THE ITALIAN AMERICAN car salesman looked so out of place in Middle America that strangers would walk up to him and ask, “Say, are you in the Mafia?”
He stood five-foot-seven, with bulging muscles, slicked-back hair, and chiseled features that reminded people of a young Robert De Niro. To the locals, he may have been an ethnic -curiosity, but they loved doing business with him. He was nicknamed “The Closer” because he sold three times as many cars as the average salesman.
His secret was an ability to establish an instant rapport with people from all walks of life. Customers were so captivated by the Closer that they invited him to their weddings, football superboxes and NASCAR luxury suites. Neighbors and co-workers were also drawn to the surprisingly tenderhearted guy who’d pull off the highway after midnight to help a stranded motorist change a flat. At Christmas, the Closer would dress up as Santa and hand out presents that he bought to kids.
Then, last May, somebody asked about the Mafia again. The Closer was lured to a late-night meeting in a deserted auto-body shop. He says an interrogator flashed a gold FBI badge at him and said: How ya doing, John-John?
“What the hell you talking about?” the Closer replied. He says the interrogator hauled out a thick FBI file and showed him a photo of “John-John” Veasey, a notorious Mafia hit man from South Philadelphia.
“That’s not me,” the Closer said.
The interrogator displayed a photo of a bullet-riddled GMC Jimmy. The photo was from a crime scene, taken the day Veasey’s brother was shot to death on the street in 1995, hours before Veasey was scheduled to appear in federal court and testify against the godfather of the Philadelphia Mob.
You didn’t just fall out of the sky, the interrogator said. The jig’s up.
The Closer claims the interrogator was abusive, asking why he wouldn’t answer to his birth name, calling him a punk, a coward, a faggot. The Closer tried to leave, but the interrogator told him he wasn’t going anywhere.
During a nearly three-hour grilling, the Closer got angry. He pointed to a bulge at the ankle of an off-duty cop the interrogator had brought with him, and said if he really was a Mafia hit man, “I would have grabbed your fucking gun, and you would have been the first person I shot.”
The old you is starting to show, the interrogator said.
The Closer lowered his head and started to cry. The interrogator asked if he was scared.
“I’m crying because I’m thinking of what I want to do to you right now,” the Closer snapped. “You don’t know how lucky you are. The old me would have just bit your fucking nose off, and you would need a rubber band to hold your glasses on for the rest of your fucking life.”
PHILADELPHIANS REMEMBER JOHN Veasey as the star witness of the 1995 racketeering trial of Mob boss John Stanfa. Veasey’s stand against the Mob came at a steep price. He was shot three times in the head and once in the chest by his fellow mobsters, but miraculously survived. Then, on the day Veasey was scheduled to testify against Stanfa, the Mob murdered his brother Billy, who had talked him into surrendering to the feds. Veasey resolutely took the stand just days later and fried Stanfa. Jurors were mesmerized by his testimony. He was so raw, like a guy on a street corner telling a story.
The judge sentenced Stanfa to five consecutive life terms, and seven Stanfa associates were also sent away for long prison stretches. By then, jurors were so taken with John Veasey that they bought transcripts of the trial as keepsakes.
Veasey was sentenced to 10 years for two murders he’d admitted to committing. When he got out, Veasey had a new identity in the federal witness-protection program. But he didn’t know a soul when he got off a plane in fly-over country.
This is when John Veasey’s already dramatic life took an even more dramatic left turn. It was so utterly unlikely, it’s as outrageous as his first incarnation as a mobster. A barely literate high-school dropout, Veasey started over again at the bottom, cleaning hotel toilets for $9 an hour. But he memorized new words, and read everything from the Bible to Machiavelli. Then he answered an ad for a car salesman and discovered he was a natural. That’s when he became the Closer.
The onetime hit man from South Philly—trim, dark-haired, muscular, with tattoos of both God and the Devil on his chest—was so good as a car salesman that in the last couple of years he was pulling down $20,000 a month. “There’s my dealership coming up right here,” he says one day a few months ago, showing me around his adopted hometown, the name of which he asked me not to divulge. “I ran this whole place. I hired that kid right there. My office was right upstairs.” He rose to general manager of the dealership and general sales manager in charge of four car lots. He bought four houses, and drove Porsches and Lamborghinis. He flew around the country in private planes to speak at sales conventions, to teach others how to sell cars the way the Closer did.
