2002.