Is the mob dead in Philly?
A defense lawyer for Philly mob boss Joe Ligambi told a jury that the local branch of the Cosa Nostra was a thing of the past. Was he right?
Mob boss Joe Ligambi is back in his stylish corner townhouse in Packer Park, the one with the black, front-door awning embossed with a bold, white letter “L.” The 74-year-old crime boss has also been spotted, on occasion, driving around South Philadelphia in a late-model black Cadillac sedan, his car of choice for years.
But is the veteran wise guy in the driver’s seat when it comes to the local crime family? More important, does he — or anyone for that matter — want to be?
History indicates that the job of Philly mob boss leads to a jail cell or a coffin. Of the six mob bosses who preceded Ligambi, two were brutally murdered and the other four ended up doing long prison terms.
According to sources both in law enforcement and underworld circles, Ligambi has told anyone and everyone that he’s done; that he just wants to relax, spend summers in Longport and make trips to Florida when the weather gets too cold.
It’s the smart thing to say. But does he mean it? That’s what everyone is wondering.
“The problem for all these guys,” says Steve LaPenta, a retired law enforcement investigator who tracked the mob first as a member of the Philadelphia Police Department and later as an investigator with the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, “is that it’s not like the old days. The money just isn’t there. Used to be there might be 20 guys sharing a pie big enough for 40. Now, you got 20 guys trying to get a piece from a pie that’s only big enough for four or five.”
Will everyone play nice and share? Or will someone get greedy?
Greed in the underworld leads to violence. That hasn’t changed. That’s what everyone is watching for as South Philadelphia wise guys from two different generations find themselves back on the streets. Ligambi has had a foot in both camps and is perhaps the one mobster who can bridge the divide. But if he is stepping down, then who will play that role?
The mob, Cosa Nostra, the Mafia, is a shell of what it used to be. Once a dominant institution, it’s now a minor player in the Philadelphia underworld, where drug kingpins with big guns and even bigger wads of cash dominate; where Russians run sophisticated scams in ethnic enclaves in the Northeast; and where competition for the gambling dollar comes from legal casinos in the city, the suburbs and at the Jersey Shore.
“The other thing,” says LaPenta, who retired several years ago but still tracks the local crime family from his retirement perch in Florida, “is leadership. Who wants to be in charge? And is it someone whose IQ is higher than room temperature?”
Simply put, the best and the brightest in the Italian-American community here and in most other cities have become doctors, lawyers and educators. Two generations into mainstream America and the mob is scraping the bottom of the gene pool. That’s one of the reasons it’s all come apart.
Consider, for example, the most recent mob “hit,” a South Philadelphia shooting in December 2012 while Ligambi and six associates were on trial. Gino DiPietro was the victim. Anthony Nicodemo, a 42-year-old member of the Ligambi organization, was arrested 30 minutes after the mid-afternoon hit went down.
Police found Nicodemo in his home, about five blocks from the murder scene. They tracked him there after a witness got the license tag of the SUV in which the shooter fled the scene. The vehicle, a black Honda Pilot, was parked in front of the row home, which was festooned with Christmas decorations. Inside the vehicle, according to investigative sources, was the gun authorities believe was used to blow DiPietro away.
“It was one of the stupidest hits ever,” said a police investigator after Nicodemo was arrested. Nobody ever uses his own car to carry out a hit, he said. And nobody runs straight home afterward. Finally, who in his right mind keeps the murder weapon?
Nicodemo is scheduled to go on trial in May. First, there will be a suppression-of-evidence hearing and if things don’t go his way there, “he’s buried,” said a law enforcement source familiar with the case.
At that point, does he cut his losses and try to work a cooperating agreement? That’s been the pattern in the local crime family for the past 20 years.
Then there was the obnoxious bravado of Damion Canalichio, who was convicted of racketeering conspiracy in the first Ligam-bi trial that ended last February. (The jury acquitted Ligambi of five counts and hung on four others, leading to the second trial, which ended last month with one acquittal and a hung jury on three remaining counts. )
Canalichio was picked up on tape complaining about a South Philadelphia lowlife who was showing up at an after-hours club that Canalichio and mobster Marty Angelina owned. Canalichio called the guy “a fuckin’ junkie,” which may have been true. But it says a lot about the character and mentality of local mobsters when a guy like Canalichio, who has two prior convictions for dealing cocaine, has the balls to complain about a junkie.
