Back in 2013, the Washington Times published my review of Philip Leonetti's book Mafia Prince: Inside America's Most Violent Crime Family and the Bloody Fall of La Cosa Nostra.
I interviewed the former Philadelphia Cosa Nostra crime family underboss who became a government witness for both the Washington Times piece and for my Crime Beat column.
You can read the 2013 column below:
In my review, I wrote that Nicodemo "Little
Nicky" Scarfo, the boss of the Philadelphia-South Jersey Cosa
Nostra crime family in the 1980s, has been described by law
enforcement officers and former criminal associates as ruthless, homicidal,
greedy and paranoid - even by organized crime standards.
Today, Scarfo, 83, sits in federal prison in large part because of Philip "Crazy Phil" Leonetti, his close nephew and criminal underboss, who became a witness against him.
In the book Leonetti tells the inside story of the dark and deadly life in organized crime.
As I noted in my review, being half-Italian and raised in South Philadelphia - the hub of the Philadelphia-South Jersey Cosa Nostra organized crime family - I was aware of Cosa Nostra culture at an early age. I know or knew of many of the people in this book. I've also interviewed Philadelphia cops and FBI agents from that era, and I found Leonetti's descriptions of events, people and places to be frank and accurate.
Philip Leonetti called me from an undisclosed location, as Scarfo has placed a $500,000 contract on his life, and I interviewed him over the phone.
Below is my Q&A with Philip Leonetti:
Davis: Why did you write this book?
Leonetti: First, I thought it was a great story. I have a son and I really didn’t have much time for him when he was growing up. But by writing this book he now knows what I was going through when he was a little kid and he now realizes my situation. Of course, I never really talked to him. I never went into any details about my life. He knew what type of guy I was and all, but I never explained anything to him. Now he understands a lot better.
Davis: Have you adapted well after a life in organized crime?
Leonetti: Yeah, it’s great. To be honest with you, the way I’m living now is how I wanted to live my whole life. I was doing my duty by the way I was raised, wanting to do the right thing by them, but this is really what I enjoy.
Davis: Many organized crime guys don’t adapt well after they testify, like Sammy “the Bull” Gravano, who went right back into a life of crime. I suppose they like the excitement, the action. You don’t miss that?
Leonetti: I miss the money. But no, it’s too cutthroat. Nobody is your friend. They’re scared of you, that’s why. What I found out afterwards was everyone hated my uncle, and me, because I was with him all of the time. They hated us because of the way we treated everybody. So, no, I don’t miss anything about that life. I make a good living this way.
Davis: In your book you paint a truly chilling portrait of your uncle. How would you describe him?
Leonetti: Psychopathic. You know, you watch The Boardwalk Empire, that guy Rosetti? He’s crazy. My uncle’s like him a little bit. I see my uncle in that guy. But my uncle didn’t go as far as putting a general’s hat on like Rosetti. That guy was really out of his mind.
Davis: The Rosetti character was a psychopath.
Leonetti: Yeah, but my uncle was more devious. He was a lot smarter than this guy on TV. He was the same way, but in a smart way. He was calculating.
Davis: You were born to a life in Cosa Nostra. What did your uncle teach you about the life?
Leonetti: From when I was little he would tell me we don’t talk about our life to anybody. We’re different. We don’t live by the same rules that everybody else does. Like the laws they have in this country. If somebody bothers us we’ll kill the guy ourselves. We don’t go rat to the police. This is the environment I grew up in.
Davis: Do you have any regrets about your past life, or any regrets about becoming a witness?
Leonetti: Becoming a witness is not a nice thing. You go up on the stand and testify against people that you know. I didn’t enjoy that at all. But I made an agreement with the government and I testified truthfully about everything.
Davis: Was testifying about your crimes cathartic in any way? Do you regret any of the crimes you committed?
