The 2 Political Operatives at the Center of a New Jersey Murder Mystery

In 2015, six years before Sean Caddle, a New Jersey campaign consultant, wound up at the center of the state’s most talked-about murder mystery, he began what seemed to be an unusual business venture. He called it Chainsaw Productions.

The entertainment company held movie screenings that year and was planning to stage interactive “horror environments.” One was named Slaughter Camp — “an immersive and electrifying overnight experience,” a Facebook post read.

As Mr. Caddle has now admitted, sinister plots were more than just idle fantasy to him: A year earlier, in May 2014, he had hired two men to kill a friend and colleague, Michael Galdieri.

Mr. Caddle, 44, has been cooperating with the F.B.I. since at least the fall, federal court records show, but the motive for the murder remains unclear.

The revelations, combined with a family’s request to reopen an investigation into the unsolved 2014 deaths of a couple prominent in state Republican politics, in light of what relatives called “eerily similar” circumstances to the murder-for-hire killing, have sent tremors through New Jersey political circles.

“A lot of people are watching it with bated breath,” said State Senator Richard J. Codey, a Democrat and former governor who is the longest-serving lawmaker in state history. “The rest of us are just like, ‘Holy moly.’”

At the center of the mystery are Mr. Caddle and Mr. Galdieri, both of whom built careers in the shadows of powerful senators, mayors and councilmen in Hudson County, N.J., a famously bare-knuckle political proving ground.

Mr. Caddle started out as a street-level operative in Jersey City, N.J., but rose quickly, eventually working on state and federal races in New Jersey, Colorado and Texas.

Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Raymond Lesniak, a retired Democratic state senator, were among his many clients, election records show.

In 2010, when a key Supreme Court decision opened a floodgate for campaign donations, Mr. Caddle became an even more sophisticated soldier, skilled in the opaque art of the super PAC.

“He was working for me while he was planning a murder,” Mr. Lesniak said. “That’s the height of betrayal.”

After pleading guilty on Jan. 25 to conspiracy to commit murder for hire, Mr. Caddle was released on bail. He was offered a sentence between 12 ½ and 25 years for a crime that can lead to life in prison — leniency that has fueled speculation he had given federal prosecutors vital information.

“I read into that — he’s been a good cooperator,” said Ralph J. Marra Jr., a criminal defense lawyer who was the state’s acting U.S. attorney during the biggest undercover sting operation in New Jersey history, Operation Bid Rig. “On what? I don’t know.”

“But sometimes,” he added, “you score someone who’s able to give you the keys to the kingdom.”

Bid Rig, the state’s last major public corruption sweep, relied largely on a single informant, Solomon Dwek, who provided information that led to the arrests of 44 people in a single day, including three mayors, two assemblymen and five rabbis. Before it was over, 37 defendants had pleaded guilty or been convicted at trial, cementing New Jersey’s national reputation as a place where corrupt politicians can be convinced to trade favors for cash.

Former prosecutors noted that any information Mr. Caddle may provide would need to be strong enough to withstand his biggest vulnerability before a jury: Having arranged a friend’s murder, he will be depicted as fundamentally untrustworthy.

Federal officials have not commented on the scope of the inquiry or whether additional charges are likely. But the state’s vast network of campaign insiders have spent the weeks since Mr. Caddle’s federal court appearance trading theories about how deep the scandal might cut.

“They’re going to make a movie about it,” Jack Arseneault, a criminal defense lawyer, said.

Artie Sutcliffe, left, and John Minella, chief of staff to Jersey City’s mayor, Steven Fulop, recalled Mr. Galdieri, a regular customer at Gary’s Sweet Shoppe in Jersey City.Credit…Amir Hamja for The New York Times

At Gary’s Sweet Shoppe in Jersey City, a Polaroid photograph of Mr. Galdieri hangs behind the counter, facing the men who arrive daily to nurse cups of coffee and trade political gossip.

“Mike had two sides to him,” said Gary DeFilippo, 73, the owner. “I only knew one side — and it was the good one.”

A neighborhood institution, the shop is a short walk from the second-floor flat where Mr. Galdieri, 52, was killed on May 22, 2014, his body repeatedly stabbed and the apartment set on fire.

“He had his own way of doing things,” said Artie Sutcliffe, who worked with Mr. Galdieri on at least one Jersey City council campaign. “Mike walked a little bit on the wild side, let’s just say.”

