Frankie the Fixer is trying to have it both ways. Which probably comes as no surprise to the people of south philadelphia who used to deal with Frankie the Fixer.
It’s last November, and the Fixer, a licensed plumber and legendary con man named Frank DiGiacomo, is on the witness stand, testifying for the prosecution in the racketeering trial of Mob boss Joseph “Uncle Joe” Ligambi and six co-defendants. The government is using DiGiacomo to back up allegations that Ligambi was the boss of the Philly Mob, and had engaged in gambling and loan-sharking. Frankie says as much, but with a smile. He’s careful to explain that Ligambi and the others, guys like co-defendants Joseph “Mousie” Massimino and Anthony Staino, are “great guys.” Fun to be around, he adds. He’s hung with them, eating, drinking and partying at bars and restaurants downtown. He loved it, he says. And the women? Madonne!
Frankie isn’t a great plumber. “The drains are still clogged,” Massimino quips during a break in the proceedings, referring to work DiGiacomo did for him at Lou’s Crab Bar, a neighborhood joint Mousie ran when he was on the streets. Whether DiGiacomo, 48, is a great witness is another question. That one, the jury will decide.
Sitting in the courtroom for this three-month-long trial, I find myself thinking about something else: the fact that it doesn’t matter whether Ligambi and the others are found guilty.
Because the glory days of the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra are over.
Defense attorneys don’t deny the existence of the Mafia. What they do argue is that the Ligambi organization wasn’t cut from the same cloth as the violent, blood-soaked crime families headed by Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo and John Stanfa.
I’d argue something else. And that is that the Philadelphia branch of the American Mafia—an institution that from the 1950s through the 1980s functioned as a shadow government, impacting politics, commerce, organized labor and the justice system—is today little more than a street gang. The days of Mob hits and omertà, of bribed judges and rigged multimillion-dollar construction contracts, of power and influence and “men of honor”—they’re history. The long-running soap opera that played out against the backdrop of Passyunk Avenue, 9th Street, the Produce Center and the Atlantic City Boardwalk has been canceled.
I’ve spent the past 30 years reporting on the Philly Mob. My career at the Inquirer was, in large part, defined by that.
As I sit listening to testimony and evidence—I now cover the proceedings for bigtrial.net, a website about major Philly trials funded by the Beasley law firm—it occurs to me that the Mob, like the newspaper business, has lost its way. The game has passed the Ligambi organization by. Today, the real players in the Philadelphia underworld are black, Asian, Russian. They carry big guns and use them. They have wads of cash and kilos of cocaine. So it really doesn’t matter what the jury decides in the Ligambi case.
For the Mob, it’s all over.
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.
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.
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.