Of course, this being the life of John Veasey, this latest chapter has its own bizarre twist. That interrogator who Veasey says flashed a gold FBI badge at him last May? He wasn’t actually in the FBI—he was an ex-agent who was head of security at another dealership that Veasey had recently moved to. He became suspicious about Veasey’s true identity, so he did some digging to figure out who the Closer really was. Veasey was fired from the dealership. (The interrogator claims he didn’t misrepresent himself as a current FBI guy, though he’s now under federal investigation for the outing of a government witness.)
Today, John Veasey has gone back into hiding. He is at large somewhere in America, wanted by the feds, who’d like him to stop running his mouth, and by the Philly Mob, who’d like to see him dead. The story of how everything happened—how a poor kid from South Philly became a violent Mob hit man; how that hit man became a government witness; how that government witness became a gifted car salesman—well, it can sound like something Hollywood made up. But John-John Veasey swears every word of it is true.
JOHN VEASEY WAS raised in the public-housing projects at 5th and Washington, part of the only white family around. He was three years old when his father, Walter Veasey, a violent alcoholic, was found dead in a hotel in 1970. Veasey’s mother, Sophia Maria Cuticchia, a native of Sicily, was left to raise five kids on her own. “John-John” was the youngest.
“We were just a poor family. We’d sit in the welfare office all day to get food stamps,” Veasey tells me. His clothes, usually “three times too big,” came from the charity box at a local Catholic church. Billy, the eldest child, became a surrogate father to John, though he was only five years older.
“We started fighting very young,” John says. The Veasey brothers were protective of their single mom, who worked as a bartender. John remembers her as a five-foot-tall beauty with black hair, dark olive skin, and a knockout figure that featured a pair of 44 double D’s. “I became her little warrior,” John says. That meant shooing away the garbage men who hung around waiting to see Mom in a tube top. John remembers that when he was nine, Billy, then 14, woke him up one night and handed him a stick, so the brothers could club into submission a boyfriend who had smacked their mother around.
Billy and John-John worked out at the Goodfellas Gym, at 16th and Passyunk. Billy was so good, he sparred with pros, including Bennie Briscoe. The Veasey brothers were also premier street fighters. Billy, four inches taller, always got the best of John. The power punch for both Veaseys was their left hook.
“I had over 1,500 fights,” John Veasey says. “I used to fight two and three times a day. That’s all I did. There ain’t nobody who walked the streets of South Philly who can say they kicked my ass.”
Nobody except Billy Veasey. But John discovered one thing he could do better than his brother: weight lifting. John could power-lift 365 pounds; his biceps swelled to 19 inches.
But John was a poor student, classified as learning disabled. He cried when he couldn’t spell “any” at a spelling bee. People told him he was stupid. So John found other outlets for his energy. He was 11 years old when he started smoking marijuana. He was 14 when an uncle who was a drug addict gave him his first injection of meth.
At 15, John-John was arrested for aggravated assault and making terroristic threats after he pulled a knife on a teacher at Furness Junior High. In 1983, at 16, he was committed to St. Gabriel’s Home for Boys after his 41-year-old mother died of a heart attack. John became a drug addict, turning to crime to support a cocaine habit that escalated to $600 a day. He would rob anybody, leveling a sawed-off shotgun at drug dealers and mobsters. “This is a robbery,” he would say. “Don’t make it a homicide.” His drug use got him into trouble with brother Billy, who beat John up whenever he caught him getting high. Billy also beat up the neighborhood drug dealers who sold to his kid brother.
In 1990, 24-year-old John Veasey was arrested after he beat the ex-husband of his common-law wife, Lorraine, so badly that the guy died a couple hours later. While the death was ruled a drug overdose, Veasey pleaded guilty to related charges and served about two years before being paroled in 1993. While in jail, he quit drugs cold turkey.
When Veasey got out, he got a job as a laborer at a concrete company owned by the brother-in-law of local Mob boss John Stanfa. In the summer of 1993, the Sicilian-born Stanfa was in the middle of a Mob war pitting his old-school crew against a bunch of Young Turks from the neighborhood led by Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino.
After lifting weights and hauling cement blocks, Veasey was a rock-hard 200-pound slab of muscle. He was pouring concrete when he caught the eye of Frank Martines, a tile setter who was also Stanfa’s underboss. Martines asked Veasey if he knew Joey Merlino.
Sure he knew Merlino. When they were kids, Veasey took Merlino’s go-cart away from him. When they were doing time together in prison, Veasey helped himself to Merlino’s new Nike sneakers. But Martines wasn’t thinking about robbing Skinny Joey.
Martines made a gun with his hand, and asked Veasey if he’d be willing to kill Merlino for $10,000. No problem, Veasey said. And that’s how John Veasey got hired as a Mob hit man.
