The demise of the Philadelphia crime family began with the assassination of Angelo Bruno in March 1980, a murder that set off an underworld free fall that continues today. But there were several other contributing factors, not the least of which was this: Second- and third-generation Italian-Americans make lousy mobsters. The best and the brightest are now doctors, lawyers, entertainers, athletes, educators. As a result, you’re scraping the bottom of the gene pool when you try to put together a crime family today.
Angelo Bruno, in another time and place, could have been the CEO of a Fortune 1000 company. Smart and sophisticated, he came to this country as an immigrant and found many doors closed because of his ethnicity. He chose La Cosa Nostra as a career path and rose to the top of his field. This doesn’t justify that choice, but merely attempts to explain it. Those who followed weren’t in Bruno’s league, though they wore the same mantle.
I once had lunch in Toms River, New Jersey, with Michael Taccetta, then on trial for charges related to a 1984 murder. This was back in 1993, when Taccetta was a leader of a North Jersey faction of the Lucchese crime family. The case involved the golf-club bludgeoning of one Vincent “Jimmy Sinatra” Craparotta, a murder allegedly ordered because of a dispute over the distribution and control of video poker machines.
Taccetta was about my age. He was stocky, with a thick shock of black hair and eyes that seemed to soak up everything that was going on around him. Five years earlier, he had beaten a big racketeering case in Newark, a federal trial that lasted nearly two years, but he knew there would be other cases, even if he got past the murder-conspiracy rap in Toms River. He didn’t, by the way. But that’s not the point.
Over a cup of coffee and a chicken salad sandwich in a luncheonette near the Ocean County Courthouse, he talked about his life and the fact that whatever happened, he knew the feds, the state police, law enforcement in general, would always have him on their radar.
Then he took a bite out of his sandwich, washed it down with a swig of coffee, and quoted Arthur Miller: “It comes with the territory.”
Ask Frankie the Fixer about that famous line from Death of a Salesman, and I’m betting his response would be, “I had nuthin’ tuh do wid it.”
When Bobby Simone, the flamboyant Mob lawyer, died a few years ago, I stood in line outside a funeral home on South Broad Street, waiting to pay respects. Simone was one of the best courtroom lawyers I’ve ever seen. He was great on his feet, and had an uncanny ability to connect with jurors. I was there when he defended himself in a tax evasion case; he hadn’t paid nearly a million dollars to Uncle Sam. He told reporters he owed money to both loan sharks and the IRS.
“Who was I supposed to pay?” he asked them.
He beat the charges.
But like his clients, Bobby ended up in more trouble. He liked to gamble and started to hang out with the guys he represented, including the notorious Nicky Scarfo. Bobby once joked that what he earned, he spent on women, booze and gambling. “The rest,” he said, “I squandered.”
That was Simone. He lost his license to practice law after being convicted in a racketeering case. Did almost three years in jail. Wrote a book in which he pulled his punches and never really talked about the Scarfo era in any meaningful way. Got his license to practice reinstated, but then fell ill and died in 2007.
Lots of people turned out that night at the Baldi Funeral Home. The line moved slowly. Ligambi showed up with three other guys, and they simply moved to the front. No one complained. It was as if they had the right to go first. It was a level of arrogance that’s probably always existed, but that smart mobsters, like Bruno, kept in check.
Ligambi was part of the new breed: the celebrity gangster. He certainly wasn’t as bad as some others, but the swagger was there, the smug I’m important attitude.
I call this the John Gotti Syndrome. Gotti loved the limelight, which flew in the face of the whole concept of the Mafia. How secret could a society be when its New York boss was on the cover of Time magazine—and apparently loving ever minute of it?
Gotti was convicted of racketeering and murder charges in federal court in Brooklyn. I was there for part of his trial, too. I heard Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano testify against Gotti. Gravano admitted to 19 murders.
“John barked, and I bit,” said Gravano, whose arrogance matched that of his Mafia don.
But the thing I remember most from that trial was a ritual. In any courtroom, the audience rises when the judge enters—a sign of respect. At the Gotti trial, there were five or six of his associates, New York wiseguys dressed in dark shirts and silk jackets with highly polished Italian leather loafers, who sat in the first row behind the defendants’ table every day. When Gotti was led in by federal marshals, the associates quietly rose, and remained standing until Gotti nodded and sat down.
The closest we had to Gotti in Philadelphia was Skinny Joey Merlino, who became the face of the Mafia here in the late 1990s, and who, even though he currently resides in Florida, remains the city’s only legitimate celebrity gangster.
I went to the Christmas parties Merlino hosted in a Passyunk Avenue restaurant for homeless people from Kensington. I covered the softball team he batted for in a South Philadelphia summer league. I reported on the lavish party he held at the Benjamin Franklin House on Chestnut Street to celebrate the baptism of his daughter.
Joey never ducked the media.
When word began to circulate that Scarfo, from prison, had put a hit out on him, Joey shrugged. Skinny Joey was the suspect in the 1989 Halloween-night shooting of Nicky Scarfo Jr. in Dante & Luigi’s Restaurant on 10th Street. A man wearing a mask and carrying a trick-or-treat bag walked in, headed directly for the table where the young Scarfo was eating a plate of clams and spaghetti, and pulled a machine pistol out of the bag and opened fire.
Scarfo was hit several times, but survived. Merlino was never charged in the shooting, but both underworld and law enforcement sources allege he was the gunman. A few years later, Scarfo Sr., from a federal prison in Atlanta where he was serving a 69-year sentence for racketeering, conspiracy and murder, wanted to even the score.
He put a $500,000 contract on Merlino’s head.
Fox 29 reporter Dave Schratwieser, a bulldog with this kind of stuff, tracked Joey down to get his reaction. Merlino was happy to oblige.
He looked directly into the camera, gave one of those crooked grins, and out of the side of his mouth said, “Give me the half-million dollars and I’ll shoot myself.”
That was Joey.
Those were the years when I had more access to wiseguys than anytime before or since. I had their cell-phone numbers; I met them for lunch, dinner, drinks. Merlino in particular was fascinating. I’d come away from a lunch with him and realize he’d said virtually nothing. Always charming, always asking about my family (we both had two daughters), always probing for information about what the feds were up to, he never gave up anything. Ron Previte, the cop-turned-gangster-turned-FBI-informant, was another wiseguy I got to know well during the Merlino years. His take on Joey was classic.
“Joey’s agenda on Monday,” Previte once said, “was to get to Tuesday.”
Rob, steal, cheat, do whatever it takes to line your pockets with cash, then party like crazy till the money is gone and go out and do it all again. That, he said, was the Mob under Skinny Joey.