When Right-Wing Fake News Gets Someone Killed

In March 2019, when I heard the head of the Gambino crime family, Frank Cali, had been gunned down in his front yard on Staten Island, I assumed that we were entering into another power struggle between New York’s five families. Little did I know that the murderer was not a gun-for-hire, but a Trump-supporting lunatic who had become so deluded by the QAnon deep-state conspiracy theory that he decided to attempt a citizen’s arrest. Or, at least, that’s what the shooter’s lawyer, Robert C. Gottlieb, wants us to believe.

On the evening of March 13, twenty-four year old Anthony Camello arrived alone at Mr. Cali’s home in Todt Hill, Gottlieb says, believing that he could lure the mob boss out of his home, place him in handcuffs, and bring him to the police station. Only the first part of his scheme worked out as planned.

Apparently, Camello rammed his pickup truck into Mr. Cali’s Cadillac, which was parked outside his home. When Mr. Cali came out of his house to see what the hell was going on, there was some kind of confrontation, most of which was captured in grainy surveillance footage. I’m not sure how well that video evidence lines up with what Gottlieb is saying, but here goes:

“He ardently believed that Francesco Cali, a boss in the Gambino crime family, was a prominent member of the deep state, and, accordingly, an appropriate target for a citizen’s arrest,” wrote Mr. Comello’s lawyer, Robert C. Gottlieb…

…Mr. Comello had become convinced that Mr. Cali was part of the so-called deep state, a cabal of criminals that conspiracy theorists claim controls the United States government. Mr. Comello also believed he was a chosen vigilante of President Trump.

“Mr. Comello became certain that he was enjoying the protection of President Trump himself, and that he had the president’s full support,” Mr. Gottlieb wrote.

There had been early speculation after Comello’s arrest that he was romantically interested in one of Mr. Cali’s relatives, but Mr. Gottlieb doesn’t mention anything along those lines. Instead, he says that his client just went down a QAnon rabbit hole.

That delusion will be part of a package of evidence that Mr. Gottlieb says he plans to submit to the court that prove Mr. Comello is not guilty by reason of mental defect. Mr. Gottlieb is seeking to have the court place Mr. Comello in psychiatric treatment, rather than prosecute him on murder charges. Mr. Comello is being held in protective custody as he awaits trial.

Now, here’s a description of what actually happened:

But [the video] 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.

Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea said Thursday that 12 shots were fired, with at least six striking Cali.

Shea said Cali tried to use his car as a shield to protect himself during the shooting.

“Mr. Cali was struck several times by gunfire. In trying to elude additional gunfire, [he] fled to the rear area of his private vehicle,” he said at a press conference.

And here is what Gottlieb apparently plans to say happened when his client appears in court:

Mr. Comello took handcuffs with him to Todt Hill on March 13, Mr. Gottlieb said, but his plan was foiled when Mr. Cali refused to submit to a citizen’s arrest. Instead, Mr. Gottlieb said, the Gambino leader reached toward his waistband. Fearing for his life, Mr. Comello shot Mr. Cali 10 times and fled, Mr. Gottlieb said.

Comello was arrested three days later in nearby Brick, New Jersey.

At Mr. Comello’s first court appearance in March, he displayed symbols and phrases associated with QAnon scrawled on his hand in pen. He first began to take an interest in political conspiracy theories, Mr. Gottlieb said, in the weeks after Mr. Trump’s 2016 election.

“Mr. Comello’s support for ‘QAnon’ went beyond mere participation in a radical political organization,” Mr. Gottlieb wrote. “It evolved into a delusional obsession.”

Prior to murdering Mr. Cali, Comello reportedly attempted two separate times to effect a citizen’s arrest of New York City mayor and now presidential candidate Bill de Blasio. He also tried to convince the U.S. marshals at the Federal District Court in Manhattan to help him arrest Democratic congressional members Maxine Waters and Adam Schiff, whom he believed were in Manhattan at the time.

Now, I don’t know if the video footage will support Gottlieb’s assertion that Mr. Cali reached for his waistband and that Mr. Comello therefore feared for his life. But if he wants to try to convince a jury that Mr. Comello is not guilty by reason of mental defect, the fact that he decided to deliberately ram a mob boss’s Cadillac seems like all the evidence he needs to prove that his client is out of his mind. The QAnon stuff is superfluous.

On the other hand, someone was very nearly killed as a result of the similar Pizzagate conspiracy theory. In both cases, a supposed pedophilia ring was involved. In both cases, the suspect believed themself to be the hero who would set things right. Edgar Maddison Welch showed up at a Washington, DC pizza parlor armed with an AR-15 and fired three shots, striking the restaurant’s walls, a desk, and a door. Apparently, he stopped when he realized there was no evidence that any pedophilia was occurring on the premises.

After his arrest, [Welch] told police that he had made the 350-mile drive up to the capital to investigate claims regarding a conspiracy theory, circulating online, that quickly came to be called “Pizzagate.” According to this outlandish set of claims, leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, contained coded signs and messages revealing that Comet Ping Pong was actually a front for an occult, child sex slave ring involving the owner of the restaurant, James Alefantis, Podesta, and Clinton herself.

Of course, there has been a real pedophilia ring surrounding Donald Trump’s good friend Jeffrey Epstein. But talking about that doesn’t exactly serve right-wing interests. They got their claws into both Mr. Welch and Mr. Comello. Both of them were absolutely marinating in right-wing conspiracies about the Clintons and Nancy Pelosi. Comello saw Adam Schiff and Maxine Waters as criminals because they were critical of the president, and he was convinced the president would support him, his lawyer says, if he arrested them and Bill de Blasio and the head of the Gambino crime family.

There are lot more people out there who are convinced by this stuff than are willing to bring a gun somewhere to try to address the supposed problem. The president claims that a lot of real news is actually fake, but he doesn’t talk about the genuinely fake news that benefits him and gets other people killed.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com