ON AUGUST 5, 1993, Veasey and Phil Colletti were on patrol for John Stanfa. They drove a Ford Taurus past a Mob clubhouse at 6th and Catharine. Colletti, behind the wheel, peered through binoculars and spotted Skinny Joey and his closest associate, Michael “Mikey Chang” Ciancaglini, talking on the corner with a few guys.
But when the hit men drove by to get a better look, they noticed that one of the guys on the corner was Billy Veasey, a boyhood friend of Merlino’s. “Phil, we can’t go,” John said. “My brother will see me.”
So the hit men drove around until Billy left. “Let’s go get ’em,” John said.
The Ford Taurus pulled up alongside Merlino and Ciancaglini, who were strolling down the street on a sunny afternoon. Colletti was in the front seat, armed with a .45-caliber semi-automatic, and Veasey was in back, with a 9mm pistol. The two hit men opened fire. Ciancaglini raised an arm to protect himself. A bullet ripped through his bicep and pierced his chest. Merlino was wounded in the buttocks. Veasey saw Ciancaglini fall down and try to get back up. “My job was to kill Michael Ciancaglini,” Veasey explains. “He was the muscle behind Joey. He died like a man.” But not Merlino. “That motherfucking Joey was screaming,” Veasey says.
After Ciancaglini’s death, Merlino went into hiding. Veasey still expected a big payoff. “My mind was set on that $10,000,” he says. But the only money he saw from Stanfa was his regular $300-a-week Mob paycheck, less than the $350 he used to earn mixing concrete.
Veasey’s Mob duties included being an enforcer. He had a novel way of collecting protection money.
“I never once had to use brute force on a shakedown,” Veasey says. Instead, he’d toss a roll of quarters to a bookie or drug dealer. This was back in the days when people still fed quarters into pay phones. “Give me my money or start calling the guys you pay for protection,” Veasey would say. “Because believe me, you need protection right now.”
People paid because of his reputation. John’s most famous act of savagery came when Billy Veasey was doing construction work in a bar and overheard a rival mobster named “Joe Fudge” bragging that he was going to kill John Veasey. Billy called to warn his little brother. “I’ll handle it,” John assured him. He decided to make an example out of Joe Fudge. It didn’t matter to John that Joe Fudge was Frank Martines’s cousin.
Veasey told a mobster pal to bring Joe Fudge over to his house, because he was under house arrest and had to be home when his parole officer called. When Joe Fudge showed up, he found Veasey inside waiting, with a power drill hooked up to a 50-foot cord. “I started slapping him with the drill,” Veasey says, “and asking, ‘Do you want to kill me?’”
Veasey had a paddle tip on his power drill that yanked out big chunks of Joe Fudge’s hair. Veasey also whacked Joe Fudge in the knees with a baseball bat. The phone rang; it was an automated call from the probation department. Veasey took the phone in one hand and used the other to keep drilling Joe Fudge. Meanwhile, the parole officer, whose spiel was pre-recorded, asked Veasey to repeat the names of American states in a precise order to prove it was John Veasey live on the phone, and not some recording. “Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware,” Veasey repeated while he drilled Joe Fudge.
After Veasey hung up, he kept drilling Joe Fudge. “I did his elbows first, then I did his knees. Then my drill bit broke.” Veasey handed Joe Fudge a loaded gun. “Go ahead and shoot me,” he dared. “The Devil ain’t gonna die.” But Joe Fudge was in flight mode after being tortured, so John threw the bleeding mobster out on the street.
The next day, Veasey’s parole officer played back the automated interview. She was shocked to hear buzzing and screaming, so she called Veasey to ask: “What’s all that noise in the background?”
Veasey explained he’d been using an electric dildo on Lorraine, his wife.
ON SEPTEMBER 17, 1993, Veasey and two other mobsters—Frank Martines and Giuseppe Gallara—drove past the Melrose Diner at 15th and Passyunk and saw a white Cadillac Seville in the parking lot that they knew belonged to Frank Baldino, a bartender who was a go-fer for Joey Merlino. They were under orders from Stanfa to kill on sight anybody associated with Merlino. So they had a conference. “They wanted him dead,” Veasey says. “I argued that I thought he was harmless.”
Veasey lost, so the hit men waited for Baldino to finish his chopped-steak dinner. When Baldino came out of the Melrose, he got in his Cadillac and put the car in reverse.
Veasey raced up to the driver’s window. “Yo, Frank,” he yelled. Baldino looked up and started to roll down the window. “Don’t worry about that,” Veasey said as he rammed his .45 through the glass and started shooting. He emptied his gun, hitting Baldino seven times in the head and torso. Veasey saw Baldino’s head bounce back against the seat, and blood fly everywhere.
