Former 'American Gangster' prosecutor sentenced to probation

MORRISTOWN, N.J. — A former New Jersey prosecutor portrayed by actor Russell Crowe in the film "American Gangster" was sentenced to five years' probation Thursday, two months after pleading guilty to scheming with his law partner to steal money from clients.

Richard Roberts spoke very briefly in court and didn't directly address any of the victims, some of whom attended the proceeding and the sentencing of law partner Gerald Saluti Jr. Thursday afternoon.

Later, outside the courtroom, Roberts told The Associated Press he regretted his conduct.

"I failed to live up to my responsibility as an attorney by not being aware of the circumstances and the people around me," he said. "There were red flags I ignored. I let a lot of people down."

Roberts, now in his 80s, played a major role in prosecuting Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas in the 1970s and was portrayed in the 2007 film that also starred Denzel Washington. Lucas died in May .

Saluti was on the witness stand testifying against Roberts in July when Roberts decided to plead guilty to perjury and theft charges. He acknowledged having taken $20,000 in client funds from his law firm's attorney trust account to make alimony payments.

On Thursday, both men were criticized for their actions by former clients.

Ann Aarons, who hired them after her son was killed in an auto accident, said Saluti cashed a $100,000 insurance check meant for her and never gave her any of the money.

"They took advantage of my vulnerability," she told the judge in a calm voice. "I trusted them as attorneys, but they felt they were above the law."

Cheryl Behre, a former law client, angrily castigated Saluti, saying he "should be in jail" and recalled how she befriended him and wife and children.

"We were friends, I thought," she said as she looked directly at him. "But you know what? I wouldn't want another friend like you."

Roberts could have faced up to 364 days in jail under his plea agreement. Saluti's cooperation earned him a four-year probationary sentence, reluctantly imposed by state Superior Court Judge Donald Collester, who said Saluti "has stained his profession and has stained every lawyer in this state."

Both men also were required to pay restitution and perform community service.

It wasn't the first time Roberts ran afoul of the law. He was sentenced to three years of probation in 2018 after pleading guilty to federal tax charges.

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