Leonetti: I try to weigh things in my mind. All the crimes I committed, like the murders I was involved with, were all against bad people, guys that were involved in our life. So I really didn’t think anything of it. They were looking to kill us and we were looking to kill them. We weren’t looking to kill no legitimate people.
Davis: You admittedly met and committed crimes with some major crime figures, such as your uncle of course, and Meyer Lansky and others. Can you give a brief impression of Lansky?
Leonetti: He was a little old man when I met him, walking this little white dog. He would meet us at the Eden Roc Hotel. We would go there and meet him, Nig Rosen and a couple of other fellas hanging around. We would sit around and have lunch with him. They were characters these guys, especially Meyer. He told stories about his buddy, Ben Siegel, who robbed the money and how he couldn’t save him. He felt bad about him. It was just talk, generally. It was like an honor just to be sitting there.
Davis: From a crime historical point of view, you don’t get much bigger than Meyer Lansky.
Leonetti: No, you don't.
Davis: You also met John Gotti. What was your impression of him?
Leonetti: John Gotti was a gangster. He was a real tough guy. He acted like a tough guy and he didn’t put up with any bullshit. He got along with us and he liked my uncle and he liked me. We met him a few times in New York and he just wanted to be friendly with us. He wanted to have us as his friends.
Davis: He was looking for an ally on the commission, right?
Leonetti: Yeah. We were friends with him because of Sammy - Sammy “the Bull” Gravano - I was real close to Sammy, but we were aligned with the Genovese family.
Davis: What was your impression of Sammy Gravano?
Leonetti: The same type of guy as John Gotti. These guys were all treacherous. Frank DeCiccio and Sammy the Bull were buddies. When John Gotti approached them to kill Gambino boss Paul Castellano, Sammy and Frank DeCiccio talked it over, you know, after John left, and said look, let’s do this because Paul’s not a bargain. So we’ll kill him now and if John does not work out, we’ll kill him too, that’s all. That’s the type of guys these are. They are all stone killers. This is what you get with the mob. That’s why I don’t miss that life.
Davis: What was your impression of Vincent “the Chin” Gigante?
Leonetti: I was never in his company. I dealt with Bobby Manna (the Genovese consigliere).
Davis: You mentioned that these guys were “real gangsters” and you write in your book that your uncle differentiated between a “racketeer” and a “gangster,” and your uncle was proud of being a gangster. What is the difference between the two?
Leonetti: Gangsters are guys like John Gotti, Vincent the Chin and my uncle, and the racketeers are guys like Paul Castellano and Angelo Bruno. They are business-like guys. They were guys who were more involved in business, they weren’t like street guys.
Davis: Who stands out in your mind from the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra crime family during your day?
Leonetti: When I was around there were guys like me and Chuckie (Merlino) and Salvie (Testa) and Lawrence (Merlino). We were like a close-knit family. When Phil Testa was alive we were with him. These were the guys I was really friendly with.
Davis: You guys were bringing in a lot on money. Do you blame your uncle for spoiling a good thing with his violent leadership of the Philadelphia-South Jersey crime family? There are those who say that his viciousness and murderous ways pushed guys into witness protection.
Leonetti: That’s the life. He couldn’t handle the job. He talked about everybody else going power-crazy, but he went power-crazy. He wanted to kill everybody.
Davis: I lived around the corner from Angelo Bruno when I was a kid and the general impression of him was that he was involved in gambling, but not drugs and murder. In your book you offer a different portrait. You write that he was involved in drugs and he did in fact order murders.
Leonetti: He was the boss of the Philadelphia family. He ordered murders. Before I was made I did beatings for him that he ordered. But let me tell you something, Angelo Bruno was the biggest drug dealer in Philadelphia. He was smart. He was low-key. He was a real businessman. He didn’t want anybody knowing anything. Long John (Martorano) dealt all the drugs for Angelo Bruno, the P2P, with all the motorcycle gangs and the different connections he had.
Davis: Now ongoing is the big federal mob racketeering trial with Joseph Ligambi and others. How do you think it will turn out? And do you think Joe Ligambi is like Angelo Bruno, a low-key businessman type?
