Joey Merlino (pictured left) and Joe Ligambi (pictured right) playing for GIno’s cafe softball team in the late 1990s.
THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF JOEY MERLINO
Reputed Philadelphia Mob boss Joey Merlino is heading back to jail after breaching his parole. Merlino was alleged to have met up at a cigar bar with his old friend from South Philly, Johnny Cianglini, who just also happens to be the suspected underboss of the Philadelphia Mafia! Merlino told the court that it was a chance encounter and that he had just bumped into his old friend but it wasn’t enough to convince the judge who sent him back to prison for four months. However it is not as bad as it sounds for the media hungry gangster who will be free from parole restrictions upon his release early next year. In this blog I take a look at the life of the notorious mobster from South Philly.
Joey Merlino was born in Philadelphia on March 16, 1962. His father Salvatore, known as Chuckie, and his uncle Lawrence were a part of a tough crew of gangsters led by psychotic mobster Nicky Scarfo. Upon Scarfo’s takeover as boss in 1981, Chuckie was anointed as Scarfo’s underboss and his brother Lawrence was promoted to the rank of captain. Scarfo became increasingly paranoid during his reign and had dozens of his men killed in the years to come. Joey’s father Chuckie was also bumped down to soldier by Scarfo later on apparently because of Chuckie’s out of control consumption of alcohol. Joey, known as “Skinny Joey”, was a troublesome kid who got into a ton of bother with his young crew, being convicted of among other things aggravated assault for stabbing two guys down at the Jersey Shore. Skinny Joey’s crew of Italian-American street corner kids consisted of Michael Ciancaglini, Steven Mazzone, Salvatore Scafidi, Sonny Valenti, George Borgesi and Marty Angelina. Like Merlino some of these wannabe gangsters were the sons and nephews of imprisoned wise guys. They were known to posterity as the Young Turks and some of them are still members of the Philly Mafia today.
Nicky Scarfo’s reign of terror came to an end in 1987 when he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Joey’s father also received a stiff sentence for racketeering and murder, he was not due for release until 2016 but died in 2012. Upon Scarfo’s imprisonment he attempted to run the crime family through his son Nicky Jr but the upstart Merlino and his crew had no intention of listening to Scarfo’s son. On Halloween 1989, a man armed with a Mac-10 submachine gun walked into an Italian restaurant in South Philly and shot Nicky Jr dozens of times. Incredibly Nicky Jr survived the brazen rub out attempt, it is has long been suspected that Merlino personally carried it out to send a message to the imprisoned Mob boss that his reign was over. Later that year Merlino was convicted for his part in an armoured car robbery and sent to jail for several years.
Skinny Joey was released from prison in the spring of 1992. During his imprisonment the New York families had appointed Sicilian mobster John Stanfa as the new boss of Philadelphia. Merlino and his crew of young Turks did not respect the old ways of doing business and refused to take orders from this old “siggie” and “grease ball” who had been imposed on them from above. The young Turks saw themselves as the rightful successors to the top positions in the crime family and did not think that the Sicilian born Stanfa deserved to be boss. They began shaking down bookies and criminals in South Philly refusing to hand a percentage of the money up to the new boss as tribute. They also gained a reputation for partying and causing unnecessary violence on big nights out on the town. The older Sicilian Don was incensed at their disrespectful behaviour calling them “cuckolds” disgusted at their lavish nights out and ostentatious clothes. Tension began to rise in the Philadelphia underworld between the two rival factions. However Stanfa believed that he could placate the young mobsters and keep a closer eye on them by initiating them into the crime family. He also thought they would be easier to kill as members of the mafia because one of the rules is that you have to attend a meeting when your boss demands it. Joey Merlino and his best friend Michael Ciancaglini were inducted into the Philadelphia Mafia by John Stanfa at a making ceremony in September 1992. Stanfa had also promoted Ciancaglini’s brother Joey to underboss hoping this would bind the older and younger members of the organisation together.
