Four days after pulling off the most high-profile mob killing in decades, Anthony Comello sat down with New York Police Department detectives and told them that the CIA had infiltrated the Mafia. And, he added, the government was spying on him.
He had put his phone in a copper bag to protect it from “satellites,” he told them, and Democratic operatives in Washington were doing business with Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug kingpin known as El Chapo.
In the nine months since that conversation, Comello, 25, has claimed to his lawyer that he killed Francesco Cali because the mob boss was part of “the deep state,” a member of a liberal cabal working to undermine President Donald Trump. At one court appearance, Comello scrawled on his hand a symbol and phrases associated with the far-right conspiracy theory “QAnon.”
Now, Comello’s paranoia is being litigated in a Staten Island court, where he is charged with the murder of Cali, known as Franky Boy. His lawyer has taken the first steps in a legal battle that hinges on a question made for the internet age: At what point does belief in a far-right conspiracy theory make you legally insane?
How the crime’s three major components – an aimless drifter from Staten Island, the underboss of the Gambino crime family and a far-right internet conspiracy theory – collided on a dark street in Todt Hill has perplexed law enforcement officials and mob watchers alike.
Conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns have seen something of a renaissance with the rise of social media, in turn becoming embedded in modern political discourse. But while millions have read unsupported theories propounded in dark corners of the internet, some have been prompted to act violently.
In December 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch, 31, travelled from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., and began shooting inside of a family pizza restaurant after reading an unfounded internet conspiracy theory that claimed Democratic candidates were running a child prostitution ring in its basement. In October 2018, Cesar A. Sayoc Jr. mailed a series of pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and others he believed were members of the “deep state.”
Welch and Sayoc eventually pleaded guilty and apologized for their actions and were sentenced to federal prison. Neither used an insanity defence, but legal experts say their crimes showed how conspiracy theories can influence people.
“When they perpetuate conspiracy theories online, it’s combustible,” said Rick Alan Ross, the founder of the Cult Education Institute who has studied far-right conspiracies. “That fuel ignites when someone who’s disturbed finds the substance of their conspiracy theories.”
Still, most of the people who believe in conspiracy theories are perfectly sane and never commit a crime, experts on the insanity defence said. “Even people with these conspiracy theories certainly act out on them very rarely,” said Michael Perlin, a professor at New York Law School who specializes in mental disability law.
Comello, 25, stands accused of carrying out one of the city’s most brazen – and apparently unsanctioned – mob killings in history. Prosecutors say he shot and killed Cali outside of his Staten Island home in March. Cali, 53, was reputed to be the underboss of the Gambino crime family.
Comello’s lawyer, Robert C. Gottlieb, has maintained that his client was deeply deluded by conspiracy theories. He went to Cali’s home to arrest him and turn him over to the military, then shot him when he resisted being taken into custody, Gottlieb said.
“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,” Gottlieb wrote in a court document filed in July.
At the time, Gottlieb said those delusions were evidence that Comello was unfit to stand trial and instead should be given psychiatric treatment. The judge has since imposed a gag order, and Gottlieb has declined to comment on the proceedings.
In New York, the legal bar for an insanity defence is high. Defendants must show not only that they have a mental illness, but that the illness prevented them from understanding the consequences of their actions or from knowing they were morally wrong.
Prosecutors have proceeded in court as if Comello is mentally competent and can be held responsible for his actions. At a hearing in October, the lead prosecutor, Wanda DeOliveira, said that Comello’s mind was “crystal clear” when he waived his right to a lawyer during his interview with detectives.
Using mental illness as a defence in such a case is not without precedent, Perlin said. Almost all of the early insanity defence cases were political in nature, he said, going back to the attempted assassination of King George III in 1800.
“You’ve got a real, real tradition of insanity defence cases of very, very seriously mentally ill people who committed their crime out of some kind of utterly bizarre political motivation,” he said.
How Comello came to associate Cali with far-right political conspiracy theories – which typically target Democratic politicians, not Mafia bosses – remains unclear. On an Instagram page associated with him and identified in court filings, Comello posted memes and symbols associated with QAnon.
The theory, promulgated by an anonymous poster known as “Q,” is based on unfounded claims that a legion of undercover agents exists within the government fighting against an entrenched bureaucracy that is secretly plotting against the Trump administration and its supporters.
Ross said people like Comello, who his family said had been behaving erratically for some time before the killing, can easily be drawn into “the kind of networking that is being done online.”
“He was already sick, he was a train wreck waiting to happen,” Ross said. “But who sent the train down the rails to wreck him? It was QAnon.”
Comello appears to believe he is mentally sound. On Wednesday, he refused to take a psychiatric exam administered by a doctor from the prosecutor’s office. The judge, William E. Garnett, warned his refusal could jeopardize his right to use an insanity defence.
“Perfectly fine with that,” Comello said.
Over the last nine months, Comello has at times seemed engaged and focused during court hearings, but at other times he has appeared distant, staring blankly, whispering erratically and speaking out of turn.
Gottlieb has argued that Comello’s initial confession should be kept out of court because Comello’s state of mind was too impaired at the time to allow him to knowingly waive his Miranda rights.
On Thursday, Garnett denied that motion, suggesting he believed Comello understood his rights and was competent.
According to court documents, Comello gave detectives several different explanations for why he killed Cali. At first, he said he had been smoking marijuana in front of Cali’s home before the shooting and he did not know Cali was a reputed mobster until the next morning. He then claimed the family of John Gotti had asked him to kill Cali and had threatened to blackmail him if he did not.
Finally, Comello told detectives he had gone to Cali’s home to warn him that the Gotti family wanted to kill him. It remains unclear why Cali wound up dead in this version of Comello’s story, which a detective said in court he did not believe.
“You can’t ask a rational question about this and hope to come up with an answer,” Perlin said. “It just slips through your fingers, because when you’re on one of these conspiracy benders, everything makes sense.”
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