The Last Mouthpiece

The old bosses have been sent to the big house, and Skinny Joey’s most serious (recent) charge is ... drunk driving. For Joe Santaguida, defending “alleged” mobsters isn’t what it used to be

Which brings us back to Joe Santaguida. He was born in 1938 and raised in South Philly. His father, Rocco, owned a barbershop at the Italian Market’s northern extreme for more than 50 years; Santaguida’s younger brother Louis still cuts hair there. Joe didn’t particularly care to become a lawyer-he says his father insisted he go to college (Villanova), but Joe worked selling men’s clothing at the Arrow store on Market Street and thought he’d go into that line someday. His father then urged him into law school (also Villanova). "And before you know it, I graduated," he says, making it sound as much an act of fate as of scholarship. "I had a law degree, but I didn’t know anybody who was a lawyer, I had never worked in a law firm, and so I didn’t know what to do." What he did was go to work for peanuts for a lawyer his father knew. Then, once he got fed up, he opened his own office, in 1965.

Since then, he has managed to operate just beneath the radar of public acknowledgment even while representing not only mobsters, but also other memorable figures in Philadelphia mischief. In 1981, he defended Francis Anthony Santos, the now-forgotten defendant charged with assisting Joey Coyle after his fabled theft of a fortune that fell from an armored car. Also among his clients: failed MOVE housing developer Ernest A. Edwards, when he was charged with assaulting a photographer; one of the IRS agents who took bribes from fashion designer Albert Nipon; and one of the Grays Ferry men charged in a 1997 assault by whites on a black family, a crime that brought Nation of Islam chief Louis Farrakhan to town to hold Ed Rendell’s hand. More significantly, he has been the lawyer for various founders, leaders and members of the Black Mafia, the Junior Black Mafia, the Jamaican Shower Posse and other, lesser narcotics syndicates. In fact, he says, around 60 percent of his practice involves defending men responsible in part for the drug scourge, as we know it.

"I built up a big reputation on drugs partly because I began my own practice in the mid-‘6os, when the drug thing really kicked in," he says. "And I got a drug case early on where I got the guy off on a constitutional issue-a bad search. So I got lots of drug cases as a result of that. In fact, it hurt me, because I got the reputation for taking so-called ‘junkie cases,’ and that meant I wasn’t getting other types of clients. But I had to make a living, and these people were coming in three and four a day. Soon it went from representing clients charged with simple possession to possession with intent to deliver, and eventually I got to where I was representing the bigger people.

"And of course, when you get their drug cases, you also end up with their burglaries and robberies and their murder cases. I was fortunate that I wasn’t like some lawyers, who end up clients only from one group or only one part of the city. I always had black clients and white clients and Jamaicans, from North Philly and South Philly and West Philly. I’ve seen lawyers who represent everybody from the same gang, and when the gang is running hot, they have a lot of cases, and then they all go to jail and the work dries up."