(George Borgesi crew meeting December, 2016 at 11th Street and Jackson, South Philadelphia, Image obtained from Fox29 News, 2016)
October 18, 2016
The City of Brotherly Love has always stood out in the annals of organized crime as a place of extreme treachery, violence and misery. From the Junior Black Mafia back through to the vicious Irish gangs that once ruled parts of the North Side, the City – with modern-day monikers like “Killadelphia” and areas popularly labelled the “Killing Fields” – possesses a uniquely long tradition of tenebrous venality. Traditional organized crime in Philly operates under this same disrupting paradigm. Despite being assaulted and dismantled as diligently as the other major American crime families by the FBI during the turbulent 1980s and 1990s, the Philadelphia branch of Cosa Nostra continues to operate today in the violent and obstreperous way that has made it so famous and so deadly.
It is this quality of vitality that has made constructing this article so difficult dear readers. The Italian-American mob in Philly has gone through several distinct periods of growth, rebirth and relative dysfunction both prior to and since the arrest and conviction of current boss Joey Merlino in 2001 and, yet, has remained constant in the City, gradually rebuilding its authority, power and influence in an environment where independent crews and rival organizations quickly subsumed the rackets and interests of the group while it was unable to respond during certain unstable periods. But now, the Family appears set to enter a renewed age of prosperity and it has been analytically challenging to find a set place with which to draw the line for the start of this era of redefinition or the end of the previous period of retraction. As mentioned before, the mafia in Philadelphia continues to leave bodies in public and, despite the fact that the hierarchy of the organization has been alternately besieged by federal indictments or restrictive conditions of prison release over the past decade, don Merlino has reappeared back on the streets along with many of his supporters and former opponents just within the last five years. However, with casual observers and pundits once again sounding the death knell of the Philadelphia crime family due to the August 4, 2016 arrest of boss Joey Merlino it is time to reflect on what has happened over the past decade and why, despite its history of perfidy and the recent re-arrest of its leader, the crime family is sitting much higher than it has in many years and will likely continue to function and expand its rackets in the decade to come.
The immediate history of the players currently running the mafia family in Philadelphia today goes something like this: In March, 1980 long-time Family boss and apparent Commission member Angelo Bruno was murdered in front of his home on a south Philly street; his head almost blown off by a shotgun blast behind the right ear. While the murder itself was ordered and committed by Bruno’s ambitious consigliere and north Jersey crew leader, Antonio Caponigro, it was actually the product of the machinations of the Genovese Crime Family of New York City, specifically the crews of Funzi Tieri and Vincent Gigante, that wanted access to Caponigro’s north Jersey rackets, lucartive loan sharking book and, ultimately, Atlantic City – which was to become the 1980s’ Mecca of legalized gambling. By falsely informing Caponigro that he had been given the OK to murder Bruno by the all powerful mafia Commission, the Genovese’ swept in to southern New Jersey, brutally murdered Caponigro and his brother, and installed Philip (the chicken man) Testa, Bruno’s former underboss, as boss of the borgata. However, Testa would be murdered by a nail bomb placed under his porch in 1981 by a coalition of Philly crews led by Frank (chickie) Narducci Sr. and prolific narcotics trafficker Peter Casella, among others.
The following era, despite being labelled as dysfunctional by many onlookers, became another period of relative stability as Nicodemo Scarfo took control with the blessing of New York’s Gambino and Genovese crime families. Scarfo ran the organization until his arrest in 1988 for first degree murder and subsequent conviction one year later, when competing factions began to fight over the remaining rackets in south Philadelphia and nearby New Jersey. This era of relative prosperity would end with the conclusion of Scarfo’s reign.
