That Something wicked this way comes vibe just hasn’t attached itself to Ligambi, who didn’t undergo a formal induction ceremony into the mob until he was 45 years old. (Before that, he was a low-level mob associate who tended bar down the Shore.) He ultimately gained the top spot without any internal war, after years of mob-related homicides and arrests left him the last candidate standing. Since his unlikely ascent, he has been credited by the feds who are chasing him with bringing “stability” to an organization worn down to the nub.
Prevalent opinion holds that Joe Ligambi’s crew is all about the things Joey Merlino never demonstrated: Restraint. Stealth. Discretion. Merlino allegedly did it all — theft, cocaine, murder — then hit the nightclubs on Delaware Avenue on weekends, where he partied the night away and extorted money from the owners. As one undercover mob cop put it to me: “These guys aren’t like Joey’s old crew. They’re homebodies. I drive out to someone’s house to see what they’re up to, and there’s their car, sitting in front of the house. I sit there, for hours, and nothing happens.”
Merlino blazed through the streets in designer clothing. Ligambi is low-key, holding walk-and-talk meetings so he’s less likely to face a wiretap, and dressing in dungarees, sweatshirts and Phillies caps, because that’s how he’s comfortable. Ligambi’s mob also focuses on the rumpled clothing of mob crimes — the not-so-scary practices of loan-sharking and gambling. One undercover narcotics cop I spoke to said Ligambi’s mob will occasionally finance some budding drug dealer’s entry into the business. But after they get a kickback, the association ends. “It isn’t like they have guys out dealing for them,” says the cop.
Ligambi is no stranger to murder charges. He was convicted in 1989 of the killing of mob associate Frankie “Flowers” D’Alfonso. But that conviction was overturned, and a 1997 retrial ended in acquittal. Three mob-related killings took place in the early days of his reign. But it was unclear at the time if the mob had sanctioned all of these murders. Now it’s been six years since any body dropped at all. And the hits just keep on not coming. During a long interview with city police in the organized crime intelligence unit, neither Captain Dennis Cullen nor an undercover cop could cite an instance, in the past five years, in which a civilian was a victim of extortion or got smacked around at the hands of a Philly wiseguy. This fits with one of the narratives that have taken hold in the city’s streets — that this new mob doesn’t beat up those who owe them gambling debts; instead, it just stops taking their bets.