The attempt by Stanfa to bring the young Turks onside was an utter failure. They continued to do as they pleased and what was worse in Stanfa’s eyes was the flamboyance of Joey Merlino who liked to live a celebrity lifestyle. To an old world Mafioso like John Stanfa, nightclubbing, quaffing champagne in trendy bars and generally drawing attention to yourself was anathema. Merlino was also a heavy gambler who when he lost refused to pay the bookies the money that he owed them. The tension came to a head on March 2, 1993 when the young Turks launched a pre-emptive strike against Stanfa. Joey Ciancaglini, Stanfa’s underboss, operated a luncheonette called the Warfield Lunch and Breakfast Express in South Philadelphia that he and Stanfa used as a base for their criminal operations. Ciancaglini arrived at the place at 6am to begin opening up for the day. Just after he arrived a car pulled up and three men jumped out and ran into the luncheonette blasting the young underboss dozens of times. Unbelievably Ciancaglini survived the assassination attempt although he would never fully recover from his wounds. The entire thing was recorded on camera by the FBI who had been keeping a close eye on the place. What was particularly shocking about the attempted rub-out was that his own brother Michael was involved in the hit.
The battle lines were now drawn in South Philadelphia and Stanfa looked to strike back at the young Turks by inviting them to a sit-down where they would be ambushed and killed. But Merlino and his crew sensed a trap and refused to turn up to a meeting with the Mob boss. John Stanfa was to have better luck at tracking down Merlino when he hired a degenerate criminal called John Veasey. Merlino and his right hand man, Michael Ciancaglini, were leaving a mob social club in South Philadelphia on a roasting hot summer’s afternoon, August 5 1993, when Veasey and another wannabe mobster called Phil Colletti spotted them on the street. Driving by the two friends, Veasey and Colletti unloaded their pistols at them killing Ciancaglini and wounding Joey Merlino. Despite surviving the hit many mob watchers in Philly now believed that Merlino’s days were numbered.
However Skinny Joey was not about to take the death of his friend lying down and struck back in spectacular fashion at the end of August. As Stanfa was being driven to work along an interstate expressway by his driver Freddy Aldrich, with his son Joe Stanfa in the back of the vehicle, a van with holes cut out pulled up alongside at high speed. Gunfire erupted from the van into Stanfa’s car, wounding Stanfa’s son. Aldrich managed to force the van off the road and sped off to hospital were Joe Stanfa was treated for his injuries. It was an audacious and foolhardy attempt on Stanfa by the Young Turks. The F.B.I were particularly incensed at Joey Merlino for this barefaced action on a busy expressway which could have caused the death of innocent commuters. Now in law-enforcement crosshairs Merlino was sent to prison on a parole violation. Perhaps it saved his life but we can never know.
The F.B.I had also been keeping boss John Stanfa under close surveillance bugging his lawyer’s office and other places he discussed business and mob politics. Stanfa’s disastrous reign was about to come to an abrupt end. In March 1993 he was charged with a multitude of crimes which included racketeering and murder, later he was betrayed by some of his closest men and in 1995 sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. Meanwhile Joey Merlino was making new friends in jail. He met an old time Bruno era associate called Ralph Natale, man nearly twice his age who had been sent to prison in 1978, during their prison chats the pair began plotting to take over the Philly Mafia. Ralph Natale had been the head of a bartenders union in Atlantic City but had been run out of town by Nicky Scarfo before he was sent to jail. The plan the two new friends hatched was too install Natale as boss even though he had never been made into the mafia! Merlino wanted the underboss position as he believed it would bring less heat from law-enforcement. It is also supposed that while in prison Merlino sought and gained the approval from one of the New York families to take-over the rackets in Philly but this is just speculation as the five families had enough of their own problems at the time without getting involved in Philadelphia’s affairs. Natale did have his own important contacts in New York too and claimed to have the backing of “all the made men in Allenwood” the prison where he and Joey served their time.
The new friends would have a chance to implement their plan when they were both released from jail in 1994. The pair moved quickly to take-over what was left of the decimated Philadelphia Mafia and install themselves as the new bosses. Ralph Natale had went to prison in 1978 and had never been formally made into the crime family so Joey Merlino inducted him at a ceremony several weeks later. Merlino then took the highly unusual step of promoting Natale to boss. The thinking behind this move was for Natale to serve as the front boss insulating Merlino from the F.B.I and other law enforcement agencies. However the flamboyant Skinny Joey had not changed with regards to his public visibility and hunger for recognition. He hosted thanksgiving parties for poor kids in the neighbourhood and invited the local news stations down to record the festivities, doling out turkeys and wads of cash. The media dubbed him the “John Gotti of Passyunk Avenue” because of his similarly unabashed and flashy style to the imprisoned Gambino Don. This sort of behaviour incensed law enforcement who were determined to put the brash young gangster behind bars again. Merlino made his money from classic mafia rackets such as gambling, loan-sharking, protection rackets and also stolen property. His nominal boss Ralph Natale was focused on expanding their influence in the drug trade. Although a former union boss Natale had vast experience in the thriving Methamphetamine business.