Veasey was wearing a dark Fila sweatsuit, a present from brother Billy. Following Mob protocol, he changed outfits after he fled the crime scene. Local TV stations, however, broadcast descriptions of the assailants that included the Fila sweatsuit. The cops didn’t know who killed Baldino yet, but Billy Veasey did. When John walked into his house, he found Billy sitting on his couch. “Where’s the fucking sweatsuit I bought you?” Billy yelled. John made excuses. “You killed Baldino,” Billy said, but John denied it. Billy yelled at John, saying he had to be out of his mind—he’d just killed two men in two months! “Get in the car,” Billy told his little brother.
John was still off drugs, but he’d picked up a new bad habit—-smoking up to four packs a day. Billy was a passionate non–smoker. So John used his smoking as an excuse, saying he didn’t want to stink up Billy’s car. But he got in because Billy insisted. Billy promptly punched John in the mouth. “That’s for stinking the fucking car up,” Billy said. Then he drove John around South Philly, alternately yelling at him and trying to talk some sense into him.
JOHN VEASEY WAS NOW the most feared mobster in town. He renamed his Rottweiler and pit bull “Al Capone” and “Frank Nitti,” to fit his new gangster lifestyle. But brother Billy wasn’t impressed.
Billy Veasey lived in two worlds. He was a tough kid and street fighter who had done time, once for assault, once for a weapons charge. He worked as a demolition contractor with his own crew. Peter J. Scuderi, a lawyer and friend of Billy’s, describes him as a “human wrecking ball.” But Billy was also a great hockey player. And when he played hockey around town, he made new friends. Billy didn’t want to be a gangster. He aspired to be upwardly mobile.
Billy had a beautiful wife and a son, Billy Jr., also a hockey player, who had just won a scholarship to the prestigious Episcopal Academy. Billy didn’t want his son to hang out on street corners; he wanted his son to go places he couldn’t. He was horrified that his little brother was a gangster.
Scuderi recalls a day in the early ’90s when he accompanied the Veasey brothers to a golf driving range on Passyunk Avenue. “John was hitting a million balls,” he says. “All John-John wants to do is hit it past his brother.” As it got dark and the other golfers left, the brothers argued about the local Mob war like it was a sporting event. Billy told John-John that the Merlino faction would win, and he called John Stanfa a faggot.
Billy’s message was: Hey, little brother, not only are you a dummy for joining the Mob, but you’re so stupid, you picked the wrong side. And the Stanfa crew is just jerking you off. They’re not making you somebody, they’re just using you. And when they get done using you, they’re going to kill you.
THREE MONTHS AFTER he shot Frank Baldino to death in the parking lot of the Melrose, John Veasey returned to the diner, this time for the creamed chipped beef. On a frigid December 30, 1993, John Veasey had a breakfast sit-down with brother Billy and Pete Scuderi.
“It was brutally cold,” Scuderi recalls. Scuderi had been planning on staying in until Billy called and begged him to meet him and John at the Melrose. “Things aren’t good with John-John,” Billy said.
They ate at the counter of the venerable diner, with the regulars. By this time, John-John had figured out that Billy was right: Stanfa was using him. Stanfa had given him a fancy jeweled ring as a Christmas present, for his recent work as a hit man. Billy told John to get the ring appraised because it was probably fake. John’s wife, Lorraine, tried to hock the ring and discovered it was.
At the Melrose, Billy told John his only chance was to “flip”—turn himself in to the feds and become a cooperating witness. Otherwise, Stanfa would kill him.
But John-John was too angry to listen. “Fuck Stanfa,” he erupted. “Fuck the Mafia. And fuck the feds, too.” John then loudly outlined his own plan of action: snort some meth, get “Rambo-ed up,” and go out and kill Stanfa and as many henchmen as he could. He slapped a nickel-plated .357 on the counter. “This is how I roll,” he said. The gun was just one weapon from an arsenal he had at home, including a bunch of shotguns and an Uzi. “I’ve got enough ammunition to kill ’em all,” John said.
Old ladies at the counter had stopped eating and stared at the Veasey brothers. They kept arguing.
“You’re a fucking asshole,” Billy yelled at John-John. “You can’t go kill anybody. That’s not the way to solve the problem.” Then Billy did something he hadn’t done since their mother died: The tough guy started crying. Right at the counter of the Melrose.
“You’re gonna get killed,” Billy told John. “You’re my brother. I don’t want to see you die. Or you’ll get caught, and they’re gonna put you in jail forever. Or they’re gonna put you in the electric chair on TV, and I’m gonna have to watch it.
