The Donald Trump of Portland Goes Down, Part II

Cook v. Bookie

The old gambling den beneath Sonny’s Variety on Congress Street. photo/Chris Busby

Keith Costello cooks the way he talks: loudly, and with a manic passion. When he chops shaved beef on the grill for cheesesteaks, the rat-a-tat clanging of the two metal spatulas resounds through the open doorway of his Congress Street sandwich shop, The 5 Spot, and echoes down Valley Street for blocks. When he speaks, you can hear the dirty streets of Philadelphia in his voice, and the rasp of 200,000 cigarettes.

Costello is obnoxious, but happily so. The stocky, baldheaded 47-year-old is living his dream, captaining an authentic Philly cheesesteak joint with his wife, Rosetta, and their toddler daughter at his side. The 5 Spot, which opened on May 1st of this year, is his first restaurant, the culmination of years of hard work and personal struggle. “This is my pyramid,” he told me last month. “If I was the pharaoh — we all are our own pharaohs — I wanted to build my pyramid, so this was my pyramid.”

Unfortunately for Costello, he decided to build his pyramid on property owned by a man with a pharaoh’s attitude toward others — a fabulously wealthy, imperious, and, for any practical purpose, unreachable man named Steve Mardigan.

“As soon as I met Steve I knew exactly who he was,” Costello said. “Anybody that introduces their-self to you as ‘I’m the most straight-up guy you ever met,’ you know they’re full of shit. That was a Steve comment. … He just seemed very wise-guy-ish.”

Mardigan’s real-estate broker, Jay Wise, made a similar impression on Costello, who’s familiar with the type from his days in Philly — a city filthy with mobsters, real and pretend. “It was almost as if [Mardigan] was feigning being who he was,” said Costello. “Jay Wise was doing the same thing: feigning to be a real-estate broker. Everything seemed like a shadow of something else that was much bigger.”

In late February, not long after after Costello contacted Wise about renting the building on the corner of Congress and Valley, the broker sent him a text: Steve wants to go to lease immediately.

“After that, everything just kind of went off the rails,” Costello recalled. “I couldn’t get in touch with anybody.”

The date set for the lease-signing, March 14, came and went without a word. Costello had already secured a sizeable personal loan to open the shop, and had told everyone he knew about his plans. “So rather than looking like an ass, I just became a tenacious guy that’s from Philly that don’t take no shit from nobody,” he said. “I started pursuing Steve and Jay Wise to get the lease done. … At that point I was already multi-thousand dollars out of pocket and I just had to go hunt him down. Again, I’m from Philly — I’ll find you.”

On March 31, Costello found Mardigan and Wise on Forest Avenue, between Woodford’s and Morrill’s corners, an area where Mardigan owns over a dozen commercial properties, about half of which are vacant. They were at the recently vacated restaurant space behind Mekong Asian Bistro, where the fondly remembered music club Raoul’s Roadside Attraction operated decades ago. The place had most recently been occupied by a Mexican bar and grill called Casa Fiesta.

Mardigan and Wise brought Costello into the basement. He marveled at all the restaurant equipment and furniture stashed down there. It seemed like enough stuff to open three restaurants. Costello picked up two used spatulas, worth maybe a dollar combined, and held them while he and Mardigan chatted. Then Costello’s phone pinged. It was a text from Wise, who was standing right beside him: “Leave those spatulas,” it read.

“They had properties all over the place that were like their own little storage units — all kinds of hoarded crap,” Costello said. “Everything from small little pieces of kitchenware to refrigerators and giant refrigeration units.” None of it — not even the cheapest utensil — was for sale, and Mardigan, a multi-millionaire who kept huge stashes of cash in his Back Cove home, would sooner lose an eye than give anything away. Costello put the spatulas down.

The process of leasing from Wise and Mardigan “was the most unprofessional experience that I’ve ever had to deal with in my life,” said Costello. “Just the boldface, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll be there,’ and then no, you’re not there. Everything was just a total lie. It was a ‘turnkey operation’ [but] every piece of equipment there was broken, was just literally sitting there filling a space, as if it were a prop.”

