When Antonina Ippolito of Buffalo came home one day in October 1995, she found the following message on her answering machine:
"Yeah, listen: If you rent that place on West Ferry to other niggers or 'Ricans, we'll blow that . . . house right up. You understand, you . . . ? "
A police investigation linked the voice on that tape to James Ziebold of 340 W. Ferry St., who later pleaded guilty to a federal misdemeanor and was sentenced to two years of probation, 100 hours of community service and mental counseling.
But Mrs. Ippolito does not think that is enough punishment, and federal officials agree. Announcing a $15 million federal effort to crack down on housing discrimination, Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo said the government is bringing civil charges against Ziebold, describing the Buffalo case as discrimination at its ugliest.
"This is what housing discrimination looks like, sounds like, feels like," said Cuomo, who aired a tape of Ziebold's phone calls to Mrs. Ippolito's answering machine at Tuesday's news conference. "We had a long discussion about whether to air this tape, given the vulgarity of it. But, as vulgar as it is, that's as real as it is."
In a second call, Ziebold said: "Just a little reminder, nigger-lover. If we got your phone number, we can trace it to your house -- so the one on Ferry won't be the only one to be blown up, you understand, you . . . scumbags?"
Mrs. Ippolito, a sweet-faced, gray-haired woman of 56 who still speaks with an Italian accent 37 years after coming to this country, said those calls terrified her.
"They made my skin crawl and my blood go up and down," she said. "I couldn't sleep. I thought: when am I going to die?"
Mrs. Ippolito took the tape to Housing Opportunities Made Equal, which in turn contacted the Buffalo Police. Ziebold pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate Hugh B. Scott last October.
That did not spell the end of Mrs. Ippolito's troubles. Despite the threats, she rented that apartment at 351 W. Ferry to an African-American woman who lived there for a year. But since that tenant left, Mrs. Ippolito has been unable to rent the apartment, which has been vandalized twice in recent months.
She said she, her husband and their adult children still live in fear while Ziebold is out on the streets. Mrs. Ippolito termed his sentence "a lollipop" and said he deserved greater punishment.
That's just what he might get now that the U.S. Department of Justice is joining Mrs. Ippolito in a civil suit against Ziebold.
Mrs. Ippolito was one of several "faces of housing discrimination" highlighted at the news conference. A woman from Massachusetts, her face screened to protect her identity, appeared on a videotape to say how an apartment referral service used a method to discriminate routinely. If a landlord didn't want to rent to minorities, the firm simply wrote the word "Archie" on the apartment listing. In other words, the landlord was just like Archie Bunker, the notorious 1970s sitcom bigot.
In an effort to double the number of housing discrimination cases that the government pursues, Cuomo announced $15 million in grants nationwide to private agencies that fight such bias cases.
Ziebold could not be reached to comment.