“If you do the right thing, turn yourself in, you’ll go to jail, but someday you’re gonna come out,” Billy pleaded. “And we’re gonna have Christmas dinner together and be a family again.”
“If I do what you’re telling me to do, I’ll never be able to come back,” John protested. A rat wouldn’t be welcome in South Philly.
“You’re only going to nail Stanfa,” Billy told him. John wouldn’t touch the Merlino gang. So what was the big deal? And, “Who’s gonna stop you from coming home?” Billy said. “These are our streets. Nobody’s gonna keep my little brother from coming home.”
Billy was so important to John, more important than anyone, and to see him like this …
“All right,” John said. “Do whatever you got to do. I don’t want to see you cry.”
Scuderi got on the phone and called Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Gross. Then he handed the phone to Billy.
“You know who my brother John is,” Billy told the federal prosecutor. “You know what he did. He’s not gonna do it anymore. I want to bring him in to talk to you. When can I come in?”
WHEN WORD GOT OUT that John Veasey was coming in, the conference room at the U.S. Attorney’s Strike Force Office on Chestnut Street filled up with prosecutors and FBI agents. The Veasey brothers arrived in 20 minutes. Billy Veasey broke the ice. “John’s gonna tell you what he did, that he killed some people,” he said. “He was with John Stanfa, and he’s not gonna do it anymore.”
John was unshaved under a knit cap. To Barry Gross, he looked just like John Belushi in Animal House.
“Soon as I saw him, and as soon as he opened his mouth, I felt that this was the turning point,” Gross remembers. “It was what so many of us—prosecutors, FBI agents and police officers—had been working together for, to try and end this,” he says, meaning the Philly Mob.
While Billy and John were talking with the feds, the lawmen asked the Veaseys if their brother, Dante “P-nut” Veasey, was responsible for a recent drug murder they were investigating. “Naah,” John-John said. “That guy was shot. P-nut would have stabbed him.”
John asked to use the men’s room. Gross got the key and led him down the hallway. On the way, John stopped and stared intently at Gross.
“I’m doing the right thing, aren’t I?”
ON JANUARY 14, 1994, two weeks after John Veasey turned himself in, Frank Martines and Vincent “Al Pajamas” Pagano, who got his nickname for putting people to sleep, asked Veasey to take a ride with them; as a cooperating witness for the feds, he was still out and about. Martines told Veasey that because the cops were always following them, Veasey couldn’t bring any weapons. So he left behind his .357 magnum. After they had a few drinks at a bar, Veasey thought the two mobsters would drive him home. But they stopped instead at a butcher shop on 7th Street.
Martines told Veasey the Mob was running a numbers operation out of a small apartment above the butcher shop, and they wanted Veasey to learn how to work it. When they walked into the apartment, Pagano locked the door behind them. Veasey saw that all the furniture in the place was covered in plastic. We’re painting, Martines told Veasey. Then Martines said he needed to use the bathroom.
When Martines came out, he put a .22 to the back of Veasey’s head and said, “Bye-bye, John.” Then he pulled the trigger three times. Veasey jumped up and grabbed his head. His hand was full of blood; he felt like he’d been hit with a sledgehammer. Veasey stared at Martines and yelled, “Yo, Frank. You just fucking shot me?” One bullet had hit the back of Veasey’s head and broken into fragments; a second exited through his forehead. A third had bounced off his head and into his neck. Martines told Veasey why he’d shot him: “You talk too much.”
Pagano grabbed Veasey from behind and told Martines to shoot again. Martines shot Veasey in the chest, piercing a new $3,800 leather jacket and depositing a bullet in Veasey’s ribs. But instead of going down, Veasey grabbed Martines and shoved him against the wall. “You’re fucking dead,” Martines told him. “I ain’t dead yet,” Veasey replied. The mobsters yanked down the sleeves of Veasey’s jacket to trap his arms by his side so Martines could pistol-whip him; he was out of bullets. But Veasey wiggled his left arm free, and every time Martines hit him with the gun, Veasey slugged him in the eye.
Veasey knocked Martines to the ground, but Pagano jumped him, yanked his head back, and told Martines to “cut his fucking throat.” Martines whipped out a knife, but Veasey kicked him with both feet and slid out of Pagano’s grip. The knife landed on the floor; Veasey and Martines scrambled for it. Veasey got there first. When Martines grabbed him in a headlock, Veasey stabbed him near the eye.