The next Commission-recognized boss was Sicilian-born Giovanni (John) Stanfa; however, his authority was tenuous at best with the family fracturing into several distinct crews that did not fully respond to Stanfa’s directives or wishes as boss. A violent and aggressive crew led by Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino quickly began exerting its influence and collecting tribute from rackets and businesses across south Philadelphia. Nicky Scarfo Jr. also began doing the same thing with the continued support of his imprisoned father. Stanfa, at this point, ran his operations out of Camden, New Jersey across the Delaware River, which he no doubt hoped would insulate him from some of the challenges to his thrown from the various young crews in South Philly. It is also likely that, while the conflict between these groups raged across Philadelphia and southern New Jersey, the north Jersey faction of the Family drifted farther and farther away under Capo Joseph Sodano, and would subsequently not recognize Philly’s authority for several years. Nicky Scarfo Jr. would eventually be publicly shot by the Merlino crew in 1989, forcing him to join the Lucchese Family’s Jersey faction upon his release from hospital. Stanfa would formally induct Merlino and several of his crew members in an effort to stave off further conflict upon their release from prison for parole violations in 1992. Yet, by 1993, the conflict had re-emerged and several of the antagonists were murdered, with Skinny Joey and Stanfa’s own son becoming non-lethal shooting victims. Stanfa would be arrested on RICO charges in 1995 and sentenced to life in prison. Skinny Joey, initially dragged in on a parole violation in 1994, would assume the title of underboss, with his erstwhile ally, sociopath and drug dealer Ralph Natale, assuming the official mantle of boss. However, Natale himself would soon follow Stanfa to prison and quickly turned into a cooperating witness to avoid a life sentence, testifying against Merlino and his crew at a 1999 RICO trial. Merlino and some of his crew would receive sentences ranging up to 14 years, avoiding convictions on the most serious charges, including murder.
Observers, legal authorities and mobologists often portray the convictions of Stanfa, Natale, Merlino and many of their closest crew members at the end of a long period of conflict as clearly portending the end of the traditional organized crime syndicate in Philadelphia, with only a few remaining mobsters operating in the area under a severely reduced hierarchy. But, these assertions would prove problematic in many ways. Firstly, this new period coincided with the terrible terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which would see the FBI redeploy many of its resources away from organized crime, focussing instead on terrorist groups and narco-terrorist cartels. This decade or so of relative peace from law enforcement scrutiny allowed the Philly Family, now firmly under the control of Merlino loyalists, to catch its breath. The newly anointed boss -effectively serving as a figure-head for Merlino while he was a guest of the government – was Joseph (Uncle Joe) Ligambi, a long-serving mobster who also happened to be the uncle of George Borgesi, a violent and wealthy member of Merlino’s crew and inner circle, as well as apparently his childhood friend.
While Ligambi was sometimes dismissed by observers as an aged mobster from the halcyon days of the Philly Mob that could never return, he proved to be far more than just a septogenarian caretaker for the supposedly aging membership. To start, he is a stone killer, being made in 1986 for the 1985 murder of Frank (Frankie flowers) D’Alfonso, which he committed with the younger Narducci brothers (Frank Jr. and Philip) at the behest of then boss Scarfo. He was arrested and sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for the crime, but had his conviction overturned on appeal in 1992; his eventual 1997 retrial also ended in acquittal. So, in essence, during a period when mobsters across the East Coast were copping pleas or turning informant to spare themselves from a life of imprisonment, Ligambi maintained his silence over the years of legal and personal turmoil he suffered through. He is also rumoured to have ordered the death of several men during Merlino’s imprisonment that either he or Merlino viewed as threats to themselves or the organization. This list includes recently released former Stanfa supporter John (Johnny Gongs) Casasanto in November, 2003, who was also reputedly having an open affair with Merlino’s wife. Finally, when Merlino was released in 2011 from his racketeering conviction, Ligambi dutifully stepped back and allowed Merlino to again assume the throne.
