Friday, August 21, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: The Philly Mob Files: Mobsters, Molls and Murder

In 1976 The Philadelphia Inquirer sent reporter George Anastasia (seen in the below photo) to Atlantic City to cover the beginning of the casino gambling era in the state. In addition to reporting on what he calls the “unique form of urban renewal” brought about by the building of casinos in an economically depressed city, Anastasia was also told to keep an eye on the Philadelphia mob.

The debate in Atlantic City prior to the approved referendum over casinos included the fear that legalized gambling would bring in organized crime. But, as Anastasia notes in his book, Mob Files: Mobsters, Molls and Murder (Camino Books), the mob was already there.

Anastasia, a veteran crime reporter and author of several good books on organized crime, such as Blood and Honor and The Last Gangster, has complied some of his best and most interesting newspaper and magazine pieces on the mob in this book.
The grandson of Sicilian immigrants who settled in South Philadelphia, Anastasia began to cover Philly's Cosa Nostra crime family more and more after the 1980 shooting death of Philly mob boss Angelo Bruno.

Bruno (seen in the below photo) ran a quiet, highly efficient organization that controlled crime in Philadelphia and South Jersey. Bruno's murder set off a mob war that left bodies in the street and grabbed public attention. Anastasia writes that Bruno's death was a seminal event in the demise of the Philadelphia crime family.
The mob became Anastasia's "beat" in the 1990's. He tells a remarkable story about a mob guy who complained to a young woman who worked with the reporter. The complaint was that Anastasia always took the government's side in his reporting. Anastasia told the woman to heave the mob guy call him.

He did.

Anastasia began juxtaposing the comments of an "underworld source" alongside those of law enforcement in his pieces. The mob guy loved it and more mobsters started calling, including Joey Merlino, who rose to be the reputed underboss of the mob.

The mob guys after Bruno were not like Mafioso of old, who kept low profiles befitting members of a secret criminal society. Anastasia reports that the new breed were South Philly "corner boys." They were third-generation Italian-American, the sons and nephews of the previous generation of mobsters. They were loyal to each other but not to a centuries-old tradition of crime.

They were media-savvy and they liked the publicity. When Merlino (seen in the below photo) was asked by a journalist about a reported $500,000 contract out on his life, Merlino shrugged and said "Give me the half-million and I'll shoot myself."
I'm part Italian and a former corner boy raised in South Philly a decade ahead of most of these new mob guys. I can attest that very few Italian-Americans are involved in organized crime, but I believe that Anastasia's coverage of those who are, is first-rate.

His mob stories are brutal, tragic and funny. They read like Philly's equivalent to the New York hoods in Martin Scorsese's great crime film Goodfellas.     

"Goodfellas don't sue Goodfellas," a mob diplomat informed a mob associate and potential litigant in a business dispute with another mob-connected businessman over garbage collection. "Goodfellas kill Goodfellas," he added succinctly.

This was one of the more interesting quotes from the FBI tapes of the Philadelphia-South Jersey Cosa Nostra crime family members, who were speaking in what they believed was a bug-free zone. This conversation, and many more like it, was reported by Anastasia in the Philadelphia Inquirer and repeated in Mob Files. 

Believing the FBI could not plant microphones in a lawyer's office, the Philadelphia-South Jersey crime family under the leadership of John Stanfa (seen in the below photo), freely discussed mob business with each other in their attorney's office. But the FBI legally wiretapped the bent lawyer's office, and the wiretapping produced more than a hundred secretly recorded conversations from October 1991 to September 1993.
The attorney, who took the name "criminal attorney" a step too far, was indicted, along with Stanfa and other mob guys. They were prosecuted based on the tapes as well as the testimony of several mob guys who became federal witnesses.  

“You can’t argue with tapes,” one mob guy told Anastasia.

In his book, Anastasia recalls speaking with his editor about writing an Inquirer story at about the same time the Inquirer was competing with the rival but now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin.

“We zig when everyone zags,” the editor told him.    

The idea was to find a different way, a more entertaining and readable way, to tell the same story everyone else was telling, Anastasia said. It was more about quality and sophistication, and it included assuming the readers had the wit an intelligence to get it, to appreciate it, and eventually, to come and expect it.

“Organized crime is a great topic for that approach,” Anastasia wrote in Mob Files. “The stories are rich in detail. The characters are full-bodied. I came away again and again shaking my head and mumbling about my good fortune. You can’t make this stuff up any better than it is.”

Anastasia writes that the Philadelphia branch of Cosa Nostra is the most dysfunctional mob family in America. He notes that there have been six mob bosses since he started writing about organized crime: Angelo Bruno, Phil Testa, Nicky Scarfo (seen in the below photo), John Stanfa, Ralph Natale and Joey Merlino. (There are now seven, counting Joseph Ligambi, who reputedly became boss after Merlino was sent to prison).
Anastasia writes that Bruno and Testa were killed and Scarfo, Stanfa, Merlino and Natale are in prison. Natale (seen in the below photo), however, is in the protected witness wing. Natale has the dubious honor of being the first sitting boss to turn on his own organization. It was an odd situation, in which the mob boss was given a deal to turn on his underboss, Merlino.
Anastasia notes that the Philly mob has more cooperators per capita than any other mob family in the country.

“Omerta is like the famous Liberty Bell,” Anastasia wrote. “Cracked and inoperable.”

Anastasia interviewed mob guy’s wives, girlfriends and female accomplices who are or were attracted to the life-style, the money and the notoriety of the mob world.

“Forget the movies,” the wife of an imprisoned mob underboss told Anastasia. “Forget the glamour and the hype.”

She told the reporter that mob life is no way to live, as you will inevitably end up in one of two places, jail or the cemetery.

Anastasia also tells the story of a young couple who were indistinguishable from other young couples in the mid-1990’s, yet this mob hitman and his former go-go dancer wife were involved in the bloody power struggle that left bodies strewn across South Philadelphia.

The couple, who are now in the witness protection program, told the reporter an incredible story. The hitman confessed to being involved in a number of mob murder conspiracies and to being the trigger man in the murder of a rival of then-mob boss John Stanfa.

Although she was not formally charged, authorities say the wife was implicated in a bizarre plot to poison Stanfa’s rivals by placing cyanide in the drinks of the mob guys as they partied at Philly nightclubs. Like many of the mob’s outlandish plots, this one was never carried out.

Anastasia also wrote about plots and counterplots as the young South Philly corner boys took on the Sicilian-born Stanfa.

“They included ambushes that fizzled, car bombs that failed to go off, drive-by shootings that missed their targets and one-point-blank shotgun assassination attempt that was botched when the weapon failed to discharge,” Anastasia wrote in the book.

“Some of this is so crazy it would be funny if people weren’t getting killed,” Anastasia quotes then-Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Richard Zappile.

Anastasia had access to the many hours of federal recordings of mob guys as they discussed crime, tradition and philosophy. The conversions shine a light on the thinking and actions of organized crime members.

Cosa Nostra is a beautiful way of life if we respect it,” a mob philosopher said to another mob guy as the FBI listened in and recorded the conversation. “The way it’s supposed to be, it’s not an instrument to only make money.”

Yet, as Anastasia noted in his book, making money was the dominate topic of conversation heard in the many FBI-recorded conversations.

Anastasia wrote that the mob’s demise was due to its indiscriminate use of violence and lack of self-discipline, a lack of leadership, a loss of “family values,” narcotics and the sophisticated an coordinated investigations of the mob by federal, state and local law enforcement.

If you’re interested in organized crime, Mob Files is a book you should have on your shelf.

Note: The above column originally appeared at in 2009.       

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