The 24-year-old suspect in the killing of reputed Gambino family mob boss Francesco "Franky Boy" Cali was arraigned on Monday on a murder charge in a New York City courtroom as his attorney cryptically said right-wing conspiracy websites and online hate speech influenced the slaying.
Anthony Comello appeared in Staten Island Criminal Court just hours after he was charged with murder, assault and criminal possession of a loaded firearm in the fatal shooting of the 53-year-old Cali outside his home on Staten Island.
Defense attorney Robert Gottlieb requested that Comello be placed in protective custody, telling a judge that Comello and his family are in danger.
Comello was arrested at his family's home in Brick Township, New Jersey, last week and was extradited to Staten Island early Monday to face justice.
Following a brief court hearing, Gottlieb suggested the killing stemmed from Comello's recent obsession with right-wing internet conspiracy websites, particularly QAnon, and hate spewed by citizens and politicians "including right at the White House."
"This is a tragedy for everybody, for the two families. But this case, perhaps more than any other, reflects what everyone has been saying recently, and that is that words matter, hate words matter," Gottlieb told reporters outside the courthouse.
Gottlieb declined to say what specifically motivated Comello to allegedly gun down Cali, asking people to wait until the evidence comes out.
When Comello appeared in a New Jersey courtroom following his arrest last week, he flashed at reporters the palms of his hands on which were written the words "MAGA Forever," "United We Stand MAGA" and "Patriots In Charge." MAGA is an acronym for President Donald Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again."
"All of that is going to become quite clearer once all the evidence is known and the truth comes out," Gottlieb said. "We are certainly taking this very seriously. But at the end of the day, the truth and the reasons for whatever happened here will become so clear and it will be shown to be directly related to the impact of the hate that people are bombarded with every day on the internet and elsewhere."
Gottlieb went on to express fear for Comello's life while he is in jail.
"I know the department of corrections is very concerned about it. That's why we asked for protective custody," Gottlieb said. "But also his family, certainly, there are concerns and we appreciate the concerns, considerations that law enforcement has shown in ensuring their safety as well."
Cali was shot multiple times on March 15 outside his home in the posh Staten Island neighborhood of Todt Hill. Police said he was apparently lured out of his house when a pickup truck allegedly driven by Comello crashed into his Cadillac SUV parked outside the home.
New York Police Department homicide investigators have obtained security video of the shooting that reportedly shows Cali talking and shaking hands with a man believed to be Comello, NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea said at a news conference last week.
When Cali turned his back on the killer to put the license plate that fell off his SUV in the rear of the vehicle, the man he was talking to pulled out a 9mm handgun and fired 12 shots, hitting Cali at least six times, sources with knowledge of the investigation told ABC News. Cali was taken to Staten Island University North hospital where he died.
Police investigators have yet to comment on a motive for the killing. When asked if the homicide was related to organized crime, Shea said investigators are not ruling anything out.
Gottlieb said Comello's family claimed they noticed a sharp change in him in recent months.
"His family and friends, the people who know him the best, recognized and picked up significant changes in him over the past few months. Something clearly went wrong," Gottlieb said. "People who know him, love him, who spent time with him, know something dramatically happened to him that certainly seems to be affected by the hate that is being spewed throughout the internet."
Comello was ordered to return to court on April 3. Gottlieb said Comello may testify before a grand jury hearing the murder case.
"He'll be pleading unequivocally not guilty," Gottlieb said.