The below short story originally appeared in American Crime Magazine.
"Murder by the Park"
By Paul Davis
“I’m a criminal,” the man at the bar said to me as a way of introduction. He said this as nonchalantly as if he stating he was a salesman or lawyer.
I was at the bar talking to an old friend from the old neighborhood in South Philadelphia when the 30ish, dark-haired, thin and short man approached me and asked if I wrote the crime column for the local newspaper. He said he recognized me from my column photo.
I said yes. The man introduced himself and said he read my column on a recent murder by a nearby park.
"The story was really good. Really interesting," the man said.
I thanked him, he shook my hand, and he rejoined his friends at the other end of the bar.
The column the man at the bar liked was about the murder of a drug dealer whose body had been discovered in a car parked next to the park at 13th and Oregon Avenue.
The story interested me as I grew up at 13th and Oregon. Murders in that middle-class, predominantly Italian-American neighborhood were rare. And I played sports in that park as a teenager and, frankly, I did somewhat less wholesome things with girls in the park after dark.
After the man walked away, my friend told me the man was Anthony “Tony Banana” Venditto, a local thug. My friend explained that he was called “Tony Banana,” as all of his friends described him as a banana, a South Philly euphemism for an insane person or a goof.
I was later informed by a Philadelphia detective I knew that Venditto was the prime suspect in the murder of the drug dealer found next to the park. Small wonder that he found my column about the murder so interesting.
The detective filled me in on the story of Venditto and the murder by the park.
Venditto was proud of being a criminal. His life-long goal was to be a “made man” in the Philadelphia-South Jersey Cosa Nostra crime family. But because he was, as his nickname indicated, a banana, he didn’t stand a chance.
Venditto had a police record with multiple arrests and two convictions. He was convicted on two separate burglaries, and he was given parole on the first and served two years in Graterford State Prison for the second. He had been briefly married, but his wife divorced him while he was in prison.
Venditto hung around a mob crew in the neighborhood, and they used him for assorted jobs, such as robbery and extortion. For Venditto, being an associate with the crew was the next best thing to being a made member of the local mob.
The crew of gamblers, thieves and extortionists spent their usual days at a local bar, gossiping, bragging and scheming. The crew captain, Joseph “Big Joe” Farina, sat at a back table up against a wall and held court all day and some nights, as if he were a king. His crew would report in, hand over money, and linger as Farina, a large, overweight man with sparse gray hair, would sip Sambuca and impart his wisdom and wit to his fellow criminals.
No one questioned his wisdom, and everyone laughed at his jokes and asides.
The crew didn’t do much in the way of work. Mostly, they extorted money from other working criminals, such as bookmakers, drug dealers and burglary crews. The crooks paid their “street tax” to the crew as they figured it was the cost of doing business in South Philly. The crooks who didn’t pay had a visit from crew members, who wielded baseball bats or pointed guns.
Farina waved over Venditto and Salvatore “Sonny” Grillo. Grillo was huge, muscular and tattooed. Standing next to the diminutive Venditto, he appeared even larger.
“Did you see that drug guy about our money?” Farina asked Grillo.
The man Farina referred to was John “Opie” Taylor, a South Philly drug dealer who resembled the child actor Ron Howard from the 1960s Andy Griffith TV show. Taylor was told on several occasions that he had to pay a “street tax” to Farina’s crew if he wanted to sell drugs or commit any crime in the neighborhood.
“I sent him an email.”
“You did what?” Farina said, slapping the table.
“I sent him an email, telling him he better get right with us.”
“Look at you, ya mamaluke. What’s the point of being a big ugly gorilla, when ya gonna send email messages to a guy we want to scare?”
Grillo stood there, his head held low, and kept quiet.
“When I was a soldier back in the 1960s we didn't send emails. We looked them in the eye,” Farina told Grillo and Venditto. “We were true gangsters and racketeers then. Now look at what I have to deal with,” Farina said, throwing his hands up in the air in disgust.
“I’ll handle the guy, Skipper,” Venditto said.
“Oh yeah? And how will a skinny banana like you do that?”
“I’ll scare the shit out of him.”
“All right. But take this mamaluke with you.”
“Two stunods,” Farina said out loud as Grillo and Venditto left the bar.
Venditto and Grillo went to the variety store where Taylor worked. They walked in and told Taylor to come outside with them. Not wanting to cause a scene where he worked, Taylor walked out with the two.
Venditto pulled a .38 Ruger hammerless revolver out of his jacket pocket and placed it up against Taylor’s side.
“Where’s your car?” Venditto asked.
Taylor pointed to the Toyota on the corner. Venditto told Taylor to give the keys to Grillo.