When Costello met with city officials in April to get permits, he told them he was renting from Mardigan. “They immediately were like, ‘Oh shit, that’s your landlord? Good fuckin’ luck.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ They said because he has a habit of renting people dilapidated buildings and sticking them with the improvement costs, which is exactly what happened with me.”

Costello said he spent about $15,000 to make the place functional enough to operate his sandwich shop. The building had been a corner store called Sonny’s Variety since the mid-1980s, and the basement was cluttered with junk left by the prior operators: stools and shelving, dusty beer lights and cigarette displays.

There were also telltale signs of the subterranean space’s nefarious past. Unbeknownst to Costello prior to leasing the place, this was one of Portland’s longest-running illegal gambling dens, a tiny, secret casino where players in the know could pull handles, play poker and roll the bones for cash.

“The basement was filled with gambling paraphernalia,” Costello told me, including scores of unopened boxes of playing cards that Wise and Mardigan’s “henchmen,” as Costello calls them, left behind. Locals gambled here for decades, as evidenced by the nicotine stains on the ceiling and walls, which are thick enough to scrape off with a knife. A long mural along one wall that depicts classic train engines — possibly a work of historical value from Portland’s long-gone Union Station — was coated in a brown haze.

Costello said that since the first day he opened his shop’s doors there’s been a steady stream of old-timers and middle-aged goodfellas eager to dish about the building’s criminal history and the shady characters who hung around there. “There was cops here, there was judges here,” Costello said, recalling some of the comments he’s received. “Everybody in town was here and everybody knew it. It was all an open secret and it ran that way since the ’80s. … It was part of the old-boy network of what was, as you called it, the small, shallow underbelly of Portland, Maine.”

Two names in particular keep crossing the visitors’ lips: Peter “Sonny” Brichetto Jr., who ran Sonny’s Variety from the late ’90s until 2013, when he was sent to federal prison for his role in an oxycodone ring; and Steve Mardigan, who bought the property from Sonny Brichetto Sr. in 2013 for $100,000 — $50,000 less than its value on the city’s tax rolls, at a time when this once-blighted neighborhood was experiencing a resurgence.

That Mardigan should figure so prominently in the tales told by customers at The 5 Spot is curious, to say the least.

Last month we reported that federal authorities are taking action to seize every piece of real estate Mardigan owns (worth at least $14 million), and have already confiscated about $750,000 in cash from Mardigan, a notorious bookie and card-game kingpin, and his longtime girlfriend, Patricia Nixon [see “FBI Busts Portland Gambling Kingpin”]. We provided details about numerous Mardigan properties in Portland and Cape Elizabeth, but didn’t mention this little corner store on Congress Street, which appears, at first glance, to be an outlier in a portfolio focused on outer Forest Avenue and nearby side streets.

The only other properties on the peninsula that Mardigan owns are the apartment buildings at the intersection of Chestnut and Oxford streets that he inherited from his father — buildings rented by the city to provide shelter to homeless families. Without the gambling connection, Mardigan’s acquisition of Sonny’s Variety doesn’t make much sense. Knowing that Mardigan and Brichetto Jr. are figures in Portland’s underworld, as dozens of 5 Spot customers have said, the sale seems natural.

“I’ve had a cavalcade of people come in and just trash Steve,” Costello said. “I’m a very conversational person, but I want to talk about food and fun and happy things and they want to come in and talk to me about who he fucked and who he knew and [that] he would bet on two cockroaches running up a wall. It’s been colorful but it’s been kind of annoying.”

“The one thing that has been consistent is that Steve has been into a lot of shady shit for a lot of years, and it’s always been an open secret,” Costello continued. One older Italian gentleman showed up and spent almost an hour, without ordering anything, detailing Mardigan’s alleged crimes. “‘Stevie would get into anything if he could make money on it,’” this track-suited Godfather character told Costello. “His exact phrase was, ‘Stevie had a golden ticket and Stevie just was obsessed with greed, and that’s what ended up eventually bringing Steve down.’”

Sonny Jr.