Martines, bleeding heavily, pleaded with Veasey not to kill him. He said he’d unlock the door if Veasey dropped the knife. Veasey buried the knife in a couch—where the cops later found it. Martines unlocked the door, and Veasey ran down the stairs. “If you go to the cops, we’ll kill your family,” Pagano yelled after him.
Veasey ran outside into a giant ice storm. He couldn’t stay on his feet. In desperation, he jumped on the hood of a passing car. The owner stopped, hopped out, and saw blood on his car. “You fucking crackhead!” the guy yelled before driving off. Veasey staggered to the home of a neighborhood drug dealer named Tootsie, who called 911. While they waited, Tootsie kept slapping Veasey in the face, yelling, “Don’t you die on me, boy!” The cops found a raging Veasey covered in blood. He was taken to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where he was declared in critical but stable condition.
Billy was immediately consumed with guilt, since he’d been the one to talk John into becoming a government witness. “I’m sorry,” Billy sobbed to his now-comatose brother. “I should have left you alone. I don’t want to see you die. I love you.”
Scuderi came to see John-John in the ICU at Billy’s request. He peered through a big glass window, and what he saw reminded him of the scene in The Godfather where Vito Corleone is lying unconscious in the hospital after getting shot up.
“I thought he was in a coma. He had all these tubes running in and out of him,” Scuderi says. “Then I see his left hand moving involuntary, almost like a twitch.” When Scuderi went to John’s bedside, he saw that John’s left hand was clicking a TV remote to switch the channel from one football game to another.
When Veasey saw Scuderi, he ripped off his oxygen mask and came roaring back to life. “They shot me in the fucking head!” he yelled, as Scuderi watched his blood pressure spike on the bedside monitor. John told Scuderi about the fight and how he got away from Martines: “I stabbed him in the fucking eye.” They can’t kill this guy, Scuderi marveled to himself.
Billy was amazed that John was awake, but embarrassed to find out his younger brother had heard every word he’d said. “Did you really mean what you said about how you love me?” John asked.
“You lucky little bastard,” Billy said. “You’re a fucking asshole.”
After he got out of the hospital, John warned Billy that he might become a target once John testified at the upcoming Mob trial against Stanfa. “Why don’t you go away?” he suggested.
“I ain’t no pussy,” Billy replied. “Who do you think you are, the toughest guy in the family?”
“No,” John dutifully told his brother. “You’re the toughest guy in the family.” Billy had turned down the government’s offer to go into the witness-protection program. He wanted to stay in South Philly, and he didn’t want to miss his son’s hockey games.
ON THE RAINY MORNING of October 5, 1995, Billy Veasey left his South Philly rowhouse to drive to a Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee. He rode a block before halting at a stop sign. Two men ran up to his GMC Jimmy and opened fire. Nine gunshots shattered the front window; six bullets ripped into Billy’s body. Police found him slumped behind the wheel, a 9mm gun by his side. Billy, only 35, died in a hospital less than an hour later.
Over at the federal courthouse, John Veasey was getting ready to take the witness stand against Stanfa when FBI agents and prosecutors surrounded him. The feds were so worried about how John would react to Billy’s murder that they put him in handcuffs.
But instead of flying into a rage when he got the news, John fainted. And when he woke up, he was crying. The feds told John the Stanfa crew had killed Billy in retaliation for John’s decision to become a federal witness. The feds were so concerned about security that John wasn’t allowed to attend his brother’s viewing or funeral. Instead, he had to say goodbye to Billy in a dirty, dingy warehouse. When John saw his brother lying in a coffin, he was surprised to see a cigar in the pocket of Billy’s suit jacket.
“My brother hated smoking,” John said. He threw the cigar away.
“This is not the way this was supposed to end,” John told Billy. “I was supposed to be the one at the viewing, and now it’s you. It’s all wrong. I was the one who fucked his life up.” John told Billy he regretted all his mistakes. “It won’t happen again,” he vowed. “I won’t let you down again.”
ON THE WITNESS STAND, Veasey told jurors about the two tattoos on his chest, of the Devil and God: “Everybody has a good side and a bad side,” he explained. He owned up to his criminal past: “I robbed to support my drug habit. I murdered for money.” And when he mentioned his late mother, he blessed himself and said, “God rest her soul.”
For months before the trial, John had vacillated on whether he could go through with becoming a rat and testifying against Stanfa. But after Billy’s murder, he was transformed. “It was personal,” he says. So for three days, on the witness stand, he talked frankly about the Mob war and everything he had done.
Defense lawyers tried to trip him up but didn’t get anywhere. Brian McMonagle, representing Frank Martines, showed Veasey a gory mug shot of his client and asked: Did you do this to Mr. Martines’s face?
