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When mob informant John C. Sacco Jr. was married last year, two smiling FBI agents were his best men.

But the smiles later turned into scowls when Sacco's relationship with the federal government soured so badly that prosecutors called him an incorrigible career criminal and tried to put him in prison for life.

Sacco, 63, died late Sunday night of a heart attack. He leaves behind a lot of messy, unanswered questions about his criminal past and his dealings with the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office:

Did Sacco -- while on the FBI's payroll -- arrange, order or carry out the murder of Michael Ress, 35, an alleged drug-dealing associate who disappeared in August 1989? Where is Ress, who was threatened by Sacco in a wiretapped telephone conversation shortly before the disappearance?

Sacco was to be a key informant in an investigation into unsolved killings and other Mafia crimes in the Buffalo area. What happens to that probe now?

What promises were made to entice Sacco to become a federal informer?

Will U.S. Attorney Dennis C. Vacco and Buffalo FBI agents repair the rift between them that began when the Sacco operation went bad last summer?

What happens now with efforts by Vacco's office to win forfeiture of an apartment house and a car owned by Sacco? What happens to a federal drug probe targeting Sacco's son, John, and a forfeiture case involving the younger Sacco's Clarence home?

What is to be learned from the fiasco?

"I really hope this case is a unique one in terms of how the federal government conducts its investigations," said Norman P. Effman, an attorney for the younger Sacco. "It's sad. Here you have a man who spent most of his last 20 years in prison, and he spends his last few months in a big controversy with the federal government. Apparently, he had no real friends on either side of the law. If you're looking for a man without a country, John was it."

Joseph M. LaTona, a veteran Buffalo criminal defense lawyer, called the Sacco affair "a setback for law enforcement."

"To even conceive of the possibility that a man on the FBI payroll may have been involved in the disappearance of a witness (Ress), that's a horrible thought," LaTona said. "It's very disturbing."

"From a professional perspective, we wish things had worked out differently," said Special Agent Paul Moskal, spokesman for the Buffalo FBI office. "But his death doesn't jeopardize any investigations or prosecutions."

Sacco died after suffering an apparent heart attack in the Niagara County Jail in Lockport. An autopsy was conducted Monday, and results of toxicology tests are awaited.

He was a diabetic with heart problems; no foul play is suspected in the death, Vacco and other law enforcement officials said. Sacco had been jailed since his indictment on drug charges in June. Federal authorities said they were concerned about Sacco's safety if he were kept in the Erie County Holding Center, so he was jailed in Niagara County.

The colorful, 300-pound Buffalo gangster had been in the spotlight since February, when it was learned that he was cooperating with FBI agents in an investigation into area organized crime activities. Since the previous July, Sacco had spent much of his time meeting with federal agents and making tape-recordings of his conversations with local mobster suspects.

Police expressed shock that Sacco -- who once denied to investigators that he been shot when he was gunned down during a 1976 mob shoot out -- was opening up. Law enforcement officials said Sacco could be the most important criminal figure ever to become a paid government informer in Western New York.

But in a few short months, the investigation fizzled.

In June, FBI agents -- including one who stood up at Sacco's wedding -- arrested him on charges of cocaine dealing. The narcotics activity took place before Sacco became a government informer in July 1989, agents said.

Also in June, The Buffalo News revealed that authorities were looking into Sacco's connections to the disappearance of Ress, a Buffalo drug-dealing associate of Sacco's who has been missing since Aug. 9, 1989. Ress's burned-out automobile was found on Chandler Street.

Court papers filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles B. Wydysh in July showed police considered Sacco a suspect in the disappearance of Ress, and that Sacco had threatened Ress shortly before Ress disappeared. Wydysh called Sacco a career criminal who should be jailed for life.

Sacco believed Ress was going to testify against him before a grand jury and also was angry about money he claimed Ress owed him, Wydysh said. He also said Sacco had been less than honest about some of the information he provided on local mob activities.

" 'Get my money . . . Get it or I'm going to hurt you bad,' " Sacco reportedly told Ress in an conversation that was recorded secretly after Sacco was already on the FBI payroll.

On another tape, an accused Buffalo loan shark, Leonard Falzone, allegedly is heard telling Sacco he had done "the right thing" with Ress, who was becoming "a headache."

Sacco's death "certainly won't help solve" the mystery of Ress's disappearance, Vacco said Monday. "There are unanswered questions about what happened to Michael Ress, and perhaps they will remain unanswered," Vacco said.

The FBI has never been sure whether Sacco was involved in what happened to Ress, said G. Robert Langford, special agent in charge of the Buffalo office. "A lot of unanswered questions died with Sacco, and that was one of them," Langford said.

LaTona, who has defended many targets of local mob investigations, said he is troubled by the fact that the FBI tried to continue using Sacco as an informer after learning about his possible involvement in Ress's murder.

"With the Sacco case, the FBI was sending out an unwritten message," LaTona said. "That is, 'I don't care who you are or what you did. If you give me the information I'm looking for, I'll make a deal with you.'

"It's a prime example of the 'target' method of law enforcement. You target a certain person, or group of individuals, and you do whatever it takes to get them, including making deals with people you shouldn't make deals with."

Langford said agents did their best with Sacco, and were never sure that Sacco had any involvement in the Ress disappearance.

"To make big cases, you have to take some risks," Langford said. "We took a risk with John Sacco and this was one that didn't work out. Others do."

Vacco declined to comment on what impact the Sacco case would have on pending mob investigations.

Disagreements over the handling of Sacco created a rift between Vacco and the FBI. The rift was exposed when John Humann, an attorney for Sacco, filed a lawsuit charging that agents and prosecutors made misleading promises to get Sacco's cooperation as a government witness.

Sacco was promised that he, his son and other members of his family would not be prosecuted for past crimes if Sacco provided information on the Buffalo mob, Humann said.

Vacco, called as a witness in the case by Wydysh in October, admitted that he and the FBI battled over the situation. He testified that agents he considered inexperienced mishandled Sacco and did not place enough emphasis on questioning Sacco's role in the Ress disappearance.

Other witnesses testified that there were angry words between Vacco and the FBI.

Will the rift ever heal?

"I don't think it is inappropriate for prosecutors and police to disagree at times. It's part of the job," Vacco said Monday. "We'll move on to other cases. We'll agree on some, and disagree on others. A disagreement on one case does not make a rift."

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