The street tax that the mafia enforced on all non-mob criminals and bookies operating on mafia turf, including drug dealers, had been levied with an iron hand by murderous mob boss Nicky Scarfo during his tenure as boss in the 1980s. Merlino believed that he was also now entitled to this privilege as the boss of Philly. He ordered his men to shake down criminals operating in South Philadelphia for a percentage of their illegal earnings.
One night at bar popular with mobsters out in the suburbs a drug dealer called Louis Turra got into a fight with some of Merlino’s guys who subjected him to a vicious beating that landed him in the hospital. Turra was part of an Italian American street gang that was heavily involved in the drug trade in South Philly. His father, uncle and brother were also members of this gang Turra was incensed at the bar-room battering he had received at the hands of Merlino’s men and also at the mob boss’s demand that he cut him in on some of his drug profits. The violent drug dealer, who had murdered before, vowed to take out Skinny Joey and move in on his criminal rackets instead.
The Turra’s and the rest of the drug gang plotted to murder Merlino at a meeting where they bragged about blowing him up with a grenade. But the hit was never carried out because the Turra’s and their gang were indicted for a multiple charges including attempting to kill Skinny Joey in August 1997. While Louis Turra awaited trial in a New York lockup he was found hanging in his cell just after New Year with a bed-sheet tied around his neck, suicide was the official verdict but we can never know for sure. A few months later his father Anthony, brother, uncle and the rest of the gang went on trial. During the trial, a mob assassin shot his father Anthony on the doorsteps of his South Philadelphia home near Passyunk Avenue. Merlino was later acquitted of this murder and also Ralph Natale is rumoured to have had more reason to see Anthony Turra dead.
Another mobster who felt the wrath of Joey Merlino’s and Ralph Natale’s regime was Joe Sodano, a New Jersey based soldier. The Philadelphia family had a small crew operating in Newark, NJ, that had been there for over 50 years. Sodano had been made into the Philadelphia La Cosa Nostra by Nicky Scarfo in 1982 due to his status as a big earner. He handled a very lucrative bookmaking operation in Newark making a ton of money for himself and Scarfo. After Scarfo went to jail Sodano stopped kicking up his tribute and aligned himself more closely with the New York families. When Stanfa was anointed boss by New York Sodano fell back into line and restarted the tribute payments. Sodano became one of Stanfa’s closest confidants and most loyal soldiers.
After Natale and Merlino took over at the helm they expected the Newark mobster to continue paying them the tribute that Scarfo had received. But Sodano did not respect the new powers in Philadelphia and refused to pay up or come to a meeting. In LCN if you refuse to pay your dues or come to a meeting when called it is generally an automatic death sentence. Joey Merlino gave the contract to soldier Pete “the crumb” Caprio, who later turned against him, and the hit on Sodano was carried out by mob associate Phil Casale, who was a convicted child molester. On 10 December 1996 Joe Sodano was found by police in his van at an apartment complex on the North Side of Newark with two bullets in his head.
By the late 1990s tensions began to rise between Joey Merlino and the older Natale. Merlino had appointed Natale as his front boss but it does seem that Natale sought to exercise real power within the crime family and collect his dues as a mob boss. Natale had basically been a drug dealer since his days as a Bruno associate and stuck to the only racket he knew making connections in the drug world while Joey intended on keeping the more traditional mob rackets to himself. Also Natale’s closeness to the Turra’s who had nearly went to war with Merlino must have rankled with Skinny Joey. The high visibility of Joey Merlino with his flamboyant celebrity gangster profile and both their involvement in the drug trade made law-enforcement even more determined than ever before to bring them down. Things broke down completely between them in June 1998 when Natale was sent back to prison on a parole violation after prosecutors proved that he was still involved with the Mafia. Merlino took over as official boss and told his capo’s that Natale was now out of the picture. Natale later claimed that Merlino also cut him financially and refused to support his family, something that was supposed to be guaranteed for imprisoned wiseguys. Soon after his imprisonment Ralph Natale was telling prosecutors and police everything he knew about the Philly Mafia. Skinny Joey was now living on borrowed time and only lasted another year on the streets until he was arrested and indicted in June 1999. He was indicted along with close friends and criminal cohorts Steve Mazzone, John Ciancaglini, Marty Angelina and George Borgesi along with several other on charges of conspiring with members of the Boston Mafia to distribute cocaine. The government claimed that he received $6,000 every time a kilo of the drug was sold.
