And the verdict is …


Billy Rinick looked entirely too calm and happy Friday for a man staring down the barrel of possible life imprisonment for cocaine-trafficking.

As a federal marshal led the handcuffed 30-year-old into courtroom 3A for closing arguments in his drug trial, Rinick smiled and winked at family members and miscellaneous well-wishers.

But the jig was up — as South Philly’s own tough guy would find out soon enough.

After two hours of deliberation Friday, the 16-member jury could not reach a verdict. But after reconvening Tuesday morning, the nine-woman, seven-man jury convicted Rinick of all nine counts against him, including one count of conspiracy, seven counts of distribution, and one count of distribution within 1,000 feet of a school, said the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The former South Camac Street resident was charged with running a drug operation that moved 50 to 70 kilograms of cocaine on the streets of Philadelphia between June 1998 and January 2002, said U.S. Attorney Barry Gross, the lead prosecutor in the case.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, conspiracy to distribute more than 5 kilograms could result in a life sentence, confirmed a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

"We were very pleased with the verdict and we feel we’ve done our job by helping to take someone who was dealing cocaine and was dangerous off the street," Gross said shortly after the verdict was handed down.

Rinick’s drug trial before U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno began Jan. 10 and ended exactly one week later, with compelling closing arguments from both sides.

Gross’ co-counsel, Erik Olsen, a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney and Chief Deputy Attorney General, opened his closing argument by instructing the jury to "focus on the facts." He then gave a blow-by-blow account of all nine charges against Rinick, highlighting the more incriminating evidence that he thought would seal the accused’s fate on each charge.

The big guns stockpiled in the prosecution’s arsenal were the tapes — more than 80 secretly recorded conversations and surveillance shots that they claimed would cinch the government’s case against Rinick.

Rinick did not utter the words "cocaine" or "drugs" in any of the taped transactions. Instead, he used code words like "cell phones," "pretzels" and "T-shirts." Olsen said smugly to the jury, "Billy Rinick was in the cell phone business, now he’s a baker."

Two key government witnesses included Sam Pollino and Michael "FX" Focoso, both of whom pleaded guilty to drug-trafficking charges. Pollino, with a prior conviction in Bucks County, agreed to wear a wire and record several conversations with Rinick in which drugs and money were exchanged, Gross said.

Focoso is the man who changed his mind last year and agreed to cooperate with federal agents and testify against Rinick for shooting to death 21-year-old Adam Finelli, a.k.a. Adam Silver. Rinick’s murder trial in Common Pleas Court is scheduled for October. Focoso is the chief witness.

During a phone interview less than 18 hours before showtime, Rinick’s co-counsel described the upcoming closing arguments as "The Big Shabang."

Rinick’s lead counsel, Robert Levant of Levant Tauber and Martin, presented almost 90 minutes of closing. "The government’s case was infected from the start with the predisposition to believe that Billy Rinick is a drug dealer and a mobster. Billy Rinick is not a drug dealer or mobster," the attorney said.

Throughout the trial, Rinick’s legal team alleged the government got it all wrong: It was two of the prosecution’s star witnesses, Pollino and Focoso, who were the drug dealers, not their client.

The defense contended that the two turncoats cut deals with the government and implicated Rinick in order to avoid prosecution on more serious drug charges. Focoso, 22, testified for two days that he sold drugs — $2-million worth of cocaine — under Rinick’s orders.

Levant, in his closing, reiterated, "Mike Focoso is the drug dealer."

The first government witness to testify against Rinick was Dennis Shook, a narcotics agent with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. His federal investigation included the now-infamous Dec. 7, 2001 raid on the home of jailed mob boss Joey Merlino in Packer Park’s Brinton Estates. Merlino’s wife, Deborah, greeted federal agents at the door in her bedclothes, while Rinick, wearing underwear and a T-shirt, hid upstairs under a bed.

One of the highlights of the week-long trial occurred on the third day when state investigator Michael W. McIlmail testified it was Merlino’s 4-year-old daughter, Sophia, who turned in Rinick. McIlmail whispered to the toddler, "Where’s Billy?" and the child pointed to a bedroom across the hall, he said.

Rinick remains in prison without bail. He will be sentenced April 11 and faces a minimum of 10 years.