Mr. Galdieri battled drug addiction, court records show, and pleaded guilty in 2006 to charges linked to possession of methamphetamine, cocaine and ecstasy. He was last released from prison two months after his father, a former state senator, died in May 2009.

A Polaroid photo of Michael Galdieri, right, with Gary DeFilippo, hangs in Mr. DeFilippo’s store in Jersey City, N.J.Credit…Amir Hamja for The New York Times

He worked for Jersey City’s public works department for several years in the mid-1990s, records show, but friends said he had trouble finding a steady job after leaving prison. An avid curio collector who kept extensive photo and video records, he eked out a living working for Mr. Caddle on campaigns and selling items to auctioneers, friends said.

As Mr. Galdieri was struggling, Mr. Caddle’s career was hitting its stride.

After working as a consultant for Mr. Menendez, then a congressman, Mr. Caddle left New Jersey for Colorado, where his get-out-the-vote savvy helped him land a job as field director for the winner of a contested 2006 congressional primary. In Indiana, he led a statewide organizing effort on behalf of former vice president Al Gore’s Repower America group.

By 2010, he had moved on to Texas to lead the Houston Votes registration drive, an effort marred by allegations that the group was turning in phony registrations. An investigation ended without charges being filed.

Among the crew that Mr. Caddle brought down for the job was his brother, James Caddle Jr., who had just gotten out of prison after serving time for kidnapping, burglary and receiving stolen property.

Fred Lewis, a Texas lawyer who hired Mr. Caddle to run the registration effort, said that Mr. Caddle was “very protective of Jimmy.”

Mr. Lewis had mixed thoughts about Mr. Caddle admitting to the murder-for-hire scheme. “On the one hand, I was shocked,” he said. “On the other, he was sort of a rough character and it made me wonder whether he always had some of the murderer in him.”

When he pleaded guilty, Mr. Caddle, who is married and has three children, disclosed that he was addicted to opioids and that his only recent international travel was to Russia and the Virgin Islands. He did not explain how he found the two men he said he hired to kill Mr. Galdieri, both of whom have extensive criminal records.

One of the men, Bomani Africa, 61, has admitted to killing Mr. Galdieri; he is scheduled to be sentenced June 7.

The second man, George J. Bratsenis, who has not been charged, appeared on Feb. 22 in federal court in Newark in connection to the case. But the proceeding was abruptly adjourned, and neither prosecutors nor Mr. Bratsenis’s lawyer would say why.

Mr. Bratsenis, 73, and James Caddle, who died in 2016, were housed in the same prison in Newark for three years, from January 2007 to April 2010, state records show, but it is unclear if their paths would have crossed.

The prominence of Mr. Caddle’s lawyer — Edwin J. Jacobs Jr., well known for representing clients tied to organized crime — fed into initial speculation that the stakes in the case were high.

Then, days after Mr. Caddle’s plea, Mark D. Sheridan, a son of Joyce and John Sheridan, who were stabbed and burned in their home near Princeton, N.J., asked prosecutors to reopen their case. He also asked that a knife found in Mr. Bratsenis’s truck be tested for DNA, adding a fresh layer of intrigue.

Mr. Sheridan, a confidante to several governors, was a Republican leader and onetime state transportation commissioner who was running one of the region’s largest health care networks when he died.

Mr. Jacobs said he had been representing Mr. Caddle since at least 2019, when Mr. Caddle got a subpoena from state investigators. Officials with the school district in Elizabeth, N.J., where Mr. Caddle did campaign work, confirmed that they had been ordered to turn over thousands of documents at about the same time.

A spokesman for the state attorney general would not comment, but an investigation by Politico showed that by 2018 Mr. Caddle had become adept at using lax campaign finance laws to his clients’ advantage. Politico found that Mr. Caddle and Gianni Donates — who were also partners in Chainsaw Productions — had begun using nonprofits to channel funds into loosely regulated super PACs, effectively hiding the identity of donors.

Mr. Donates declined to comment on anything related to Mr. Caddle, including the horror production company and the super PACs.

But as the state waits to see what happens next, there is little doubt that Mr. Caddle met one of Chainsaw Productions’ original goals.

“We are committed,” the company promised in a 2015 news release, “to scaring the $#!& out of all our guests.”

Ed Shanahan contributed reporting and Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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