Nicodemo and Canalichio, both in their 40s, are the next generation of the South Philadelphia mob. In many ways they epitomize what has happened to a once secret and supposedly honorable society.
In another time and place, legendary Philadelphia mob boss Angelo Bruno could have been the CEO of a company, the president of a bank, a titan of industry. But as an Italian immigrant, certain doors were closed to him. He chose organized crime as a way out and rose to the top of his field. That’s not to justify or excuse what he did, but merely to offer an explanation.
Bruno’s murder in March 1980 sent the Philadelphia mob into a tailspin from which it has never recovered. Society was changing. So was life in the Italian-American community. And so was the mob.
Omerta, the code of silence, is a thing of the past. Starting with Nick Caramandi and Tommy DelGiorno in the late 1980s through mob boss Ralph Natale and burly mob capo Ron Previte at the turn of the century, the Philadelphia crime family has had more members per capita who have become cooperating witnesses than any other Cosa Nostra family in America.
Add to the mix sophisticated investigative techniques, ever-present electronic surveillance and a multi-pronged RICO law — that allows the feds to prosecute members for their roles in a criminal enterprise rather than for their participation in individual crimes — and you have an idea how the Justice Department has taken the family apart. In many ways, the local mob has been one of the most dysfunctional Mafia families in America.
Call them the Simpsons of the underworld.
So, is it any wonder that Ligambi, who has spent more than 12 years of his adult life behind bars, has had enough? He did 10 years for the murder of Frank “Frankie Flowers” D’Alfonso before the conviction was overturned in 1997. After his indictment in May 2011 on racketeering-conspiracy, gambling and loan-sharking charges, Ligambi was held without bail for more than two years while awaiting trial.
While portrayed in some circles as a thuggish hit man who happened to be in the right place at the right time when he became boss 14 years ago, reality suggests otherwise. Ligambi had a relatively peaceful and, one would assume, lucrative run. He may be smart enough now to just walk away. In the past year, he has beaten the feds twice in a case that has landed 10 of his associates in jail. That case finally came to an end last month with prosecutors announcing they did not intend to try him a third time. It was a victory for the mob leader and his nephew and co-defendant George Borgesi, who was acquitted of a conspiracy charge.
Borgesi, 50, who is also back on the street, remains a wild card for those watching where the mob may be headed. He was convicted of racketeering in 2001, along with “Skinny Joey” Merlino and five others. He and Merlino were each sentenced to 14 years in prison. Merlino, 51, has been living in Florida since his release from prison three years ago and insists he has no desire to return to South Philadelphia.
“The only things I miss are the Mummers on New Year’s Day and my family,” Merlino said in an interview last spring. By family he meant his mother, sister and other relatives, not the mob.
Two other top Merlino associates who were also convicted in the 2001 case, Steven Mazzone and John Ciancaglini, are back in the old neighborhood. Law enforcement and underworld sources allege Ciancaglini controls mob gambling and loan-sharking in Delaware County, an area where Borgesi once held sway.
Do they play nice and get along?
Another key figure mentioned by anyone doing an analysis of the local mob is Phil Narducci, 52, a mob soldier who spent more than 20 years in jail after being convicted as part of the Scarfo organization in 1988.
Sitting in the Deptford Mall during this past Christmas shopping season, Narducci pleasantly introduced himself and, during the course of a casual conversation, said he had no intention of going back to that life. But law enforcement sources say otherwise. Philip Leonetti, the Scarfo underboss who became a key government witness, says that the “one guy to watch” is Narducci.
“He’s a real gangster,” said Leonetti, who wrote a book, Mafia Prince, about his life and who is now living under a new identity in another part of the country. Leonetti believes that the guys from the Scarfo era who have come home, Narducci, his brother Frank, the Pungitore brothers, Joe Grande and several others, still view Merlino, and to a lesser degree Borgesi, as “punks” — wild kids who used the reputation of the Scarfo crime family to prosper in the underworld after Scarfo and his crew went to jail.
Can they all co-exist today?
Would they fall in line behind Ligambi, who was jailed in that same Scarfo trial and who later emerged as the “old head” in the Merlino organization? If it’s true that he wants to retire, then who’s the boss?