Tellingly, this quality of intransigence and non-cooperation in the face of a life behind bars (or in Merlino’s case: the death penalty) is a quality also shared by seemingly all of the members of the Merlino crew. In December, 2012 reputed drug dealer Gino DiPietro was gunned down in front of his house on a busy south Philadelphia street. Known Philadelphia mob soldier Anthony Nicodemo recently copped a plea bargain for this crime and was sentenced to 25-years-to-life, although many speculate the real shooter to have been 2nd generation hit-man Dominic Grande. Merlino, who had just been released from prison at the time, is said to have given the go-ahead. However, despite the FBI’s best efforts, neither Nicodemo nor any of his closest circle have shown the slightest intention of rolling on the newly released don of Philadelphia. It is no surprise, therefore, that Uncle Joe was a far more adept and respected boss than was initially credited him and that the membership he exercised authority over in Merlino’s absence was for more lethal, prosperous and socially obstreperous in their actions than perhaps thought.
After being released in 2011 and serving four years of supervised release, which would end in 2015, Merlino was able to return properly to his position as boss. Guiding the Family for a decade, Ligambi had reportedly been replaced as sole street boss in 2011 by a ruling panel consisting of: Steve (Handsome Stevey) Mazzone, Ligambi, and Joseph chickie Ciancaglini – who, along with his son, John (Johnny Chang) Ciancaglini were long-time Merlino loyalists. Once off supervised release, Merlino established himself as full boss with Ligambi back to his acting boss position, Handsome Stevey Mazzone as underboss and the Chickie and Johnny Chang father-son duo as joint consigliere. Mazzone, one of Merlino’s old childhood friends from south Philly, had begun as one of his soldiers in the Stanfa war and quickly been moved up to capo of Merlino’s crew in South Philly in the 1990s when Merlino assumed the role of underboss under the ill-fated and treacherous Natale. With Merlino a guest a of the government, Mazzone proved his mettle still further and was promoted to underboss under Ligambi, with Mikey Lancelotti acting as capo of the Merlino crew; a post he still holds to this day. The other south Philly crew of mob stalwarts who had survived the years of FBI purges under Scarfo and Stanfa had been in a crew under Gaetan Lucibello. Outside of Philly, the Family’s extensive rackets in southern New Jersey had been controlled by the powerful and understated capo Anthony Staino, while the Newark or North Jersey Crew was controlled consecutively by Peter (the crumb) Caprio (who became a cooperating witness) and Joseph (Scoops) Licata; although, since major indictments and subsequent convictions were levelled against the crew in 2000 it is unclear what remains of Philly-controlled rackets in the lucrative cities of mob-dominated northern New Jersey.
While 2011 was an important year for the boss of the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra branch, it also saw a major indictment levelled against the resurgent Family hierarchy with charges related to racketeering, gambling and loan sharking being brought against Ligambi, as well as captains Anthony Staino and Gaetan Lucibello. Ligambi would beat the serious charges, with some acolytes taking reduced sentences through plea bargains. Ligambi would finally be free after being acquitted in a retrial and have all remaining charges dropped in 2014. Lucibello would only serve four years, and was released in 2015.
This pattern of mobsters re-emerging from prison is what prompted the worry of renewed conflict on the streets of Philadelphia by numerous observers. Many long-imprisoned gangsters had proverbial horses in the race for the boss’ crown during the 1980s and 1990s and are now returning to streets where their personal power or faction has long waned in importance. Some of these include the aforementioned loyalists to Merlino: Joseph “chickie” and John “Johnny Chang” Ciancaglini as well as former crew members Marty Angelina (who reputedly served as underboss) and rumoured hit-man and Ligambi nephew George “Georgie Boy” Borgesi (who has reportedly felt slighted by the administration under Merlino for not having his rackets protected during his incarceration). Other Stanfa stalwarts and old-school gangsters have also been released into this strange new world, uncertain of their place or if they will have to fight the current Merlino hierarchy for a piece of the action. These members include: Philip Narducci, the son of the former capo and Philip “the chicken man” Testa murderer Frank Narducci Sr., and, the Pungitore brothers, Joey and Anthony, but who are referred to as Joey and Tony Punge. These men served in crews that opposed the Merlino take-over in the 1990s and remember John Stanfa as the boss of the good-old-days. (Interestingly, the Narduccis and Pungitores also have no love lost between them as both families were members of opposing crews in the chaos surrounding former boss Testa’s death in 1981, with the Pungitores serving in the crew of Testa’s son, who was, at the time, engaged in a blood feud against capo Frank Narducci Sr. – the murderer of his father). Because of this long and violent history there remains no certainty that these newly released members will play along well with each other or not. In fact, upon their release, both Narducci and the Pungitore brothers reconstituted the remnants of their former crews and informed the ruling hierarchy of their displeasure of serving Merlino as boss. On supervised release for his first four years of freedom, Merlino was again forced to rely upon his trusted former crew to maintain peace. This role was ably maintained by Mazzone and Ligambi for their boss, with both serving to quiet dissention in the ranks, including the opposition raised by Borgesi over access to his former Delaware rackets that have apparently been absorbed by Marty Angelina, who PanAmerican Crime believes has regained full capo status – a move that has further enraged Borgesi.
