New York City is famous for iconic restaurants, and L&B Spumoni Gardens pizzeria in Brooklyn is one of the most legendary. Louis Barbati, the pie palace’s proud and gregarious co-owner, was just as beloved and respected.
So when Barbati, 61, known to intimates by his nickname of LuLu, was gunned down in broad daylight in the backyard of his Brooklyn home on June 30, 2016, loved ones, loyal customers, and members of the NYPD were left reeling.
Barbati’s wife, Joanne, called 911, and police rushed to their home in the Dyker Heights area of Brooklyn. Officers found Barbati with five gunshot wounds lying face down on steps leading up to his back door.
“We knew he’d been shot numerous times. Even if he was a block away from the emergency room, he didn’t have a chance,” Det. James Hemmer, NYPD, Brooklyn North Homicide Squad, told “New York Homicide,” airing Saturdays at 9/8c on Oxygen.
Barbati was pronounced dead at the scene. When his body was taken away detectives focused on a bag underneath him. The sack contained more than $15,000. Why was he holding so much cash? Was his murder a botched burglary? Was it a mob hit? As police looked for answers, the story that Barbati’s murder could be mafia-related became headline news.
Although police had no proof of mob involvement in the murder, the lead had to be explored. At the request of the NYPD, the FBI joined the case and pursued possible mob connections in the slaying, as the NYPD followed up on the robbery angle.
The FBI focused on the alleged “mob war” over the theft of L&B’s renowned sauce recipe that had “nearly boiled over into bloodshed,” reported the Daily News.
“Spumoni Gardens played no part in the feud,” said Robert K. Boyce, former NYPD chief of detectives. “But there was allegedly a sit down between two crime families to settle the dispute over the source of the recipe.”
However, the mob connection line of investigation led to a dead end.
In the meantime, the NYPD learned that L&B paid out period bonuses during the year to its six co-owners, said Sr. A.D.A. Emily Dean, former Kings County DA’s Office. The cash Barbati was carrying when he was killed – $15,483 – was the exact amount of the bonus.
Police then got a lead when one neighbor of the victim reported seeing a suspicious car — a white Acura TL — parked near the crime scene the day of the slaying. Another neighbor told detectives that he saw the shooter fleeing the scene while wearing a dark-colored sweatshirt and running toward the white Acura.
Witness statements about the car and the man in a sweatshirt were confirmed by home security camera footage obtained by the police. They believed his long-sleeved top could have covered telltale tattoos. Investigators also observed that the man walked with a subtle limp and was carrying a gun.
“What the videotapes don’t show is the actual moments of the weapons being discharged,” said Arthur Aidala, a Barbati family friend and attorney. “Who is this guy? Where did he come from?”
To help them identify the man seen fleeing from the murder scene, police released images to the public and offered a $2,500 Crime Stoppers reward for information. Barbati’s family put up $50,000 on their own for tips leading to an arrest.
Soon, a Crime Stoppers caller identified the man fleeing the scene as Andres Fernandez. The former construction worker fit the man in the surveillance video “to a T,” said Dean.
Originally from Brooklyn, he lived in Long Island, New York. He had a minor criminal record, detectives said. He drove a white Acura TL.
To bolster their case, detectives traced Fernandez’s whereabouts on the day of the murder using cell phone data and tower pings. They confirmed he was near the Barbati home when he was killed.
Evidence was falling into place, but police were stumped about his motive for murdering Barbati.
Still, Fernandez was arrested at his home on November 3, 2016. He requested a lawyer and refused to make any statement.
His white Acura TL was in his garage. Clothes matching what he was wearing in the security footage were collected as evidence, along with a business card from his wallet. Barbati’s home address was written on the back of the card.
After a thorough investigation into the possibility of the murder being a mob hit over pizza sauce, the FBI determined that case “had nothing to do with this incident,” said Hemmer.
Law enforcement never found a link between Fernandez and L&B other than video surveillance that put him at the restaurant on the day of the crime.
Fernandez’s trial began in December 2019. Joanne Barbati’s emotional testimony shook the courtroom, according to Phil Grimaldi, a retired detective, NYPD, Brooklyn South Homicide Squad and Barbati’s cousin.
However, Fernandez “showed no remorse,” Grimaldi said. “And he sat there like he was sitting on a park bench watching the birds, twiddling his thumbs.
Andres Fernandez was found guilty of second-degree murder and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. He was sentenced to 24 years to life in prison.
Barbati’s family is “still tortured by the lack of a motive,” said Aidala.