“After he shot me, Brian,” Veasey replied.
Is it true you once fed your pet pit bull a live chicken? McMonagle asked.
“No,” Veasey said. “It was a rooster.”
Members of the jury showed up at two subsequent trials to follow Veasey and cheer him on as a witness. “I could have stayed at their houses,” Veasey tells me.
STILL, HE WAS ANGRY and defiant when he went to prison for the murders of Frank Baldino and Michael Ciancaglini. He was so disrespectful of correction officers that he ended up in solitary confinement for 37 months. He had plenty of time to think about how he was going to take his revenge on the mobsters who’d killed his brother. One plot involved sneaking up on mobster wives in the supermarket and injecting them with HIV so they would infect their husbands. Veasey wanted the mobsters to die slow, painful deaths.
While Veasey was in prison, the feds changed their mind about who’d murdered Billy Veasey. They’d originally blamed Stanfa, but subsequently determined that the killing was a classic setup—John would assume Stanfa was behind it, assuring his testimony against the Mob boss. The feds charged Joey Merlino and two -associates—George Borgesi and John Ciancaglini (Mikey Chang’s brother)—with the murder. All three, however, were acquitted in a 2001 trial.
“He was an opportunist,” Veasey says of Merlino, who became Mob boss after Stanfa and his henchmen went to jail. “I know he’s responsible for my brother’s murder. I don’t care who pulled the trigger.”
When I visit him, John lifts his shirt to show me a tattoo on his stomach that says, “In loving memory of Billy Veasey.”
“My brother’s not gonna die in vain,” he says.
WHEN VEASEY GOT OUT of jail after serving nearly a decade, the feds gave him some money, put him on a plane to fly-over country, and wished him luck. Veasey checked into a hotel, where he found work as a janitor. Then he fell for a hotel administrator, a petite Mexican woman with an hourglass figure. (Lorraine had died.) She reminded John of his late mother, especially when he saw her taking care of her siblings’ kids. She told John she didn’t date guests. So John promptly checked out of the hotel, even though the feds were willing to pay for his accommodations there for another 16 months. But he did get that date.
“He’s very charming, very charismatic,” she says. “That kind of thing wins a woman’s heart. After that, I was just, like, gone.”
Within two weeks, the couple was ready to get married. But first, she wanted to come clean about her past. “I have something to tell you,” she told John. “I’m illegal. I don’t have any papers.”
“That’s okay,” John said. “I have something to tell you, too.”
“What are you,” she guessed, “a Mafia hit man?”
“I have a past,” he admitted. They got married anyway. “She’s the first person I ever loved or who made me know what love is,” John says. But the tough guy who wasn’t afraid of anybody suddenly realized he had something to lose. “She’s the first person I’ve ever been afraid of,” he says. “Ain’t nobody back in Philly I can say that about.”
John’s wife is the reason he gave up his plans to return to South Philly and seek revenge for his brother’s death. The former hit man is now surrogate father to three kids from his wife’s family; he also regularly babysits eight nieces and nephews. The man who once owned that Rottweiler and pit bull now has a fluffy bichon and a cuddly toy poodle that weigh 20 pounds between them and answer to the names of Sparkle and Tabor.
When his wife found out about her husband’s past, she told him, “I only know the good side of you. I’ve never seen that side.” And whenever she hears about it, “It’s, like, surreal to me. It’s like watching a movie.”
WHILE IN PRISON in 1997, John Veasey started listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. And John, a lifelong Democrat, was transformed into a conservative. He came to view government handouts as a way of controlling people. He decided he no longer wanted to be on the dole as part of the witness-protection program; he wanted to make it on his own, and live a life that would honor his brother’s memory.
So when John moved out of the hotel, he filed papers to quit the program, which meant no more financial assistance. He also answered ads for jobs as a car salesman. He was turned down several times because of his tattoos. But one dealer took a chance. In the middle of August on 100-degree car lots, Veasey wore ties and long-sleeve shirts to hide his ink. He was a quick study with customers.
“All my life, I’ve observed people,” he says. “I’m very observant.” Especially in prison, when he spent 37 months in the hole. He studied the guards to figure out how to win them over, so they would do him favors. “You find out what their hot buttons are.”
John used the same approach on customers. “I never sell cars,” he says. “I help people buy them. And I never ask anybody, ‘What are you looking for?’ What do you think they’re looking for, a fucking plane?”
When he got his first weekly paycheck as a car salesman, for more than $8,000, John asked his boss, “Is this legal?”