Leonetti: Joe Ligambi has more balls than Angelo Bruno. Ang never killed anybody, Joe did.
Davis: I thought that was a requirement.
Leonetti: That was a requirement, yeah, but he got in because he did things for certain guys and they made him.
Davis: Do you think Joe Ligambi and his crew are going to prison?
Leonetti: I was would say yes if it was not for Eddie Jacobs. He is a good lawyer.
Davis: I interviewed Joe Pistone, the FBI Special Agent who went undercover with the Bonanno crime family for six years. He debunked the idea of glamour and honor in Cosa Nostra. He saw mob guys constantly scheming, scamming to make money and worrying about arrested or killed. In your book you recount the high life of organized crime, but you also note the apprehension and fear that goes along with the criminal life. Do you agree with Joe Pistone’s view?
Leonetti: Yeah, we always watched ourselves. We had to be careful with everybody we dealt with. Once you become the boss someone is always looking to get close to you, make a move on you, or something. We were pretty strong. We had everything covered since that was our thing. It would be pretty tough to trick us.
Davis: But even at your leadership level, you lived in fear of your uncle, at least in the later years, didn’t you?
Leonetti: In my later years, yeah. Eventually I knew he would have killed me. He was getting sicker in his mind, thinking that I might make a move against him, which I thought of, but I just couldn’t do it. You know, I killed a lot of people, but I’m just not a killer. I’m not like him in that way.
Davis: From what you wrote and from others I heard that your uncle enjoyed killing.
Leonetti: Yeah, that was his thing.
Davis: But you would not say that about yourself?
Leonetti: No. I tried to do my best to be a good soldier for him with the killing - and I was good at it - but no, that’s not my thing.
Davis: And that is the difference between the two of you?
Leonetti: Yes. He enjoyed it.
Davis: You wrote approvingly of the FBI Special Agents you dealt with when you became a witness. Did that surprise you that they were good guys?
Leonetti: Well, I take everybody as I meet them. I met bad people and these fellas I met happened to be good guys. There was one other guy in the FBI office that didn’t live up to things that he told me, but Jim Maher and Gary Langan took care of me and whatever they said to me they did. They really helped me out after this transition, when I got out of jail and all.
Davis: I interviewed former FBI Special Agent Bud Warner a while back. He was an aggressive street agent in Philadelphia. You didn’t mention him in the book, but I was wondering what you thought of him?
Leonetti: I remember him. I never really dealt with him, but I know my uncle hated him.
Davis: You mentioned Boardwalk Empire, do you watch mob movies like the Godfather and Goodfellas?
Leonetti: Yeah, I do. I liked Goodfellas. It seemed real. The Godfather was a good movie.
Davis: You mentioned that the reason you wrote the book was for your son, but is there a message for the general reader?
Leonetti: Well, yes. Don’t get involved with the mob. It looks good from the outside. Everybody thinks you get the best seats in any restaurant and all the money. But it is a different story from the inside. Depending on your personality, you don’t know how long you’re going to live.
Davis: Do you think your uncle will read your book in prison? And if so, what will he think of it?
he'll read it. I think he’ll curse me; he’ll curse the book and say it stinks.
He’ll say it’s all a lie. I wish I could listen to him talk on the phones from
prison after he reads the book.
Note: The above photos of Philip Leonetti and Nicodemo Scarfo in prison appear curtesy of Philip Leonetti. Scarfo died in prison in 2017.
You can read my Washington Times review of Mafia Prince via below:
By Paul Davis - Special to The Washington Times - - Friday, January 4, 2013
MAFIA PRINCE: INSIDE
AMERICA’S MOST VIOLENT CRIME FAMILY AND THE BLOODY FALL OF LA COSA NOSTRA
By Philip Leonaetti with Scott Burnstein and Christopher Graziano
Running Press, $24, 320 pages
Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, the boss of the Philadelphia-South Jersey La Cosa Nostra crime family in the 1980s, has been described by law enforcement officers and former criminal associates as ruthless, homicidal, greedy and paranoid — even by organized-crime standards.