However, the most recent and greatest destabilizing element to date in this developing drama was the August 4, 2016 arrest of Joey Merlino in conjunction with several major crews of the Genovese Family in New York City along with members and associates of the Gambino, Lucchese and Bonanno crime families. Merlino was just returning to the fold and could finally exercise some personal authority over the Family when the rug was once again pulled out from him by the authorities. While he has been since released on $5 million bail, he must adhere to strict conditions that forbid contact with known organized crime figures, an act which immediately compromises his ability to govern the growing borgata. Given the chaos this move has caused mobologists and observers in both the media and law enforcement were quick to sound alarm over who might make a play for the boss’ chair given the ongoing tensions in the organization sparked by Merlino’s recent predicament.
However, despite this obvious personal setback for Merlino, the importance of this arrest may be overstated. Firstly, Merlino himself has not been charged with any specific violent offences and, although the charges carry a heavy prison sentence, there does not appear to be any chance of Merlino rolling on his friends and fellow gangsters given that he did not do so in the early 1990s when facing the death penalty for the crime of murder in the aid of racketeering. As mentioned in previous PanAm Crime articles, former gangsters turning cooperating witness represent the greatest threat to any criminal organization and, given that all of those arrested beyond Skinny Joey are members of New York crime families, there does not appear to be any structural or organizational damage on the horizon for the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra. Secondly, despite the obvious relative turmoil on the street from competing gangsters returning to the fold, the current hierarchy of the Philadelphia crime family of Ligambi, Mazzone and the Ciancaglini duo appears entrenched and well-respected considering the long history of violence between the crews and has proven its ability to maintain peace and order in periods of dysfunction and distrust between various members and factions. Finally, mob families are designed to resist the disintegration of the organization through the institutionalization of the various posts within the group; (see here). So, while the boss or his administration can be removed, the borgata is designed to regenerate and replace all eliminated members. Such is the state of the Philadelphia Crime Family today: a resurgent force that is clearly capable of defending its interests, murdering its enemies and regenerating itself in the face on ongoing law enforcement pressures.
Today, the mafia in Philadelphia should once again be considered a dominant force in the City’s underworld. Beyond Philadelphia, Merlino’s recent arrest demonstrates that the Family is once again considered important enough to work with by the powerful New York families, particularly the dominant Genovese Crime Family. It has also grown from perhaps two or three fully functioning crews during the mid-2000s under Ligambi to at least four or five distinct crews, with possibly more in a stage of redevelopment; (as is thought by PanAm Crime to be the case for the formerly powerful Newark Crew of the Philly Mob). At this point in time PanAm Crime believes that there are at least four possible crews operating for the Family in the traditional stomping grounds of South Philadelphia. These crews include:
- The Merlino Crew: once run by Merlino in the 1990s, followed by Stevey Mazzone, and now overseen by Michael “Mikey Lance” Lancelotti.
- The Lucibello/Angelina Crew: once run by Gaetan Lucibello under Ligambi, it is believed to be controlled by former Merlino crew member and former underboss Marty Angelina. It is unclear what role Lucibello is now playing in the crew that is rumoured to also run rackets in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
- The Narducci Crew: originally overseen by Frank “chickie” Narducci Sr., it is believed to have been reconstituted by his recently released son Philip, and includes brother Frank “windows” Narducci Jr., who has since been rearrested. This crew has established relations with the 10th and Oregon Crew (an independent organization of drug dealers and extortionists).
