Once Upon a Crime: The Borelli Davis Conspiracy

Michael Borelli meets the press.

Michael Borelli meets the press.

(2014) Documentary (Benaroya) Michael Borelli, Bob Davis, Robert Fullerton, Cindy Parmenter, Robin Levine, Liz Borelli, Kim Peterson, Melody Davis, Alan Dill, Frank Moya, Sam Raskin, Ron Kavanagh, Marge Gindro, Terry D’Prero, Larry Addeo, Chuck Brega, Rhoda Goldstein, Anna Venditti, Stanley Perlmutter. Directed by Sheldon Wilson

Florida Film Festival 2015

Truth can be stranger than fiction, but then again, truth can sometimes resemble fiction. Take the cases of Michael Borelli and Bob Davis, for example. It feels like a movie about corrupt cops, the unjustly accused and a heinous murder but every word of it is true.

Borelli was a retired New York City police officer who wanted to utilize his skills as a baker. He moved west to Denver in the mid-70s to order to open up a New York City-style bakery which he felt would be a great success. He was persuaded instead to open up a restaurant; one of his partners was Hal Levine, a furniture store owner.

Levine was a gambler, and not just in a business sense. He had an addiction that he kept hidden from his partners and used the funds from Borelli’s successful restaurant to pay down his own debt which had become out of control. A life insurance policy was taken out on him with the partnership the beneficiary. Five months later, Levine was dead, gruesomely murdered with his wife also nearly killed during the assault.

The Denver police at the time had an organized crime unit which was on the verge of being broken up because, let’s face it, there wasn’t any organized crime in Denver. Sgt. Cantwell, one of the members of the unit, knew that if the unit went away so would his fairly cushy job that had little accountability. So he looked for Godfathers where there weren’t any. And he decided that the Levine murder fit all the earmarks of the crime.

He saw Borelli as guilty by reason of being Italian; the quick-tempered ex-cop was certain to be a foot soldier in one of the big crime families. He was Italian, wasn’t he? So Cantwell looked into the crime. Now with a suspect, he had to get through the inconvenient fact that Borelli had an alibi – he was in New York when the murder happened. No problem. He just through in Bob Davis, a former colleague of Borelli’s and a close friend. Even though Davis had only been to Denver once and there was no proof that he was there at all. Except…

…for the testimony of one Terry Lee D’Prero, who claimed to have been in the house (for which there was evidence) but wasn’t there to kill anybody but to put the fear of God into Levine. It was Davis who pulled the trigger. On D’Prero’s testimony alone were both Borelli and Davis convicted since the evidence against them was sketchy at best.

Too sketchy, in fact, as defense attorney Alan Dill started looking into the case deeper. He discovered that D’Prero’s testimony was full of holes, but because D’Prero had allegedly testified against high-ranking Mafiosi, he had been put into witness protection and had disappeared from view.

In prison, Borelli was actually treated as if he were Mafiosi and he didn’t dissuade the general prison population of the notion. He knew that if they learned that he wasn’t, he’d just be an ex-cop and that might very well be a death sentence for him so he played the part. Even prison officials bought into it.

At least Borelli had that to fall back on. Davis suffered brutally and throughout the affair was treated far worse than Borelli was. Amazingly, both men remained close friends – and are so to this day. Such a thing even had the somewhat creepy judge who presided at their trials shaking his head.

This is one of the more compelling stories you’ll find in a documentary this year. It has everything – corrupt police officers, a brutal murder, a judge possibly more interested in notoriety than justice, two former cops and best friends – everything but a book by Mario Puzo to base it on. The story is what keeps you going and there are quite a few twists and turns. Some of the things are astonishing; I won’t ruin them by stating them here, only that you’ll end up wondering why they don’t make ’em like Michael Borelli and Bob Davis anymore.

Initially, the filmmakers used an old radio interview with Borelli as narration which I thought was a nifty move. I wish they had kept it up throughout, just for continuity’s sake. Otherwise this is pretty standard stuff – talking head interviews, archival footage and photographs from the time. There also really isn’t any testimony from the opposing side; although the judge who decided the case was interviewed, none of the police were for obvious reasons.

They also have crime scene photos of Levine and his wife and be warned, they are graphic and disturbing. Those who decide to venture to see this should be aware that those images are in there; some may be upset by them. Personally, I question the need to have them in the film; we understand from the interviews that the murders were brutal. We didn’t need to see the visual evidence to confirm it.

So ultimately this is a terrific tale told in a somewhat pedestrian manner. Wilson should be commended, however, for perseverance in ferreting out the truth over the course of years investigating the case. I found the story so intriguing that it overcame the documentary 101 style that it is told in. Others may not be so charitable. In any case, it’s a story that deserves the telling and reminds us that justice ideally is blind but in reality, the justice system rarely is.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Borelli is an interesting interview. Ties things up nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary use of crime scene photos. A bit too rote in terms of how the story is told.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic crime scene photos. Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Sheldon Wilson once served as an instructor for film direction at the University of Southern California’s graduate film program.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Aspie Seeking Love

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