LAS VEGAS — The two men entered Piero's Italian Cuisine, a dimly lit restaurant just off the Strip where a scene from the gangster movie "Casino" was filmed.

It could be a typical eatery in New York, where the men, Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, had been police detectives before retiring to the desert good life about a decade ago. They'd worked closely on the NYPD, and when they moved with their families to Las Vegas they bought neighboring houses. Dinners out were a relaxing ritual, one in which the two could confide in each other and talk old times.

But as they walked toward the maitre d's stand at Piero's on the night of March 9, surrounded by heavy oak paneling and white tablecloths, the familiar scene suddenly soured.

About a dozen DEA and FBI agents converged on the pair. They threw the lanky Caracappa and the barrel-chested Eppolito against the wall and handcuffed them. Tucked in Eppolito's waistband, agents found a loaded and chambered .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun.

The best friends said nothing, but their expressions were ashen as they were whisked off to a local jail, to be held without bail until federal marshals shipped them back to New York for trial.

Eppolito, 56, and Caracappa, 63, were charged with eight murders, two attempted murders, murder conspiracy, obstruction of justice, money laundering and drug distribution in one of the worst corruption cases in the annals of the New York Police Department.

Even the most seasoned law enforcement officers were shocked by the allegations — that the two ex-cops had worked for organized crime, supplying lethal information about informants and even serving as mob hit men.

"I have never dealt with anything this egregious," said John Peluso, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA's New York field office, who ran the investigation and helped collar the alleged Mafia cops.

"They are toxic."

Second chances

Las Vegas is all about second chances.

For a decade after leaving New York, Eppolito and Caracappa had their second chance. The former detectives apparently believed they were untouchable because only one or two people could actually put the finger on them, said a law enforcement source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"Anyone that goes 10 years without incident," Peluso said, "would certainly believe they're in the clear."

Twice before, Eppolito had been cleared in investigations of purported mob ties.

In 1984, FBI agents had searched the New Jersey home of Rosario Gambino, a Sicilian mobster, and discovered a confidential police file. It was the same folder that a detective had given Eppolito less than a year before.

How did it get in the Mafioso's house? Investigators suspected Eppolito. His photocopied fingerprints were on the file, and the FBI said the copies were made at his precinct. There also was an inconclusive photograph of Eppolito with Gambino.

On the morning of Nov. 24, 1984, the details of the probe were leaked and ran in the New York Daily News.

"I knew my life as I had known it was over," Eppolito wrote after seeing the article. "No matter what I did for the rest of my life, I'd be classified as a member of organized crime."

Suspended, Eppolito denied the charges. And in a departmental trial, the circumstantial evidence was deemed insufficient and he was exonerated.

The brash detective retired from the police force in 1989 after suffering heart problems.

The second investigation began soon afterward, and this time Caracappa would be suspected, too.

In 1990, Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso, then a high-ranking member of the Luchese crime family, wanted Edward Lino dead. Casso believed Lino, a Gambino family gangster, had played a role in an attempt on his life, and Casso placed a $65,000 contract on Lino's head.

The detectives accepted the job, according to court papers in the current case against the two.

In November 1990, the pair followed Lino from a social club, pulled him over, flashed their badges and shot him to death, authorities now say. Lino's body was found in the driver's seat of a black Mercedes-Benz in Coney Island. Nine bullets had ripped through the drug kingpin's chest and face.

But back in 1994, a grand jury declined to indict Eppolito and Caracappa. Even so, they knew the Big Apple had turned rotten for them.

"They had taken some heat here. They got the hell out of New York," said Peluso, a 22-year veteran DEA agent.

Relocating in Vegas

They headed for Nevada.

The ex-partners bought houses across the street from each other in a quiet gated community dotted with tall palms several miles west of the teeming Las Vegas Strip.

They spoke on the phone frequently. Like the old days in Brooklyn, where both men were born and raised, the two would get together to drink espressos, always talking with their hands. Together, the men looked like two godfathers, Eppolito's wife once remarked.

But there were differences as the men went about their new lives.

Caracappa purchased a modest three-bedroom home for $234,690. It fit his style, quiet and unassuming.

He went to work at the Southern Nevada Women's Correctional Facility in North Las Vegas, becoming assistant chief of security for the private company running the prison. He later opened his own investigative business and consulted for another firm.

The jobs fit. A former sergeant in the U.S. Army during Vietnam, he had been part of the NYPD's Major Case Squad and helped create the Organized Crime Homicide Unit, which gave him access to sensitive information about the mob.

At the women's prison, everybody took Caracappa seriously, including the prisoners. He had that Clint Eastwood aura about him. A person who speaks volumes with just a nod.

"He really commanded respect," said Tim Tobias, who worked with the soft-spoken Caracappa when he was a corrections officer there.