In last month’s article, we described Mardigan as a beaten man, a shadow of his former self, according to tenants used to seeing him on his rent-collection rounds. But since that article appeared, Mardigan seems to have gotten some of his mojo back. Speaking on condition of anonymity given their business relationship, a tenant remarked that Mardigan was noticeably more upbeat during a recent visit. He was dismissive of the scandal sparked by news of the government’s forfeiture action and of The Bollard’s reporting about it. He groused that we didn’t contact him to get his side of the story.

We have two phone numbers for Mardigan — one given to tenants for business purposes, and another, provided to us by a close associate, said to be his personal cell phone. Neither number is in service, and Mardigan has no identifiable presence online. (The Bollard’s phone number is inside every issue we distribute throughout southern Maine, and Mardigan is encouraged to call us anytime.)

Jay Wise did not return messages seeking comment in June or July.

I reached Sonny Brichetto Jr. by phone on July 20. His father, Sonny Sr., had passed away just two days before, at the age of 76. Sonny Jr. said he was too busy and grief-stricken to answer many questions, but did comment on the below-market price Mardigan paid for Sonny’s Variety in 2013. “The building did need a lot of work,” he said.

The basement of The 5 Spot after the old gambling and convenience-store junk was removed. photo/courtesy Keith Costello

After the 2013 sale, Sonny’s Variety was operated for two years by Bob Ruminski and his girlfriend. Ruminski, who owns Mathew’s, the dive bar on Free Street, is one of Mardigan’s “henchmen,” regularly performing work on his properties. Sonny Sr. was his uncle. Reached by phone, Ruminski declined to comment on the store’s history beyond vague remarks that his girlfriend “got ripped off by some people” and ultimately could not continue to run the business.

According to Sonny Sr.’s obituary, he opened Sonny’s Variety in 1985 after a 25-year career in the railroad industry. “This quickly became a successful family business where friends and locals would gather,” the obit reads.

Filings available through county property records begin to tell a different story in the 1990s. Numerous tax liens appear in the records indicating that the Brichettos failed to pay vendors like H.P. Hood and Capital Candy Co. for court judgments against them ranging from about $1,600 to nearly $8,000. Liens prompted by unpaid state and federal taxes also appear with some frequency.

Another publicly available source of information about the family is the archive of the Portland Press Herald, and the stories there aren’t pretty.

In April of 2007, Sonny Jr. was working behind the counter at his store when an armed robbery took place. The robber “pulled out a gun and it was probably three or four inches from my face,” Brichetto told reporter David Hench. “He was shaking … You could just tell it was drugs by the way he acted.”

A significant rise in Maine’s crime rate that year was attributed to the drug epidemic caused by crack cocaine in particular. “The influx of drugs can be traced in part to dealers in Massachusetts and New York seeking to expand into new markets in Maine, say state and local officials,” Hench wrote.

“I’m not afraid around here — I’ve lived here all my life — but is somebody else going to be? Yeah,” Sonny Jr. told the reporter. “But what can you do about a guy who’s on drugs … It’s not like they’re stealing for their family.”

Five years later, as the opioid crisis raged, federal agents busted an oxycodone ring that involved several members of the Brichetto family, including Sonny Jr. and a cousin, Christopher Brichetto. Sonny Jr. was convicted of diverting oxy pills that he obtained with a prescription for illegal sale; prosecutors claimed he was responsible for the diversion of at least 4,800 pills. That 2012 arrest, and the pair’s subsequent conviction and imprisonment, never made the paper.

Christopher Brichetto, who was 22, had his sentence compounded by a charge that he distributed a substance containing oxycodone and cocaine within 1,000 feet of an elementary school. Sonny Jr. was given a two-year federal prison sentence for his role, and has since been released.

Two other Herald articles are also notable for the insights they provide into Sonny Jr.’s life and character.

One hot summer day in 2010, a disabled military policewoman named Christy Gardner entered Sonny’s Variety with her service dog, Moxie, in hopes of getting the canine some water. Sonny Jr. kicked them both out of the store so rudely and angrily that Gardner was frightened for the dog’s safety. (Moxie was leashed and wearing a blue vest to indicate she was a service animal.) The civil case that ensued was settled for $13,500, and Sonny Jr., who later expressed regret and contrition for the incident, was ordered to post a sign at the store indicating that service animals are welcome.

