Pop culture is riddled with more mob movies and TV shows than an unlucky gangster's body is with bullets. Americans are fascinated with the dark side and have made “The Sopranos” the poster children for the Mafia and Victoria Gotti, daughter of John “The Dapper Don” Gotti, and her spoiled-rotten offspring its royal family with the reality show “Growing Up Gotti.”
But contrary to what pop culture loves to portray, the mob is far from glamorous and exciting. Just take a look at where Cosa Nostra — Sicilian for “our thing” — landed South Philly's own tough guys, all of whom made headlines at one point or another: Angelo “The Gentle Don” Bruno, Phil “Chicken Man” Testa and his son Salvatore Testa got whacked, while Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, John Stanfa, Ralph Natale, “Skinny” Joey Merlino and Ron Previte are all in prison for racketeering and murder among other offenses,
George Anastasia, who has written extensively about the mob for The Philadelphia Inquirer since the late 1970s and authored four bookson the subject, noted, “If you look at the list, you see where these guys have ended up,” Anastasia, a native of the 1700 block of Watkins Street who now lives in South Jersey, told the Review.
Bruno was the longest running crime boss and perhaps one of the most respected for the low-key approach that earned him his nickname.
Bruno ruled from '59 to March 21, 1980, when he was shot to death in his car with driver John Stanfa in front of Bruno's home at 934 Snyder Ave. Under the Sicilian immigrant's tenure, “he did everything low-key — he didn't do any public shootings in restaurants or in the street” unlike how later-day mobsters such as the ruthless Scarfo conducted business, Capt. Charles Bloom of the police department's Central Intelligence Bureau said. “If you had to describe Bruno, you could say, ‘make money, don't make headlines,'” Bloom said.
His attitude in life did not mark his death. His violent end received press from outlets such as The New York Times, which covered the fallout from Stanfa's trial for perjury in connection to the killing to FBI testimony in '81 that Scarfo was the new head of the family.
Stanfa suffered a graze wound in the Bruno ambush, Anastasia said, adding, “To this day there's conflicting reports. Some people believe Stanfa was part of the plot and he knew what was going to happen and others say he didn't. I tend to believe the former.”
Under Bruno's reign, the Philadelphia crime family was among the most powerful in the United States, trailing closely being New York and Chicago. The Gentle Don carved out a close relationship with Carlo Gambino, leader of New York's family — a friendship that saved Bruno when short-lived Philly boss Antonio Pollina wanted him killed in '59.
As the story goes, Bruno pledged his loyalty to Pollina despite being passed over for the job, but the new boss still felt threatened. When Pollina ordered a hit, Gambino intervened by not only halting the slaying, but putting his new friend in charge of the Philadelphia crime family. The first notch in Bruno's belt of civility was sparing Pollina.
According to Bloom, the Philly mob, which controlled this city and South Jersey including Atlantic City, has always been in New York's shadow and the former often cannot operate without the latter's blessing.
Bruno's death at 69 paved the way for a slew of flamboyant, young wiseguys to take the helm. “That totally destabilized the organization and it's been destabilized since then. It's been disorganized organized crime,” Anastasia said.
The new guns included Bruno underling Testa, who was blown up March 15, 1981, on his front porch on the 2100 block of Porter Street in Girard Estate by a nail bomb and later immortalized in Bruce Springsteen's song “Atlantic City,” whose lyrics say, “Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night/Now they blew up his house too.” The song, featured on the Boss' “Nebraska” album, which made it to No. 3 on the U.S. Billboard Pop Album charts, brought the scene to the attention of countless music fans worldwide.
More than 20 years later, Testa's fatal bombing is still making news. An Oct. 7 Time article cited the killing in its piece “The Sicilian Connection,” which explores the U.S. Cosa Nostra's alleged link to the Sicilian Mafia.
