Philly Mob Seen Better Days

Or Maybe They’re Just Staying Out of the Headlines

"Skinny Joey" Merlino and "Uncle Joe" Ligambi

“Skinny Joey” Merlino and “Uncle Joe” Ligambi

Last year, for the first time in contemporary Philadelphia mob history, a sitting reputed mob boss stared down a multi-count racketeering indictment and was allowed to go home.

Joseph “Uncle Joe” Ligambi, reputed boss since 2001, was acquitted of five of the nine counts he faced. A federal judge dismissed the remaining charges, perhaps noting that the jury had voted 10-2 in favor of acquittal. None of the federal charges included murder or violent crimes.

“The jurors were looking for dead bodies,” explained one assistant prosecutor, “and there weren’t any.”

Who’s Boss?

“Uncle Joe” is said to be puttering around his South Philly home. He of course denies that he yearns for the good old days. That’s a smart move on his part. With the “mix of sophisticated investigative techniques, ever-present electronic surveillance and a multi-pronged RICO law,” the job of Philly mob boss almost always ends up very badly. A brief history of Philly bosses:

  • Angelo “The Docile Don” Bruno (1959-1980) – Murdered while sitting in his car.
  • Phil “Chicken Man” Testa (1980-81) – Died in an explosion on his front porch. Yes, the Bruce Springsteen song.
  • Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo (1981-1990) – Will die in prison.
  • Giovanni “Homicide John” Stanfa (1991-1994) – Will die in prison.
  • Ralph Natale (1994-1998) – Government informant; witness protection program.
  • Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino (1999-2001) – Just released from an 11-year prison term. Living in Florida.

If Ligambi is indeed “retired” and Merlino is not “calling the shots” from Florida, as is wildly speculated, just who is running the Philly mob? A recent article in narrowed it down to three aging mobsters: Steve Mazzone, Skinny Joey’s underboss; John “Johnny Chang” Ciancaglini, a long-time mob soldier with deep family ties in the Philly underworld; and Phillip Narducci, a Scarfo soldier who just completed a 25-year prison stint.

No one really knows who’s boss. Except for maybe these guys:

"Ralphie Head" Abruzzi, George Borgesi, the late Frank Gambino, Merlino and Ligambi. Courtesy Philadelphia City Paper.

“Ralphie Head” Abruzzi, George Borgesi, the late Frank Gambino, Merlino and Ligambi. Photo courtesy Philadelphia City Paper.

No Omerta

We’ve all read about the dramatic diminishing of Italian organize crime. The causes make sense: Too much money-grabbing, too little planning. Flashy mob “personalities” attract surveillance. A long line of government informants. Other ethnic groups competing for the same pie.

Ethnic assimilation also plays a part:

Simply put, the best and the brightest of the Italian-American community here and in most other cities have become doctors, lawyers and educators. Two generations into mainstream America and the mob is scraping the bottom of the gene pool. That’s one of the reasons it’s all come apart.

Mob Dysfunction: Exhibit A

Anthony Nicodemo

Anthony Nicodemo

While “Uncle Joe” and his confederates were on trial in 2012, a mob hit went down on a sunny December day in South Philadelphia. Gino DiPietro was allegedly shot by Anthony Nicodemo, 42, a reputed member of the Ligambi organization. Nicodemo was arrested 30 minutes after the mid-afternoon hit. How did that happen?

  • Nicodemo used his own vehicle for the hit, an SUV filled with Christmas decorations, which was easily identified by eyewitnesses.
  • Nicodemo drove straight home, a mere five blocks from where the hit occurred.
  • He left the murder weapon in the car.

Nicodemo is awaiting a retrial for “one of the stupidest hits ever,” according to a police investigator. His first was declared a mistrial due to alleged jury tampering.

Nicky Scarfo, Jr.

Nicky Scarfo, Jr.

To get a sense of what life is like for a contemporary member of an Italian crime family, look no further than the trials and tribulations of Nicky Scarfo, Jr. His father was of course the “Little Nicky” who ran the Philly mob (some say into the ground) during much of the ’80s.

Scarfo, Jr., or “Junior,” is awaiting sentencing for his role in looting a Texas mortgage company called FirstPlus starting in 2007. Junior, 51, was convicted of taking “behind-the-scenes control of FirstPlus [and] help facilitate the siphoning of more than $12 million out of the company’s coffers through bogus business deals, inflated consulting contracts and exorbitant purchases and expenses.”

This was by no means Junior’s first brush with the law. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the trials and tribulations of Junior:

  • 1989 – Junior was shot eight times while dining at a South Philly restaurant. Incredibly, he survived. Rumors pointed to Skinny Joey, but no one was ever charged.
  • 1990 – Arrested on racketeering charges. Pled guilty and sentenced to seven years. Released in 1996.
  • 1996 – Pled guilty to an illegal weapons charge. Jailed for 18 months.
  • 2002 – Convicted for illegal gambling and loansharking. Sentenced to 33 months. Released in 2005.

I’m no boy scout, but if there was ever a testimony to the virtue of honest work, this is it.

Andrew Goutman

Andrew Goutman is the editor of The Record.

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