On a Saturday night in mid-September of 2010, Sonny Jr. was driving his Cadillac around 11:30 p.m., after closing the store, when a young white man, possibly a teenager, dropped a 20-pound, “football-sized” rock through his windshield from the railroad trestle over St. John Street. Brichetto passed out and suffered scrapes on his arm and a big bruise on his chest, but did not go to the hospital (he said he lacked health insurance). Police were unable to track down the perpetrator.

“Brichetto believes that the attack was random, that he wasn’t targeted,” crime reporter Hench wrote. “‘You hear about things like that, but you never think it’s going to happen to you,’” Sonny Jr. told the paper.

Updates

Incidents like the rock drop that nearly killed Sonny Jr. or, say, the 2010 arson at Mardigan’s empty building by the railroad tracks on Forest Ave. seem random if you only know the victims by what you read in the daily paper. In light of both men’s criminal activities and their connections to one another, those incidents begin to form a pattern, a web The Bollard will continue to trace in the months to come.

The federal case against Mardigan was still under seal as this issue went to press, and he had yet to be formally indicted. As we noted last month, civil forfeiture cases are technically charges against the property itself, not its owner, though prosecutors must prove that the property or assets were procured by illegal means or used to commit a crime. The government’s allegation at this stage is that almost everything Mardigan owns is dirty.

In a July 6 online update to last month’s story, we reported that the FBI seized cash totaling nearly $750,000 from Mardigan and Nixon’s Portland home and bank accounts, including an even half-million bucks from a safety deposit box in Nixon’s name. (Note: sources who know the couple say Nixon has not been actively involved in any criminal activity, but may be implicated as an accessory due to knowledge of wrongdoing or complicity.) The Feds also seized luxury watches from the couple’s residence valued at $19,300, but, notably, no vehicles were listed among the assets taken, despite the fact Mardigan is known to have a collection of sports cars and vintage vehicles worth a considerable amount of money.

A neighbor who witnessed the April 7 raid at the couple’s home off Baxter Boulevard said agents searched the house for over six hours and left with boxes and bags of materials and cash. In addition to several Portland Police Department vehicles, at least four vehicles had Massachusetts license plates. It’s been widely rumored that Mardigan’s unsavory activities have not been bounded by state lines, and several sources have expressed concern that he’s made connections with nefarious groups elsewhere in New England. The full extent of any such connections will most likely become clear only when the federal case is made public, and there’s no indication when that will occur. (Assistant U.S. Attorney Don Clark declined to comment on the case last month.)

In the meantime, Mardigan’s got another court case to contend with: Costello is suing him in small-claims court for $3,675. That sum is the portion of the rent he’s paid so far that represents space in the basement he couldn’t use because it was full of junk from the Sonny’s/gambling den days. The parties are due to appear in court on Aug. 7.

After over two months of the usual runaround (unreturned calls, broken promises, etc.), Mardigan’s “henchmen” (including Ruminski) sheepishly showed up at The 5 Spot last month and hauled all the stuff away, including the smoke-damaged railroad mural.

Costello’s not the type to forgive and forget just because his wise-guy landlord may be facing a life sentence behind bars. And like the parade of people showing up at his shop to dish dirt about Mardigan and Sonny, he’s not afraid of the guy anymore, assuming he ever was. “I’m a fighter,” Costello told me. “I’ll fight anyone. I don’t give a shit.”

If there’s one thing that does scare this former Philly street punk, it’s the prospect of losing the building that houses the business his new family now depends on.

“The idea that, going forward, I might have to deal with the federal government being my landlord for a brief time is kind of earthshattering to me, because we put our heart and soul into this and pretty much every nickel we have,” said Costello. “Here we are at two and a half months into it and I find out my landlord’s busted. … You never know what’s going to happen. It’s a period of uncertainty.”

“Does he win?” Costello added. “Does he come out scot-free? Is he my landlord forever? I hope not. I hope the government does take it over and I get somebody else that actually does business, that doesn’t obfuscate. It’s just crazy just dealing with the guy.”