The Closer would say anything to make a sale. One customer wanted to buy a car for his young trophy wife, who had enormous fake breasts. The customer complained bitterly about the interest rate on the car loan. “I’m not paying 8.9 percent,” he said.
John scanned the guy’s credit report. “Do you care about your wife’s tits?” he asked. “You paid 17.9 percent for them. That didn’t bother you at all. You show all your friends her boobs, don’t you?” The guy got up to leave, but John told him, “Sit down, you aren’t going anywhere.”
He apologized to the wife: “With all due respect, ma’am, your tits look great.” But he said her husband was being cheap not buying protective air bags: “You’re gonna crash, there’s gonna be silicone all over the windows.”
The guy bought the car and the optional air bags. He came back to buy two more cars.
EVERYTHING WAS GOING GREAT for the Closer until he was in a restaurant in 2007 and heard a loudmouth repeatedly call a maître d’ a whore. John told the loudmouth to leave her alone, and the loudmouth made the mistake of calling John a midget, and then took a swing. John took a glancing blow to the ear, and then landed one punch, a left.
The guy needed 38 stitches to patch his face, as well as plastic surgery because he bit his lower lip off before hitting the ground.
John’s boss, the owner of the dealership where he worked, wrote a letter to the prosecutor in the fight case, confirming that Veasey consistently sold 30 cars a month, “which is just short of impossible.”
The owner also wrote:
“Yes, I broke the rule of letting someone that worked with me become my friend. The irony is that he turned out to be one of my best friends. He exaggerates, he is a conspiracy thinker, and he absolutely wears me out at times. However, I also believe him to be one of the most trustworthy and honest people I know. I have seen John do amazing heartfelt things for co-workers, family, customers and strangers. It is almost as if he possesses a higher sense of justice.”
Veasey pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor—improper touching—for the restaurant fight. However, people at the dealership who were suspicious of him went on the Internet to figure out who he really might be, and they came across the legend of John-John Veasey, Mob hit man. That forced him to find work at another dealership, where the head of security—the former FBI agent—used his agency contacts to confirm, last spring, who the Closer really was.
The feds told Veasey that with his cover blown, his life was again in danger from the Mob. They wanted Veasey back in the witness-protection program so he’d stop talking trash about them and about the program itself. The feds promised to relocate him, to give him a new identity, even to pay his bills in the interim. They also told John’s wife to quit her job.
So Veasey stayed home and waited for the feds. Meanwhile, even though he was far from broke, he had no money coming in, and the bills piled up. “My electric gets shut off today,” he says when I visit him earlier this year, along with Dave Schratwieser of Fox 29. The feds were screwing him—and Veasey is pissed off. “They told me they were gonna give me a second chance,” he says of the feds. “I believed them. I got this second chance, and I exceeded all expectations. And they don’t know how to fix it?”
His life in limbo was a long way from South Philly, where Veasey is still feared. Earlier this year, when rumors spread on Facebook that he was coming home to settle a few scores, the wives of local mobsters called the FBI to ask for protection.
They’re afraid because the one constant in John’s life was Billy, before he was murdered, and the local Mob is nervous that John could still show up at the Melrose ready for more carnage, to avenge his brother’s death. Veasey certainly doesn’t sound intimidated by the Philly Mob. He dismisses them as a “street gang” that’s so behind the times, they’re still into video poker machines and busting the heads of people who can’t fight back.
But he also doesn’t sound like he’s about to come East to rumble.
“I enjoy my life,” he says—at least, he did until his cover was blown. When I visited him after he’d lost his job, Veasey was still clad in his Rolex, $300 Rock & Republic jeans, and a $750 pair of alligator-skin cowboy boots. A billionaire friend has a fleet of private planes. “If I wanted to, I could fly to Philadelphia in under two hours, anytime I want,” Veasey says. “But why would I want to do that? Why would I want to lose all this for them knuckleheads?”
Meanwhile, “The final chapter hasn’t been written yet,” says a top official in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Philadelphia.
But after waiting five months for the feds to act, John did what any self–respecting dittohead would do. He decided to take control of his own life, and accepted a new job in another city. He didn’t want a handout. Now, when the feds call, he doesn’t even answer the phone. They’re looking for him.
“Tell them I’m in Alaska with Sarah Palin,” Veasey tells me the last time he calls. He also has a parting shot for Joey Merlino and friends. The truth is, John still can’t let go—he’s still tortured by what happened to Billy 15 years ago:
“If the feds can’t find me, how the fuck can you fucking incompetent gangsters find me? The next time you think about finding me, I might be finding you. I could pop up at any time.”