The testimony of Ralph Natale threatened to put Skinny Joey behind bars for a long time. Natale detailed his entire life in the mob from being a union boss under the protection of murdered Don Angelo Bruno in the 1970d to his tenure as boss of the Philly Mafia in the 1990s. Meanwhile Joey Merlino looked to protect his rule by appointing a senior but little known mobster, Joe Ligambi, as his acting boss while he sat in prison awaiting his trial. Ligambi was an old associate of his father Chuckie involved in sports betting who had been made by Nicky Scarfo after his participation in the hit on Frankie Flowers, another old associate of Angelo Bruno who had refused to kick money up to Scarfo. Ligambi had stood trial with Scarfo and been convicted of the Frankie Flowers hit in 1987 but was acquitted ten years later and returned to South Philly becoming a part of Skinny Joey’s crew. Uncle Joe as he was known, preferred to be low-key so as to avoid law-enforcement scrutiny but he is alleged to have ordered the killing of former consigliere Ron Turchi who had served as Natale right hand man from 1994 to 1996. The hit was intended to send a message to Natale to keep his mouth shut. Turchi is also have said to have paid a New York mobster who was high up in the Gambino family $10,000 to replace Skinny Joey when he was indicted in summer 1999. Perhaps Skinny Joey ordered the hit from prison but the media and law-enforcement have always accredited Ligambi with ordering Turchi’s murder although so far they have been unable to prove it.
In April 2000 further charges were added to the racketeering indictment against Joey Merlino and his crew. The most serious allegation levelled at them was their involvement in three murders, including that of Newark soldier Joe Sodano and drug dealer Anthony Turra whose son had been one of Merlino’s enemies. The long awaited trial, highly anticipated by the local media, did not start until April 2001. Merlino and co were facing life-imprisonment if convicted of the most serious charges. Ralph Natale and a whole host of other mob low-lives would be taking the stand against him. The problem with government’s case was making a liar and murderer like Natale into a convincing witness. But Natale saw this as his moment in the spotlight, bragging and aggrandising about his role in the Philly mob while playing down his own part in the more serious crimes for which he blamed Skinny Joey. However the jury were not buying all of Natale’s account or that of the other mob turncoats. On July 2 2001, Skinny Joey and his crew were cleared of the three murders they were alleged to be involved in. However the Philly mob boss was convicted by the jury of racketeering, extortion, illegal bookmaking and receiving stolen property. In December he was sentenced by the judge to fourteen years in federal prison, he is said to have remarked “ain’t bad better than the death penalty”. Indeed it could have been so much worse for the flashy young mob boss from South Philly, he would be eligible for parole in 2011 when he would be aged 49.
After the trial, Joe Ligambi continued as acting boss of the crime family slowly rebuilding the shattered organisation and bringing a much needed period of stability. He also had the backing of New York’s Gambino and Genovese family’s. But as for Merlino he wasn’t out of the woods just yet. The government was convinced they could get him at at another trial for the murder of Joe Sodano. This time they had also flipped Pete “the crumb” Caprio who had been given the contract on Sodano by Merlino and Natale. But even with the testimony of both Caprio and Natale implicating Skinny Joey in the murder the jury once again rejected their version of events. On March 8 2004, Merlino was aquitted for a second time of the murder of Joe Sodano. Showing his usual panache for the spotlight he turned to the public spectators, family and reporters quipping “Poor Martha Stewart, my heart breaks for her.” His family, both criminal and biological, threw a huge party for him but Merlino had to return to a federal prison in Texas to serve the rest of his sentence.