Ligambi’s lawyer, Edwin Jacobs Jr., told the jury in Ligambi’s most recent trial that the Philadelphia branch of Cosa Nostra was a thing of the past, a hollow organization that had been dismantled by federal prosecutions a decade earlier. If Ligambi were the boss, it was a title in name only, the lawyer argued. What’s more, Jacobs said, the feds had built a racketeering case against his client around a series of unrelated gambling and loan-sharking operations conducted not by members of an organized-crime family, but by independent operators who were out hustling a buck by taking bets on sports or by loaning cash at the traditional six-for-five rate.
Whether Jacobs’ argument carried the day or whether the government’s case was lacking — one of the anonymous jurors told the Inquirer the prosecution’s witnesses were less than credible — is open to speculation. Jacobs’ premise, however, has some merit.
“I tend to agree with the idea that the organization has been dismantled,” said Al DiGiacomo, a former Philadelphia Police captain who helped build the case in the mid-1990s against mob boss John Stanfa and his organization.
DiGiacomo, who now teaches at West Chester University, said that doesn’t mean there isn’t money to be made or wise guys out there trying to make it. “There are alternative forms of income. Look at the case against young Scarfo,” he said.
Nicodemo S. Scarfo, the son of jailed mob boss “Little Nicky” Scarfo, is currently on trial in federal court in Camden. He and Elkins Park businessman and mob wannabe Salvatore Pelullo are charged with orchestrating the secret takeover of a Texas-based mortgage company in 2007. After getting control of the company, the government alleges, Scarfo, 48, and Pelullo, 45, siphoned $12 million from it.
Their trial began as Ligambi’s second trial in federal court in Philadelphia was ending. While witnesses in the Ligambi trial testified about $5,000 gambling debts and $25,000 extortionate loans — “penny-ante gambling charges,” said defense attorneys — federal prosecutors in Camden were detailing purchases of Bentleys ($217,000), yachts ($850,000) and lavish homes ($715,000) by Pelullo and Scarfo with money allegedly taken from FirstPlus Financial, the Texas mortgage company.
In another room of the federal courthouse in Philadelphia, meanwhile, defense attorneys were negotiating a global plea deal for Joe Vito Mastronardo and a dozen co-defendants in a multimillion dollar bookmaking case.
Mastronardo, according to the indictment against him, was taking action from clients who bet $20,000 to $50,000 on a single game. The feds tracked wire transfers of hundreds of thousands of dollars through foreign bank accounts. And they dug up over $1 million cash hidden in PVC pipes that Mastronardo buried in the backyard of his Italianate mansion in the wealthy Meadowbrook section of Abington Township.
Did I mention that Mastronardo happens to be the son-in-law of the late law-and-order Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank L. Rizzo?
DiGiacomo said the Scarfo and Mastronardo cases are examples of where the money is and where the mob, at least the few mobsters who have the smarts to pull it off, will go. He asks, almost rhetorically, about the high-end customers who once placed bets with Mastronardo. With him out of business, do we assume those businessmen-gamblers have simply stopped wagering? Not likely, says DiGiacomo.
He said he believes the Ligambi trials “went belly up” because the juries were expecting a case that wasn’t there.
“The juries were looking for dead bodies,” he said. “And there weren’t any.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t bodies still to be accounted for.
Three major murders that occurred during Ligambi’s watch remain unsolved — the hit on Ronnie Turchi in 1999, the gangland slaying of Raymond “Long John” Martorano in 2002 and the murder of John “Johnny Gongs” Casasanto in 2003.
Authorities have names connected to those shootings and bits and pieces of information upon which to build cases. What they need is what they had in the big racketeering trials that brought down Scarfo in the 1980s and Stanfa in the 1990s. They need someone who was there when the hit went down, someone who can take the witness stand and say, “I shot him (pick a victim) and he (pick a mob leader) told me to do it.”
Unless prosecutors are able to get that kind of witness, it’s unlikely the feds will bring another racketeering case against the local mob.
In that setting and in order to survive, what little remains of the Philadelphia branch of Cosa Nostra has to remain low-key and go back into the shadows. It has to embrace the old Angelo Bruno philosophy of making money, not headlines. It’s the only way it can remain in play and prosper in a multicultural underworld.
But to do that, say both law enforcement and underworld sources, the mobsters on the street have to be smart and circumspect. And that, say those same sources, seems highly unlikely.