Alex Capasso Hires Famed Mob Lawyer for Child Porn Defense

The Rittenhouse chef may have been considering a plea deal after his child pornography arrest. But now attorney Joseph Santaguida says not so fast.

Defense attorney Joseph Santaguida in 1999 (AP Photo/Chris Gardner)

Defense attorney Joseph Santaguida in 1999 (AP Photo/Chris Gardner)

Attorney Joseph Santaguida‘s clients have included some of Philadelphia’s most notorious defendants, from “Skinny” Joey Merlino, who considers the South Philadelphia born-and-raised Santaguida to be a father figure, to founders of the Junior Black Mafia. And now he can add to that list Alex Capasso, the Philadelphia chef whose July arrest in a child pornography sting continues to stun the local restaurant community and his partners in Rittenhouse restaurant Crow & the Pitcher.

alex-capasso-arrested-child-pornOn Wednesday, Santaguida entered his appearance on behalf of Capasso (seen here in a Crow & the Pitcher publicity photo), who remains in custody facing one count of distribution of child pornography.

Federal authorities allege that Capasso sent child pornography to an undercover agent in Washington D.C. and that he bragged about abusing his ex-girlfriend’s niece when she was just five years old. Court documents indicate that FBI agents searched Capasso’s Collingswood home and found photographs of the ex-girlfriend involved in sexual acts with the niece; the ex-girlfriend has been charged with production of child pornography.

In his nearly 45 years defending high-profile clients in Philadelphia, Santaguida has earned a reputation both for his legal prowess (he’s won acquittals for the accused gunman in the Salvatore Testa murder and the accused driver in the 1985 killing of Frankie “Flowers” D’Alfonso, among numerous other clients) as well as an image that seems like it could have been lifted right out of The Godfather.

“Joe’s right out of Central Casting for what you’d expect as the lawyer for mobsters,” one former Assistant U.S. Attorney with the Organized Crime Task Force told Philadelphia magazine in a 2008 profile of Santaguida. “I used to joke around that one day I was going to stand up at the opening of a trial, point to Joe, and say, ‘Your honor, I’d like to introduce government exhibit number one.’ He’s got the whole mob lawyer thing down. He’s a good lawyer, and he always defends his clients vigorously. But he acts like one of the guys. Even the way he would refer to cooperating witnesses during a trial-he always called them rats!”

In addition to defending the mob, he’s also been chummy with various members, including names like Angelo Bruno associate Frank “Barracuda” Sindone (found in a South Philadelphia alley with three bullets in his head in 1980) and Frank “Chickie” Narducci (shot and killed in 1982 after stepping out of his Cadillac). When Merlino and then-Philadelphia mob boss Ralph Natale (now in witness protection) had a combined birthday party, Santaguida was among the guests, and he used to vacation at the Shore with Charles Iannece, aka “Charlie White,” part of the Scarfo regime.

On at least one occasion, Santaguida’s proximity to the mafia raised the eyebrows of law enforcement. In 2000, federal prosecutors accused Santaguida of once asking Ralph Natale to collect a debt for Santaguida’s son, an allegation that Santaguida denied.

Santaguida once sparred with Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter as well. In 2009, Nutter made a big point of exposing Philadelphia’s biggest tax deadbeats, and Santaguida made the list with an outstanding balance of $154,000. Santaguida’s response was to turn it into a racial issue, telling the press “it’s a wonder that the only people he’s going after are Caucasians… There’s a lot of other people who owe more money than me who are African American.” He has since paid his balance.

Before Santaguida got involved, it appears that the Capasso case might have been near a plea deal. On August 7th, Capasso and the United States Attorney in Washington D.C. entered a joint motion requesting a continuance for his August 20th preliminary hearing so that plea negotiations could continue. “Since the defendant’s initial appearance, the parties have been engaged in an exchange of discovery and negotiations to resolve this case…,” reads the motion, asking for more time to “finalize plea discussions.”

But now that the hard-nosed Santaguida is on the case, a quick disposition is, perhaps, less likely. Reached at his Broad Street office on Wednesday afternoon, his first official day as Capasso’s attorney of record, Santaguida scoffed at the notion that his client was about to admit to anything.

“I don’t know anything about this plea deal business,” he told us. “First I wanna see what kind of proof they have.”

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