Throughout the reign of Joe Ligambi in the 2000s law-enforcement and the media debated whether he was the official boss or just acting for the imprisoned Merlino. The new boss’s consigliere was George Borgesi, his nephew and one of Merlino’s best friends. Borgesi and Ligambi were not exactly what one would call close and perhaps Borgesi was acting as Joey’s eyes and ears while he was in the can. When Borgesi also went to jail Gaeton Lucibello, another member of Merlino’s old street corner crew stepped up to the role Later on in 2007 Ligambi was forced to accept volatile mobster Marty Angelina as his underboss, it is thought that Angelina was appointed due to his closeness to Skinny Joey. By the late 2000s, Joey Merlino was serving the remainder of his sentence closer to home at the Federal Corrections Institute in Terre Haute, Indiana. There was little to do but serve out his time and lift weights. His first chance for parole was in 2011, ten years into his sentence. The day after his birthday March 17 2011, Merlino was granted parole to a half-way house in Florida were he went to live with his wife and two daughters. The media frenzy went into full swing when Joey was released with dozen of stories appearing about him and his involvement with the Mafia. Law-enforcement experts persisted that Merlino was still giving orders back in Philly and that he was the real power behind Ligambi’s throne, allegations which of course he denied.
Several months later, May 23 2011, Joe Ligambi and a dozen other crime family members were indicted on racketeering charges mainly for gambling and loan-sharking offences. He had overseen a period of peace and stability for the Philly mob but someone else had to step into the void while Ligambi fought the government’s case Steve Mazzone was appointed to be the new acting boss of the crime family. He had been with Joey Merlino since they were street corner kids in South Philly. Rising through the ranks as his friend did, Mazzone served as a Capo and then as consigiliere from 1996 after the demotion of Ron Turchi. In 1999 he became Joey’s underboss after the arrest of Ralph Natale but didn’t hold onto the position for long as he was indicted along with his boss and sentenced to nine years. He was released in 2008 and had kept his head down for several years. His appointment as acting boss suggests that Merlino is the one still calling the shots within the family due to the pair’s closeness to each other. However Merlino announced to the media that he had retired from the mob life as it was “full of rats” and that he would be living in Boca Raton, Florida, as a salesman and to start up some legitimate businesses. His previous front boss Joe Ligambi went through two gruelling trials over the next few years but both times the government could not prove to the jury that he was guilty. Many of Ligambi’s co-accused had already accepted plea bargains.
While all this was going on back in Philly, Joey Merlino was enjoying the beach life down in Florida. Pictured partying around the town and making moves with property developers his life couldn’t be more different than back home over a thousand miles away in Philadelphia. He was still on a three-year supervised release order that stated he could not associate with known criminals. In the summer of 2014 it was rumoured that Joey was going into the restaurant business. But just two months later, with only days to go before the supervised release order was due to expire when he was notified that he had incurred a parole violation when he had met up with an old pal. Johnny Ciancaglini is the brother of murdered soldier Michael Ciancaglini, who was shot along with Merlino on a Philly street corner, and of Joe Cianglini, Stanfa’s underboss who was nearly killed by Merlino gunmen at the Warfield Breakfast and Lunch Express on March 2, 1993. Johnny Ciancaglini was appointed underboss after the imprisonment of Joseph “Mousie” Massimino in 2012, and was yet another Merlino loyalist from back in the day. At a hearing on 22 October 2014, Joey Merlino was sent back to prison for four months for violating his parole by meeting up with an old criminal cohort. He said in his defence “I never had dinner with Johnny Ciancaglini. I bumped into him….I didn’t report it. … It just slipped my mind.” He will return to prison at the end of November.
Everyone is watching what will happen in the Philadelphia underworld over the next year. Joey Merlino may have been sent to prison but he will be back on the streets in early 2015. He is free to return to the City of Brotherly Love and resume his career at the top of the mafia once again. But the situation is very fluid with a lot of players out on the streets such as Steve Mazzone, Johnny Cianglini, Mikey Lancelotti, George Borgesi, Newark capo Joseph “Scoops” Licata and Scarfo-era soldier Phil Narducci. After his two epic trials it is also uncertain what role Joe Ligambi is playing in the crime family at the moment. Only time will tell if Merlino will return to Philadelphia upon his release. But at 52-years old I very much doubt if this is the last we will hear on the subject of Skinny Joey Merlino.
By Steven Trotter
I couldn’t have written this blog without the help of my friend Dominic Woods, who confirmed many of the facts and helped me piece together the events, murders and trials of Joey Merlino’s life. His knowledge on the subject of La Cosa Nostra never ceases to amaze. Most of the sources for this article, apart from Dominic’s help, were from newspaper articles and books with my hat going off to work of George Anastasia because if it wasn’t for him I doubt we would know as much about the Philadelphia crime family. If I have printed anything inaccurate then do not hesitate to point it out, any honest feedback will be appreciated.