Months after the Chicken Man's demise, Scarfo had Frank Narducci and Rocco Marinucci whacked for the unauthorized hit of his mentor, according to Anastasia.
Long before he ascended to power, Scarfo was banished to AC by Bruno in the '60s after the young hothead knifed a man inside Oregon Diner, 302 W. Oregon Ave, the writer said. Scarfo stayed in AC — a wasteland at the time — but hung around long enough to benefit from gambling when the casinos hit town.
With Testa gone, Scarfo took over in '81 and made Testa's son Salvatore a capo. That same year, Testa and two others survived an ambush outside the Italian Market, but three years later, the capo wasn't as lucky when Scarfo had the young man killed Sept. 14, 1984. So much for loyalty to his mentor — he had his son killed, Anastasia said, adding, “That's the way he was.”
Testa was lured to a now-gone candy store on Passyunk for a meeting, where a Scarfo hit man shot him, wrapped his body in a rug and dumped it by a dirt road in Gloucester County, N.J., the writer said. Scarfo told his organization he had Testa killed because he broke off an engagement with Salvatore Merlino's daughter, Maria, but according to Anastasia, Scarfo saw Testa as a possible threat. “He used the broken engagement as an excuse,” the author said. In years to come, Merlino's son Joey would become a reputed mob boss.
Scarfo held control for six years until his arrest and conviction for a racketeering case that included counts of murder, Anastasia said. Little Nicky got 55 years and remains in the Big House. But his impression was indelible. In a '91 Time interview with former soldier-turned-informer Nicholas “The Crow” Caramandi, interviewer Richard Behar refers to Scarfo as the “most vicious Mob boss of his generation” and proceeds to ask Caramandi about working under him, as well as the killing of Salvatore Testa.
In '89, Bruno's former driver Stanfa, who grew up on Passyunk Avenue near the Melrose Diner and later moved to Jersey, became boss. In '95, he got five life terms for racketeering and murder.
That opened the way for Natale. After serving 15 years for drug dealing and arson, Natale was released in '95 and became boss in an alliance with Merlino, who was his underling, Anastasia said. Merlino associate Previte helped build a case against Natale by wearing a wire for the feds. The tapes resulted in the then-69-year-old Natale and then-37-year-old Merlino arrested on drug charges in '99 with Natale tied to a major South Jersey meth ring and Merlino to a Boston cocaine ring. Natale became the first mobster to cooperate with the feds and, as a result, got a 13-year sentence, which he's serving in a protected witness wing, Anastasia said.
That leaves Merlino, who by all appearances may be one of Philadelphia Cosa Nostra's last bad boys.
Despite the feds pursuing him aggressively for years, the style-conscious young turk with the striking wife did not shy away from the media, becoming a magnet for his organized softball league and Christmas parties for the poor. In typical Merlino fashion, his 2001 trial on murder and racketeering charges was a press event. And, he may have beaten the rap for Joseph Sodano's '96 murder in Philadelphia court, but a federal judge in New Jersey upheld charges in the same case against the reputed mob boss in October 2001. The New York Times, among other national and international papers, covered the trial.
Merlino and seven codefendants — including Previte — were convicted of bookmaking, racketeering and extortion. These days, “Skinny Joey” is serving a 14-year sentence, set to be released in '11, Anastasia said.
The reigning alleged crime boss has been identified as 68-year-old Joe Ligambi, who was with the Stanfa organization. In '89, Ligambi was sent away for 10 years after being convicted of murder, which was overturned on appeal. Ligambi came back to South Philly in '99 and, when Merlino went to jail, became acting boss, Anastasia said. According to the author, “he's kind of gone back to the Bruno model of low-key, not flashy.”
Bloom contends Cosa Nostra is still very much alive and well. “It's not as powerful as it was 20 years ago but it's still there. They haven't gone away. They took a lot of hits from law enforcement pressure and each other, but they didn't throw in the towel,” the captain said.
Thanks to Lorraine Gennaro
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