Today, Scarfo, 83, sits in federal prison in large part because of Philip “Crazy Phil” Leonetti, his close nephew and criminal underboss, who became a witness against him.
Scarfo will not be happy with this book.
In “Mafia Prince,” Leonetti tells the inside story of his uncle’s rise to the leadership of the crime family and his violent seven-year reign. Leonetti also writes about his own criminal acts, which include 10 murders.
Leonetti tells of being born into La Cosa Nostra. In the absence of Leonetti's father, Scarfo became a surrogate father, raising Leonetti from childhood in their way of life.
Leonetti committed his first murder when he was 23, and he went on to commit countless other murders and criminal acts at his uncle’s side. Between 1976 and 1987, Scarfo and Leonetti made millions of dollars through illegal gambling, loan sharking, extortion and skimming from the Atlantic City casinos.
The two were feared and respected by those in the underworld. A radio DJ called Leonetti “Crazy Phil,” and the nickname stuck. Leonetti said he hated the moniker, but his uncle said most mob guys would love to have a nickname like that.
In “Mafia Prince” Leonetti offers a history of the Philadelphia mob, including the murder of longtime mob boss Angelo Bruno in 1980 and how Scarfo became the boss after Bruno’s successor, Philip “Chicken Man” Testa, was murdered a year later by a powerful nail bomb on his front porch in South Philly.
Scarfo became the boss in 1981 and began an internecine mob war, leaving bodies on the streets of South Philly. He shook down drug dealers and gamblers and beat or murdered anyone who did not show him the proper “respect.”
Leonetti also writes about accompanying his uncle to meetings with notorious gangsters including Meyer Lansky in Miami and John Gotti and Sammy “the Bull” Gravano in New York.
When Scarfo and Leonetti finally were convicted and received long sentences in prison, Leonetti made a deal with the feds and testified against his uncle and other organized-crime figures.
Being half-Italian and raised in South Philadelphia — the hub of the Philadelphia-South Jersey La Cosa Nostra organized-crime family — I was aware of La Cosa Nostra culture at an early age. I know or knew of many of the people in this book.
I was in my late 20s and early 30s living in South Philly during Scarfo's reign, and I recall vividly the mob war and the many murders that occurred in South Philadelphia and Atlantic City. I’ve also interviewed Philadelphia cops and FBI agents from that era, and I found Leonetti's descriptions of events, people and places to be frank and accurate.
I spoke recently to Philip Leonetti, who called me from an undisclosed location, as his uncle has placed a $500,000 contract on his life. Leonetti told me he wrote the book because, first, it is a great story. Second, he wrote the book so his son will understand his life in organized crime and how he was schooled in La Cosa Nostra from an early age by his uncle.
“From when I was little he would tell me we don’t talk about our life to anybody,” Leonetti told me. “We’re different; we don’t live by the same rules like everybody else. If somebody bothers us, we’ll kill the guy ourselves. We don’t rat to the police. This is the environment I grew up in.”
He described his uncle as smart, devious, calculating and psychopathic. Leonetti admitted to committing murders and said he tried to be a good soldier for his uncle by killing — and he was good at it — but he didn’t enjoy the act like his uncle did.
“All the crimes I committed, like the murders I was involved in, were all against bad people, guys that were involved in our life, so I didn’t think anything of it,” Leonetti explained. “They were looking to kill us, and we were looking to kill them. We weren’t looking to kill no legitimate people.”
Leonetti said he is happy in his new straight life, and he wishes he had lived this way all his life. He said he did not miss the treachery and killing from his past life in La Cosa Nostra, but he admitted, “I miss the money.”
“Mafia Prince” offers an insider’s history of the dark, violent world of Cosa Nostra.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism. He can be reached at email@example.com.