NEW YORK – In the summer of 2000, while lounging poolside at a Las Vegas hotel, the former acting Bonanno crime family boss "Vinny Gorgeous" unveiled his version of an extreme makeover.
Gone were the unflattering layers of flab on Vincent Basciano's chest and gut, courtesy of breast reduction surgery and liposuction. The reputed mobster, known back in the Bronx as an egomaniac with an explosive temper, showed off his resculpted look inside a private cabana.
"He was so vain," recalled self-described Basciano crony and confidant Michael Mehler. "It blew me away."
Mehler, 40, paints the self-conscious and conflicted portrait of Basciano in an upcoming tell-all book titled, "Nice Jewish Felon." He plans to back up his story with a Web site showing correspondence and other documentation proving the pair had a brief but fast friendship.
To Mehler, Basciano was a misunderstood mobster who secretly dreamed of entertaining children by producing an animated feature film with a dancing squirrel.
"Vincent, in his own way, did care about his fellow man," Mehler writes in one passage. "He just couldn't display his goodhearted ways to his associates lest they think he was getting soft. He had this 'tough guy' image to maintain. In his world it meant the difference between life and death."
A defense attorney for Basciano, James Kousouros, said he had never heard of Mehler. He declined further comment.
Mehler's own lawyer had to vet his manuscript so he could earn a contract with iUniverse, a self-publishing and marketing service that expects to make the book available online before Christmas.
Authorities say Basciano, 46, the sharp dressing one-time owner of the Hello Gorgeous beauty salon in the Bronx, had a homicidal reputation within the Bonanno family. At a trial earlier this year, a jury heard testimony that in 2001, Basciano used a 12-gauge shotgun to kill a low-level mobster from another crime family, believing he wanted to kidnap one of his sons.
Jurors failed to reach a verdict on the murder charge, but found him guilty of racketeering, attempted murder and gambling. Basciano remains jailed pending charges that he plotted to kill a prosecutor.
Mehler, describing himself as the black sheep of a respectable Jewish family, claims he befriended Basciano after his own brush with the law. He was recently divorced, dating a stripper and gambling away thousands of dollars in 1998 when he was arrested for stealing a $400,000 Paul Klee painting from the Connecticut home of a recently deceased cousin.
Mehler says he was feuding with his cousin's wife, and took the painting out of spite. He shopped the work by the Swiss artist, "Mask at Twilight," to Manhattan auction houses and European collectors before the police showed up at his door.
"I was so narcissistic, I thought I could talk my way out of it, like I did most things in life," he said in an interview.
After pleading guilty, he was put on probation, fitted with an electronic ankle monitor and placed in a Bronx halfway house. Mehler was waiting tables at a Manhattan eatery when Basciano sauntered in with a girlfriend on his arm.
The two struck up a conversation, with Mehler revealing his criminal history. Basciano, he writes, "advised me to play it cool through the process" before leaving a $200 tip.
At a later meeting, Basciano asked, "Did you rat out any of your friends when you were arrested?" When Mehler said no, he recalled, the mobster replied, "You are now welcome to my home. What's mine is yours."
Basciano soon took Mehler under his wing. He introduced Mehler to his wife, had Mehler counsel his son on pursuing a Wall Street career, and treated Mehler to the spoils of underworld: expensive gifts, lavish dinners with other wiseguys and sex in limos with high-end prostitutes.
"I was having this inner battle between good and evil," he said. "Vincent and I happened to cross paths at a point where I didn't know where I was going with my life."
According to Mehler, Basciano also was torn.
The mobster wanted to turn his life around by improving his vocabulary and launching legitimate business ventures like the squirrel movie and a gift-basket business, Mehler said. In 2000, Basciano flew him first-class to Las Vegas to help pitch the gift baskets to a hotel there.
When Mehler arrived, he was directed to a private cabana by the pool, where the leaner Basciano was waiting. Although Mehler expressed outward approval, he found the scene so pathetic that it eventually drove a wedge into their relationship.
"I thought, 'Look at you,"' Mehler said. "`you're getting liposuction and you're in the mob."'