“Get ina car,” Venditto told the drug dealer.
Venditto shoved Taylor into the back seat and sat next to him with the gun between them. Grillo drove them to the park at 13th and Oregon Avenue. Grillo parked the car next to the park on 13th Street between Oregon Avenue and Johnson Street.
“You gotta come up with our money,” Venditto told the visibly shaken drug dealer. “We own this city and if you want to make money from drugs, we got to get our tax.”
“I ain’t making all that much money,” Taylor whined. “Why do you think I’m working in the store?”
“Bullshit. You got a new car here. So pay up, motherfucker.”
Taylor grabbed the door handle and attempted to get out and flee. Venditto grabbed his shirt and placed the gun against his chest. He shot Taylor and the drug dealer slid down on the seat.
The gun blast inside the car deafened the two mobsters. Grillo held his ears in pain. A minute later he said, “What the fuck, Tony?”
“He had it coming. He was disrespectful.”
Grillo wiped down the steering wheel and door handles with a hankie and the two criminals left the car next to the park with Taylor’s dead body inside. Venditto took off his blood-stained jacket and rolled it up in a ball. They walked the three blocks to the bar.
Venditto approached Farina’s table in the back of the bar.
“I handled the drug guy, boss.”
“Good. Did you get our money?”
“No, he didn’t have no money. But I whacked him.”
“You did what?”
“He was disrespectful to us, so I shot him.”
“Is he dead?”
“Then how the fuck are we supposed to get our money from him, ya fucking banana?”
Venditto shrugged sheepishly and looked away.
A man walking his dog noticed the slumped corpse in the backseat of the parked car and called the police. A 3rd District patrol officer responded. He looked into the backseat. With blood all over the seat and the floor of the car, he knew the man was dead.
The officer called his sergeant. The sergeant rolled up and got out of the patrol car. He looked into the back seat and opened the car door. The awful smell of the corpse drove him to step backwards, and he shut the door quickly.
The sergeant called his lieutenant as three more patrol cars pulled up and parked. The lieutenant called South Detectives.
Two detectives rolled up and stepped out of the car. They peered into the car but didn’t touch anything. One of the detectives interviewed the dog walker as the other detective called Homicide at Police headquarters.
A crowd of onlookers stood on the sidewalk and gawked and spoke among themselves.
The uniformed officers tried to stop the onlookers from getting too close to the car and the two detectives walked among the gathered people, asking if they heard or saw anything.
A half hour later, Detectives Angelo Marino and Charles Magee rolled up and took charge of the investigation.
The two were veteran homicide detectives and worked as partners for the past five years. Both detectives were in their mid-40s. Marino was a South Philly Italian American. He was a six-footer and well-built former soldier who served in the U.S. Army in Iraq.
Magee, a Black cop from North Philly, had a squat and solid figure and was of average height. Like Marino, he was a veteran, having served as a Marine in Afghanistan. Both detectives had seen scores of dead bodies and much blood, both overseas and in Philadelphia.
The two detectives watched as the forensics team rolled up, unloaded their gear, and began to examine the crime scene.
“I live about six blocks from here,” Marino said to Magee. “We don’t see many murders in this neighborhood.”
“Mob hit?” Magee asked Marino.
When the forensics team finished, Marino and Magee looked for a wallet on the corpse. The found a wallet in his back pocket and they looked at the name on the driver’s license. Neither detective knew John Taylor.
Marino and Magee added the Taylor murder to their already overloaded case load.
The forensics report came in and established that fingerprints lifted from the car matched the fingerprints of both Grillo and Venditto, despite Grillo’s wiping down the wheel and door handles with a hankie.
Marino and Magee ventured out and arrested Grillo and Venditto.
In police custody, Venditto sat still and said nothing to the detectives. With a smirk on his face, he refused to answer their questions. He also refused to respond to the detectives’ claims they had him dead to rights with fingerprints and witnesses from the variety store who can testify that Grillo and Venditto walked Taylor out of the store and placed him in his car.
Venditto, acting like a tough guy, sat back and smiled.
"I want a lawyer," Venditto told the detectives.
The detectives then laid out their case to Grillo in another room. Grillo sobbed and beat the table with his huge hands.
“I don’t wanna go to prison,” Grillo said. “I can’t do hard time.”
“Tell us what went down,” Magee said. “And maybe we can help you.”
So Grillo gave up Venditto.
Venditto pled guilty on advice of counsel. He was sentenced and shipped off to prison.
Venditto, the man who introduced himself to me as a criminal, said he liked my column on the murder by the park.
I don’t know what he thought about my follow-up column, which covered his arrest and imprisonment.
© 2021 Paul Davis