- The Testa/Pungitore Crew: begun under capo and later murdered boss Philip Testa, the crew passed on to his son Salvatore “Salvy” Testa before his murder. Brothers Joey and Tony Punge have reportedly reconstituted this group and, with no apparent love for Narducci or Merlino, are passing along their tribute to Stevey Mazzone.
- Finally, nephew of current acting boss, Joe Ligambi, George Borgesi is also said to be operating a crew that includes several made members in South Philly, although it is unclear if he is considered an official capo in the organization.
Beyond Philly, the once important rackets of New Jersey continue to be of importance to the Family. The groups overseeing these opportunities involve two possible crews, including:
- The Newark Crew: once the purview of rebel consigliere Antonio Caponigro, the crew passed on to Joe Sodono, who also rebelled against the administration and was murdered in 1996; followed by Pete Caprio, who flipped; and, finally, Joesph “scoops” Licata who was incarcerated in the 2000s, but has since been released and beaten a racketeering arrest. Other recently released members, such as Louis “Big Lou” Fazzini, have helped bolster this beleaguered subset of the Family.
- The South Jersey/Camden Crew: at one point said to be run by boss John Stanfa, this once powerful crew was apparently where current street boss Joe Ligambi and his brother and fellow mobster Philip Ligambi cut their teeth. The crew was overseen by powerful capo Anthony Staino until his arrest in 2013. It is unclear who is running it today.
*It should be noted that it is unlikely that all of these crews are represented or led by official capos within the organization. Some of these groups (the Borgesi, Narducci and Pungitore crews) represent autonomous interests from distinctive time periods and it is likely that in order to avoid conflict the administration in Philly has yet to coalesce them into distinct, official crews. It is also likely that at least two of the crews operating in south Philly will be amalgamated as soon as favourable circumstances allow for it and that George Borgesi will move out to southern New Jersey, although this eventuality is far from certain. The two New Jersey units will likely remain of extreme importance to the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra and it will be interesting to see how the current administration regenerates these regimes.
The mob in Philadelphia is back on its feet and in business again. Although perhaps not at the level of power and influence enjoyed by the diminutive and murderous Nick Scarfo, it is once again making money and exerting itself in the volatile and caliginous Philly underworld. What remains to be seen is what the FBI and American law enforcement can do about it besides re-incarcerate the recidivist Merlino – the fate of whom will have less impact on the future of the Philadelphia Crime Family than many observers and even Merlino himself may have us believe.
By: Scott Paulseth
Anastasia, George, “Nicodemo gets 25-50 for DiPietro Murder,” Big Trial, February 6, 2015, http://www.bigtrial.net/2015/02/nicodemo-gets-25-50-for-dipietro-murder.html
Burnstein, Scott, “Final Straw in Casasanto Murder Stemmed from LCN Love Triangle,” The Gangster Report, April 17, 2015, http://gangsterreport.com/casasantos-murder-probably-stemmed-from-philly-lcn-love-triangle/
Burnstein, Scott, “Philly Mob Ranks Keep Replenishing,” The Gangster Report, February 4, 2015, http://gangsterreport.com/lucibello-prison-angelina-will-soon-philly-mob-ranks-continue-replenish/
Martin, John, “Gentleman Gangster gets 97 Months in Prison,” Philly.com, July 19, 2013, http://articles.philly.com/2013-07-19/news/40659243_1_joseph-uncle-joe-ligambi-philadelphia-mob-anthony-ant-staino-jr
Burnstein, Scott, “Philly Wiseguy Windows Narducci Scooped by Feds,” The Gangster Report, June 4, 2015, http://gangsterreport.com/philly-wiseguy-windows-narducci-picked-up-by-feds/
Wilkenson, James, “Badfellas; East Coast Mob Bust sees 46 people…,” Daily Mail, August 4, 2016, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3723756/Indictment-charges-46-East-Coast-organized-crime-case.html