For most people, the cinema provides the best frame of reference for the American Mafia. In that light, think of Philadelphia this way:
Angelo Bruno’s time as boss, from 1959 through 1980, was Godfather I and Godfather II. Murder during the Bruno period was a tool of last resort. He became known as the Gentle Don; the nickname only made sense because of what came after him.
For Scarfo, on the other hand, murder was a calling card. His tenure was Goodfellas or Donnie Brasco—violence, betrayal, paranoia.
What came after Scarfo—the John Stanfa/Ralph Natale/Joey Merlino period from roughly 1990 through 2001—was a combination of Pulp Fiction and Analyze This, a dark comedy of disorganized crime. Only the humor got lost in the gunfire.
What’s added to the drama is the fact that there were words—often very colorful ones—to accompany the images. A Mob soundtrack, if you will. Because not only was Philadelphia’s one of the most dysfunctional Mob families in America; it was also one of the most recorded.
From 1990 through the Ligambi investigation that ended in 2011, there was always someone being tape-recorded. Phone taps, room bugs and body wires offered juicy dialogue that helped prosecutors build airtight cases. Any defense attorney will tell you: You can’t cross-examine a tape.
Over the years, those tapes have provided us with priceless words of—dare we call it wisdom? At minimum, they’ve offered an unvarnished look at our mobsters. And so we’ve had:
- John Stanfa telling an associate how he wanted to kill a rival: “I’ll get a knife. … I’ll cut out his tongue and we’ll send it to the wife. … That’s all. We put it in an envelope. Put a stamp on it.”
- Salvatore Profaci counseling against a civil suit in a Mob-linked dispute over a trash company: “Goodfellas don’t sue goodfellas. Goodfellas kill goodfellas.”
- Louis Fazzini, in a tape played during the Ligambi trial, complaining that the younger generation has forgotten what Cosa Nostra stands for: “Guys made it about money. … It’s about friends. … Brotherhood.”
And violence. I know, because John Stanfa wanted to take me out.
He told Sergio Battaglia, a young aspiring hit man, to get some hand grenades, find out where I lived, and throw them through my window.
This was in the early 1990s. I had been writing extensively about the Stanfa organization and its war with the Merlino faction. It was, in my estimation, a clash of cultures. Stanfa, born and raised in Sicily, couldn’t abide Merlino and the young corner-boy gangsters who comprised his crew. He called them the “little Americans,” said they had no concept of what it meant to be Mafiosi.
Merlino, in turn, saw Stanfa as an interloper. He and his crew called the old man “the greaseball.” Their battle was described best by a defense attorney who’d been following my accounts of the botched hits and bungled kidnappings that seemed to unfold on a daily basis. “Goodfellas?” he said. “How about Dumbfellas?”
Stanfa apparently didn’t like my stories.
I didn’t know about the contract until Battaglia began cooperating with the feds after he was convicted with Stanfa in a 1995 RICO case. One day he called me from prison to let me know that “some stuff” was going to come out—about me. Then he told me the story. “It was nothing personal,” he said.
I told him I had a wife and two kids and that a hand grenade through the window would have been very personal.
He didn’t see it that way. Anyway, he said, “By the time we got the grenades, we were so caught up in the war with Merlino we stopped looking for you.”
For one of the few times in my career, I was at a loss for words. What do you say to a guy who admits he was plotting to kill you?
Over three decades, I just tried to get it right without worrying about anyone’s feelings. The story, over the years, has been rich and, from a writer’s perspective, full of character and pathos and emotion.
Readers were invested. The Philadelphia Mob was an institution, like the Mummers or the Phillies. Not everyone understood or cared, but those that did couldn’t get enough.
As a writer, I’ve benefitted from this. Americans have always been fascinated by the outlaw: Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Al Capone, Vito Corleone. Something in our psyche is drawn to the rogue, the individualist who operates outside the law. Philadelphia also has a soft spot for the street-corner scuffler who never quite makes it, like Rocky.
I think of all of this each day at the Ligambi trial.
As I usually do, I sit in the media section, in the first row behind the defense and prosecution teams. Behind me sit the friends and family members of the defendants, offering critiques and commentary, not only about the witnesses and testimony, but also about my reporting.
“Get it right.”
“Tell the truth.”
“You’re an asshole.”
I think of Michael Taccetta.
It comes with the territory.