AFF review: Once Upon a Crime: The Borrelli – Davis Conspiracy

There is an unforgettable scene very early in “The Godfather Part II” that one cannot help but recall watching Sheldon Wilson’s fascinating documentary “Once Upon A Crime: The Borrelli-Davis Conspiracy.”

The corrupt Senator Pat Geary is in Michael Corleone’s home office near Lake Tahoe. Geary says to Michael, “I don’t like your kind of people. I don’t like to see you come out to this clean country with your oily hair, dressed up in those silk suits, passing yourselves off as decent Americans.”

It is the descendants of pioneers versus those folks from back East, Anglo-Saxons versus immigrants, white men versus….other.

Mike Borrelli in a still from "Once Upon a Crime.
Mike Borrelli in a still from “Once Upon a Crime.

This is the scenario one recalls during “Borrelli-Davis,” a movie that starts in 1975 (coincidentally, about a year after “Part II” hit theaters).

Mike Borrelli was a retired, Italian-American New York cop who, after developing an interest in baking, headed out to Denver, Colo. to start a bakery, then a restaurant. He hooks up with a few business partners, including a furniture store owner named Hal Levine. Things go well until it becomes clear that Levine is using company money to pay down gambling debts. Levine also has a big life insurance policy that named his partners as beneficiaries. Within five months of buying the policy, Levine was murdered, his wife nearly killed in the same attack.

Meanwhile, “Once Upon…” also documents the cozy relationship between the Rocky Mountain News (and the Colorado media in general), the police, specifically the ethically sketchy Organized Crime Strike Force,which had fallen on hard budgetary times and was trying to justify its existence and local prosecutors.  As one talking head puts it in “Once…,” “They needed a Godfather.” So they made one.

Hence, the extraordinary railroading, conviction and imprisonment of two retired NYC cops, one remade by the press and the prosecution as a Mafia don come to Denver, the other as a hired killer.

For also wrapped up in this is Borelli’s friend and former partner Bob Davis, one of the first African-American detectives in New York and his fate is even worse than Borelli’s.  ” let’s send a message to New York and California and Chicago that we don’t want their goons coming in and messing up our town

It’s a jaw-dropping story, involving Elvis (tangentially), massive amounts of cocaine (ingested by a newspaperman), a killer given immunity by the prosecution, vanishing accomplices, cops placed in maximum security, and the exceptionally creepy Robert Fullerton, the judge in the first case who declined to allow testimony that would have likely altered the outcome.

Borelli, Davis, their families and lawyers and even Fullerton sat down with Wilson, but key figures in the prosecution and Strike Force declined to be interviewed. You can’t blame them.

In the tradition of “The Thin Blue Line,” “Once…” methodically unpacks a revolting travesty of justice, of men stuck with a crime just because it suited the whims of those in power.

Wilson did some extraordinary legwork, tracking down people who did not want to talk or thought this situation was long behind them. It’s a story of deep friendship in the most difficult of circumstances, absolutely deserving of the Best Documentary Feature award it received.




Author: Joe Gross

Joe Gross has covered books, movies, music and culture for the American-Statesman since 2002. He tweets at @joegross.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s