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Jeweler’s Surrogate Son Guilty of Killing Connecticut Man

NEW YORK — The men did not know each other and their meeting at a Manhattan nightclub was happenstance, but it started off a long night of revelry. By 4:30 a.m., they had met some women and moved the party 4 miles away to James Rackover’s luxury apartment on the East Side, where they continued to drink and snort cocaine.

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Jan Ransom
, New York Times

NEW YORK — The men did not know each other and their meeting at a Manhattan nightclub was happenstance, but it started off a long night of revelry. By 4:30 a.m., they had met some women and moved the party 4 miles away to James Rackover’s luxury apartment on the East Side, where they continued to drink and snort cocaine.

The good times ended the next morning with the grisly murder of one of the men, Joseph Comunale, a 26-year-old Hofstra graduate from Stamford, Connecticut.

On Friday, a jury convicted Rackover, 27, of murder and related charges after a day of deliberations. Prosecutors said he and another partygoer, Lawrence Dilione, 30, beat and stabbed Comunale to death, then buried his body in a shallow grave on the Jersey Shore.

Prosecutors said the two men pushed the corpse out a fourth-floor window and stuffed it into a car trunk before driving to New Jersey, where they doused the body in gasoline, set it ablaze and buried it. Dilione is being tried separately next year.

After a jury returned a guilty verdict, the audience in state Supreme Court in Manhattan erupted in applause. Comunale’s family members and friends hugged one another, as many sobbed and shouted with victory.

Yet precisely what happened on Nov. 13, 2016, inside Apartment 4C at the Grand Sutton — a luxury residential tower near the Roosevelt Island Tramway — remains something of a mystery. During Rackover’s two-week trial, prosecutors acknowledged they had no eyewitnesses who could explain what precipitated Comunale’s murder.

“Mr. Comunale is no longer here to tell us what happened,” a prosecutor, Peter Casolaro, said during his opening statement. “Death has stilled his voice forever.”

Rackover and Dilione left behind a trail of evidence: spatters of Comunale’s blood throughout Rackover’s apartment; several garbage bags full of blood stained items including bedsheets, clothes and towels; used cleaning products; and Comunale’s wallet, identification and credit cards. All were discarded at Rackover’s building.

Their movements, from Rackover’s apartment on East 59th Street to a wooded area in Oceanport, New Jersey, nearly 60 miles away, were tracked by cellphone towers and license plate readers.

Shortly before 7 a.m., security cameras recorded Comunale and Dilione leaving the building briefly. That was the last time Comunale was seen alive.

Still, a lawyer for Rackover, Maurice H. Sercarz, argued to the jury it was Dilione, not Rackover, who killed Comunale. He said his client — who was drunk and high — had only assisted in moving Comunale’s body out of his apartment because his lavish lifestyle was suddenly in jeopardy and he had to protect it.

A third man, Max Gemma, is accused of hindering prosecution and tampering with evidence. He also will be tried next year.

That Saturday night began normally enough for Comunale. He and three friends traveled from their homes in Stamford, into the city to have drinks at the Gilded Lily, a club in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. There, Comunale met Dilione and Gemma, lifelong friends and roommates who had come into the city from their homes in Jersey City, New Jersey.

“He went out that night like any 26- or 27-year-old does,” Comunale’s father, Pat Comunale, said. “They go clubbing, they meet up with people.”

Rackover was home in bed after watching an Ultimate Fighting Championship match on television. At about 3 a.m. Sunday, he received text messages from Dilione, whom he knew. Dilione asked if he could bring people to Rackover’s place to continue the party there, according to court records and defense lawyers. Rackover asked if Dilione had cocaine.

“I need a line to keep me going,” Rackover wrote to Dilione in a text message. Dilione replied that he had a little.

Rackover had been born James Beaudoin II. He changed his last name in 2015 to that of his intimate partner, Manhattan jeweler Jeffrey Rackover, whose clients include Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Lopez, and first lady Melania Trump, according to a lawsuit filed last year by Comunale’s father. The lawsuit alleges Jeffrey Rackover legally adopted Beaudoin and showered him with gifts in exchange for sex: drugs, money, a Mercedes-Benz and an expensive apartment. They had met in 2013 and lived together in the Jeffrey Rackover’s apartment for two years. Then James Rackover moved into Unit 4C in the same high-rise building, the lawsuit said.

James Rackover was originally from Florida. He had been convicted of robbery as a juvenile, had pleaded no contest to a burglary charge and had multiple probation violations, records show. He had served 18 months in prison at the South Bay Correctional Facility before being released in 2013. His aunt said he moved to New York for a fresh start.

The morning he died, Comunale was among four men and three women who arrived at Rackover’s apartment at about 4:30 a.m. Wearing only jeans, Rackover welcomed them. He boasted that his father was a popular jeweler and showed off framed photos of the two of them, according to testimony at trial.

The women there that morning testified that Rackover was “all over the place,” loud and “joking around.” He and Dilione engaged in a sophomoric competition to see who could give a better lap dance to one of the women. Comunale, one woman said, was “pretty drunk” and sat quietly, laughing at the ruckus.

Over the next two hours, the group drank beers and snorted cocaine, prosecutors said.

At 6:48 a.m., Comunale and Dilione walked the women out of the building to help them get into an livery cab and then went back inside, security camera video introduced at trial showed. Forty-five minutes later, Gemma left the building in different clothes than he wore when he arrived, the video showed.

At some point, prosecutors said Dilione and Comunale got into an argument — perhaps over the lack of more cocaine, prosecutors said, but they acknowledged that they were not certain — and a fight broke out.

Prosecutors said Dilione beat Comunale mercilessly, pummeling him until he was unconscious, and then he and Rackover stabbed him 15 times.

It did not take long for Comunale’s father to realize that something was wrong. The father and son spoke daily by phone and saw each other at least five times a week, he told the jury through tears. The day of the murder, they had plans to watch a football game together.

By Monday, Pat Comunale had reported his son missing to New York police. He had also tracked down contact information for Rackover and Dilione, enlisting the help of his son’s friends and his brother, a police sergeant in Bedford, New York, a northern suburb of the city.

During closing arguments, Rackover’s lawyer did not dispute that Rackover helped dispose of the body and had vigorously cleaned the apartment afterward.

“The truth in this case is that my client is a terribly flawed young man, that he made a horrible, criminal decision,” Sercarz told the jury. “I know innocence does not apply.” But he argued his client was not guilty of second-degree murder.

The lead prosecutor, Antoinette Carter, noted in her closing remarks to the jury the “extraordinary lengths” the two men went to get rid of the body, “and I submit that you would not do that unless you were all in.” One damning piece of evidence came from Louis Ruggiero, the son of Rosetta Scotto, host of “Good Day New York,” and the only person in whom Rackover confided what happened to Comunale.

Hours after he buried Comunale’s charred body, a pale and anxious Rackover met with Ruggeiro in a sixth-floor men’s locker room in an Equinox gym on the Upper East Side.

“James looked at me and said, ‘I did something really bad,'” Ruggeiro, 24, recounted. He said Rackover went on to say that Dilione had knocked Comunale unconscious and then he “gave him a few lickings as well, slit his throat and stabbed him, wrapped his body up in comforters and threw him out the windowso cameras wouldn’t see us leaving.”

Then Rackover admitted to Ruggiero they had buried Comunale and bleached the apartment.

“'You want to hear the sickest part of it all?'” Ruggeiro recalled Rackover saying. “'I ordered pancakes from the diner and ate it like nothing happened.'”

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