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Gambino faces trial on extortion

By March 4, 1997, Lory and Steve Limberis were in desperate straits.

Though Stefan's, their Hudson restaurant, had plenty of customers, the Limberises were buried in debt. Their bills were snowballing; some days they spent as much as $400 in bank overdraft fees.

But, briefly on that March afternoon, the Limberises thought their troubles would be solved by two strangers who strode into their restaurant.

The subdued fellow was Robert C. Mahr.

The talker was a diminutive ex-New Yorker named Richard A. Gambino, who offered to loan the Limberises $100,000.

"He told me, "I'm the biggest mob boss in the United States,' " Mrs. Limberis said. "I was scared. Oh my God, never in my life did I think I'd be dealing with . . . loan sharks or mobsters. I'm a little waitress here before I bought this restaurant."

Gambino isn't a mob boss. His name wasn't even Gambino until a few years ago, when he legally changed it from Nicastro.

And, there was no $100,000 loan.

Instead, the Limberises paid Gambino and Mahr an "upfront fee" of $20,000 and got nothing in return, according to records in U.S. District Court in Tampa.

This week, Gambino will be tried on extortion charges there. If convicted, the 60-year-old could face up to 20 years imprisonment. A resident of Palm Grove Colony on the western edge of Hernando County, Gambino once worked for a Clearwater crane company and has lived in California and New Mexico.

Mahr, who pleaded guilty to one count of extortion, will testify against Gambino. The 50-year-old former New Yorker has lived in Spring Hill for several years. In the past two years, he has served as an officer of the Hernando County Bowling Association.

In October, Mahr was sentenced to 33 months in prison and was ordered to pay restitution to the Limberises.

Neither Mahr nor Gambino could be reached for comment. Gambino's attorney, Marcelino Huerta of Tampa, declined to comment on the upcoming trial.

Michael Seigel, the first assistant U.S. Attorney in Tampa, said the case will be tried by Kevin March, the chief of the Tampa office's organized crime strike force.

Seigel would not say whether Gambino is connected to the notorious Gambino crime family.

However, he said, "as a matter of Department of Justice policy, the organized crime strike force would not be working the case unless it had some relation to organized crime."

Gambino's next-door neighbor, Weeki Wachee resident Steven Vetrice, isn't persuaded.

Gambino "drives around in a Lincoln Town Car like a big Mafia, but he's making payments on it _ making payments on it!" Vetrice said.

"He's nobody. He runs around with his shoes on and his slacks on with nowhere to go, and he thinks he impresses people."

When Gambino offered the loan to Mrs. Limberis, she was impressed: "He pulled out a credit card to show he was Richie Gambino. He said, "I am who I say I am.'

"I said, "If you're the biggest mob guy in the U.S., why are you doing this yourself?' He said, "I had some business in Miami. I knew of your situation and thought I'd see what was happening while I was passing through.'

"The way he was talking, the way he was acting, I believed him."

At one point, she said, Gambino told Mahr to fetch a silver case from the car; it contained two silver handguns.

"He said, "These are the tools of my trade,' " Mrs. Limberis said.

Admittedly, she was a bit disconcerted; still, she said, with "$100,000 I can pay everything off and make it."

Then came the hope squisher: To get the loan, Mrs. Limberis said, she and her husband had to pay $20,000 upfront.

Mrs. Limberis said she told Gambino, "If I had 20 grand, I wouldn't be talking to you." But there was no turning back. Gambino told her, "You're already into me for $5,000 for our trouble, and I want it by 4:30 today," she said.

Mrs. Limberis went to family members for help. "I said, "I'm either in the biggest mess of my life, or we have a chance to save the restaurant.' " The family members took cash advances on their credit cards to help her with the loan fee.

On the day the $100,000 loan was to be delivered, "there was no money, no money," Mrs. Limberis said. "I was pacing back and forth . . . No money. It never showed up."

For weeks thereafter, she said, "All I did was cry."

She and her husband lost the restaurant; it is under new management.

"My husband and I are now separated," she said. "I still blame it partly because of these guys."

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.