Eppolito operated on a much grander scale.

The gregarious former bodybuilder who loved to tell jokes bought a two-story, four-bedroom house that cost $361,600 and was nearly twice as big as his neighbor Caracappa's. There was space for Eppolito's mother-in-law, who would could cook her savory Italian dishes in the roomy kitchen, and a pool for family gatherings.

Eppolito's office took center stage. Surrounding his large desk, he hung photographs of his three children along with awards — including two medals of honor — from his 20 years with the NYPD.

In Las Vegas, he intended to parlay his storied career into stardom. He would write screenplays and land acting parts — a plan that was not far-fetched in his case.

He had a policeman's eye for detail and an ear for dialogue, and he knew a good story when he heard one. He held membership cards to both the screenwriter and actor guilds.

He already had landed small roles in about a dozen movies, portraying a hoodlum in "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Fat Andy," a gangster in "Goodfellas."

Playing wiseguys came easy to Eppolito.

Years earlier, he had co-written an autobiography called "Mafia Cop: the Story of an Honest Cop Whose Family Was the Mob."

His father was Ralph Eppolito, an enforcer and Gambino soldier, known around the neighborhood as Fat the Gangster. Uncle Jimmy the Clam was a Gambino captain. And the Clam's son, Cousin Jim-Jim, also ran in the same circles.

In a 1992 interview with a Las Vegas radio station, Eppolito said he looked forward to continuing his writing career: "I guess I got a lot of years of knowledge on both sides of the fence."

Court records suggest Eppolito maintained his ties with La Cosa Nostra, making calls to Luchese and Bonanno crime family associates. But he mostly kept any Mafia connections to himself. His new friends in Las Vegas saw Eppolito as the good cop.

"Louis is a very truthful guy. He speaks from the heart," said James Vesci, a transplant from Queens and Staten Island, who owns New York Pizza and Pasta on Las Vegas' west side, where Eppolito would stop regularly for the tasty eggplant parmesan and conversation.

Vesci said Eppolito was proud of being a cop, and he believes Eppolito would never do anything to taint the shield he had carried with pride. Eppolito, he said, hated corrupt cops.

One day Eppolito looked Vesci in the eye and said: "Any cop that would sell himself is a rag."

Eppolito's autobiography hints at a contradictory view.

"I not only had the capacity to kill, I had the capacity to forget about it, to not let it bother me," Eppolito wrote in his book.

"In a way, it's very similar to the mentality of organized crime. You do what you have to do and don't think twice about the consequences."

Like mobsters, Eppolito the cop knew how to break bones. One time in the name of murky justice, he savagely beat a junkie who had badly hurt a transit police officer. Eppolito claims he crushed all the man's fingers, snapped both his wrists and pounded his skull with a brick. In an earlier incident, he took a lead pipe to a wife beater's head.

"That was the law of the street," Eppolito explained during the 1992 radio interview, his calm, squeaky voice belying his bulky 6-foot frame and the explosive violence contained within it.

And if anybody ever filed a complaint? In that case, he'd lie, Eppolito said in his book. His daddy, a man he respected greatly, had taught him that trick.

These reflections on his life story and the earlier corruption accusations were not ignored by authorities.

Federal agents have long memories. "We don't forget," DEA agent Peluso said. "We give new meaning to the words cold case."

So, when an investigator from the Brooklyn district attorney's office approached his agency with some uncorroborated information about the ex-cops two years ago, Peluso said, "I saw promise in what they had provided and I authorized an investigation."

During that probe, Burton Kaplan, a convicted drug dealer with ties to the mob, started to talk. The 71-year-old Kaplan had been sentenced in 1998 to more than two decades in federal prison.

"He's getting older," said a law enforcement source familiar with the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He started thinking about not wanting to spend his most senior years in prison."

The source said Kaplan wanted to see his granddaughter again, and he could cement the Casso connection with Caracappa and Eppolito.

According to documents filed in federal court in New York, a witness will testify that a business relationship was formed between Casso and the two detectives in about 1985. The two, the indictment states, went on Casso's payroll in 1986 and were paid $4,000 a month. They remained Casso employees for eight years.

The indictment says the two provided Casso with sensitive law enforcement information and killed on his behalf. Two other witnesses are expected to testify that Casso bragged about having a law enforcement connection and that he knew about imminent arrests and current investigations.

"Mr. Caracappa and Mr. Eppolito are the people who allowed Mr. Casso to see the future," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Henoch said at a detention hearing in Las Vegas. Casso, who admitted his role in 36 killings, remains in prison.

David Chesnoff, Caracappa's lawyer in Las Vegas, questioned the integrity of the government's witnesses; Eppolito's lawyer, Bruce Cutler, called them reprobates.

His client, Cutler said, "denies everything in the indictment other than his name and he was a policeman."