In 1976, the Inquirer sent me to Atlantic City to cover the casino-gambling referendum placed in front of New Jersey voters. I’d been at the paper for two years, and was a 29-year-old reporter looking to carve out a niche at what was quickly becoming one of the most prestigious newspapers in America. Much of the story centered on whether legalized gaming (they never called it gambling) would bring the Mob to Atlantic City.
Of course, the answer was that the Mob was already there.
And that’s how my career covering wiseguys began. The beat just sort of evolved. Atlantic City was a big story, and the perception that organized crime would have a piece of the action there added both a layer of intrigue and a sinister aura that made the story all the sexier.
The first Mob hit I ever covered was in the Flamingo Motel lounge on Pacific Avenue. One day in February 1978, a man wearing a ski mask and carrying a snow shovel walked in and blew away municipal judge Edwin Helfant, who was sitting in a booth with his wife.
She couldn’t provide much information. Neither could anyone in the bar, really. Helfant, it would turn out, got popped because he’d taken a $12,500 bribe from Nicky Scarfo to fix a case, then didn’t deliver. We didn’t know any of that at the time. All we knew—all the media cared about—was that this was a Mob hit in the East Coast’s new Sin City. We were off and running.
“Hey honey, want a date?” was the opening line in a half-dozen conversations I had with the working girls who might have seen something, anything, that could flesh out the Flamingo murder. Like Helfant’s wife, however, they hadn’t. Or at least, they weren’t willing to say they had. But authorities already knew the Mob had come to Atlantic City.
Resorts International, the first casino to open—in May 1978—had Mob ties that some believed went all the way back to Meyer Lansky. Caesars Boardwalk Regency, opened in June 1979, had a history with Alvin Malnik, one of Lansky’s crew. Bally’s debuted that December; it had links from its early days as a slot-machine manufacturer to Gerardo “Jerry” Catena and the New Jersey branch of the Genovese crime family.
Thirty years later, the players and connections spill out of my brain, along with dates and nicknames and fragments of testimony from casino licensing hearings and criminal trials. It is, I suspect, no different for someone who has covered baseball for three decades. You’re loaded with information and trivia that has little value except to entertain other people who share the same interest.
Fortunately for me, Philly has always been fascinated with the Mob.
I understood this early. I was born in South Philadelphia. My grandparents came to America from Sicily in the 1920s; my parents became part of another migration in 1951, the flow of Italians to suburbia. The reception from the Waspy community where we settled was mixed; many of our new neighbors didn’t quite know what to make of the “Eye-talians.”
Perhaps as a defense mechanism for both herself and her children, my mother ingrained in me the beauty of being Italian. She pointed to Fiorello La Guardia, Joe DiMaggio, Rocky Marciano and Frank Sinatra. I learned about Dante and Marconi and Michelangelo. “The Italians are the best at whatever they do,” she said. “They’re even the best crooks. Look at Al Capone.”
That’s when my obsession with the Mob started.
Reality soon overtook fascination. The bullets that ripped through the body of Judge Helfant, the slug that slammed into the brain of Jersey cement contractor Vincent Falcone, and the shotgun blast that left longtime Philly Mob boss Angelo Bruno dead, his mouth agape in a silent scream, would end up presenting me with a far different picture of the Mafia. This was greed and treachery and deceit played out at the highest level. The Mafia took the traditional values of the Italian-American community and bastardized them to justify who they were and what they did. And nowhere was this more evident than in Philadelphia.
During ligambi’s trial, his lawyer, Edwin Jacobs Jr., makes repeated references to his client and the other defendants as a “group of Italian-American males” from South Philadelphia who sometimes hang out together. I’ve seen this ploy before. It’s an indirect way to imply that the defendants have been targeted because of their ethnicity. When I hear it again this time, I wonder, as I always do, how the jury—largely middle-class and suburban—will react. To me, the tactic seems both condescending and incredible.
Is he trying to say that this is some fraternal organization, no different from the Knights of Columbus or the Sons of Italy? I’m not sure the jury buys it. I certainly don’t. But then, I have a different perspective. I look at Frankie the Fixer, a lowlife con artist, and wonder how a guy like that gets close enough to the boss to qualify as a witness against him.
A round-faced man with thinning hair and a Pillsbury Doughboy physique, Frankie doesn’t try to hide who he is. He tells the jury flat-out that if you hired him to do work on Monday or Tuesday, there was a chance it might get done. The rest of the week? He’d take your deposit, but you’d probably never see him again. He’d use your cash to buy drinks, place bets, or pay down the staggering loan-shark debts that eventually led him to cut a deal with authorities.
I doubt Angelo Bruno would even have had a conversation with someone like the Fixer.
This illustrates why it’s all come undone. In the 30-plus years that I’ve been writing about it, the Mob has devolved from a quietly run and highly efficient moneymaking machine to a bungling conglomeration of misfit mobsters and pseudo gangsters. Call them the Simpsons of the underworld.
I’ve met a lot of them. And their families. And that creates a different kind of problem. Over the years, if I wrote a story that criticized the government or challenged the credibility of a witness in a Mob trial, I was a hero. If I did a piece that presented the prosecution’s case, I was a jerk. And was told so. Often.
When you cover a trial, you come face-to-face with family members every day. They’ve read and re-read every word you’ve written. And what you have to keep in mind is that their perception is distorted by emotion. They’re not interested in objectivity, or in a story that presents both sides.
When I wrote a lengthy magazine piece several years ago about Mob boss Ralph Natale, who had become a government witness, I was praised because I termed the government’s arrangement with the bombastic mobster a “deal with the devil.” When I suggest in print during the Ligambi trial that authorities hope a conviction will lead one or more of the defendants to “flip” and provide information about three unsolved gangland murders, I’m accused of “campaigning against us.”
With families and defendants, there’s no middle ground.
I first met Rita Merlino, the wife of then-underboss Salvatore “Chuckie” Merlino and mother of Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, about 20 years ago. We were standing in a hallway of the federal courthouse at 6th and Market streets during a break in a hearing for her son. She wasn’t happy with some of what I had been writing.
The first thing she said to me was, “I’d like to throw you out the window.”
We were on the 10th floor.
So Rita and I have had our ups and downs. She’s a feisty lady who always says what she thinks, and I respect that, even if I seldom agree with her. She once invited me into her home and served delicious cinnamon buns and coffee while I interviewed her and her daughter-in-law for a magazine piece about her son.
She liked that one.
During the Ligambi trial, friends and family members are less than pleased with what I’m writing. But a friend of Mob underboss “Mousie” Massimino does thank me for one story, and asks if at some point I’ll write that Mousie is a kind and generous man who would “give you the food off his table and the shirt off his back.” I wonder: Should I also mention that the 62-year-old career criminal has spent a chunk of his adult life in jail for convictions tied to racketeering and drug dealing?
At another point, a tape is played in which Ligambi co-defendant Damion Canalichio complains about a “fuckin’ junkie” who is causing problems in an after-hours club that mobster Martin Angelina co-owns. Maybe it’s me, but I don’t think Canalichio, who has two prior convictions for drug trafficking, should be allowed to complain about a junkie.
“Dame,” as his friends call the dour Canalichio, is also not one of my fans. Throughout the trial, whenever he has the chance, he refers to me as “Asshole.” Nice.
Cover any beat—politics, sports, the local school board—and you’re going to attract critics. It’s no different covering the Mob. But it gets more personal, because the stakes are so much higher. A wife, a mother, a brother or a sister sitting in a courtroom at a trial at which the life of a loved one is literally on the line has a big emotional investment in the outcome.
Sometimes it’s easy to blame the messenger.